- John Edgar Wideman’s “Fever”*
“Telling the story right will make it real.”(Damballah)
“Certain things had to have happened for any of it to make sense.”(Philadelphia Fire)
“Fever” is the title story of a book that heralds Wideman’s imaginative return to Philadelphia, the “City of Brotherly Love,” whose hypocritical failure to fulfill that promise in the 20th century he had already tried to expose in The Lynchers (1973) before he had found his unique voice in a series of novels located in his native Pittsburgh, especially The Homewood Trilogy (1985). It is under heavy personal pressure that Wideman wrote Reuben (1987), his novel about a black outsider who becomes a lawyer to the poor in Pittsburgh, and then published Fever, his second book about Philadelphia. Wideman has been widely praised for his powerful language, his imaginative use of myth and ritual when dealing with the past, and his sensitive approach to characterization and focalization. If our knowledge of his biography contributes anything to our understanding of his fiction, it is an awareness of the depths of experience, of its existential and emotional complexity that are the origins of his narrative vigor.
“Fever” is a fascinating collage of communal voices and visions, commemorating the black experience of suffering and triumph during the yellow fever epidemic that hit the city of Philadelphia in 1793, with occasional glances back to the American Revolution and forward to the 1980s. It is, as the author himself has noted, a “meditation on history” (Fever 162),1 albeit one that differs greatly from Sherley Anne Williams’ story with a similar title.2 Its two epigraphs announce the author’s intentions and some of his figurative strategies. The first one is an ironic dedication to Matthew Carey, the Irish immigrant publisher and official chronicler of the disease, whose potboiler contained derogatory remarks denying the unselfish and indispensable contribution of the black nurses, carters, and undertakers to the fight against the plague (Carey 76ff.); the second quotes an earlier comment by the wealthy merchant Richard Morris on the central position of Philadelphia which is “to the United States what the heart is to the human body in circulating the blood” (127). Relying on contemporary responses of those African Americans denigrated by Carey, as well as [End Page 715] on more recent historical evaluations, the author once again intends to set the record straight by selecting and collecting snippets from old texts, some white, but most black, and by associating them with recreated fragments of scenes, reports, stories, comments, arguments, insights from the past and the present. By means of an imaginative yet tightly controlled blending of tropes, he sketches a vision of the personified temporary capital of the United States as the victim of an affliction whose origins and meaning are extended far beyond the fields of medicine, science, and politics.
One’s understanding of this story is helped considerably by a certain familiarity with the history of the plague, some issues involved in the fight against it, and a familiarity with a few historical characters. The epidemic of 1793, according to the sources mentioned by the author, was the first and most devastating outbreak of yellow fever in Philadelphia and caused the worst crisis in the history of the city. Having started in late July, the disease assumed epidemic proportions in late August, and by the middle of September the city had almost surrendered. Whereas the rich and the middle class, together with many federal civil servants and high public officers, fled to the countryside where some of them survived, the poor, especially blacks and immigrants, suffered most. Living in congested and highly infested areas and unable to leave or pay for medical care, they soon succumbed in droves (Nash 121–22). Those citizens choosing to remain, for altruistic or business reasons, performed feats of heroism in helping to maintain a certain degree of order and sanity, in organizing relief from outside, in combating “the dismal monotony of the plague” (Powell 233) by investigating its possible origins and reasons, and in ministering to the needs of the sick and dying. The height of the calamity was reached in mid-October with 119...