In a probate-office storage vault in Abbeville, South Carolina, an elderly white ex-history professor is showing a black writer from Massachusetts, whose slave ancestors lived in the Abbeville region, itemized documents relating to the sale and possession of slaves. The black writer is grateful for the historian’s generous assistance (though the historian has never met the writer before, he has volunteered to spend several days with him), and so it comes as a considerable shock to the writer that, as he gazes down at the back of the historian’s head, he feels an “ice-cold wave of anger [at him],…at the back of his thin, freckled bald skull,” and an impulse to do injury.
It was Professor Lomax’s skull I had envisioned shattering, spilling all its learning, its intimate knowledge of these deeds that transferred in the same “livestock” column as cows, horses, and mules, the bodies of my ancestors from one white owner to another. Hadn’t the historian’s career been one more mode of appropriation and exploitation of my father’s bones…. Didn’t mastery of Abbeville’s history, the power and privilege to tell my father’s story, follow from the original sin of slavery that stole, then silenced, my father’s voice.
…I knew in that moment my anger flashed we had not severed ourselves from a version of history that had made the lives of my black father and this white man so separate, so distant, yet so intimately intertwined.
This isn’t fiction, as we might wish, but a vividly delineated scene from John Edgar Wideman’s painfully candid memoir of 1994, which records the author’s search for a point of connection between himself and his emotionally remote, elusive father. (“The first rule of my father’s world is that you stand alone. Alone, alone, alone…. My mother’s first rule was love. She refused to believe she was alone.”) Fatheralong is a sustained brooding upon the mysteries of identity and kinship; the title itself reflects Wideman’s childhood mistaking of words in a hymn, “Farther along we’ll know more about you…,” for “Fatheralong.” Though the memoir includes in its penultimate chapter a celebratory rite of passage, a wedding attended by both black and white family members (Wideman is married to a white woman), its predominant tone is one of rage just barely contained by the purity of its honed language. Addressed to Wideman’s incarcerated son, who was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of a camp roommate when he was a young adolescent—information only alluded to in the memoir—it takes as its departure point Wideman’s melancholy realization, as he gazes at his newborn son in a hospital, of “the chill of the cloud passing…between you and your boy. The cloud of race.”
Seen in this way, the documents shown to Wideman by Professor Lomax, who means only to be helpful, and who may well have perceived his own generosity as a token of reparation for his ancestors’ crimes against Wideman’s ancestors, are an obscenity, confirming “how much the present, my father’s life, mine, yours [his son’s], are still being determined by the presumption of white over black inscribed in them.”
Unsparing in its candor, Fatheralong is a fiercely powerful document few readers are likely to forget; a sequel of sorts to Wideman’s 1984 Brothers and Keepers, a memoir of the author’s younger brother, Robby, who is serving a life sentence in Pennsylvania for felony murder. Both autobiographical works can be set beside such masterpieces of American memoir as Richard Wright’s Black Boy (American Hunger) (1945), James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time (1963), and The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1964).
Just as John Edgar Wideman’s memoirs frequently read like urgently dramatized fiction, so do his most characteristic works of fiction frequently read like memoirs. A transparently autobiographical “I”—variously named, or anonymous, or, as in Wideman’s new novel, The Cattle Killing, “Eye” (“Eye. Why are you called Eye. Eye short for something else someone named you. Who named you Isaiah.”)—sifts through a fine- meshed, virtually Proustian consciousness the same issues of race, identity, and kinship with which the memoirs deal. Since the boldly mythical title story of the collection Damballah (1981), and most ambitiously in the title story of the collection Fever (1989) and the novel Philadelphia Fire (1990), Wideman has been breaking down conventional narrative barriers between characters, places, and times. In Wideman’s cosmology, it is quite natural for an African ancestor to inhabit the narrative space of, for instance, a young streetwise Philadelphia black. As one of the narrative voices says in The Cattle Killing, “Was it a lie, a cover-up to say they’ve all looked into the same sky, walked the same earth and thus share a world, a condition?”
