By Jody DiPerna
Pittsburgh Current Senior Contributing Writer
When the great writers and creators of Pittsburgh are listed, names like August Wilson and Annie Dillard come up over and over again. As Pittsburghers, we love to toot our own horns and crow about the city’s contribution to culture and society, from Mister Rogers to Josh Gibson to Rachel Carson to Billy Strayhorn. Heck, Andy Warhol has his own museum.
And yet the great John Edgar Wideman doesn’t get much love from his hometown. He somehow wasn’t even named to the 2018 50 Greatest Pittsburghers list published by Pittsburgh Magazine.
Read more essays in the #WidemanChallenge by Eric Boyd and Michael Bennett
Born and raised in Homewood, Wideman has written novels, short stories, memoirs and essays. There is little he cannot do. He was the first person to win the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction twice. In 1963, he won a Rhodes Scholarship to attend the University of Oxford, making him only the second African American to do so.
Denise Graham, a librarian for the Carnegie Library who works at the Homewood branch, grew up in Homewood herself. She studied at Chatham and then at Pitt and she’s been a librarian within the Carnegie system for 40 years now. Though she herself is a huge admirer of Wideman, she cannot quite put her finger on why we aren’t shouting his name from the rooftops.
“He’s a darn good writer. The one book people know about is ‘Brothers and Keepers.’ I think it’s that literary stigma he got — he’s a gifted writer rather than a popular writer,” she told the Current.
‘Brothers and Keepers’ is Wideman’s searing memoir which examines his relationship with his brother Robert, who was convicted and served 40 years in prison. Originally published in 1985 while Robert was still an imprisoned person. In it, Wideman delves into both of their lives, while at the same time scrutinizing the American criminal justice system, classism, and urban despair.
In the Homewood Trilogy, a collection of fiction writing from the early 1980s, Wideman presents a unique, lived-in portrait of Homewood. His singular voice and descriptions bring the neighborhood as it was to life.
“I would say you should read these books to get a flavor of Homewood, to get a glimpse of Homewood, but it’s a glimpse of Homewood’s past,” Graham said.
He has written about basketball, about the Move Fire in Philadelphia in 1985, about fatherhood and about race. In 2016, he published ‘Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File,’ about Emmett Till’s father. Emmett was just 14 years old when he was lynched in Mississippi in 1955 and his murderers were acquitted. This book is Graham’s favorite book in the Wideman catalog.
“The depth of the research he did to find out about this man that nobody knows about,” she noted. “Everybody knows about his mom taking that stand to make sure the casket was open. But nobody knows about the sad and almost tragic life his dad had. I like the depth of his research. He turned this forgotten person into a person.”
A skilled researcher, brilliant thinker and generous writer, Wideman is one of Pittsburgh’s brightest literary lights. But he is not what people call a beach read and, in fact, Denise Graham pointed to Wideman’s cerebral and challenging prose. His cuts deep and demands much from the reader.
“He’s writing about what people don’t consciously think. He’s going very below the surface.”
As part of the #WidemanChallenge, the Current is running two guest essays about Wideman’s work in this issue.