JOHN EDGAR WIDEMAN was born on June 14, 1941, in Washington, D.C., the son of Edgar and Betty (French) Wideman. He spent his early years first in Homewood, a suburb of Pittsburgh, and then in Shadyside, a predominantly white upper-middle-class district in Pittsburgh. Wideman attended the University of Pennsylvania on a scholarship, studying psychology and English and playing basketball. After graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1963, he attended Oxford University on a Rhodes Scholarship, only the second black American—after Alain Locke early in the century—to win that honor. In 1965 he married Judith Ann Goldman, with whom he raised three children, Jamilla, Jacob, and Danny.
In 1966 Wideman received a B.Phil. from Oxford and began what would be a long and distinguished teaching career. He first joined the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania, where he became professor of English while also founding and directing the Afro-American Studies program and being assistant basketball coach from 1968 to 1972. In 1975 he joined the faculty of the University of Wyoming, remaining there as a professor of English until 1986. Wideman is currently affiliated with the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
In 1967 Wideman's first novel, A Glance Away, appeared. It explores the struggles caused by drug addiction and homosexuality and their effects upon human relationships in a world in which people feel increasingly isolated. In Hurry Home ( 1970), Wideman's second novel, the protagonist searches for meaning against a backdrop of confusion and rootlessness. In both these novels Wideman uses surrealistic and other experimental techniques to probe the imaginative lives of his characters. As an antidote to existential despair, however, Wideman's characters frequently turn to history, both personal and communal. The past provides an anchor for characters directionlessly floating through the present. Neither of Wideman's first two novels is concerned exclusively with racial themes. Both works received considerable, and mostly favorable, attention from reviewers.