Summary and book reviews of American Histories by John Wideman

American Histories

by John E. Wideman

American Histories by John E. Wideman X
American Histories by John E. Wideman
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2018, 240 pages
    Paperback:
    Mar 2019, 192 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Butts
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About this Book

Book Summary

With characters ranging from everyday Americans to Jean-Michel Basquiat to Nat Turner, American Histories is a journey through time, experience, and the soul of our country.

In this singular collection, John Edgar Wideman, the acclaimed author of Writing to Save a Life, blends the personal, historical, and political to invent complex, charged stories about love, death, struggle, and what we owe each other.

"JB & FD" reimagines conversations between John Brown, the antislavery crusader who famously raided Harper's Ferry, Virginia, and Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist and orator, conversations that belie the myth of race and produce a fantastical, ethically rich correspondence that spans years and ideologies.

"Maps and Ledgers" eavesdrops on a brother and sister today as they ponder their father's killing of another man.

"Williamsburg Bridge" sits inside a man sitting on a bridge who contemplates his life before he decides to jump.

"My Dead" is a story about how the already-departed demand more time, more space in the lives of those who survive them.

Navigating an extraordinary range of subject and tone, Wideman challenges the boundaries of traditional forms, and delivers unforgettable, immersive narratives that touch the very core of what it means to be alive. An extended meditation on family, history, and loss, American Histories weaves together historical fact, philosophical wisdom, and deeply personal vignettes. More than the sum of its parts, this is Wideman at his best — emotionally precise and intellectually stimulating — an extraordinary collection by a master.

American Histories
A PREFATORY NOTE

Dear Mr. President,

I send this note along with some stories I've written, and hope you will find time in your demanding schedule to read both note and stories. The stories should speak for themselves. The note is a plea, Mr. President. Please eradicate slavery.

I am quite aware, sir, that history says the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution abolished slavery in the United States of America in 1865, and that ensuing amendments extended to former slaves the precious rights and protections our nation guarantees to all its citizens regardless of color. But you should understand better than most of us, Mr. President, that history tells as many lies as truths.

The Thirteenth Amendment announced the beginning of the end of slavery as a legal condition in America. Slavery as a social condition did not disappear. After serving our nation for centuries as grounds to rationalize enslavement, African ancestry and colored skin remain ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. In the "A Prefatory Note," John Edgar Wideman writes that his guess is that "slavery won't disappear until only two human beings left alive, neither one strong enough to enslave the other" (page 2). What does this statement lead you to believe about Wideman's definition of slavery, and how does that differ from your understanding of the concept?
  2. In "JB & FD," John Brown and Frederick Douglass, a white and black abolitionist, respectively, each believe in the eradication of slavery, but they disagree about how to get there. What is the effect, at the story's end, of creating a black character named John Brown, after the figure who was, in life, the more militant of the two? How does this complicate the dialogue between the two ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

In American Histories, a collection of 21 short stories, John Edgar Wideman draws America's present and its divisive racial history as the direct consequence of a political and economic system that depends on man's inhumanity to fellow human beings. Wideman refers to this system as "empire," a word fraught with connotations of imperialism and slavery. "We wait and wait for the moment to arrive," he writes, "Wait for the time to celebrate. Time to love. We understand empire a chimera, a bad idea. Same bad idea over and over again. Empire dead. Long live empire." The collection is an impassioned condemnation of an empire that thrives on inequality and injustice. This condemnation is evident in Wideman's rhetoric, but also in his nuanced and empathetic explorations of his characters...continued

Full Review (602 words).

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(Reviewed by Lisa Butts).

Media Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Each story feels new, challenging, and exhilarating, beguilingly combining American history with personal history.

Library Journal
Starred Review. A deeply personal collection of stories illuminating the thinning and cyclical threads of history that both sustain us and tear us apart.

Booklist
Starred Review. Wideman's shape-shifting, lyrical narratives offer mesmerizing and challenging perspectives on the creative process and the black experience, decisively affirming his stature as a major voice in American literature.

Kirkus Reviews
Starred Review. Wideman's recent work strides into the gap between fiction and nonfiction as a means of disclosing hard, painful, and necessary truths.

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Beyond the Book

Nat Turner's Rebellion

One of Wideman's most vivid stories is centered around the confession of Nat Turner, an enslaved Virginia man who organized a revolt in 1831, involving upwards of 50 other slaves. The rebels killed 51 people (mostly slave owners and their families). The rebellion began in the late hours of August 21 when Turner and his fellow slaves murdered their master, Benjamin Travis and his family. They then fanned out across the countryside, killing any white people they encountered. They marched to Jerusalem, Virginia where they hoped to take control of an armory, but the authorities had by then gotten word of the rebellion and it was quickly stanched. Turner and 16 of his co-conspirators hid out for roughly six weeks, intermittently clashing with ...

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