Literature and Urban Crisis: John Edgar Wideman's Philadelphia Fire

by Madhu Dubey
Literature and Urban Crisis: John Edgar Wideman's Philadelphia Fire
Madhu Dubey
African American Review
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Literature and Urban Crisis: JohnEdgar Wideman's Philadelphia Fke

Several African-American novels published during the last two decades explore issues of urban authorship and com- munity through self-refiexive tropes of the book-within-a-book and of reading and writing. These tropes carry diverse values and implications in novels such as Toni Morrison's Jazz,John Edgar Wideman's Reuben and Philadelphia Fire, Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower, Trey Ellis's Platitudes, Sapphire's Push, Samuel Delany's Stars in My Pocket like Grains of Sand and Neveryona, or: The Tale of Signs and Cities, but they always grapple with the problems of identifying the proper audiences and social purposes of urban literature. Novels that configure community through textual (or book-based) tropes open an unusual and valuable view of African-American literary produc- tion, in that they provoke a reconsideration of the organic models of community that prevail in vernacular and nationalist concep- tions of black literature. Tropes of reading, writing, and the book offer especially apt means of framing questions about urban com- munity, because authors cannot assume the immediately present, face-to-face audiences addressed by oral media of communica- tion. As commodities, printed books circulate within conditions of reception marked by temporal and spatial distance between producers and consumers, authors and readers. For this reason, reading communities are always abstract and "imagined," in Benedict Anderson's sense of the w0rd.l The very fact that so much recent black fiction crystallizes questions of community through textual metaphors perhaps betrays professional anxiety on the part of writers who cannot unequivocally endorse nationalist resolutions to problems of urban literary representation. At least at the level of rhetoric and intention, cultural nationalist discourses of the 1960s and early 1970s assigned literature the vital political task of transforming a putatively cohesive black community. If this community drew its racial integrity from urban oral culture, many recent African- American novels turn toward textuality rather than orality to test the credibility of nationalist ideals of community. Textual tropes of urban community often clarify the difficulty of imagining a discrete community that might lend literature the instrumental value it bears in nationalist aesthetic theories. Because contempo- rary literary readerships are highly specialized and restricted as well as racially and culturaIly mixed, and are certainly not coex- tensive with "the black community," several contemporary African-American novels are unable to invest literature with clear-cut social and political uses. The ambivalence toward litera- ture consistently manifested in such novels might be read as

Madhu Dubey is Assistant Professor of English at Northwestern University. She is the author of Black Women Novelists and the Nationalist Aesthetic (1994) and several articles on African American fiction.

symptomatic of a post-nationalist crisis of urban literarv representation.

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In this essay, I specify the terms of this widely registered sense of both a contemporary crisis in black urban community and a concomitant crisis of literary representation through a detailed reading of John Edgar Wideman's 1990 novel Philadelphia Fire. Wideman's book takes as its point of departure an actual urban crisis that took place in Philadelphia in 1985-the confrontation between MOVE, a pre- dominantly African-American back-to- nature cult, and the city administra- tion, which culminated in a polic~ bombing that destroyed sixty-one houses and killed eleven people. In Philadelphia Fire, this particular disas- ter is presented as part of a larger upheaval in economic, political, and social order brought about by a num- ber of interlocking structural transfor- mations that have occurred in American cities since the 1970s. In what follows, I examine Wideman's endeavor, in Philadelphia Fire, to make sense of recent changes in American urban order and to test the viability of imaginary alternatives to the dystopia brought about by these changes. A sacred text written by the leader of MOVE as well as a book about MOVE projected by the novel's narrator help to focus Wideman's double-edged evaluation of contemporary urban order and of pastoral and primitivist reactions to this order. Wideman uses these books-within-his-book to assess the writer's role in mediating urban crisis and to explore different ways of constructing knowable urban commu- nities in literature. Philadelphia Fire forcefully rejects organic notions of community, and gropes instead for more complex ways of representing urban communities as "concrete abstractionsn2 rather than as self-con- tained units of social experience and value. In the course of this endeavor, Philadelphia Fire obliquely tries out a variety of nationalist resolutions to problems of urban literary representa- tion, and ultimately arrives at deeply

conclusions about the social roles possible for black writers in pre- sent-day cities.

Reviews of Philadelphia Fire are sprinkled with phrases such as 'urban iot" (Rosellen Brown 136), 'urban inferno" (Sanoff 92), and 'urban America perched on the xecipice of hell" (Bray 7), capturing :he dystopian quality of the novel's lepiction of Philadelphia during the 1980s. The most conspicuous feature of :his dystopia is the repressive mainte- lance of an inequitable order based on racial and economic segregation:

Everybody had zones. Addicts, prosti- tutes, porn merchants, derelicts. Even people who were black and poor had a zone. Everybody granted the right to lie in the bed they'd made for them- selves. As long as they didn't contami- nate good citizens who disapproved. As long as the bed's available to good citizens who wished to profit or climb in occasionally. As long as everybody knew they had to give up their zone, scurry down off this hill, no questions asked, when the cops blow the whistle.