While his frequent dissolution of language suggests an impatience with the formal constraints of grammar, Wideman’s strategy is to restrict his range of associations to the single haunting and obsessive theme of race. A virtuoso of mimicry, Wideman is capable of leaping without warning from the measured cadences of an idealized eighteenth-century black speech (“Curled in the black hold of the ship he wonders why his life on solid green earth had to end, why the gods had chosen this new habitation for him, chained to other captives, no air, no light, the wooden walls shuddering, battered, as if some madman is determined to destroy even this last pitiful refuge…and Esu casts his fate, constant motion, tethered to an iron ring”) to the voice of a contemporary Philadelphia black man working as a hospital attendant in a nightmare nursing home (“Yeah, I nurse these old funky motherfuckers, all right. White people, specially old white people, lemme tell you, boy, them peckerwoods stink. Stone dead fishy wet stink.”)
Finally, amid the dithyrambic lyricism of voices that tell the minutely interwoven tales of The Cattle Killing, there abruptly emerges, at the novel’s end, a distinctly contemporary American black voice, a vatic, incantatory voice warning of apocalypse arising from the nightly news tragedies of Pittsburgh and Chicago and Los Angeles and Detroit and New York and Dallas and Cleveland and Oakland and Miami:
I must warn you there are always machines hovering in the air, giant insects with the power to swoop down spattering death, clean out the square in a matter of instants. All our flesh, millions of arms and legs, powerless, bodies crushed, trampled, ripped apart by a rain of fire from machines driven by men not unlike the ones sprawled below in the square, the dead left behind by the multitude the machines have stampeded away.
…From the ashes of your sacrifice a new world of peace and plenty will arise, they say. The prophets of ghost dance, the prophets of the cattle killing, prophets of Kool-Aid, prophets of bend over and take it in your ear, your behind, prophets of off with your head, prophets of chains and prisons and love thy neighbor if and only if he’s you, prophets of one skin more equal than others and if the skin fits, wear it and if it doesn’t, strip it layer by layer down to the bone and then the prophets sayeth a new and better day will dawn.
This voice both is, and is not, that of John Edgar Wideman: it is the omniscient “Eye.”
Though set for the most part in the eighteenth century in Philadelphia and its vicinity, and in an earlier, mythopoetic black Africa, The Cattle Killing is purposefully framed by contemporary American black voices. It begins with a prologue in which the mysterious “Eye” slips away from a literary conference apparently devoted in part to his own work (“You step out the hotel door and into another skin…. Is it Eye or I or Ay or Aye or Aie“), and travels to another part of the city to visit his aging father, and to read to him from a work-in-progress clearly resembling The Cattle Killing. It ends with an epilogue in which a young man named Dan, evidently Eye’s son, has just completed reading the manuscript: “Dear Dad. Just finished Cattle Killing. Congrats. A fine book. Look forward to talking about it with you soon.” A jarringly unlyrical voice, after the artfully constructed language that has preceded it, yet it’s crucial for Wideman to link generations of fathers and sons and to collapse the gulf of time between them, and between the present and the past from which the present has evolved.
It happens coincidentally that the young Dan has been doing his own research into the slave trade, and The Cattle Killing ends with a letter Dan has photocopied from the British Museum’s African archives, written by a nameless black African to his brother: “This note, the others I intend to write, may never reach you, yet I am sure a time will come when we shall be together again.” As Wideman’s “Eye” insists, the tales in The Cattle Killing are “different stories over and over again that are one story”—the exploitation of people of color by Caucasians, and their tragic, if inadvertent, complicity in their exploitation.
Wideman has described his long, ambitious, hallucinatory story “Fever” as a meditation upon history, inspired by the Narrative of 1794 of Absalom Jones and Bishop Richard Allen, a contemporary account of the Philadelphia yellow-fever epidemic of 1792-1793, as well as by two recent books, Gary B. Nash’s Forging Freedom (1988), a history of Philadelphia’s blacks, and J.H. Powell’s Bring Out Your Dead (1949). In the yet more ambitious and hallucinatory The Cattle Killing, Wideman’s most complex novel to date, the nightmare of the yellow-fever epidemic is re-imagined, with many more subplots, settings, characters, both invented and historical.
