Reflections on Relative Privilege: John Edgar Wideman’s American Histories

by Daniel Davis Wood

John Edgar Wideman, American Histories

John Edgar Wideman,
American Histories.
Canongate. £15.99.
Buy direct from the publisher.

John Edgar Wideman’s American Histories might be the best novel I’ve read so far this year. I want to make that clear up-front, because Wideman’s publishers at Canongate appear to be having some difficulty persuading readers that the book is worth anyone’s time. For one thing, the publisher’s blurb presents American Histories as a short story collection, even though the book’s components are essentially inseparable because their jostling together is integral to the impact of the whole. For another thing, the blurb calls attention to three of the book’s historical pieces — “stories”, so-called, about Frederick Douglass, John Brown, and Jean-Michel Basquiat — even though none of these pieces can really be read as representations of historical figures divorced from the present day. Of course, it’s true, the publishers have to appeal to prospective readers by sketching out the contents of the book in familiar terms, and of course the blurb is really only a crude means of achieving that aim. Still, this blurb both misrepresents American Histories and glosses over what makes the book so gripping. The book makes an appeal of its own, on its own terms, and to faithfully articulate this appeal requires more time, more room for thought.

Wideman is an African American novelist, memoirist, and professor of creative writing, with a long back catalogue and an impressive list of accolades to his name. He is not as well-known on this side of the Atlantic, or even in his homeland, as peers like Caryl Phillips, Toni Morrison, and John Keene, even though these three and many others have stepped up to sing his praises. Wideman’s comparatively low profile may owe something to the fact that he is half-French, and that he spends a large part of each year living in France, although it’s surprising to see his marginalisation persist in spite of his having won a Rhodes Scholarship, a MacArthur Foundation ‘Genius’ Grant, and two International/PEN Faulkner Awards for his novels Sent For You Yesterday (1983) and Philadelphia Fire (1990). Moreover, if American Histories is not exactly “about” the status he possesses, or doesn’t possess, the book is certainly informed by it. All of the above biographical details are therefore germane to an appreciation of Wideman’s agenda in these pages.

Broadly considered, Wideman’s body of work reveals a lifelong interest in African American experiences over the last two or three hundred years. Fair enough, and unsurprising in light of the author’s background. But American Histories zeroes in on a more specific and more recent sort of experience, an experience of falling outside the cultural logic that determines the experiences of many others. The logic runs like this. Historically, most African Americans have been at least disenfranchised, and more often outright abused, by white people in positions of power. Currently, many if not most African Americans remain effectively disempowered by political and economic forces that maintain the systemic structures of white privilege. Relative to white Americans, throughout the history of the United States, the majority of African Americans have been and continue to be disproportionately disempowered: by slavery, by segregation, and more latterly by a criminal justice system that upends African American lives as effectively as those prior historical forces. But —

But social statistics can’t reckon with the stuff of individual being. While they may be symptomatic of the forces that colour the majority experience of a particular demographic, they’re not able to speak to the demographic in its totality. What troubles Wideman’s conscience in American Histories is the firmness of his claim to a social identity in light of his status as a statistical outlier. Relative to other African Americans, and especially to other African American men, John Edgar Wideman enjoys a social and economic position of enviable privilege. By what logic can he assert a right to speak for African Americans less privileged than himself? Indeed, by what logic can he assert a right even to speak of them?

An anxiety over relative privilege is the engine that powers American Histories. This is clear even from the very first piece in the book, ‘JB & FD’, which, true to the blurb, imagines the exchanges in a written correspondence between Frederick Douglass and a fantasy version of the militant abolitionist John Brown. There was in fact a time, in mid-1859, when Douglass and Brown were engaged in correspondence, and became close enough to meet in person, face-to-face, before Brown launched his fatal raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry that October. Wideman’s version of Brown differs from the man himself, however, thanks to one crucial detail: this John Brown is black. Then, in addition, Wideman’s imagined account of a relationship between the black John Brown and Frederick Douglass departs from the conventions of more typical historical fiction when the narrator steps into the action towards the end of the piece.

Abruptly abandoning nineteenth century Virginia for the Gulf of Morbihan, in Brittany, in the present day, the narrator “walk[s] through woods, on gravelly, rocky beaches, in sand”, and there he “imagine[s] an actor assigned to deliver the colored John Brown monologue in a film version of ‘JB & FD.’” The imaginary actor asks him why he has chosen to refigure John Brown as an African American. The narrator can find no reply and drifts off into silence. “Next to trees”, he says, “I forget who I am, who I’m supposed to be, and it is perfection. Doesn’t matter who I am or believed I was…” But the actor’s question lingers, and points towards the relativising impulses behind Wideman’s work.

