In response to:
A Dream of a Great Burning from the December 22, 2022 issue
To the Editors:
In “A Dream of a Great Burning” [NYR, December 22, 2022], Tobi Haslett’s long look at the writing career of John Edgar Wideman, there is much to value. From the jump, Haslett frames Wideman true: “a black intellectual—full of grandeur and agony, rage and poise.” Yet in some fundamental way Haslett misses that Wideman is a great writer of heart and beauty, not just pathos—at bottom, Wideman is a craftsman who brings far more to his writing than the tragedies of his life.
Let me put it like this: Haslett’s essay suffers when he tries to explain art through a superficial examination of the author’s life. Instead of belaboring the point, I’ll center my own criticism on a paragraph that I find offensive and demeaning and beneath anyone who has read Wideman with the care of Haslett:
For all the sensuous self-inspection of “The Black Writer and the Magic of the Word,” one thing goes unmentioned—an event that took place between The Lynchers and the Homewood trilogy and has exerted pressure on all of Wideman’s work since. In 1976 his brother Robby was convicted of second-degree murder. Robby was the younger brother: the wayward one, the obstreperous one. He had no academic aspirations, won no scholarships; his fury was never ennobled as anomie or enshrined as “challenging” art. He stayed poor. But he’d been a teenager when Black Power came crashing through Homewood, and politics flushed his life with meaning and gorgeous force. He was lost when the movement died; he eventually became addicted to drugs. In 1975 he took part in an armed robbery, and his partner pulled the trigger. Robby was handed the harshest sentence short of execution: life in prison without parole. And in 1986 Wideman’s sixteen-year-old son Jacob, in a shocking incident that Jacob himself has never tried to explain, killed a classmate on a camping trip. He, too, was sent to prison for life. So two Wideman men, under vastly divergent circumstances and more than a decade apart, were fed into the American anomaly of “mass incarceration.”
Why write this? It’s not just that he uses “anomie” and “obstreperous” in the same paragraph, relying on diction to distance himself from how he portrays Robert and Jacob—it’s the subtle manipulation of facts that leaves every sentence feeling honest to a reader who don’t know better. Each sentence is suspect though. Every crime is tragic; a crime that leads to death is profoundly so. But to reduce the complicated facts that led to a man’s death in the winter of 1975 to “his partner pulled the trigger” is careless and reductive.
Haslett should know that Robert earned a degree in prison and for seventeen of the twoscore years that he spent inside taught algebra and trigonometry to incarcerated college students for the University of Pittsburgh. In Brothers and Keepers, when Robert describes books and computers being tossed by prison staff after federal law precluded prisoners from receiving the Pell Grants that allowed them to attend college, he says, “This was one of the worst days I remember in prison. I had seen men killed and had days of personal tragedy that were more painful. But to see higher education taken away was a travesty.” And quiet as kept, this ain’t just about Haslett, but about how the center of “mass incarceration” has often been the reduction of people’s lives to tragedy and the assumption that we are little more than our crimes or the belief that we can be understood by our crimes alone. Haslett cannot know what it means to serve forty-four years in prison, but he should understand the near-Sisyphean task Robert embarked on to transform his life and in 2019 become one of the few lifers granted a pardon in Pennsylvania.
And the bit on Wideman’s son should have never been printed. I won’t dignify it with any more response than this: How does Haslett know Jacob hasn’t spent years explaining and figuring and mourning and just in pain?
While prison seems as central to Wideman’s work as the church is to John Milton’s, it would be a mistake to reduce either of them to using writing as an exegesis of their own personal woes. Literary criticism is not where psychoanalysis flourishes, and while art might run parallel with life’s experiences, it is not simply or even importantly a catalog of life’s experiences.
Wideman’s work, far from being an exploration of the life of his brother and his family, even when there are fragments of both throughout, is about the common struggles that mark what it means to be human, and those struggles include loss and disaster and prison and love, but it is those struggles and not the glimpses of any life that mark Wideman’s brilliance.
The assumptions of these few sentences reflect not just a lack of curiosity and a dishonesty—the assumptions reflect Haslett’s unwillingness and inability to do what Wideman does so well, grapple with the unknowable.
Reginald Dwayne Betts
Founder and Director
New Haven, Connecticut
Tobi Haslett replies:
I take Reginald Dwayne Betts’s opinion seriously. But I cannot agree with it.
This is because beneath the insult to my capacities, the denunciatory tone, the objections to my diction, and the rather vigorous misreading of specific lines from my review, Betts wants to have it both ways. In his view, my essay displays an exploitative fixation on Wideman’s brother and son—and also deals with them too quickly. I’m trying to imagine how a piece of writing could possibly do both.
Mine does neither. Motivated by precisely the concerns that have inspired Betts’s letter, I give just enough information for the reader to grasp the content of the books in question. I do not “reduce” these individual lives but describe two episodes whose complexity and fierce significance would be impossible to do justice to in a piece about something else. My aim was to show respect by exercising restraint. I stand by that. It would be far worse—more presumptuous, less responsible, and proof of both critical negligence and ethical failure—if I’d drawn a spuriously total picture of either of Wideman’s relatives. I’m glad that I didn’t try.