Late in a career marked by both triumph and tragedy, the fiercely independent author has written a new book exploring the unsettling case of Emmett Till’s father — and the isolation of black men in America.
John Edgar Wideman likes to be in places where people don’t know who he is or what he does for a living. He spends most of the year in New York, but two of his favorite people here are his barber and his massage therapist, both Chinese immigrants who barely speak English. He was explaining this to me in December, over a lunch of rare steak-frites and Bordeaux at Lucien, a bistro a few blocks from his Lower East Side apartment. “I go to a bar, I get to know the bartenders and the manager,” he said. “That’s where I get my mezcal, that’s my place, that’s what I do. But parties, hanging out?” He shook his head. “I don’t have anybody living around me who has much of a sense of what I do. That’s exactly what I like.”
Lucien Bahaj, the restaurant’s owner, and his wife, Phyllis, came over to the table to greet Wideman. It was clear they knew him as a regular but, judging from their conversation, not at all as the author of 21 highly distinguished works of fiction and nonfiction or as a MacArthur genius who was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters or, for that matter, as one of the first three African-Americans to ever earn a Rhodes Scholarship.
If they knew any of that about Wideman the writer, they would also have to know this about Wideman the person: He is the older brother of a man convicted of murder, serving a life sentence without the chance of parole; the uncle of a young man shot execution-style in his own home; the father of a boy who, at age 16, woke up one night while traveling with a group of campers, got out of bed and stabbed his roommate to death while he was sleeping. The drama of Wideman’s personal history can seem almost mythical, refracting so many aspects of the larger black experience in America, an experience defined less by its consistencies, perhaps, than by its many contradictions — the stunning and ongoing plurality of victories and defeats.
Now 75, Wideman is noticeably gentler-looking than the severe ice-grill that has glared from dust jackets for so many years. After Bahaj left, he confessed to me that he had been reading reviews of his newest book, “Writing to Save a Life,” published in November. He noted that critics tend to write about him as an isolated and haunted figure, an idea he has resisted but has been coming to accept about himself. “I mean, if everyone tells you your feet stink, after a while, you may think you washed the boys, but everybody can’t be wrong.” He laughed at himself but then soberly conceded, “I always felt extremely isolated.” That loneliness Wideman speaks of is twofold: both peculiar to him and quintessentially black, especially for more talented men of his era. I have seen this loneliness, too, in my father, a man of Wideman’s generation and the first in his family to break out of the segregated South and get a college education, a dual triumph that simultaneously freed him and left him a consummate outsider.
For Wideman, who spent much of his working life in places like Wyoming and Western Massachusetts and rural Maine, this solitude has been further compounded by cold mathematics. Not only is mainstream publishing overwhelmingly white, it is also nearly bereft of black writers like him: American men of letters descended from Southern slaves, who position themselves as part of a grand and omnivorous intellectual and artistic tradition. Though we live in the most racially fraught period in at least a generation, much of what we read on the subject comes from pundits, journalists and internet think-piece writers whose experiences and perspectives are rooted more in the language of critical theory than in anything resembling literary mastery.
“Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File,” about 10 years in the making, is a slim but powerful volume, an account of the brief and terrible life of Louis (Saint) Till, the largely forgotten father of Emmett Till, the Chicago boy whose horrific lynching in Mississippi in 1955 shamed the nation. It feels in many ways like an apotheosis, a project that combines and distills all the various obsessions of a brilliant half-century investigation into the existential predicament of, as Wideman once put it to The Paris Review, “a person who’s still scarred and outraged and mystified by the experience of Europe and Africa and slavery and the relationship between those continents.” It is the late-phase masterwork of a man still trying desperately to figure out how America works at a time when his perennial concerns — freedom and confinement, policing, fatherhood, the inheritance of trauma and ontological stigma — feel as pertinent as ever.
Yet, thus far at least, both black and white audiences engaged in the perpetual national conversation on race have mostly ignored it. (Critics less so: It was recently named a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in general nonfiction). Perhaps this is because Wideman’s layered and sometimes contradictory insights resist abbreviation and easy dissemination in short bursts of epiphany on social media. His disposition is to bypass blunt polemic and make his case through description and story, which is by necessity inventive, conditional and ambiguous. Simplicity sells, but the truth is seldom simple.