The order of Wideman's Philadelphia is certainly not the "miraculous design" (44) that cities have often sym- 2olized for the literary imagination. [nstead, the word order, as applied to the novel's Philadelphia, carries the :onnotation of "law and order," signi- fying a rigid system of exclusions pro- tected by cruising police cars. Wideman does not need to mention the violent force often used to defend this 3rder. His use of the MOVE disaster as his fictional pretext makes any such 3xplicit reference unnecessary.

As Wideman presents it, this kind 3f urban order directly inhibits the work of the writer. One of the novel's narrators, Cudjoe, who is also an aspir- in~novelist. finds that such urban cir-


:umstances'degrade the writer's task: "Maybe this is a detective story, Cudjoe says to himself. . . . His job sleaze control. Bright lights, beautiful people, intrigue, romance. The city couldn't offer those rushes without toi- lets, sewers, head busters and garbage dumps. Needed folks on the other side of the fast track and needed a tough cookie to keep them scared and keep them where they belong" (46). If the typical literary detective exercises a unique ability to discern the moral order hidden behind the baffling array of urban appearances, here the detec- tive's role is debased because the only urban order to be found is that of seg- regation. The contemporary writer seeking to invent an ideal urban order perforce becomes complicit in preserv- ing the hierarchical spatial and social divisions of the city.

These divisions, in Wideman's Philadelphia, are heightened by pro- jects of urban "re~~ewal"

sponsored by the city. Many studies of urban devel- opment in the United States over the last three decades have detailed the ways in which projects to renew down- town areas by drawing commercial investment have displaced poor and largely black residents to high-density public housing projects. Termed "negro removal" by James Baldwin, urban renewal has worked to exacer- bate the spatial concentration and social isolation of lower-income African Americans (Bartelt 140; Massey and Denton 56-57; Squires 99-100). In Philadelphia Fire, urban renewal has converted "every square foot" of downtown Philadelphia into "solid gold" (78) and has created a shortage of affordable housing, driving the "pitiful bloods off the map" of the city (79).

In the case of Wideman's fictional Philadelphia, these renewal projects are intended to create a "University City" (79) founded on the standard of "modern urban living in the midst of certified culture" (78). The notion of the University City has figured promi- nently in earlier African-American lit- erary ideals of urban order. Charles Scruggs, tracing the "trope of the uni- versity as the city upon a hill" (30) in the works of early twentieth-century writers such as W. E. B. Du Bois and James Weldon Johnson, argues that this trope idealizes an urban civiliza- tion based on the uplift of the black masses to the high cultural levels of the black elite (26-31). In later moments in African-American literature, notably the cultural nationalist era of the 1960s, this ideal is recast to affirm direct polit- ical links between an activist academy and the surrounding black urban com- m~nity.~

Philadelphia Fire laments the impossibility of attaining this ideal in late twentieth-century urban America. As we've already seen, the black urban poor must be banished to make possi- ble the construction of the University City. Moreover, the declining role of the university as a public institution responsive to its urban context is made clear when, in the novel, the University of Pennsylvania shuts down its School of Social Work, the one institution that had earlier prepared intellectuals to minister "to the immediate needs of the dispossessed urban proletariat sur- rounding the island of University" (112). The University's dismantling of the School of Social Work, a gesture meant to quash "certain misconcep- tions about a university's role that had arisen in the sixties" (112), is prof~und- ly disturbing to Cudjoe, who is simul- taneously engaged in writing two books-one a study of the MOVE dis- aster and the other a novel about the '60s, a decade that has shaped his understanding of his social mission as an intellectual. With the debilitation of the '60s legacy of intellectual activism, Cudjoe finds himself crippled as a writer: He abandons the novel about the '60s, and we never find out whether or not the MOVE book gets written.

If Cudjoe feels paralyzed by the deflation of the University City ideal, his friend Timbo, cultural attache to the mayor of Philadelphia, hails the urban renewal projects as "progress, real progress" (79). But Philadelphia Fire, leery of contemporary notions of urban progress, critically depicts the city as a "high-intensity market setting" in which "the whole endeavor called the satisfaction of needs is oriented exclu- sively toward the realm of consump- tion" (Leiss 87-88). In this kind of social and economic system, progress is mea- sured by the yardstick of a permanently rising level of consumption. Wideman expresses strong skepticism toward this quantitative ideal of 1970s transformed cities organized around declining industrial production into luminous centers of privatized cul- tural con~um~tion.~

In Philadelphia Fire, the renovated Philadelphia down- town is described as an enticing "circus of lights," a site of lavish consumption where everything, including time, can

be "bought and sold" (46).

