Writing to Imagine a Life
Fiction in Non-Fiction in John Edgar Wideman's New Book
By Patrick McGinty
riting to Save a Life: The Louis Till File, is a phenomenal, necessary idea for a book. The idea winds up being a phenomenal, necessary book because it is written by John Edgar Wideman.
Wideman was fourteen in 1955, the same age as Emmett Till. Only one of their likenesses would soon appear in the newspapers. Wideman recalls seeing Till’s “mutilated face,” a black boy beaten and shot in Money, Mississippi, “wired by the neck to a seventy-pound cotton gin fan and tossed into the Tallahatchie River to punish him, his cousin’s story claims, for wolf-whistling a white woman.” The casket lid was glass. The killers got off. The trial did not lack news coverage. Early on in the book, Wideman quotes at length from the era’s reportage.
It’s in these historical accounts of the Till trial that the ghost of Emmett’s father, Louis Till, begins leaking out to the press. The things that (I think) can be said with certainty about the lesser known Till are: Louis Till was not a particularly great husband or father; he enlisted in the army to avoid jail time; women were allegedly raped and murdered on July 27th, 1945, in Civitavecchia, Italy; Louis Till wound up at the U.S. Army’s Disciplinary Training Center at Metato, a place where “colored soldiers made up twenty-five percent of the four thousand unlucky inmates at the mercy of white officers who ran the camp, by all reports, as if they were possessed by devils;” Louis Till was charged with the rape and murder of the Italian women; Louis Till was hanged on July 2nd, 1945, five days after the event in question; Till’s military file was declassified curiously close to the trial of his son’s murderers.
The rest is debatable. Was Louis Till among the American soldiers who broke into the home in Civitavecchia, a home so dark that witnesses claimed it was impossible to see faces? After all, the trial never fully determined whether there were three or four American assailants. For Wideman, the questions get murkier ten years later when the Till file is declassified. Does the release of the Till file constitute a specific attempt to cast aspersions on the character of Louis’ son, to “haunt the trial of their son’s murderers?” The events of Wideman’s own life compel him toward exonerations of the wrongly convicted, yet he details the ways in which that same family history has taught him to be wary of all father figures, of men who can return at inopportune times like “an embarrassing boogeyman.”
So was Louis Till wrongly convicted or was he a boogeyman? Or both? Across 193 pages, Wideman attempts to answer both whom Louis Till was and why he was “conjured like an evil black rabbit from an evil white hat to perform dirty work in a Mississippi courthouse.”
Emmett Till at the age of thirteen, in a photo taken by his mother. He was lynched at the age of fourteen.
hat is the “what” of Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File. The cut and the dry. The “if you liked Serial and Black Lives Matter...”
The “how” is what makes Writing to Save a Life unlike any book to be published this year. Reviewers will be working off the fullest of bingo cards when describing the style: Genre. Blur. Experimental. Amalgam. Truth and fiction, fiction and nonfiction. Researched memoir. Recollections and imaginations.
Here’s what Wideman is doing: he’s thinking. And he’s thinking his way through multiple problems at once—how to capture a largely forgotten story, how to account for his own biases, how to litigate the long-gone lying hands that wrote the Till file. As a writer with ten novels, several memoirs, and several dozen short stories to his name, Wideman is equipped with a full toolbox of approaches.
The approach he chooses most frequently and most notably is something akin to “overt fictionalizing within nonfiction,” an increasingly popular move in the modern American essay, though I’m not sure the technique is “modern.” And it’s definitely not only “American.” And I am wildly, nervously suspicious of my motives in grouping together examples from Ta-Nehisi Coates, Hilston Als, and John Edgar Wideman, as I’m about to do. Am I that base to read a black guy’s book and think not of John Jeremiah Sullivan or Claudia Rankine or Sarah Vowell but instead of Als and Coates? Am I incapable of comparing a black male writer to anything but a black male writer? And why is it that in all three ensuing examples, the inner thoughts of a black woman are fictionalized in a work of nonfiction by a black man? Is this coincidence or grounds for a separate thesis that eludes me?
And perhaps most relevantly: to what extent am I shamelessly stacking the deck? It is quite possible that I am cherry-picking quotes from two next-James-Baldwin essayists and pitting them against my guy, my writer, the best or second-best Pittsburgh writer of all time.
Maybe: I’m a little bummed that Hilton Als has gotten more critical dap of late than Wideman, who grew up two generations and two houses removed from me on “Copeland Street, where a few raggedy houses held a few poor colored families [who were] living just down the block from Walnut Street’s upscale shops.”