And the truth, as Wideman put it to me at one point during lunch, his food an afterthought, his eyes locked on his hands as if he could somehow manipulate his words with his fingers, is that whatever existential pain separates black America from the world, “it ain’t nothing to do with our blood, it ain’t nothing to do with our history, it is essentially a recognition, the most profound and basic human recognition that you are alone. I am alone.”
Born in Washington in 1941, John Wideman was raised in Homewood, a black neighborhood in Pittsburgh said to have been founded by a runaway slave. In the world that shaped him, appearances were often deceptive. His father was dark-skinned, but his mother, Bette, was pale enough to pass for white if she wore a scarf over her hair. It was only in adulthood, he told me, that he discovered that her biological grandfather was actually a German butcher. (“Not a Nazi!” he clarified. “The other kind of German butcher.”) Bette’s father was a man named John French, who was, as Wideman describes in his recent book, “lighter than many of the Italian immigrants he worked beside plastering and hanging wallpaper.” Wideman saw early on that race, and by extension identity, were nebulous formations: collective fictional endeavors, albeit ones with real consequences.
When he was 12, Wideman’s family relocated to middle-class Shadyside, where he attended high school and became valedictorian and captain of the basketball team. The University of Pennsylvania came calling and offered an academic scholarship. He was an excellent student in college, and before he graduated in 1963, Gene Shalit wrote an article about him in Look magazine titled “The Astonishing John Wideman.” This was both an incredible individual honor and a damning acknowledgment of the scarcity of black faces at places like Penn. It could not have been easy, but Wideman evinced the polar opposite of a sense of victimization. “To me, being Negro is only a physical fact,” he told Shalit. “If there were something I wanted very badly that being Negro prevented me from doing, then I might have the confrontation of a racial problem, and I would be driven to do something about it. I’m sure I would. But so far, the things that I’ve wanted to do haven’t been held back from me because of my being a Negro.”
After Penn, Wideman studied 18th-century narrative technique at Oxford, married a white Penn graduate named Judith Goldman and eventually became one of Penn’s first black tenured professors. He quickly wrote three well-received novels that failed to find large audiences and that he has since described as operating on the apprentice level. It was not until 1981, with the publication of his story collection “Damballah,” that Wideman grew into his mature style, a learned and distinctively black register that switches naturally between the sublime and the profane, an earthy vernacular and a high literary mode with which he spins tales both true and untrue that overlap and accumulate, like 3-D printing, into tangible landscapes and characters.
“Damballah,” along with the novels “Sent for You Yesterday“ and “Hiding Place,” formed what has since become known as the Homewood Trilogy and marked Wideman’s emergence as one of the premier novelists in the country. But even as Wideman’s career was on the rise, his family life back home had been ravaged.
His brother Robby was arrested in 1976 after participating in a botched robbery that ended with the victim dying of a gunshot wound to the shoulder. He was convicted and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Wideman spent years interviewing him during soul-crushing visits to Western Penitentiary. In the course of these conversations, he got to know his brother more intimately there than he ever had on the outside, and in 1984, he published “Brothers and Keepers,” a collaborative nonfiction attempt to come to grips with how their two life trajectories had parted so drastically: how he had become the friend of someone like Senator Bill Bradley, while his brother had developed “prison arms.” It was at once a book about Robby’s obvious guilt and grim history leading up to the crime and also about the extremity of his punishment. The victim, who was white, was himself a criminal, Wideman told me, but “nobody ever said anything about him having criminal genes.” What’s more, it was one of Robby’s accomplices who pulled the trigger.
In the summer of 1986, two years after the publication of “Brothers and Keepers” and 10 years after Robby’s arrest, Wideman’s middle child, Jacob, a tawny, blond-haired black boy who displayed serious developmental problems, accompanied a small group of teenagers on a tour across the West. At a stopover at the University Inn motel in Flagstaff, Ariz., inexplicably, he twice buried a six-inch blade in the chest of his sleeping white roommate, Eric Kane. It was a horrific crime — it took hours for Kane to bleed to death — and prosecutors routed Jacob into the adult system, though he was just a teenager. Like his uncle Robby, Jacob was sentenced to life in prison, but he was granted the possibility of parole. The salacious story of the great black writer’s homicidal son was quickly picked up in newspapers across the country and given lengthy treatment in respectively compassionate and vicious pieces that ran in Esquire and Vanity Fair.