social progress in his 1988 But waste and scarcity are


'60s," institutions inspired

an aborted

by a "dream of better, not more. Truly better. Not modernist more pigs slopping at the trough, not a larger bite of to the rotten pie, not more, but shore up better" (l16).~ Wideman's from here [are] forced to move, what's growing is garbage dumps" (79). This is one sense in which the ideologies of consumption that underwrite urban renewal projects work

sentiments are echoed by a li terary value fetishistically-by repress-character in Philadelphia against the ing the structural interde- Fire, Margaret Jones: ruinsofthe pendencebetweentheren"Things spozed to get bet- ovated city centers and ter, ain't they? Somewhere ~0ntemp0rary their adjoining urban down the line, it ought to city. wastelands. These

get better or what's the point scuffling like we do? Don't have to squat in the weeds and wipe my behind with a leaf. Running water inside my house and in the supermarket I can buy thirty kinds of soda pop, twelve different colors of toi- let paper. But that ain't what I call progress" (14). This passage forms part of Margaret Jones's attempt to explain to Cudjoe the appeal of the ascetic, back-to-nature MOVE cult; Jones decides to drop out of urban life and to join the cult because it gives the lie to ideologies of modern progress defined in terms of increased consumer options.

Among the reasons that urban redevelopment projects are so scathingly criticized in Philadelphia Fire is that these projects exemplify the fetishistic ways in which ideologies of consumption serve to le itimize con-


temporary urban order. The urban renewal projects initiated during the "garbage dumps" are peo-

pled by the poor and homeless, whose expulsion enables the creation of the city as a "consumption artifact" (Harvey 43).

In All-Consuming Images, Stuart Ewen calls attention to the "fissure between commercial visions of 'the good life' and the planetary garbage dump that accrues in its wake" (245). If one fetishistic approach to waste is simply to wish away its reality and enormity, Ewen suggests that another, more insidious form of fetishism ele- vates waste to a marker of consumer distinction. Defining "human gratifica- tion as the product of continual obso- lescence" (Ewen 239), contemporary consumer society "conflates the act of using with that of using up, and pro- motes markets that are continually hungry for more" (234). Planned obso- lescence becomes a catalyzing feature of these markets, inciting ever-rising levels of consumption governed by the principle of disposability. By this logic, socially prestigious consumption depends on the financial ability to expend, discard, and replace commodi- ties according to rapidly shifting mar- ket standards of taste and value, and consumer status is measured by the ability to produce waste. It is in this sense, Ewen argues, that "disposability and waste have become the spine of the [capitalist consumption] system" (236).

Philadelphia Fire graphically ren- ders the grotesque consequences of wasteful consumption in the following


passage, in which Cudjoe, after a sumptuous meal in an expensive restaurant, meditates on the "possibili- ty of excess made real by the city":


Bloating. Smiling and chattering while piles of bones, hunks of fat, discarded gristle and cores, skins and decorative greens and sculpted peels, corks, cans, bottles, grease, soiled l~nen, soggy napkins, crumbs on the floor, shells, what was unconsumed and unconsumable, waste and rot and persiflage heaped up, the garbage outweighing him, taller than he was, usurping his place. Eaten by refuse faster than he can cram it down his throat (92)

This passage captures the runaway logic that transforms human beings into the waste and the byproducts of a system driven by insatiable consump- tion.

Cudjoe's metaphorical vision of the city as a monstrous machine that con- sumes and expels humanity is matched by the even more disturbing literal image of urban zones of scarcity inhab- ited by human beings who have no choice but to feed on waste. JB, the homeless man who narrates sections of the third part of the novel, is one such human being who scavenges meals from garbage dumpsters. In a horrify- ing twist, what Cudjoe regards as superfluous waste becomes a necessary means of survival for JB. If, as Stuart Ewen observes, the most conspicuous proof of consumer society's "aestheti- cization of waste" is the ~roliferation of


seductive methods of packaging com- modities (241), JB points out the entire- ly unexpected uses of this packaging by the hungry and homeless:

You're grateful for boxes which keep the treats safe inside the Dumpster's rotten maw. You feel blessed because someone packages each morsel, each ingredient in its own individual con- tainer. Grateful for paper and plastic that protects each meal, that preserves and delivers leftovers a second time around. If worse came to worst, you could probably live on boxes, napkins, bags, packets and sheaths. Enough food smeared, soaked, microwaved, wiped, slopped on them you could survive just chewing the wrappings.


A person like JB belongs to the class of "surplus people" whom Wideman writes about in his essay "Dead Black Men and Other Fallout of the American Dream." Describing surplus people as the casualties of a global restructuring of industrial economy, Wideman insists that the problem of "urban decay" be understood in terms larger than the "strictly American" (156).

