John Edgar Wideman- 2006

John Edgar Wideman

American novelist, short story writer, memoirist, essayist and two-time winner of PEN/Faulkner award for fiction

Interpreter of The Black Experience

By Caleb Springer (Marketing, Class of 2024) 

It is no doubt that authors have unique writing styles while creating a story. For John Edgar Wideman, his style is something truly remarkable. Growing up surrounded by oppression, racism, and living in an African American community, Wideman was shaped as a writer. The experiences and trauma that Wideman went through as a Black man formed his writing style. His unique way of writing, as if he were telling the story, gives a first-person account of the effects of African American oppression.  

In Wideman’s works, he often brings up his own experiences growing up in Pittsburgh in an area where crime was very common. During his life, his own brother got locked up for a botched robbery, that ended up leaving one dead. His brother was a fugitive and was on the run, but with Wideman knowing how the neighborhood was, he feared the worst. In his memoir Brothers and Keepers Wideman goes into detail about his constant worry and fear caused by the events of his brother. He goes into how “Prison seemed safer than the streets” (4) and that there was a chance he could be killed by other gang members or hurt somebody else. The first person account of the story told by Wideman brings the reader’s attention to the issues that people see every day with racism and violence. Being surrounded by constant fear, worry, and isolation inspired Wideman’s writings to bring attention and awareness to the issues occurring in the African American community. Thinking about living somewhere that seems worse the prison is just truly unimaginable. Later on in the book, Wideman mentions that “Prison is an experience of death by inches, minutes, hours, days” (35). With his brother being put away for life, Wideman was deeply affected by this, and used it to connect to the readers emotionally. 

Along with personal events, Wideman also talks about many significant historical events in his works too. In his book Philadelphia Fire Wideman goes into the event of the assault by the Philadelphia police on the MOVE organization effecting a predominantly Black community. Wideman’s delivery of the story is what brings the most attention to it. He tells most of the story as if it’s coming from his viewpoint but chooses to leave some of his thoughts out. As stated by Wideman in an interview about the book “Why am I him when I tell certain parts? Why am I hiding from myself” (Washington Post 1) he continues to talk about how it made him feel, but not every aspect. His first person story telling is a mix between his life and a fiction life. By doing this he creates a connection between him and the reader catching their attention. Including his personal trauma from the historical events creates a whole different viewpoint for the reader to experience. Doing this allows the reader to connect with Wideman’s emotions, and portrays the actual feelings felt by African Americans during this time and now. 

In conclusion, after researching and digging deeper into Wideman’s life, his way of conveying stories through his own experiences is remarkable. It leaves a mark on the reader seeing how much trauma and pain significant events can cause someone. By writing the stories in first and third person viewpoints, Wideman leaves a huge impact on the readers when discussing topics that are still relevant to this day. Wideman’s ability to craft stories related to his traumatic upbringing can cause the reader to reflect upon just how “good” they have it today.

Works Cited 

Wideman, John Edgar. Brothers and Keepers: A Memoir. Reprint, Mariner Books, 2005. 

Johnson, Charles. “THE FIRE THAT TIME.” Washington Post, 7 Oct. 1990, time/a814bbcc-6f36-4c2c-a86e-6c66a7bcb08d. 

All Stories Are True

By Luke Wilusz, (Undecided, Class of  2024) 

John Edgar Wideman is an American author and storyteller who writes about the African American experience and is known for his experimental writing techniques. He was the second African American to win a Rhoades scholarship and attend the University of oxford. Currently, he is a professor emeritus at the Ivy-league Brown University. One of John Edgar Wideman’s themes he is known for is using the proverb of “all stories are true”. He uses this phrase in many of his works, most prominently in Writing to save a life: The louis till file. Wideman takes the saying from traditional Nigerian culture and applies it to his world. Believing that “All stories are true”, Wideman is guided by this principle to develop his own unique style. 

The saying was originally used by Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian novelist, who found it within traditional West African philosophy and Igbo culture. Wideman describes this as a mysterious “Old World idea” (Salaam). He goes on to say that “you don’t have a black and a white culture… you have human beings who are all engaged in a kind of never-ending struggle to make sense of their world” (Salaam). This quote is important because it describes how Wideman sees the world; no right, no wrong, just people trying to survive. This ties into “All stories are true” as Wideman applies that same philosophy to his stories. He tells every account from an event, even ones that are false, as he believes that they must have a shred of truth in them, or they wouldn't exist. 

 Wideman uses “all stories are true” within Writing to save a life in that way. Writing to save a life tells the story of Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old African American boy who was brutally murdered for merely being accused of whistling at a white woman. His murderers were later freed by an all-white jury and later admitted to his killing. His family was further tarnished when it was revealed that Emmet’s father was executed during world war two for two rapes and a murder. John Edgar Wideman explores the evidence that this may have also been an unjust killing, as court documents show very little evidence it was Till and an inordinately large number of African Americans were charged with crimes. As there is very little primary source material about the Till family, he blends many accounts that may not be accurate or have been undocumented. Wideman says “I assume the risk of allowing my fiction to enter other people’s true stories” (Mccarthy). While parts of the story may be fictionalized, Wideman believes that it is more important that we never forget what happened as it should never be allowed to happen again. He says that this story is important and is a current reminder of the injustices faced by African Americans now.  

John Edgar Wideman’s Philosophy of “all stories are true” provides an amazing insight into important world events that impact all American culture and will continue to be important for years to come.

Works Cited

Salaam, Kalamu ya. “INTERVIEW: John Edgar Wideman - The Art of Fiction No. 171 > Paris Review.” NEO•GRIOT, Posthaven, 2 Aug. 2011, 12:19am, 

McCarthy, Jesse. “Wideman's Ghosts.” The Nation, 2 Mar. 2018,