In the story “Fever,” the Negroes are not only blamed by influential white men, like the bigoted Temperance leader Dr. Benjamin Rush, for bringing “Barbados fever” to Philadelphia; they are accused, against all evidence, of being immune to the disease themselves. (“…A not so subtle device for wresting us from our homes, our loved ones, the afflicted among us, and sending us to aid strangers…. A dark skin was seen not only as a badge of shame for its wearer. Now we were evil incarnate, the mask of long agony and violent death.”) But in the novel, Dr. Rush is reimagined as one “Benjamin Thrush,” and credited as never having subscribed to the theory that Negroes from the West Indies brought the plague with them; still, like the historic Rush, he is “part of the chorus insisting upon the Negroes’ immunity, thereby denying them assistance until he witnessed with his own eyes how the deadly tide of fever had swept through [the] neighborhood…where the poorest folk, Negroes the poorest of these, are trapped.”
The strategy of The Cattle Killing is set out explicitly for us at the start of the novel:
Certain passionate African spirits—kin to the ogbanji who hide in a bewitched woman’s womb, dooming her infants one after another to an early death unless the curse is lifted—are so strong and willful they refuse to die. They are not gods but achieve a kind of immortality through serial inhabitation of mortal bodies, passing from one to another, using them up, discarding them, finding a new host. Occasionally, as one of these powerful spirits roams the earth, bodiless, seeking a new home, an unlucky soul will encounter the spirit, fall in love with it, follow the spirit forever, finding it, losing it in the dance of the spirit’s trail through other people’s lives.
Souls transmigrate from body to body; the African ritual of cattle killing among the Xhosa people, a desperate and futile attempt to ward off European domination, is evoked as a metaphor for the condition of contemporary American blacks: “The cattle are the people. The people are the cattle.”
The Cattle Killing juxtaposes lyrical, parable-like tales with presumably authentic historic accounts and testimonies of the yellow-fever epidemic taken from the Narrative of Absalom Jones and Richard Allen. Boldly, the author indicates little distinction between voices, times, or settings. The result is a novel frequently difficult of access, reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s almost too determinedly lyric The Waves.
In the foreground is a fairly straightforward story about a former slave who has become an itinerant Christian preacher, and who is haunted by the memory of a Haitian woman he has glimpsed only once carrying a pale, apparently dead infant in her arms. In search of this woman, the preacher arrives in Philadelphia during the mysterious yellow-fever epidemic, and goes to work for the historical Bishop Allen, the head of the African Church, the dedicated leader of Philadelphia’s blacks. The preacher meets the powerful Dr. Thrush, “a brilliant, brash, handsome man who they say is impatient with fools, full of himself, perhaps to the point of arrogance, yet a fair and decent sort at bottom, so the stories go.” Yet Thrush is also the repeated rapist of the young black woman in his household who has been caring for his blind wife.
As the yellow fever rages throughout the city, apocalyptic terrors and beliefs emerge among both blacks and whites, tempting the superstitious to interpret it in divine punitive terms: “God sent the fever to purge us. To cleanse. To humble us….” The novel then shifts back to an earlier troubled time, in Africa, when the Xhosa people have fallen under the spell of a charismatic psychopath-prophet who has convinced them that only the ritual destruction of their precious herds of cattle will save them from European rule: “Though the prophecy promises paradise, a terrible future lived in the words. They were a mouth eating the people. When we slaughtered our herds, we doomed our children.” Perhaps there is no historical explanation for what appears to have been a schism in the Xhosa people between the apocalyptic-visionary prophet and the more levelheaded of the tribal elders, who understand that “to kill our cattle…would be to kill ourselves.”