By means of frequent parallels between Philadelphia and "Third World" cities (79), Philadelphia Fire locates American urban spaces such as the renovated Philadelphia downtown within a global structure of uneven development. The novel thus offers a "way of seeing that unmasks the fetishisms" promoted by the capitalist production of urban space-fetishisms which, as David Harvey argues, treat the spatial text of the city as a self-con- tained object (9,250). In order to resist this kind of myopic vision, Cudjoe resolves that "he must always write about many places at once. No choice . . . . First step is always. . . toward the word or sound or image that is every- where at once, that connects. . . . Always moving," the contemporary writer must "travel through those other places" (23) because no place contains its own meaning. Philadelphia Fire treats social space as an asymmet- rical global system of interconnected locales whose meaning is "always everywhere at once." It is no wonder, then, that one of the narrators of Philadelphia Fire is the homeless man, JB, who "inhabits many places, no place" (184).

Mobilitv and simultaneous occupa- tion of several places are necessary conditions of contemporary urban writing because no lace remains still

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long enough to permit a stable spatial or temporal per~pective.~

When Cudjoe first returns to Philadelphia after a nearly decade-long absence, he searches for the old urban places pre- served in his childhood memories: "I have places, almost like stage sets, in my mind. I've been trying to find them since I've been back but they're gone," they have been "urban-removed" (85). Cudjoe couches his longing for durable places in pastoral terms, as, for exam- ple, when he describes Clark Park, where he played as a child, as a "green oasis" (28). However, Wideman is sus- picious of the nostalgic yearnings that often fuel pastoral reactions to urban conditions: "Oh, it [the city] must have been beautiful once. Walking barefoot in green grass, the sky a blue haven, the deep woods full of life. Now7 the grit of old dogshit," along with drugs and guns, attests to the decay of the green ideal in the city (159-60). This ret- rospective stance exemplifies what Raymond Williams famously terms the "escalator" effect of the pastoral mode, whereby every age harks back to a prior age of perfection and simplicity (12). Further illustrating this effect, Cudioe reaches back to one of the earli- est Western pastoral images, the Garden of Eden, and imagines Adam and Eve "missing the good ole days, how things used to be, and they ain't been in the garden five minutes" (130).

But the novel's assessment of pas- toral resaonses to urban conditions is far more complex and ambivalent than the simple mockery of the preceding passages might suggest. Philadelphia Fire remains deeply sympathetic to the pastoral when it operates not as a mode of imaginary escape from the city but as a means of imaginative engagement and transformation. The novel's epigraph, quoting William Penn, governor of Pennsylvania and founder of Philadelphia, offers one instance of the pastoral mode used to envision an ideal urban order: "Let every house be placed, if the Person pleases, in the middle of its platt . . . so there may be ground on each side, for Gardens or Orchards or feilds, that it may be a greene Country Towne, which will never be burnt, and always be whol[e]some." Despite its urban rather than agrarian setting, Penn's vision of a garden city is in keeping with a traditionally American pastoral ideal which Leo Marx has character- ized as a cultivated landscape located in the "middle ground" between nature and culture (23).

The garden city ideal presented in the epigraph is qualified by the novel's action, which centers around the con- flict between the city of Philadelphia and the MOVE community and ends in the sort of calamity Penn wished to preempt-the burning of sixty-one houses. In addition to this particular incident, the novel emphasizes the city's failure to live up to Penn's gar- den ideal by means of numerous refer- ences to green areas reduced to smoke and ashes. Fire, in Penn's vision, as well as in the various actual and hallu- cinatory images of people and places burning in Wideman's fictional Philadelphia, appears as a uniquely urban symbol of destruction and disor- der counterpoised to the fertility and ordered cultivation of the pastoral ideal. Although Philadelphia Fire stresses the gap between Penn's garden ideal and the realities of late-twentieth- century Philadelphia, as an ideal the garden image remains imaginatively compelling to the novel's narrator, even if only as a means of measuring the magnitude of contemporary urban decay.

Cudjoe's evaluation of the other garden ideal presented in the novel- MOVE'S vision of the earth as a "peaceful garden" (I 1)-is equally mixed. MOVE (short for "The Movement") was founded some time in the late 1960s by Vincent Leapheart, later known as John Africa. The social exists, to move to the country would be and philosophical beliefs of MOVE to divert from the problem and not to


were contained in a text titled The Book of Guidelines (commonly referred to by MOVE members as The Book), which was a typed manuscript dictated by Leapheart and transcribed by a white community college profes- sor named Donald Glassey. According to The Book, MOVE valorized "life, natural law, which . . . made pure air, clean water, fertile soil, . . . and made the principle of freedom" against "man's law that has created and sanc- tioned industry that is polluting the air, poisoning the water, the soil." Leaphart identified "man's system" with all forms of technology and cul- ture, including science, industry, medi- cine, electricity, and education. MOVE perceived the modern city as a concen- trated manifestation of the evils of a manmade system built by technology and geared around consumption (Assefa and Wahrhaftig 10-11). Disenchanted with capitalism's failure to fulfil the needs it induces, MOVE sought to opt out of this system by reducing and tailoring consumption to satisfy only the "natural" demands of survival. In keeping with its naturalist philosophy, inhabitants of the MOVE house in West Philadelphia left open garbage to decompose in the yard, allowed scores of unvaccinated dogs and cats to run free on their property, and kept their children uneducated and scantily clad even in winter. These practices brought MOVE in conflict with its neighbors, whose repeated complaints to the police and the city administration eventually led to the infamous siege and bombing of the MOVE house on May 13,1985.

