- Mother Goose and Brother Loon: The Fairy-Tale-in-the-Tale as Vehicle of Displacement
Mobility as the essence of the American experience has been a staple in historical theory since Frederick Jackson Turner. It finds expression in a spectrum ranging from the concrete to the abstract, from the road and the train to the reinterpretation of simple forms in art, music, film, and literature. From the commercial to the cultural realm, life and literature both are in a state of “perpetual transfusion” of ideas and influences that continuously alter the patterns of perceiving knowledge and events. As the civilization moves, its language and culture move alongside it. Thus, human displacement is reflected back in the spiraling chain of meanings read into the signs and symbols encountered from the mundane level to the ethereal. Yet the past is not entirely abandoned. The image that best captures the notion is the palimpsest, originally a parchment overwritten with layers of text covering an imperfectly removed earlier script. Gérard Genette has appropriated the term as sovereign to the vast territory of intertextuality that he explores in Western literature. His discoveries nourish my methodology as I examine how John Wideman transposes and transforms the fragments of his experience, lived and learned, reinvesting the whole into a coherent literary universe.
Wideman’s entire opus is a palimpsest: thematically, the past lives on in the present; structurally, time sequences can defy chronological order; linguistically, different levels of language rival for dominance; vocalization shifts without warning, as does the enunciator; stylistically, intertextual references embed the writing in multiple cultural and literary traditions. Among these latter, the fairy tale, in its broad sense of folk myth, offers the author ideal material for grounding his fictional and non-fictional works alike, providing the reader ample opportunity to measure the gap between the orthodox version and the eccentric, between the experience of standard American society and that of its black component. By framing the reality of the African-American condition in the Mother Goose tradition, Wideman casts a long, discomforting shadow over mainstream values and expectations. Indeed, for protest literature, Mother Goose lays the proverbial golden egg. Firstly, as a popular form, its roots are hundreds, even thousands of years old while it has undergone continuous adaptation to the tastes and values of innumerable “contemporary” societies. Secondly, these stories brim over with deceptively innocent optimism, a psychoanalyst’s wonderland. Thirdly, they harbor an element of cruelty and danger. My study here will briefly review Wideman’s works from the perspective of his handling of borrowings from and references to folklore that falls within the general category of fairy tale or Mother Goose stories. [End Page 594]
Beginning with the three novels that constitute Wideman’s first creative cycle, I will show how his artistry evolved through the Homewood period, and into his recent writings. Finally, I will home in on these latest works through a close reading of the short story, “Loonman.” As Wideman’s style has matured, his handling of fairy tale elements has gone from figurative to abstract. Whereas his early fiction reveals fidelity to the source, his more recent work features subversion of familiar plots and characters, complemented by an ever-present threat of disintegration.
The novels of the first cycle suggest the author was trapped in a Pandora’s Box syndrome, having raised the lid of his imagination and let all but hope escape. The standard American-dream solutions proposed by establishment society in A Glance Away and Hurry Home, when applied to non-standard figures, prove inoperative. Wideman exposes the underlying threat, lets it loom and ultimately explode, dashing dreams and compromising survival. His third novel The Lynchers proposes a more drastic formula but to no avail: for a Black man to try and invert an established design, undo a white man’s conjure with white methods, was doomed to self-destruction. Pessimism in the novel was echoed by its counterpart in life, the subsequent eight-year silence of the author. On the creative level, Wideman had “painted himself into a corner” by negating any prospect for escape into new patterns. Finding an antidote to this paralysis was achieved by...