writer John Edgar Widemana star athlete and Rhodes Scholar at Penn
in the early sixtieswas back on campus last spring. In a wide-ranging
interview at Kelly Writers House, he talked about the construction
of reality, the joys of basketball, the writers search for a subject
and the mysterious power of faith.
Wideman C63 Hon86 was quoted
for the first time in The Pennsylvania Gazette in February
1963, when he was interviewed for a story about winning a Rhodes
Scholarship his senior yearthe first Penn student to have been
accorded this honor, the article notes, since 1938. He also won
a Thouron award, and was captain of the basketball team and an All-Big
Five, All-Ivy selection. He did graduate study at Oxford, and later
joined the Penn faculty, teaching English and writing from 1967
to 1972. He is currently a professor of English at the University
of Massachusetts in Amherst.
Widemans first novel, A Glance Away, was
published in 1967. Since then, he has published more than a dozen
books. In addition to an honorary degree from the University, his
post-Penn accolades include being the first writer to have won the
PEN/Faulkner Award twicefor the novels Sent For You Yesterday
(1984) and Philadelphia Fire (1990)as well as awards from
the Lannan and MacArthur foundations, the Rea and OHenry short-story
prizes and election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Brothers and Keepers, his 1984 nonfiction book about his
brothers conviction for murder, was nominated for a National Book
Critics Circle Award, and his memoir Fatheralong was a finalist
for the National Book Award. His most recent book is the novel Two
Cities, set in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, which the Boston
Globe called A masterpiece of verve and feeling.
That 1963 Gazette article describes Wideman
as arriving for the interview dressed casually in khaki slacks,
a blue denim-like shirt, and green corduroy jacket and as
being a young man [with] some interesting ideas on competition.
Though he was dressed a little differentlyblack T-shirt, black
pants, black leather vestthe elder Wideman still has some interesting
things to say about competition, both as it pertains to the basketball
court and in the more cerebral arena of creative work.
He shared those ideas and others on a visit
to campus April 24-25 as the third of three writers featured in
this years Kelly Writers House Visiting Fellows Program (the others
were short-story writer/essayist/poet/activist Grace Paley, who
was on campus in February, and the poet Robert Creeley, who had
come earlier in April).
visit to the Philadelphia area actually began with a reading on
the afternoon of April 23 at Art Sanctuary, the North Philadelphia
arts center founded by Lorene Cary C78 G78, author of the memoir
Black Ice and the novels The Price of a Child and
Pride, who is also a lecturer in the English department (see
Alumni Profiles in this issue). He spent the following day
and a half at Writers House, first meeting to discuss his writing
with students in a seminar taught by Writers House faculty director
Al Filreis, the Class of 1942 Professor of English, and then giving
another reading that evening. To a packed house, he read a new story
titled Sharing, narrated by a suburban white woman, who answers
her door to find a black mana neighbor she has seen for years,
but barely spoken toin search of mayonnaise. As the immediate mysteryWhat
does he want with mayonnaise?gradually unfolds, we learn that
the two have much in common, not least the recent collapse of their
respective marriages. The story, which Wideman said he originally
read aloud for a panel on race two weeks earlier at which he appeared
with the South African writer Nadine Gordimer, ends on a note of
Finally, on the
morning of the 25th, Wideman was interviewed by Cary and Filreis
before an audience at Writers House and broadcast live over the
World Wide Web. Cary sat next to him at the front of the room to
ask questions, while Filreis acted as master of ceremonies, prowling
the audience like an academic talk show host to solicit questions
from those physically present and reading some e-mailed by people
watching the interview online.
Both the reading
and interview are available in their entirety online at http://www.english.upenn.edu/~wh/webcasts/.
What follows is edited from an audiotape of the interview.JP