MOVE rejected the city's compro- mise offer to relocate the organization to an isolated spot in the country, where its back-to-nature practices would not offend and threaten neigh- bors. According to an untitled docu- ment written by MOVE women in prison, the group saw its location in the heart of the city as crucial to its social purpose: "As long as the city correct it . . . .The ;ity was once the country. But it is city now, because the sickness MOVE is talking about spread itself and will keep spreading if it isn't stopped. It is MOVE's work to stop this sickness" (Assefa and Wahrhaftig 11). As is clear from this passage, MOVE's back-to-nature ideology was meant to provide a vehicle of critical opposition to the city rather than an imaginary "elsewhere."

In his fictional recreation of MOVE in Philadelphia Fire, Wideman alters some details (mostly names of mem- bers) but preserves the basic philo- sophical and social tenets justifying the group's assault on modern city life. Wideman endorses MOVE's critique of urban progress as equated with increased material comforts and rising levels of consumption. To discredit this notion of progress, the leader of MOVE, whose name in the novel is Reverend King, appeals to an innately innocent and healthy human nature that has been corrupted by urban soci- ety. Although King uses the image of the garden to posit an inherent harmo- ny between humanity and nature, MOVE's ideology diverges quite sharply from the classic American pas- toral ideal encapsulated in the epi- graph from William Penn. As Leo Marx has observed, whereas the American pastoral situates human well-being in a realm that mediates between nature and society, primi- tivism celebrates humanity's closeness to the pole of primal nature (65).In Philadelphia Fire, Reverend King, described as a "nouveau Rousseau" by another character (84), expresses his primitivist conception of humanity through the parable of a "holy Tree of Life" that is being sapped by "the rot- ten system of this society" (10). King describes human beings as "seeds" destined "to carry forward the Life in us" so that, when "society dies from the poison in its guts, we'll be there and the Tree will grow bigger and big- ger till the whole wide earth is a peace- ful garden under its branches" (11). deeply suspect even as an imaginary ~eGrendKing's seed and prdkn ideal. Recalling cultural nationalist


metaphors spell out a utopian social project aimed at recovering an essential human nature.

In Wideman's novel, MOVE'S nat- uralistic beliefs and practices are bru- tally suppressed by the city because MOVE repudiates every aspect of modern urban life. As the cultural attache to the mayor of Philadelphia explains to Cudjoe, the mayor had no choice but to snuff out the organization because they were "trying to turn back the clock. Didn't want no kind of city . . . . Wanted to live like people in the woods . . . . Mayor breaking his butt to haul the city into the twenty-first cen- tury and them fools on Osage want their block to go to the jungle" (81). Other references to MOVE as a group of "savages" (13) visibly distinguished by their dreadlocked hair indicate that it is their racially coded primitivism that is so mena~ing.~

Reverend King actively solicits this perception, calling himself "the funk king" (12) and encouraging his followers to embrace the dirt and smell of their naked "nat- ural sel[ves]" (15). The critical dimen- sions of King's invocation of funk become clearer in the light of Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, which simi- larly uses the imagery of funk to recall a natural racial identity repressed by industrial urban ~ociety.~

Both of these critiques of urban life are launched in the name of a pre-urban past that grounds their naturalistic celebrations of human (and specifically racial) essence.

Philadelphia Fire clarifies the only partial effectivity of this kind of social critique through its paradoxical appraisal of King's turn to primitivism: "Even though he did it wrong, he was right" (13). MOVE was right in reject- ing the consumerist notions of the good life promised by the modern city. But MOVE "did it wrong" because, although based in the city, it sought to recapture an organic ideal of communi- ty which is not only impossible to maintain in modern times but is also notions of black community, King envisages the MOVE community as a "tribe" (13)and a "family" (10). Margaret Jones, a former member of MOVE, points out the power imbal- ances often implicit in communities modeled on family when she tells Cudjoe, "I was part of his family. One his slaves that quit" (13). Through a brief mention of coercive sex, the novel hints at, though it does not develop in detail, the gender inequities as well as the heterosexual norms that familial metaphors of community help to natu- ralize. It is important to stress here that Wideman's suspicion of familial mod- els of community does not amount to an underestimation of the value of family. The sustaining value of familial bonds is repeatedly emphasized in Philadelphia Fire, as, for example, when a photograph of five generations of a familv is described as a rare roof


and promise" of endurance and conti- nuity over time (119), or when Wideman breaks into the narrative in his ow7n name to voice his anguish over his incarcerated son. The entire novel, in fact, is haunted by lost and orphaned children, whether Cudjoe's or Wideman's, or the MOVE child who survived the police bombing.10 But, if anything, the many lost children and broken families of Philadelphia Fire demonstrate that families cannot offer refuge from broader social and eco-


nomic problems and breakdowns. What Wideman's novel discredits is not the importance of family as such, but the use of family as a metaphor for communities that are presumed to be more natural, simple, and unified than urban forms of community.ll

