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Wideman on Campus
Photography by
Addison Geary

 

The writer John Edgar Wideman—a star athlete and Rhodes Scholar at Penn in the early sixties—was 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 writer’s search for a subject and the mysterious power of faith.


John Edgar Wideman C’63 Hon’86 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 year—the 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.
    Wideman’s 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 twice—for the novels Sent For You Yesterday (1984) and Philadelphia Fire (1990)—as well as awards from the Lannan and MacArthur foundations, the Rea and O’Henry short-story prizes and election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Brothers and Keepers, his 1984 nonfiction book about his brother’s 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 differently—black T-shirt, black pants, black leather vest—the 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 year’s 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).
    Wideman’s 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 C’78 G’78, 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 man—a neighbor she has seen for years, but barely spoken to—in search of mayonnaise. As the immediate mystery—What 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 muted hope.
    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

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