It’s no accident that the narrator dwells on his erasure of John Brown’s whiteness from the edge of a gulf on the west coast of the Old World: there remains, for him, an experiential gulf between actual African American slaves and a white man who so fervently desired their emancipation that he was willing to lay down his life for it even when they themselves were not. The narrator’s removal of the crucial difference between these parties — the difference they wore on their skin — shows up the breadth of this gulf. But then, is there not equally a gulf between a twenty-first century African American man who has fought his way to serenity in France and the unknown slaves from whom he is descended? In what way can he rightly say that there is any belonging or kinship between himself and his ancestors? Do their experiences form any meaningful part of his heritage, when his experiences are so radically distinct from theirs? How can he defend the notion that their stories belong to him, or belong to his people, when it is no longer clear that he himself feels a justifiable sense of belonging to that people? Statistics tell him one thing, oversimplifying individual identities, while his experiences tell him something very different.

Uncertainties over belonging are further complicated by pieces like ‘My Dead’ and ‘Maps and Ledgers’, as Wideman dissolves distinctions between author and narrator to discuss the facts of his own life. “I list my dead”, he announces in ‘My Dead’: “Father. Mother. Brother. Brother. Sister’s daughter.” He goes on to recount the loss of his younger brother, at sixty-four years of age, and the way his brother’s self-willed alienation from the rest of his family caused the bonds of kinship to fray. Then, in the opening line of ‘Maps and Ledgers’, Wideman makes a stunning revelation: “My first year teaching at the university my father killed a man.” This is not fiction. Wideman, much older now, remembers being at work and receiving the emergency call from his mother, “my mother crying because my father in jail for killing a man and she didn’t know what to do except she had to let me know.” “No,” he admits a little later,

my father didn’t serve time for murder. Lawyer plea-bargained self-defense and victim colored like my father anyway so they chose to let my father go. But things did get worse. My father’s son, my youngest brother, convicted of felony murder. And years later my son received a life sentence at sixteen. My brother, my son still doing time. And my father’s imprisoned son’s son a murder victim. And a son of my brother’s dead son just released…

But with his family torn apart, perhaps even decimated, both in the generation before his own and the generation to follow, Wideman finds himself in a position that strips him of social and cultural peers. Tragedy, in ‘Maps and Ledgers’, occurs just as the young Wideman attains a truly privileged position, taking up a lectureship at the University of Pennsylvania. His employment becomes an occasion for self-deprecation, which devolves into self-laceration, when he joins his grandmother’s husband in mocking the respect that might be accorded to a lecturer: “I called [him] ‘Reverend’,” he says, “because he addressed me as ‘Professor,’ a darkie joke we shared, minstrels puffing each other up with entitles”. And, applying hindsight to the youthful decisions that led him to this position, Wideman can find no rhyme or reason to his trajectory. He is where he is, and he is who he is, thanks largely to random responses to the lack of a sense of belonging anywhere. “I regard my empire”, he says:

Map it. Set down its history in ledgers. … I’ve done what I needed to do to get by, and when I look back, the only way to make sense of my actions is to tell myself that at the time it must have seemed I had no other choice. … [But a]s far back as I can remember, 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. Mm’fukkahs, the man, honkies, whitey, boss, peckerwoods, mam, fools, mister, sir, niggas some of the names we used for this group not us, and the list of names I learned goes on and on…

Wideman doesn’t belong to the group designed by those names, but nor does he occupy a comfortable place in the group that uses them. He feels a burning need to speak of the experiences of the men he has known, but these are men whose sufferings he has watched from a distance. Why shouldn’t he feel moved to speak of them? He, too, is an African American man, and it is only by sheer good fortune he managed to escape the fates of these other men. He could as easily have ended up like any one of them, and so, by a certain logic, a marriage of moral obligations with political and artistic responsibilities, it is his province to address the conditions in which these men have lived their lives. Yet his own condition is irreducibly particular, so that his body of experiences, far from bringing him close to his ostensible subjects, severs him from them and alienates him.

If there’s a misstep in American Histories, it’s the moment in ‘Writing Teacher’ where the narrator basically explicates this problem. Like Wideman himself, the narrator is a teacher of creative writing, and one day he is visited in his office by a student asking for feedback on a short story. The student is a young white woman, whereas the narrator of her story is

a young woman of color, a few years out of high school, single, child to support, no money, shitty job, living with her mother who never misses an I-told-you-so chance to criticize her daughter’s choices. Voice of the character my student invents to narrate the story reveals the young colored woman to be bright, articulate, thoughtful, painfully aware of how race, gender, age, poverty trap her. … Lack of understanding not the narrator’s problem.

What is the problem, then? Wideman’s narrator can’t quite put his finger on it at first. Before he offers the student his thoughts, then, he imagines a dialogue between them in which he mulls over the various difficulties he finds in her work. “I appreciate [her] attempt to step outside herself”, he admits, but what he really wants to ask her is this:

Isn’t your story, like every story, a masquerade, Miss McConnell. Why do you believe your disguise is working. Do you care if your mask slips and uncovers your face. I often worry mine’s slipping. … Who believes they can experience what another person experiences. Wouldn’t a person be many people if such an exchange possible.

