American Histories

4 of 17
American Histories
240 pages
"Do not go gentle into that good night," wrote Dylan Thomas in his famous villanelle. Now 76-year-old John Edgar Wideman echoes that sentiment in American Histories, a powerful assemblage of short stories exploring late-in-life angst through personal myth, cultural memory, and riffs on an empire scorched by its own hubris.

As Wideman does in his memoirs and essays, his fictional characters frequently brood on race, with hushed ferocity: "My color also produces in many people of other colors an adverse reaction as hardwired as a worker ant's love for the nest's queen." Some stories recast historical figures in a transmogrifying light, with, say, the radical abolitionist John Brown discussing the evils of slavery with Frederick Douglass, or African American artists Romare Bearden and Jean-Michel Basquiat debating collage as a technique. From his scaffold, Nat Turner narrates his tortured journey to rebellion and mass murder, spurred on by white oppression. Other tales, such as the haunting "Williamsburg Bridge"—about an elderly writer on the verge of suicide, clinging to the structure's railing, his thoughts rushing wildly like the East River below—show Wideman's singular ability to magnify interior struggle.

His prose, its twisting syntax, is a kind of stylish jazz of his own making. Alongside bleakness, Wideman also finds pearls in the everyday, such as this robin in a French garden: "Hop-hopping, hip-hop it comes and goes or stops to profile, body slightly tilted towards me, a single black eye fixed on me. Dot ending a sentence." 
— Hamilton Cain