John Edgar Wideman, Brothers and Keepers (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1984)
Reissued by Vintage in 1995
In November 1975, author John Wideman's 24-year-old younger brother, Robert Wideman, was involved in a botched robbery that left a man dead. Wanted for armed robbery and murder, Robby and his two accomplices ran for three months before being apprehended. Robby, a junkie, drug dealer, and thief, eventually was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole, even though he didn't pull the trigger.
John Wideman, ten years older than Robby, was a good student and a talented basketball player. John left the Homewood ghetto of Pittsburgh to attend the University of Pennsylvania and then went on to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, to eventually become a successful writer and college professor. Robby never wanted John's kind of success. For black males growing up in Homewood, success was measured in one's coolness. Succeeding academically was considered "square" and suggested assimilation into the white man's world. In Homewood, "it was unacceptable to be 'good,' it was square to be smart in school, it was jive to show respect to people outside the street world, it was cool to be cold to your woman and the people that loved you. ... The world of the angry black kid growing up in the sixties was a world in which to be in was to be out — out of touch with the square world and all of its rules on what's right and wrong. The thing was to make your own rules, do your own thing, but make sure it's contrary to what society says or is."
Brothers and Keepers presents the Wideman brothers' accounts of how one wound up in prison for murder, while the other, coming from the exact same community and background, was able to at least theoretically escape the powerful grip of the ghetto. Through prison visits with his brother, John, the picture of success, grapples with identity issues and feelings of self-hatred, having assimilated into a white world. Robby's account of his life is presented in his brand of street diction (John took only handwritten notes during the visits) in the form of long, uninterrupted portions of dialogue. Through getting to know each other, the Widemans begin to understand themselves.
In The New York Times review of Brothers and Keepers, Ishmael Reed states: "Mr Wideman uses an impressive array of literary skills. ... In one passage, he convincingly mimes the rhythms and style of the Depression writings of Carl Sandburg and Margaret Walker." Wideman's book was critically well received. "Mr. Wideman has succeeded brilliantly in both understanding his brother's life and coming to terms with his own," Reed concluded in his review.
Wideman is a two-time winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award, in 1984 for Sent for You Yesterday and in 1990 for Philadelphia Fire. Brothers and Keepers received a National Book Critics Circle Award nomination, and his memoir Fatheralong (1994) was a finalist for the National Book Award. He lives in Amherst, Massachusetts and has been an English professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst since 1986.
The NY Times' Featured Author Page on Wideman
“John Edgar Wideman Appointed Distinguished Professor by UMass Board Of Trustees”
Salon interview for 1996 novel, The Cattle Killing
Short bio of John Edgar Wideman
Paris Review interview (2002)