In asking such things, of course, Wideman’s narrator calls into question the entire enterprise of fiction: its assumptions, its cultural currency, its ostensible purpose. It is because American Histories undertakes this questioning of fiction — overtly in ‘Writing Teacher’, but with greater subtlety elsewhere — that its historical pieces are inseparable from the others. This is true of simple historical pieces like ‘Collage’, about Jean-Michel Basquiat, but it’s especially true of the more complex ones. The most emotionally devastating of these is ‘Williamsburg Bridge’, in which the narrator’s recollections of the time he might have heard Sonny Rollins busking in New York, incognito, are interleaved with his fantasies of suicide, a plummet into the East River. The most artfully constructed is ‘Nat Turner Confesses’, in which Wideman writes of Nat Turner himself while also writing back to William Styron and — somehow — writing to the part of his own identity that feels the need to respond, in writing, to the legacies of both of these men. As straightforward instances of historical fiction, these pieces simply don’t hold up. On their own, and especially together with the other pieces in American Histories, they don’t want to be straightforward at all. If they were, they would betray their own greater intentions.

Wideman’s novel, then, is one that wants to undercut itself — or at least its conventional manoeuvres — even in the course of its unfolding. It simultaneously constructs characters distinct from its author and troubles his access to experiences other than his own, it aims to connect readers with unfamiliar experiences even as it doubts its own capacity to do that, and, crucially, it finds something alluring about people swept up in historical events while suggesting that history itself barricades those people from readers in the present. So, for instance, while the narrator of ‘Writing Teacher’ silently condemns his student for being a naïf who “wants her fiction to aid actual people outside it”, the narrator of ‘Collage’ feels moved to write for the very same reasons even though he knows his work will have no effect on the world: “In this collage”, he begins, “I want Romare Bearden to save the life of Jean-Michel Basquiat. It never happened.” Why proceed, then, as if it did happen, or toy with the possibility that it could have happened? Why flag the fantasy at the same time as indulging in it? Perhaps because the proleptic recognition of failure reinforces the narrator’s sense of his own limitations — the limitations of his powers, his materials, his methods, and his entitlements. No matter that the fictions lose their integrity and fall to pieces. That’s part of the point of these fictions as written.

As a result, it’s easy to think of American Histories as a fragmentary novel. But it’s also inadequate. Certainly the book has a fragmented structure. Time and again, Wideman comes up against his limitations and then darts off in a new direction, leaping into a new piece of prose, sometimes a meditation on history that takes up many pages, sometimes an anecdote of a single page or less. Certainly, too, the book’s fragmented aesthetics trickle down into its style, its sentences. Wideman repeatedly drops the verb “to be” in its many permutations, as well as definite and indefinite articles, slamming together clauses in ways that put the onus on the reader to intuit their relationships; and so the prose becomes both curt and propulsive, taking on an acerbic tone and unfolding at a breakneck pace. But fragments come in different forms, each with a different effect on the beholder. I can pick up a piece of paper and tear it to shreds, and in this way I can reduce it to fragments that are ragged at the edges and flimsy to the touch. Or I can pick up a stone and hurl it at a pane of glass, and in doing so I can make of the glass a scattering of shards: jagged, sharp, capable of wounding, capable of causing pain. If American Histories is a fragmentary novel, it is one composed of shards, not shreds. Each of its various pieces is incandescent with hopelessness and rancour — altogether comprising a book that rages to splinter the received structures that are typically imposed on literary representations of experience — and readers who look upon the whole with a humanist’s well-intentioned sympathies will find only that it continually strives to stab them in the eye.

There is nothing easy about American Histories, nothing consoling or accommodating, nothing resolved or concluded. If it is the best novel I’ve read so far this year, that’s the case because it is the most alive. Every one of its sentences radiates outwards from a singular ‘I’ — speaking of the world as it is, and as it has been, and of others who have endured it in various ways, and of their particular difficulties and distinctions — and then, having spoken, it returns to the ‘I’, tracking the distance traversed between the ‘I’ and the subjects it addresses, and finds its speaker at a great remove, observing social and communal experiences from a distance he cannot broach.

The urgency of Wideman’s words, impatient with literary niceties; the sheer despair, the curtailed love, the respectfulness, the mannered politesse and the melancholy that flow through his pieces of prose; the senses of redemption, betrayal, and keen injustice that those pieces evoke; the naked, unashamed confusions of the searching consciousness behind their pages — all of these elements make American Histories sing of the manifold energies from which it has sprung into being: fiercely, discordantly, messily, and with a rawness unlike anything to be found in a work of more studious composure. It reads like the outpouring of a mind preternaturally alert to the innumerable problems of its existence, lost for solutions to any of them, unable to reconcile those in conflict with one another, but also with no alternative but to press on and speak of all these things, their barbs and spurs, the wounds they make, the scars they leave behind. It faces up to some of the most difficult, most contentious questions of equality and identity that anyone could conceive of, and it takes their measure and explodes them and casts them back upon themselves. It is, quite clearly, a book packed full of a lifetime’s worth of truly living — of hard-won wisdom, of bitter truths drawn from the grind of passing days — and its tenacity does not let up for the duration of its two hundred pages. Read it.

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