A Cacophony of Voices

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The plague of race in a fever-stricken city.

By David L. Ulin

By John Edgar Wideman, C’63, Hon’86
Boston; New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1996, 212 pp., $22.95

At first glance, John Edgar Wideman seems an unlikely candidate to write a novel set in the 18th century. Wideman, after all, is very much a contemporary author, his work laying bare the African-American experience, as filtered largely through the circumstances — fictionalized or otherwise — of his own life. Raised in Pittsburgh’s Homewood ghetto, he was a basketball standout at Penn who later became the University’s first tenured black professor (after a stint as a Rhodes Scholar), and his writing reflects the tension between these disparate worlds, relying in equal measure on the vocabularies of the academy and the street.
For all his hard-edged modernity, however, Wideman has always written with a sense of history, an expansive notion of the manner in which past and present interconnect. Damballah, for instance — the first volume of his Homewood Trilogy — opens with an account of the slave Orion that sets the stage for what will follow, and the title story of his 1989 collection Fever takes place in Philadelphia during the yellow fever epidemic of 1793. Even Fatheralong, a “meditation on fathers and sons, race and society,” mines the deepest veins of family narrative to seek an understanding of the forces that make us who we are. With this in mind, it seems somehow appropriate that his new novel The Cattle Killing should return to the 18th century setting of “Fever,” picking up where the earlier story left off to investigate a time and place that, in Wideman’s telling, has more in common with our own than we might otherwise suppose.

Set in greater Philadelphia during and after the plague season, the novel revolves around the wanderings of a nameless black preacher, who must make sense of the strange, bifurcated culture in which he resides. As is true of much of Wideman’s writing, race is a central issue, since in fever-stricken Philadelphia, blacks are thought to be immune from illness, and held accountable by angry whites, often at the expense of their lives. Equally important, though, is the way Wideman enlarges The Cattle Killing by making an explicit connection between it and his experiences in the modern world. To do so, he brackets the narrative with a prologue and epilogue that take place in the present. In the former, he brings a manuscript of the novel to his father; in the latter, his eldest son, Dan, responds to reading the book. It’s a classic bit of metafiction, but it succeeds because it joins The Cattle Killing to Wideman’s oeuvre on an essential level, allowing us to place this work within the arc of his career.

By broadening his focus to include the present, Wideman adds another dimension to The Cattle Killing, evolving a narrative framework in which his contemporary approach to storytelling comes off as organic, not contrived. That’s an important development, for from the outset, Wideman makes clear the difficulties of explicating the distant past. “If he could,” he admits, “he’d set his eighteenth-century boy walking in streets as real as these Hill streets. But he didn’t know those other streets, quiet now two hundred years.” To solve the problem, he largely eschews physical detail; for the most part, The Cattle Killing does not recreate 18th century Philadelphia and its environs so much as it relies on the inner lives of its characters to bring the story to life. It’s as if Wideman has decided he can approach history only by re-imagining its citizens, who become the fulcrum by which we understand their times. Consequently, although the preacher remains the book’s central figure, the narrative moves back and forth from him to a variety of other speakers — a blind white woman, an old black farmer, even the author himself — opening up The Cattle Killing to a cacophony of voices, “[c]ircles within circles. Expanding and contracting at once.”

Nowhere is this more vividly expressed than when Wideman’s preacher arrives at a farm outside Radnor in the midst of a snowstorm, and is taken in by a black man named Liam and his white, common-law wife. Here, Wideman again enlarges the terms of his novel, presenting an interracial relationship based on cooperation, yet compromised by the need to accommodate the outside world. “Her skin white,” he writes, “his black. Disguises. Worn so long nobody remembers they are disguises. A masquerade. In costume nothing they do to each other counts. Black or white. Both of them unreal.” This is a stunning image, indicating, as it does, that within the paradigm of race, we are unable to see each other and, as a result, may never find a way to get along. “Look around,” Liam tells the preacher. “Anything might grow here. Anything but my seed … Tribes from all over the globe flourishing here, but not mine.” As The Cattle Killing progresses, this point is driven home not only by Liam’s deep frustrations, but by the preacher’s odd interactions with a mysterious African slave woman and her dead mixed-race baby, who reappear throughout the book as if to mark the open-endedness of the tale.