Wideman himself has never written about Jacob, at least never directly. “My son doesn’t like me to talk about his situation,” he told The Paris Review, “so I don’t. Period.” This was very much on my mind as I prepared to ask Wideman about this aspect of his biography. A friend had alerted me in early November — on Election Day, actually — that Jacob, now almost 47, had been granted release from prison. Wideman confirmed that his son is currently living in a halfway house after serving 30 years in prison and having been denied parole on six previous occasions. This unexpected turn of events, he confided, has left him somehow optimistic. “It kind of put all the other news in perspective.” He recently recorded a segment on NPR and found himself tongue-tied, trying to make sense of the current political upheaval. “The idea that my son was out. …” he told me, his voice trailing off. “Hey, nothing else mattered.”
I asked Wideman whether, given the specificity of Jacob’s own personal demons, the level of his parents’ education and social capital and the sheer fact that he could pass for Caucasian, it made sense to think of his collision with the criminal-justice system in the same terms we keep for poor and more conventionally black men like Till or Robby Wideman. He replied that Jacob’s defense lawyers, with whom he has since become friends, came to believe that the state was looking to make an example of Jacob. In Arizona at the time, Wideman said, “there were more and more immigrants, black people, street crime, drugs,” and the lawyers told Wideman in confidence that they believed the state had plans to seek the death penalty.
The family instead accepted a plea deal. Wideman maintains that he has never argued for Jacob’s innocence — it was he and Judy who took him to the police station — though he does insist on pointing out an uncomfortable truth: Jacob was a natural and appropriate candidate for juvenile imprisonment, but he instead nearly became an opportunity to expand the reach of capital punishment, because, Wideman believes, his victim was white. This was “strange,” he told me, but it was not for lack of precedent. I both understood and sympathized with his point, but it was one of the few moments in speaking with him that I found myself questioning the accuracy of mapping a tragedy so specific onto one so universal.
Imani Perry, the Hughes-Rogers professor of African-American studies at Princeton University, works out of a spacious, book-lined office just inside the main gates. When I visited her in December to get a better sense of Wideman’s position in the black and wider American tradition, she compared him with Albert Murray, the unjustly overshadowed brother-in-arms of Ralph Ellison. As was the case with Murray, Wideman’s writing is, Perry said, “not really something you can designate as belonging to one or the other side of a political spectrum. It’s actually about your disposition toward life.” This is a hard-won quality she believes is found more often today among black male writers born before 1950. And that is why, in our current racial conversation, which can tend to be “too driven” by younger voices, she said, there’s “something particularly useful about hearing from someone who is in his 70s.”
But Wideman’s cerebral sensibility is one that resists easy consumption. Even his longtime friend and agent, Andrew Wylie, describes his work as probably destined for “a fairly select audience, as is the case with many of the best writers in the world.” He is, in other words, a writers’ writer. One of his many admirers is Mitchell S. Jackson, the author of “The Residue Years,” a 2013 semi-autobiographical account of his experience selling drugs in college and going to prison. One line of Wideman’s has stuck with Jackson for years: “The facts speak for themselves, but never speak for us.” If you were to look at the facts of Jackson’s own life, he says, you would see a guy who sold drugs, went to prison and made a success of himself writing about it. “But,” he said, “it’s what’s between that that’s who we are.”
“Writing to Save a Life” chronicles Wideman’s attempt to fill in some of those gaping blanks between the rock-hard facts of Louis Till’s life and the files relating to his court-martial, which seem to suggest the American military systematically railroaded the young soldier into a practically predetermined guilty verdict. Stationed in Civitavecchia, Italy, during the twilight of World War II. Till, along with two other black servicemen, was accused of the rape of two Italian women and the murder of another, on purely circumstantial evidence and despite enormous amounts of contradictory testimony. “No, all witnesses agree: Too dark to tell what color clothing the attackers wore,” Wideman writes. “Yes, all witnesses agree: We could see the color of the invaders’ skin.” A military court sentenced Till and one other man to death by hanging.