Maybe: just maybe: I am a little salty that Ta-Nehisi Coates has gotten more commercial and cultural love than John Edgar Wideman, whose sad, stray mentions of the “incarcerated son and brother locked inside me during every moment that I struggle with the Till file” hint to the other canonical books from his five-decade career.
For a Wideman fan, some of the saddest parts of Writing to Save a Life are the quiet callbacks to these books (this in a text about a military execution). Wideman fears his brother will not receive parole “until the tumor in his neck big as an orange.” Wideman’s son and brother offer advice about the need to break rules in prison to feel alive. The ripples-from-a-stone metaphor late in the book is the same one Wideman uses in The Homewood Trilogy’s introduction to explain the relationship between his texts, and for a Wideman apostle, there is a strange comfort both in recognizing the metaphor and in realizing that you have once again been dropped down in the center of a seemingly ever-expanding connected universe, one filled not by caped and CGI-ed A-listers, but by citizens doggying toward rafts in the whirlpools of American democracy.
’ve got an angle here, is what I’m saying. There’s multiple problems with my approach to Wideman’s approach.
The approach in question, you’ll remember, concerns incorporating explicitly fictional moves within nonfiction. The intent is noble: each essayist is humanizing a forgotten figure by fictionalizing their inner thoughts. Of the group, Ta-Nehisi Coates, a reporter by trade, is least comfortable riffing. Writing to his son in Between the World and Me, Coates dips his toe into the waters of writerly imagination, briefly fictionalizing a fictionalized person:
“Slavery is not an indefinable mass of flesh. It is a particular, specific enslaved woman, whose mind is as active as your own, whose range of feeling is as vast as your own; who prefers the way the light falls in one particular spot in the woods, who enjoys fishing where the water eddies in a nearby stream, who loves her mother in her own complicated way, thinks her sister talks too loud, has a favorite cousin, a favorite season, who excels at dressmaking and knows, inside herself, that she is as intelligent and capable as anyone.”
The first line—“not a mass of flesh”—is a small rebuke to a statistical understanding of slavery. Coates understands that for many readers, and for his son in particular, it can be hard to fully extend one’s sympathetic heart to millions of slaves who lived one hundred and fifty years ago. Sympathy, in other words, is diluted when aimed at too many objects across too many decades. To combat this, Coates tidily fictionalizes a focal point and offers this woman’s present-tense story.
Though similar, the move Hilton Als makes in White Girls is both more sustained and less theoretical. He has a spear-sized bone to pick with Malcolm X, who, in Als’ mind, fails to say anything of consequence about his mother in his famous autobiography. Louise Little’s emigration to the United States “is never explained let alone described in the Autobiography [of Malcolm X]. She exists...to give birth to Malcolm, go mad, and look nearly colorless.” Malcolm X found it more noble to devote pages to his father, slain by the KKK, than his mother, whose whiteness he found deeply shameful.
In his essay, Als fictionalizes not a mythical, imagined slave, but instead a real woman whose story went largely undocumented: “In my mind’s eye I see Louise Little’s parents meeting on the side of a road in Grenada.” When reading this, I thought: where is this info coming from? Is he working off some primary document?
Als is only getting started, though. He is not content to merely carve out a small, passive role for Louise Little. He wants to activate her. He understands that fiction is not a lazy thought experiment but a tool for rejecting tidy historical narratives. It is a medium meant to re-see and re-animate lives which have been written too passively, a way to penetrate consciousnesses of the past, particularly those believed to be barred off by circumstance, death, or biased historical authorship. In a brief vignette entitled “Chapter One: Nightmare,” Als re-writes the Autobiography as if he is Louise Little writing in her son’s voice: “When my mother was pregnant with me, she told me later, a party of hooded Ku Klux Klan riders galloped up one night.”
He turns Louise Little into a writer. He lets her tell Malcolm’s story. For Als, the pursuit is personal. He wants to fix a problem: “What did Mrs. Little write? I had a son named Malcolm? Mrs. Little did not write anything. I am writing her anger for her and therefore myself since I hate the nonwriting I have done about my own mother.”
o: Coates fictionalizes a fictional slave inside of a paragraph. Als fictionalizes the thoughts of a real but largely undocumented and forgotten woman across an essay. Each move is a clear “move,” a nod toward fiction in an otherwise straightforward act of cultural criticism.
