The last story in John Edgar Wideman’s new collection, “American Histories,” begins: “I expect shorter days. I expect war. I expect winter,” a list of ordinary expectations, recited in the calm, measured tone of someone simply stating the facts.
“I expect color to be used against me,” he says a page later, getting to the foul heart of the matter with the same unadorned straightforwardness. As a black man in the United States, Wideman — a 76-year-old professor emeritus of African American literature at Brown University, a MacArthur fellow, and most recently the author of “Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File” — has copious reason for that anticipation, rooted in the legacy of slavery.
Race and its reverberations are at the core of this slim, powerful volume, a blend of fiction, memoir, and reimagined history, in which the boundaries between those forms are murky and ever shifting. But the prefatory note that opens the book with a salutation, “Dear Mr. President,” makes clear that all of these stories are personal.
“The note is a plea, Mr. President. Please eradicate slavery,” Wideman writes, addressing the occupant of the Oval Office to argue that the 13th Amendment outlawed only the legal condition. “Slavery as a social condition did not disappear.”
Is it difficult to envision the current chief executive taking note of a literary appeal? Of course. Yet the case that Wideman makes is evergreen.
You can sense it in “JB & FD,” a story full of end-of-life musings and regrets that twines the tales of the abolitionists John Brown and Frederick Douglass — one a white radical who led the bloody raid on Harper’s Ferry, the other a black intellectual who used his words to fight — with the monologue of an imprisoned black man named for John Brown.
Wideman’s own voice breaks in gracefully at the end from the coast of France. But the narrative voices that precede it are just as lucid and strong, as in this quiet kapow of a sentence about Douglass’s final speech: “The evening will be a success, and he will return home to drop dead.” And here, on the white John Brown’s awakening, as a child, to the racial hatred in an adult he had trusted: “Surprise, surprise for John Brown the evil in the heart of this grown-up man nothing but kind to him....”
You can sense it, too, in “Maps and Ledgers,” a wrenching recollection that begins with this arresting line: “My first year teaching at the university my father killed a man.” This is a story of tragedy through the generations. (“Family of poor old Aeschylus got nothing on yours, son,” a lawyer tells young Wideman, sympathetically.) Yet its extraordinary potency derives from the intricate social geography Wideman draws — the hard-up black world he grew up in and got away from, the white academic world where he would make a career — and the fact that moving from one to the other didn’t shield him or his family from harm. “As far back as I can remember,” he writes, “I was aware the empire I was building lived within an empire ruled by and run for the benefit of a group to which I did not belong.”
There’s a loneliness in Wideman’s writing, a palpable sense of onliness in the cool intellectual distance he keeps whether he’s writing autobiographically or cloaking himself in fiction. The dispassion is interesting, understandable, but also an obstacle: a barrier meant to keep people out. He harnesses that sense of isolation, though, in the collection’s longest piece, “Williamsburg Bridge,” a New York story in which a Wideman doppelgänger contemplates throwing himself into the East River. As a study of suicide, it’s too cerebral to be altogether convincing, but then again mulling the ills of the world — whether from the edge of a bridge or otherwise — is one of Wideman’s great strengths.
The shortest of the 20-odd pieces here is “Bunny and Glide,” a sharp, startling evisceration of racist suspicion, told in all of two paragraphs. One of the strongest is “Nat Turner Confesses,” a muscular and affecting story that puts us inside the resilient, self-educated mind of Nat Turner, who was killed for leading a slave rebellion. (The piece is also, perhaps, a rebuke to William Styron, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1967 novel, “The Confessions of Nat Turner.”)
Nat’s mother, like Wideman’s own in “Maps and Ledgers,” is drawn with immense, heartbreaking sympathy that eschews any hint of sentiment. As for Nat himself, he is as furious and hell-bent, and reasonably so, as anyone in these pages. He is also as conscious as Wideman is that he’s living in a world constructed by white people, for white people.
“THEY ARE INSIDE YOU,” Nat tells himself, in all caps. “REMOVE THEM. REMOVE YOURSELF FROM THEIR PLAN.”
By John Edgar Wideman
Scribner, 240 pp., $26
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