As The Cattle Killing moves to a muted conclusion, it shifts back to Philadelphia. The black preacher has lost his Christian faith. He is revolted by the injustices toward his people and horrified by Dr. Thrush’s rape of the young black woman, Kathryn, who has become pregnant. He is dismayed by Bishop Allen’s righteous piety: “I couldn’t imagine how he could compose himself to address the crowd gathering to mourn the children…. How could Allen face the people, how could he speak as emissary of such a god.” He loses the ability to speak without stuttering “in this language that’s cost me far too much to learn”—the white man’s Christian tongue with its doctrine of acquiescence in the face of tragedy (a doctrine preached to the politically powerless, that is: the political history of Christianity is hardly distinguished by its passivity).
The narrative shifts forward again, to the present, in which “Eye” has become a preacher of sorts himself on the subject of contemporary America and Africa: “One day I will tell you about Ramona Africa in her cell and Mandela in his cell and the names of the dead we lit candles for in Philadelphia, in Capetown, in Pittsburgh.” He sees, in his long apocalyptic vision, that the curse of cattle killing is still with us.
It should be clear that the experience of reading John Edgar Wideman’s prose is radically different from whatever any paraphrase of its subject and theme can suggest. With “Eye” as witness and omniscient narrator, we are constantly aware of the fiction being constructed, though Wideman himself is less intrusive as a character in The Cattle Killing than in his earlier work. Still, no contemporary writer, with the possible exception of John Barth, is more riskily self-referential. The dangers of such a preoccupation with self are obvious, yet there are rewards as well, for the gradual accretion of biographical fact establishes the reader as an intimate of the writer’s, familiar with both the life and the work.* Or, at any rate, the “life” of Wideman as mediated by the work. In Wideman’s meta-fictional imagination, it would seem that “life” and “work” are indistinguishable, so to interrupt a narrative to speak as himself or as the omniscient “Eye” is simply to be honest, authentic; to acknowledge the artificial nature of all language simultaneously with the acknowledgment of the driven personal quest that underlies it.
Though The Cattle Killing is a novel, it might be most helpfully read as a kind of music, an obsessive beat in the author’s head, a nightmare from which he yearns, like Stephen Dedalus in a similar historic context, to be awakened. It is a work of operatic polyphony that strains to break free of linguistic constraints into theatrical spectacle (in the heightened, surreal mode of, for instance, Suzan-Lori Parks’s Venus, a recent play by a gifted young black playwright on the Victorian phenomenon of the Hottentot Venus). Despite his tragic subject matter, John Edgar Wideman is also, and frequently, a celebrant of passion and of intense subjectivity. The “Eye” speaks as the novel ends:
Tell me, finally, what is a man. What is a woman. Aren’t we lovers first, spirits sharing an uncharted space, a space our stories tell, a space chanted, written upon again and again, yet one story never quite erased by the next, each story saving the space, saving itself, saving us. If someone is listening.
Tempered with hesitation and even irony as these words are, they seem to us beautiful, tempting us to believe in the redemptive power of storytelling itself.
March 27, 1997
In the midst of the otherwise straightforward story “The China-man,” from Damballah, Wideman interrupts to describe a private domestic scene involving himself and his family on a drive through Iowa; he refers casually to a woman named “Judy,” of whom we know nothing except that she feels a migraine coming on. Some readers, familiar with Wideman’s biography, will know that “Judy” is in fact Mrs. Wideman; others will be mystified. And how startling, though thematically appropriate, for Wideman’s memoir Fatheralong to abruptly shift course in its final chapter, addressed to an absent son who has not figured in the memoir so far, a boy who has caused, and has suffered, what the reader gathers has been a terrible fate: “I remember a few days after hearing you were missing and a boy found dead in the room the two of you had been sharing, I felt myself coming apart, the mask I’d been wearing, as much for myself as for the benefit of other people, was beginning to splinter.” Again, readers familiar with Wideman’s biography will know that he is addressing here the younger of his two sons, incarcerated in an Arizona prison for the murder of his roommate at camp some years before, when the boy was a young teenager. Others will be mystified, at least until Wideman composes the next of his unsparing memoirs. As Wideman has said, “You had to be part of the whole thing to understand ” ↩