"Narratives of Self" and the Abdication of Authority in Wideman's Philadelphia Fire

By Pearsall, Susan M. | MELUS, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

"Narratives of Self" and the Abdication of Authority in Wideman's Philadelphia Fire


Pearsall, Susan M., MELUS


Outside the confines of academia, John Edgar Wideman has achieved a celebrity few avant-garde or African American writers could claim. Although most of his novels are radically innovative and more or less inaccessible to readers lacking at least a college education, Wideman's persona exerts a strong appeal for journalists and literary scholars alike. Several popular magazines have run features focusing on the contrast between his extraordinary success and the troubles of his boyhood community or have published reviews of his novels. Klaus Schmidt lists seven published scholarly interviews in a 1995 bibliography, and Bonnie TuSmith's Conversations with John Edgar Wideman (1998) compiles nineteen interviews. Schmidt, however, bemoans the "meager critical response" to the writer's actual published work and presents his own article on Reuben as "an attempt to insert a missing page in literary history" (81-82). In light of the accolades Wideman's fiction has garnered, reflected in laudatory reviews and significant awards, the virtual silence his work has registered from scholars of American literature stands in stark contrast to the scrutiny with which the work of African American women writers is habitually treated.

Apparently Wideman, who has written provocatively about the psychic conflicts associated with being a Rhodes scholar and college professor whose son and brother are in prison, presents an irresistible subject for those interested in popularizing the work of African American writers, while his novels and short stories are seen as too self-consciously experimental, apolitical, or disturbing. Only two book-length studies of his career, which is in its thirty-fourth year, exist in print, leaving James W. Coleman's 1989 monograph as the definitive study. (1) Coleman's analysis illuminates much about Wideman's concerns and technique and also makes a convincing argument about the evolution of the novelist's vision. But some of Wideman's most important work has appeared since Coleman's publication of Blackness and Modernism, including a collection of short stories, Fever (1989); the novel for which he won his second PEN/Faulkner Award in 1991, Philadelphia Fire; a "meditation on race," Fatheralong (1995); and a semi-historical novel, The Cattle Killing (1996). Because of the relevance of its concerns, the urgency and distinctiveness of its voice, and its uniquely expressive narrative technique, Philadelphia Fire (1990) in particular deserves serious consideration.

Philadelphia Fire represents the apex of the late modernist project Wideman initiated with the highly experimental Hurry Home (1969). (2) Keith E. Byerman, while drawing a definite distinction between Wideman's fiction and that of "white postmodernist writers," notes that Wideman just as clearly sets himself apart from the orthodox "critical realist tradition" so often prescribed for writers with a social conscience (34, ix). Through a fragmented narrative and a modernist collage of voices, the novel treats the city of Philadelphia as a self-enclosed world of the artist's creating, a consciously textual world that contains, unifies, and imitates universalized themes within its structure. A troubling look at juvenile violence in the urban environment calls into question the seemingly insurmountable status quo that brutalizes socially marginal classes of people, as well as the significance of fictional narrative as a counter to the totalizing discourse of history.

Structurally and thematically, Philadelphia Fire argues for a new form of narrative realism that transcends the typical modernist writer's alienated, authoritative vision. Wideman distinguishes between a kind of "realism" that cynically asserts the inevitability of social decay--the realism of the aloof politician who recognizes only changes for the worse in the living conditions of the poor--and a participatory, potentially liberating realism, defined as a linguistic construct. …

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