There is not a whole lot Wideman or any of his readers can know for sure about Till, but what we do learn is often unattractive. He beat his wife, Mamie, who took out a restraining order. He squandered the family’s income. Presented by a judge with the dubious choice of prison or the military, he opted for the latter and ended up in the former anyway, in a distant Mediterranean cell near Ezra Pound of all people. He is not Rosa Parks by any stretch of the imagination, and Wideman makes no attempt to sanctify his character. Yet there is undeniably something in him that the author not only relates to but also admires, and it has to do with the fact that Till does not ever beg or plead but keeps quiet, even stoic, in the face of a system that “provides agents ample, perhaps irresistible, opportunities for abuse.”
What unsettles Wideman about the Till case is not only that it was flagrantly flawed but that everything had the veneer of propriety about it. “Every T crossed, every I dotted,” he writes. “But seamless, careful, by-the-book performance provides no evidence of what the spider’s thinking about the fly enmeshed in its web.” Even participants in an unjust system can be blind to the ways they sustain it. It’s a jarring idea when taken to its logical conclusion, that, independent of any willful bigotry, the person on the jury or in the voting booth may not even know why she decided the way that she did. For Wideman, this means that transcendent racial harmony may permanently lie on the horizon, just beyond our reach. Which is also why, in his view, storytelling takes on the dimensions of a battle royal, a “never-ending struggle” to make sense of the world, which implies a kind of “ultimate democracy” but also “a kind of chaos.”
In a 1990 Esquire profile he wrote of Michael Jordan, Wideman observed that “a great artist transforms our world, removes scales from our eyes, plugs from our ears, gloves from our fingertips, teaches us to perceive reality differently. Proust said of his countryman and contemporary, the late-19th-century Impressionist Auguste Renoir: ‘Before Renoir painted there were no Renoir women in Paris, now you see them everywhere.’ ” Wideman has, with this book, achieved a similar feat. The most disturbing argument he makes in “Writing to Save a Life” is that, whether guilty of any particular actions in Italy or not, Till’s one true offense is something that can be accurately described only as a crime of being: In the logic of the criminal-justice system, people like Till, people bound to the wrong side of that stubborn fiction of race, often seem to necessitate “a pre-emptive strike.”
I had never once thought of nor seen Louis Till before Wideman painted him so exquisitely, and now I have to acknowledge that he is all around me. Walter Scott? He’s Louis Till; so is Eric Garner. Michael Brown, unsympathetic as he appears on that convenience-store video — I can no longer see him without conjuring Emmett’s father. Seventeen-year-old Laquan McDonald, wandering through the Chicago night until his body jumps and jerks from 16 shots? Louis (Saint) Till. Poor Philando Castile — pulled over at least 49 times in 13 years before the final and fatal interaction that left him bleeding in front of his girlfriend and her daughter and all the rest of us on Facebook Live — is a high-tech Louis Till. Ditto Alton Sterling down in Baton Rouge, Freddie Gray up in Baltimore and “bad dude” Terence Crutcher out in Tulsa: all these men are Louis Tills. Trayvon Martin and 12-year-old Tamir Rice are something else altogether, heart-rending combinations of both Tills, père and fils, doomed man-children in the fretful, trigger-happy imagination of American vigilantes and law enforcement. Whatever other crimes may or may not have been committed, may or may not have potentially been on the brink of being committed, these were all crimes of being before they were anything else. That is one true story, whatever other stories there may be, and Wideman has told it masterfully.
On a freezing Saturday afternoon that dropped an almost nonexistent film of snow, I waited for Wideman in the entryway to a McDonald’s near his home. For the past decade and a half he has lived in a quiet, somewhat inaccessible corner of Lower Manhattan that seems to suit his need to be on the periphery. It’s the same in France, where he has long been published by the top-tier Gallimard but eschews the cafe scene in Paris, preferring to spend summers with his second wife, Catherine, at their home on the coast of Brittany.