Ultimately, such textures give The Cattle Killing an odd dream logic, in which resonances recur without ever being fully resolved. While this may be true to the author’s notion of his narrative as representing “different stories over and over again that are one story,” it also makes the book feel slightly inaccessible, as if there were some core of meaning within its architecture that we are unable to grasp. Partly, that’s due to Wideman’s rigorous formalism, which at times subjugates content to style. But whatever the reason — and despite its considerable power — the novel leaves us suspended somehow between passion and distance, whose opposing polarities Wideman, finally, cannot quite reconcile.

DAVID L. ULIN, C’84 is the author of Cape Cod Blues (Red Dust), a book of poems. His work has appeared in The Nation, The Village Voice, The Los Angeles Times, Newsday, LA Weekly, and Salon.

A selection of recent books by alumni and faculty, or of interest to the University community. Descriptions are compiled from information supplied by the authors and publishers.

SHADOW OF A STAR: Neutrino Story of Supernova 1987A
By Alfred K. Mann, Faculty.
New York: W.H. Freeman and Company, 1997. 192 pp., $22.95.
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On February 23, 1987, a star named Sanduleak 69 202 lost its battle for life. The star’s fiery death throes — known as Supernova 1987A — were so briliant they could be seen on earth with the unaided eye. In this book Mann, physics professor emeritus, vividly recounts this remarkable episode, which showered scientists with clues to numerous mysteries of space and the universe. He was a member of the first team of scientists to publish an account of Supernova 1987A and one of the few with access to a detector that could identify and count subatomic particles expelled during the event.

By Kenneth E. Hartman, GSE’94.
New York: The College Board, 1996.
208 pp., $14.95.
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This guide tells students step-by-step how to use the Internet as a key tool for gathering college facts and figures. It puts the Internet’s vast storehouse of information, plus insider opinions and advice, at their fingertips, explaining how to use the computer to find scholarships, contact faculty and students, participate in chat rooms and newsgroups, and even earn a college degree via the Internet. Hartman, director of admissions and guidance services for the College Board’s Middle States Regional Office, is also host of FOX-TV’s “After School Tips for Parents,” a twice-weekly feature on Good Day Philadelphia.

THE MARK OF THE SCOTS: Their Astonishing Contributions to History, Science, Democracy, Literature, and the Arts
By Duncan A. Bruce, W’54.
Secaucus, N.J.: Birch Lane Press, 1997. 368 pp., $24.95.
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This book documents Scottish achievements and contributions from earliest times to the present. Bruce, editor of the magazine The Pibroch and one of the few Americans to have received arms from the Lyon Court in Scotland, writes that a subsidiary purpose of the book is to “supplement the one-dimensional peasant image the Scots have chosen to present to the world which thus has been convinced that we are a people who spend most of our time swilling whisky, eating haggis, throwing tree trunks, and emitting war whoops while listening to bagpipe music.”

By Jay Rogoff, C’75.
Fort Collins, Col.: Mica Press, 1997.
Unpaged, $5.00.
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Jay Rogoff’s long poem First Hand, winner of the Poetry Society of America’s John Masefield Memorial Award, is now available in this chapbook edition. Using a variety of poetic forms, First Hand examines a trying season spent dairy farming while it also celebrates an impending wedding. As the narrator plays Ferdinand to his future father-in-law’s Prospero, his labors not only test his worthiness to win his beloved, but also yield striking revelations about physical work, commitment, and love. Rogoff, who lives in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., teaches in Skidmore College’s Liberal Studies Program; his poetry has appeared in numerous journals and magazines.

Text by Maggie Holtzberg, G’84, Gr’87. Photography by Billy Howard.
Oakville, Ontario: Disability Today Publishing Group, 1997. 89 pp., $24.95.
Through interviews and black and white photographs, Holtzberg and Howard tell the story of 25 individuals — an artist, a county commissioner, a fly fisherman, a sixth-grader, a comedian, and others. On the surface,what they have in common is disability. But they don’t identify themselves first and foremost as being disabled. That is something outsiders do. Holtzberg, director of the Georgia Council for the Arts Folklife Program, writes in her introduction that “it is far too easy to sentimentalize the lives of people with disabilities, to portray them as either shining examples of inspiration or pitiable victims of tragic circumstances. Realistically, the majority of people who live with disabilities occupy the middle ground between triumph and despair. Portrait of Spirit is largely about capturing that middle ground.”

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