Wideman is not straightforward in Writing to Save a Life. His deviation from nonfiction into fiction is not brief nor a one-off. His book says: does a person deviate from exhaling to inhaling? Or do they breathe? Whereas Als lets “Louis Little” write the first few lines of a chapter, Wideman writes an entire fake letter from a fake government agent in an attempt to explain why Louis Till was hung. Whereas Coates fictionalizes a paragraph on a slave, Coates renders soldiers plundering in Italy and also Louis Till in his cell and gosh, will any critic actually list every instance where Wideman unfurls a narrative in a different voice as though a novel has sprung up in the middle of his investigation?
The slips into character voices are so subtle. Watch how the subject of the first sentence—Louis Till’s wife—is presented in present tense. Then, slowly, she disappears. Watch how the verb takes control of the sentence: “Mamie Till remembers fixing Louis a sandwich. She wraps it in wax paper, folds the edges like you gift wrap so edges even and neat. She’s out of rubber bands. Rubber bands not around like before the war. Hopes the sandwich will hold together.”
As the narrative continues, the sentences transform from a third-person subject to a verb-led ghost, and then finally to an “I:” “I wish one day you would save wax paper I wrap your sandwich in.”
This voice continues. Two space breaks later, we are thrown a teeny clarifier, a reminder that all of this is culled from a source: “Alma, my mama’s name. Alma Gaines Carthan, Mrs. Till explains in her book.”
If you want it to be, Wideman’s latest is an active read. When Wideman envisions the first date of Mr. and Mrs. Till, I confess I wondered: Is he riffing off Mrs. Till’s book? Is he riffing off his own life? Sometimes, when a father and son simmer in tense moments, the clarifier is delayed, and the father and son in question turns out not to be Louis and Emmett Till but instead Wideman and his own father. Wideman uncorks what feels like an endlessly long recounting of losing his own virginity, of leaving “a tiny puddle on my grandmother’s sofa,” and just when you think the book is swerving, just when you think maybe perhaps the book is more memoir than investigation, he reminds you with devastating starkness as to why he has written about his own sexual exploration: “Did Emmett Till ever get a chance to make love.”
“Everybody in the Till file lies,” Wideman writes, which in part is why Wideman feels he has the license to approach Louis Till’s life from angles traditionally reserved for fiction. The military file becomes something of a holy text for Wideman, an inscrutably authored document touched by too many hands in too many eras. Wideman is meticulous in assessing the “stapled together documents,” their fonts, the “frustrating discontinuities.” The military file of Louis Till, in Wideman’s mind, “works the way any good old-fashioned novel works...Somebody’s been telling a story. Somebody’s been in control.” Spoken words have been “reduced,” and “translation, conversion, reduction produce at best problematic, at worst unreliable, corrupted representations of conversations.” There are “reductions of reductions.” “To mimic reality,” Wideman argues, “the Till file writes fiction.”
Wideman combats it with his own, and if you’ve never read Wideman’s fiction, do note that grammar is optional. Furthermore, if you happen to hear that “this book is not for everyone,” do note that such warnings are code for “the writer has done the impossible work of actually replicating the innermost working of their blinking brain on the page.” Yes, Wideman’s style and techniques are all over the place. Yes, the moves and transitions do not announce themselves clearly. But you can turn to any page and find that Wideman, at seventy-five, has not lost his ability for phrasing, for “unnimble fingers”and “hoody-up humping through alleys.” When Wideman, reading the Till file, notes the “water [I] set out to keep me company,” it is easy to envision a separate career where he is a cherished noir or crime writer. The lines which describe Emmett Till’s mother staring in the box that carries her son do the impossible work of not only capturing but elevating the moment. Which is to say: Wideman takes American history and makes it American literature.
Yet Writing To Save a Life is not overwritten. Wideman knows when to stand down. “Some brutal, ugly shit went down in Civitavecchia,” Wideman writes of the Italian pillaging. When recounting the details, he restores subject-verb grammar out of respect to the awfulness: “She never got beyond the door.”
Hierarchies of victimhood are not fun things to ponder, and there is perhaps no other American writer better equipped to think about them via prose than John Edgar Wideman. His mind is a sturdy shelter from which a reader can muster the courage to look out at tough questions: is it bogus to pursue a narrative wherein Louis Till is a victim when there’s women who were raped and killed? To what effect did the Till file affect the Emmett Till trial? Who had worse luck: Louis or Emmett? Wideman’s son or Wideman’s brother? There are a number of stories and avenues to keep straight in this book. What’s all too clear is that when it comes to Till’s fate, and to that of so many other African-American men, “The son’s fate differs only slightly.”
Patrick McGinty’s fiction has appeared, most recently, in ZYZZYVA and The Portland Review. He recently wrote about the media’s desire for presidential elections to be ridiculously long.