For nearly 50 years, a trend in African American literary history quarantined the Black Arts era of the 1960s and 1970s, separating it from the brilliantly creative and aesthetically experimental writing that took off in the 1980s. According to that history, the new literature discarded and distanced the anti-aesthetic posture of the Black Arts moment which emphasized racial tension, strident polemics, and romantic solidarity with the Black underclass. Yet according to the author, the six novels that John Edgar Wideman wrote from 1987 to 2017 complicate this reductive characterization of the black arts. They overflow with the criminal element: accused rapists and murderers; victims of unsanctioned lynching and sanctioned executions. As they engage in aesthetic experimentation, they express continuities with a spirit of restless invention and improvisation that derive from an ongoing engagement with African or Black Atlantic cosmology. They thus enable reassessment of the black arts legacy, entering the world on their own terms, producing their own reality, and working through the black arts notion of functional art. They are the result of a magical Black Atlantic craft that brings writing beyond written representation, transforming the novel itself into a functional tool – a charm -- of protection and healing.
Stephen Casmier is associate professor in the department of English at Saint Louis University.
Preface: What Comes Before in Wideman Scholarship
Introduction: Wideman, Contemporary Writers, and the Black Arts
Chapter I: Reuben and the Sorcerer
Chapter II: Philadelphia Fire and the Art of Bundling the Inchoate
Chapter III: The Cattle Killing and the Art of the Slavery Narrative Conjure
Chapter IV: Two Cities and the Art of Breaking Writing’s “Spell”
Chapter V: Fanon and the Art of Spiritualizing Narrative
Chapter VI: Writing to Save a Life and the Art of Hagiography as Possessed Text (Texto Montado)
Conclusion: A “Very Igbo Understanding”
Appendix: Interview with John Edgar Wideman, June 2019: Keeping the Language of Fiction Alive
In the preface to this work Casmier provides a rich review of the scholarly/critical works about John Edgar Wideman (b. 1941). He asserts that critics find a paradox in the scholarship—“the aporia induced by a writer who imbeds autobiographical details in his works but also broadcasts ‘telling stories’ and ‘lies’ in deference to the Igbo proverb that he endlessly references” ("No story is not true," from Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Part). Ever present in Wideman's works is the figure of his brother, a convicted murderer, who not only complicates the works but also helps locate them in the Black Arts tradition. Casmier explores six of Wideman’s novels, calling them the functional works of the discredited Black Arts Movement—works that demand a critical approach that responds to them as things in and of themselves. Like most critics, Casmier is interested in improving the accessibility of Wideman’s works and increasing his audience. The book is as much about Wideman’s craft as it is about the tradition out of which Wideman writes and the urgent messages he deftly embeds in his works. This book can be viewed as an attempt to rescue Wideman from European discourse. A 2019 interview with Wideman is a brilliant supplement to the work. Highly recommended. Graduate students, researchers, faculty.