In the New York Times Magazine, Thomas Chatterton Williams profiles John Edgar Wideman, MacArthur genius and author of more than 20 books including his latest, Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File, about the father of Emmett Till.
Wideman’s own life has been marked by tragedy:
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.