- Prodigal and Prodigy: Fathers and Sons in Wideman’s Work
The current critical wave in France having recognized the autobiographical novel as its love child, I would like to extend the parameters to include a non-fictional work, albeit one whose material may well be transformed into fiction. My interest is the product of the writer’s creative efforts in what is ostensibly an expository or a rhetorical domain. I want to study the figure of the author in the dialogue between himself and the reader, the roles the latter is implicitly expected to assume, and the outcome of this relationship in terms of a psychology of writing as well as an art. In adopting this approach, I closely follow François Dosse’s study on Barthes, Lacan, and Foucault (11–43).
I set myself two tasks. The simpler is to identify the underlying structural patterns that give unity to the work as it echoes phenomena specific to the African-American experience. The more complex is to catch the author, or rather his persona, in the act of creating himself. Clues come from the primary experience he chooses to transcribe here, indicating selection and, at times, self-censure. In the role of chief enunciator of the text at the moment of its apprehension by the reader, the author persona operates within a traditional framework, one that lets me as reader anticipate implicit contracts. Following in the traces of Maurice Couturier, I take a fresh look at the implied author as a figure, a “fictional” construct insofar as he is the result of a filtering process, both conscious and unconscious (La Figure de l’Auteur 7–24, 59, 162, 167). How he manipulates the paradigms with which he has invested the genre, how he draws on different registers, crosses over categories, all to communicate his message, how he innovates his approach to direct interaction with the reader in a personalized essay form are all germane to my inquiry.
Perhaps as a result of rereading Mikhail Bakhtin, I found my two tasks overlapping. The deep pattern and the author-narrator persona influenced and enriched one another. Much like the earliest novels, Fatheralong accommodates many moods, modes, and styles. It combines sequences of provocation, self-searching, healing, and acceptance; it rallies support through the direct address to the reader who is apostrophized at every turn; it sounds a call to arms to unify the disparate readership into a militant corps; its modals of obligation repeatedly exhort us to face the challenge of eradicating race from the national consciousness, of establishing “terms of achievement not racially determined” (xxii). Added to this fiery sermon, there is an exemplum in confessional form: the genealogical search is a modest response to that challenge; the author-narrator urges others to tackle their own appointment with [End Page 677] destiny, whether prosaic or epic, whether in the sense of what should or should not have happened. Like his own, their everyday life stories can “give race the lie.” Race, which Wideman defines as “the doctrine of immutable difference and inferiority, the eternal strategic positioning of white over black” (xxii). He analyzes his advances and retreats, plumbs the kairos, those moments of axiological high tension that lead to an epiphany. He takes us to the crossroads where life and self meet in an encounter that alters the course of everything in its wake. Yet even minor events leave their permanent mark: each experience in life affects the makeup of the individual in the on-going rendezvous between self and life that German philosopher Gadamer termed Erlebnis. Or so literary convention would have it, from St. Augustin to the present day, as Georges Gusdorf shows us in auto-bio-graphies (447, 449).
Starting from one of Wideman’s conventions, I would like to examine first how Fatheralong conforms to his now familiar tripartite structure, and then how the fable reinvests that structure. Theme, movement, and author persona depend upon a deeper triangle, presented from the unified perspective of the author persona, yes, but that of an author persona who shifts positions. Whereas in the novels A Glance Away and Hiding Place, three voices or character-focalizers develop...