Uses of the term tribe-as a metaphor for community are also indi- rectly undermined in a passage that seems to mock Afrocentric narratives of a lost golden age of ethnically pure community: "Tall tales about. . . [llong ago. . . when our clan spoke with one voice and followed the ancient wavs,


. . . when our flesh was a fit vessel for the ancestral spirits. . . . Old sad stories beckuse now w7e are fallen, laid low" (171). Extended beyond its immediate Afrocentric reference,12 this barbed passage can be taken as a critical com- ment on so many alternatives to con- temporary urban society couched in metaphors of clan, family, and ancestry that evoke racially authentic communi- ties moored to an idealized past. In this respect, even as Philadelphia Fire cautiously endorses pastoral critiques of the contemporary American city, the novel also decisively detaches itself

from nationalist ideals of racial com- munity configured as tribe or family.

ideman's rejection of primi-


tive and organic notions of community bears far-reaching implica- tions for the writer of literature. In this sense, Philadelphia Fire is more a novel about the problems of writing and reading urban fiction than "a pretext for an angry turn around exhibits A through Z of urban rot," as reviewer Rosellen Brown described the novel (136). The urban writer's difficulty in assuming the tightly knit community affirmed in cultural nationalist dis- courses is clarified by the bizarre movement of "The Book of Life" (160) through the city of Philadelphia. "The Book of Life" is Wideman's title for the MOVE text, called The Bookor The Guidelines, which was disseminated in a variety of forms to an audience wider than the MOVE community. Donald Glassey, w7ho transcribed, typed, and edited this text, taught it to his sociolo- gy classes at Philadelphia Community College (Anderson and Hevenor 4). Passages from the book were also read aloud and broadcast, through an elec- trically powered bullhorn, to MOVE'S neighbors on Osage Avenue. From these instances, it would appear that, although The Book reached a larger audience than the immediate MOVE community, its dissemination never- theless remained within the control of

MOVE members and served the unequivocal function of publicizing MOVE ideology.

In Philadelphia Fire, Wideman imagines a far more wide-ranging and indeterminate trajectory for The Book of Life, and I shall chart this trajectory in some detail in order to highlight the multiple and unpredictable appropria- tions that characterize this book's jour- ney through the city.

We learn, in the third part of the novel, that The Book of Life is current- ly in the possession of Richard Corey (a character clearly based on Donald Glassey), w7ho originally coauthored the book with the leader of MOVE. Corey wrote the book to express his (and Reverend King's) visionary ideal of the Tree of Life that would regener- ate the decaying city. But Corey finds that the seeds of hope the book was meant to breed, embodied in the chil- dren of the city, have degenerated as they grew into terrible weeds that are "gnawing at the gates of the temple of reason. The Life Tree is wizened, gaunt, crooked, dying at the top, drip- ping sickness in dead leaves that are drowning the city" (175). This realiza- tion dawns on Corey after he is assault- ed and mugged by a gang of adoles- cents who terrorize the city. Disillusioned and horrified by the per- version of his green ideal, Corey trans- lates the "secrets, stored in the sacred Book of Life," into the "snarly pig tongue" of law and order (167). In other words, like his real-life counter- part Donald Glassey, Corey becomes an informer and betrays incriminating information about MOVE to the police. Corey's case illustrates a persistent logic whereby all imaginative efforts to create ideal social orders ultimately capitulate to the city's system of law7 and order; Corey's conversion from visionary writer to police informant grimly confirms Cudjoe's earlier analo- gy between urban authorship and sleaze control.

