During the mid-to-late 1950s, teachers at the Homewood Elementary and then the Liberty School in Pittsburgh had an unusual option when it came to class discipline. They could use a ruler to rap a rowdy class to attention, or they could ask little John Wideman to come forward and tell a story. Borrowing from a book he'd read, a poem he'd written or, as Wideman says, "just a child's imagination," he'd draw a quilt of quiet over the room.
Now 41, a former Rhodes scholar and author of five novels, Professor Wideman—he has taught English for the last eight years at the University of Wyoming—is still at home in front of a class. And he hasn't lost his touch as a storyteller. One of his latest tales, which appears under the heading FIRST PERSON on page 96, is a compelling combination of life, literature and sport. Excerpted from his forthcoming book Brothers and Keepers, it tells of Wideman's chance encounter with a part of his past and the repayment of a lingering basketball debt to a man named Reds.
Basketball was as much the author's game as yarn-spinning. For three years Wideman was a starter at Penn, averaging 12.0 points per game on clubs that went 56-23 overall and won a Big Five co-championship in his senior year, 1963. The "last of the 6'2" forwards," Wideman was All Big Five and team captain in 1962-63.
In 1974 Wideman was elected to the Big Five Hall of Fame, but his goals have always been more hardcover than hardcourt. The Rhodes took him to Oxford, where he received a degree in English and played guard on a basketball team that included an erstwhile Ivy League opponent and soon-to-be Knick named Bradley. "I remember taking Bill to practice every day for two years on the back of my raggedy motor scooter," says Wideman. "To think I had a future Senator, maybe a future President, on the back of that old bike!"
March 7, 1983
Wideman's first novel, A Glance Away, was published by Harcourt Brace and World in 1966, after he had completed his three years at Oxford and accepted a fellowship at the prestigious Writers' Workshop in Iowa City. Novels two and three, Hurry Home and The Lynchers, came out between 1967 and '73, while Wideman was teaching two subjects at Penn: English in the morning and basketball in the afternoon (assisting a freshman coach named Digger Phelps).
Wideman hooked up with Wyoming in 1973 when, while on a year's sabbatical, he and his wife, Judy, visited the West and decided to stay. It was in the following five or six years that two more novels were published, as well as a collection of short stories dealing with life in Homewood, a theme that recurs in his story in this issue.
Today he tells his students that "sweat" has been his key to success, in writing as it was in basketball. "I've always been drawn to craftsmen of language," he says. "The classical Greeks, Ralph Ellison, Norman Mailer. And I've learned from the oral tradition—from listening to my mother's stories, from the music of the blues, from slave narrations, from the magic of a preacher. I value the word. I respond to it as a writer."