I had come to join him on one of his favorite walks, a cinematic back and forth across the Williamsburg Bridge into Brooklyn, “an old habit” he once fictionalized in a short story for Harper’s. He arrived promptly, in a pair of black New Balance running shoes and a smart black Nike Dri-Fit ensemble that surprised me. Whatever he had done with the elderly gentleman I talked to just days earlier, I couldn’t tell you. He seemed 10 to 15 years younger and even to stand several inches taller. As we wove through traffic and up the ramp to the pedestrian walkway, he initiated then maintained an outlandish stride that left me, 40 years his junior, struggling to keep up.
Wideman has written repeatedly of his lifelong love for the game of basketball, both the organized kind that provided a haven of rules and order and got him out of Pittsburgh but also the pickup kind that he gave up, with great sadness, only when he hit 60. He still lifts weights and runs occasionally and, in talking with him, I began to suspect, could also drink me under the table. As we walked, the wind whipping off the East River and the metal-on-metal of J, M and Z trains rattling beside us and the whir of microfiber generated by the swinging of his arms combined to nearly drown out his voice, which hadn’t grown one decibel louder.
The truth is, I told him, he has written a hell of a book at the age of 75. I wanted to know if it was in any way harder for him than it had been earlier in his career. “Everything is gravy now,” he said. “By the time I finished playing basketball, I used to be, you know, the star, the go-to guy for whomever I played for. But at the end of the time on the playground, to make a layup, you know, to steal the ball once — it’s gravy. You don’t have to worry about carrying the team, your rep. You’re just out there, and anything you can get is good.” He had finally given up his last teaching post at Brown, because, he explained, when he can no longer perform a task to his standards, he has no choice but to walk away. The writing still works, though, even he agreed, and he mentioned a new story he just completed for Harper’s.
We walked along the waterfront before warming up over steak and eggs and bloody marys at a Polish restaurant Wideman likes on Bedford Avenue. When we finally headed back to Manhattan, I asked him about the ending of “Writing to Save a Life,” a mystifying passage in which he is standing over Till’s bleak, half-size grave near Fère-en-Tardenois, France, 75 miles east of Paris, on an ignominious plot of land where all 96 soldiers (83 of them black) who were executed by the U.S. military during World War II are buried.
Wideman imagines himself talking in down-home, midcentury black slang to the dead young man as if he were a brother or a comrade, telling him a fable about a tenacious swarm of honeybees. When a muscular grizzly bear rampages their hive for honey, “every damn mama bee, daddy bee and every little jitterbug bee jump Brer Bear’s burly ass,” Wideman says to Till. And as the bear gets mad and starts swatting and growling, some of “the wildest, meanest bees,” the crazy Kamikazes, “dives down the bear’s big mouth.” The bear starts thrashing about in pain, but the craziest bees sting him deep inside his throat and stomach until he vomits blood and honey and all those bees back up, hurting so bad that, he wishes “he ain’t never been born.” The beehive is obliterated, but the strange thing is, out of all that gratuitous destruction, “not all the Kamikaze bees dead in there. A few crawls out the mess.” They’re sticky and banged up, “but a couple few alive. Alive and just as wild, mean and crazy as ever.” If the bear comes back, “they gone bust his big chops wide open again.” What, I asked him, does that all mean? He paused to consider my question. Then he said he thought it meant that “we need [expletives] like Till.”
I nodded and said goodbye to him in front of his building on the cold and windswept corner of Grand Street, mulling over his words as I walked back to the subway. Was he really saying that oppressed people need people, even bad people, to take the fight to the beast of American racism, a conflict in which almost any retaliatory act might find justification? It seemed far too simplistic a story for Wideman to tell, and it left me underwhelmed, turning the image over and over in my mind as I descended to the platform and headed back to Brooklyn.
Then slowly, somewhere under the river, I began to wonder if he was saying something else, a much more complicated and interesting story. I began to wonder if he was saying that people like Till — people who do actual wrong and veer off course and go and get smashed down the hardest — aren’t antiheroes so much as sacrificial explorers who have ventured quite literally into the belly of the furious beast, exposing for the rest of us the very extent of the danger within, and how lucky we may have been to escape it.