Corey retains possession of The Book of Life until his death by suicide, after which his briefcase, containing a gun and the book, is stolen by JB, the homeless man and occasional narrator of the third part of Philadelphia Fire. Unlike the actual MOVE book of guidelines, which was a typed manu- script, The Book of Life is here revealed to be a handwritten journal. We learn from the brief and random sections read by JB that the book, written from the dismayed perspective of an adult, announces the arrival of "The Children's Hour," when disgruntled adolescent gangs will take over the city and propagate their own violent mis- reading of the book: "It's time. . . to reap what's been sown. Are we ready to hear the children speak? Ready or not, we shall be caught. . . . Children have learned to hate us as much as we hate them" (187-88). JB soon abandons the effort to decipher the tiny and bare- ly legible script and nods off to sleep. He wakes up to find that a group of kids has stolen the book from him and set him on fire. JB then imagines that he is preaching or singing to a multi- tude of people from The Book of Life. But the book suddenly turns to smoke and ashes in his hands, in yet another replay of the novel's symbolic pattern of the green ideal destroyed by urban conflagration. This particular stage in the book's travels is left deliberately vague. JB, along with the readers of Philadelphia Fire, does not know whether the fire and the theft of the book have happened in fact, or in somebody else's dream narrated in a book, or in an imaginary book that JB himself is writing. In a rather heavy- handed gesture intended to suggest the uncertain destiny of the book in the city, Wideman informs us: "All were possibilities" (189).

Two interrelated aspects of The Book of Life's trajectory through Philadelphia are especially striking: its shifting content and its mode of circu- lation by theft. Although the author- ship of the book appears to remain fixed, its central content, the Tree of Life parable coauthored by Reverend King and Richard Corey, undergoes dramatic transformations as the book changes hands. Its regenerating vision carries widely different implications for the various people who handle the book. To MOVE members. the Tree of Life svmbolizes an arcadian ideal of simp<e human needs that can be satis- fied without violating the harmonious natural order. In Richard Corev's image of "the rainbow childre* of Life, all born to Life's bounty" (167), the book prefigures the possibility of racial and civic harmony, of natural resources evenly distributed among all. Both King and Corey envisage the citv's children as wholesome seeds containing the hope of genuine, not cosmetic, urban renewal.

When members of a children's gang seize the book, they use and mis- use it to forge a complex reading that preserves some elements of the book's briginal meaning intact, but revises others beyond recognition. The chil- dren, who had formed the redemptive protagonists of The Book of Life but have now become its readers and authors, endorse the book's primitivist conception of children as embodiments of the purity and goodness of nature: "Our bodies are perfect and clean." Echoing MOVE's attack on education as an instrument of social corru~tion and repression, the children castigate the school system for treating them "like beasts who must be tamed." But thev stretch this romanticist view of children into a rationale for usurping from adults the rewards of urban con- sumer society. Their assertion of their "perfect right to Money, Power, and Things" (91) is a far cry from MOVE's ideal of natural desires fulfilled by modest levels of consum~tion

An unspecified narrator announces and asks, early in the third part of the novel, "The Book of Life exchanges hands. Who will read it next, kill for it next?" (160). The Book of Life wreaks havoc as it travels through the city. The children's intermetation of the book directs its life-giving vision toward vio- lence, robbery, and arson, transmuting its green ideal to fire, smoke, and ashes. But if the green ideal is impossi- ble to sustain in the contemporary city, this impossibility cuts both ways. Obviously, the urban context, built on "Money, Power, and Things," con- strains readings of the book, convert- ing its green ideal into a pretext for arson and violence. Yet The Book of Life in itself is an ambiguous text whose power to illuminate and trans- form urban realitv is com~romised bv its own defects of vision as much as by the dystopian nature of the urban reali- ty it addresses. Trying to determine culpability for the violence surround- ing the book is like "trying to solve a riddle whose answer is yes and no" 115). If The Book of Life incites children to terrorize the city by arson, this book also originates in a community whose children are burnt to death bv citv



The transformations of the mean- ing of The Book of Life are abetted by the book's mode of circulation in the city. The Rook of Life is a handwritten manuscript, and not a printed book distributed within a svstem of com- modity exchange. BU~

even though it is not a commodity, the book's meaning as well as its readership elude authori- al control; the book is stolen by ui~in- tended readers and its meanings are sometimes simplv mislaid, as in the case of JB, whieasily gives up the struggle to decode the text and falls asleep, allowing the children's gang to steal the book and to misappropriate its message. The book's ci;culation by theft as well as its varying uses might suggest that Philadelphia Fire presents reading as ar, act that can disru~t the


prevailing order of urban commodity consumption. In his highly influential account of reading as a practice of resistant consumGtion, ~ichel de Certeau has que&ioned the hierarchical division of labor tacitly perpetuated by modern ideologies of writing, which construe authoTs as producers and readers as passive consumers: The "efficiency of production implies the inertia of consumption" (167). But, in fact, de Certeau argues, "to read is to


wander through an imposed system (that of the text, analogous to the con- structed order of a city or of a super- market). Recent analyses show that 'every reading modifies its object' " (169). De Certeau goes on to compare reading to poaching, a form of con- sumption that violates the laws of property and text (174).

