American Histories

Written by John Edgar Wideman
Review by Anne Clinard Barnhill

In his new short story collection, American Histories, John Edgar Wideman explores current situations by delving into the past, a sort of marriage between the personal and historical. In the first story, Wideman imagines a conversation between Frederick Douglass, the black abolitionist, and John Brown, the white leader of the infamous raid at Harper’s Ferry. Structured to defy convention, the two men represent different ways to combat slavery.

Later in the book, in the story “Nat Turner Confesses,” Wideman brings together his research about those leaders, often ignored by traditional textbooks, who instigated slave rebellions. Though set in history, Wideman brings up currently familiar names like “Trayvon” and “Emmet” as he stitches together the sins of the past with the sins of the present. Wideman is able to leap beyond the constraints of plot and character to wrestle the heart from a story.

One of my favorite stories is “New Start,” which opens with a couple watching TV late into the night to escape the fear of his cancer treatments. This scene rings so true, mainly because my husband and I did just that as I received chemo. The terror, the unease, the easy flight into the land of TV seem absolutely right. But Wideman doesn’t leave the reader there; instead, he segues into a commentary about watching Downton Abbey and what the act of watching does to both viewer and actor.

Wideman’s style can cause the reader to stumble. Fragments. Verb-less sentences. Odd juxtapositions. Perhaps some readers can relate to such tweet-like verbiage. In the hands of a lesser writer, these tendencies might detract from the story. But in Wideman’s hands, the style helps accentuate the sporadic and chaotic nature of the current day.