by John Edgar Wideman
from the November 25, 2019 issue of The New Yorker
One New Yorker trend I have enjoyed over the past year or so is their publication of writers who are getting old and who have not gotten much attention as they’ve aged. One such writer is John Edgar Wideman. Wideman is nearing 80 years old. In 1984 he won the PEN/Faulkner award for Sent for You Yesterday. A few years later, in 1991, he became the first person to win two PEN/Faulkner awards, this one for his book Philadelphia Fire. But I suspect many of us have not followed his career and may be seeing his work for the first time only at this late stage of his life. The first time he had a story published in The New Yorker was last year, and folks here seemed to have liked “Writing Teacher” (see the post and comments here). He received a lot of praise for his 2018 collection, American Histories. In 2019 he won the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in the Short Story.
I’m excited to see what he brings us this time around! “Arizona” takes the form of a long letter to Freddie Jackson:
Dear Mr. Jackson,
Thank you for your music, and thank you for reading this far in a letter, if it reaches you, from a stranger. Though we have never met face to face, I could say that I’ve known you since I was a teen-ager growing up in Pittsburgh, Pa., in the fifties, born fifteen years or so before you were born, Mr. Jackson, and I wanted to be you, or rather wanted with all my soul, a soul real to me as the faces of people in my family, to sing like you would sing the music we both inherited and you would keep alive in the eighties, nineties with your talent and gifts.
I like the cadence here. I’d type the next sentence to show more, but it runs for twelve lines and is best discovered on your own. As is the rest of the story. Here is a tantalizing line, though, from a few paragraphs later:
Point of this letter is not exactly to ask permission to put you in a story I’m writing, Freddie Jackson. Rather, I’m letting you know (informing/fessing up/sharing) I have no choice. You are in it already without being asked, without any exit offered, like the color we share, which this country assigns to us before we are born.
I must say, I think those of us who have been neglecting to read Wideman’s work are the lesser for it. I’m very excited to continue onward and will be checking out American Histories soon.
And how about you? Let us know your thoughts on this story and on Wideman’s work in general.