In Philadelphia Fire, the various thefts of The Book of Life result in wil- ful misreading that disobey the laws of property and text, but this does not necessarily make these readings instances of resistant consumption in de Certeau's sense. As we have seen, the "constructed order" of Wideman's city is a rigidly segregated and asym- metrical order of consumption. Theft challenges the inequalities of this sys- tem (as is clear from the "commodity riots" that have flared in American cities since the 1960s13), but theft also capitulates to the ideologies of con- sumption that ratify urban order. In Philadelphia Fire, the order of the city is analogous to the order of a super- market in its relentless promotion of commodities as the sole repositories of social and personal value. This urban order channels readings of the book, transforming its anti-c%nsumption message into yet another exhortation to consume by any means necessary, even theft. When the children's gang uses the book to sanction a violent seizure of "Money, Power, and Things," they may be flouting the laws of property and text but they are certainly not thereby producing a reading that exceeds either the dominant urban ide- ologies of consumption or the socioeco- nomic structures normalized by these ideologies. Even when the book is not a commodity and when its principal message is to refuse the lure of com- modity consumption, it is stolen and consumed as if it were a prized and scarce commodity. In the particular instance of The Book of Life, as well as in general, although the novel acknowledges the plural and indeter- minate readings available in the city, it ultimately suggests that the opposi- tional potential of these readings is

bounded by the socioeconomic and cal literary text-Shakespeare's The


ideologica~system of the city.

To say that Philadelphia Fire reveals the limited oppositional pow- ers of reading is not the same as saying that the novel invests no social value in acts of reading. In fact, as I have showed, Cudjoe's reading of the "con- sumption artifact" wrought by urban renewal is immensely valuable, in that it represents a mode of interpretation that can unmask the fetishisms of the visual text of the citv. The novel also demonstrates the dangers of indetermi- nate as well as overdetermined read- ings of the text of the city through Cudioe's and Timbo's different inter-


pretations of the graffiti spray-painted all over the city by the adolescent gang Kaliban's Kiddie Korps. Claiming that he can make complete sense of this mysterious urban text, Timbo assimi- lates all its signs into a conspiracy theo- ry about "kiddie insurrection" (89): Kids, fed up of being devalued and repressed, are planning to kill off all the adults and to take over the city, and in this they are being assisted and manipulated by "outside agitators" (91). Timbo concocts a perfectly coher- ent, albeit paranoid, reading of the graffiti that supports the mobilization of the Civil Disobedience Unit to sup- Dress what the citv administration con- siders an inflammatory text. Cudjoe also views the graffiti as the writing on the wall, heralding change and the emergence of a new urban order. But Cudjoe, unlike Timbo, is a failed detec- tive who perceives but cannot conclu- sivelv intermet the clues to urban transformation. Cudjoe's tentative reading of the graffiti is paralyzing, whereas Timbo's hasty reading precip- itates repressive action; neither reading provides a proper handle on the social changes signaled by the cryptic text of graffiti.

I shall examine one last case of reading presented in Philadelphia Fire, a case that most clearly illustrates the novel's ambivalence about the issue of literature's connection to social change. The object of reading here is a canoni- Tempest..~nthe second part of the novel, Cudjoe offers a reading of this play intended to integrate all the differ- ent strands of his narrative into a coherent whole. Cudjoe's Caliban evokes the MOVE children as well as Kaliban's Kiddie Korps through his name and his dreadlocks as well as through his assertion that "we all somebody's chillen. We all Eden bound" until we are socially made over in the image of beasts (12). According to Cudjoe's reading, Caliban is the happy and original inhabitant of his island paradise until Prospero intrudes and dispossesses him of his geographi- cal and cultural inheritance. What Cudjoe flaunts as an "authentically revised version" is in fact a rehash of fairly common interpretations of The

Tempest as "a play about colonialism, imperialism" (127).

However, Cudjoe's undistin- guished reading of Shakespeare's play becomes interesting because of its pur- ported contribution to social change. Cudjoe plans to produce The Tempest w~itha cast consisting of his economi- cally disadvantaged and barely literate students in West Philadelphia. Cudjoe describes the production of the play through an explicit image of black urban cultural achievement-"an ebony tower taller than Billy Penn's hat spouting to the stars" (132). The tall ebony tower calls to mind the trope of the university as a city upon a hill, through its visual and symbolic sug- gestions of uplift. In common with the University City ideal, Cudjoe's project casts the intellectual as an agent of sal- vation who will elevate the black urban masses by teaching them literacy in high cultural texts. However, Cudjoe himself regards his project not as cul- tural uplift but as cultural synthesis, as a "redemptive black vernacular inter- pretation" of a canonical literary text (Steinberg 53).

Cudjoe's play project clearly attempts to rekindle the 1960s legacy of intellectual activism. Several reviewers of the novel have noted its effort to join "the Academy and the street,"'4 justifi-

ably taking Cudjoe to be a thinly dls- guised persona for John Wideman.

Wideman enters the narrative in his own name in Part 2, characterizing

Cudjoe as his "airy other," his "mirror

or black hole" (122). The direct authori-

a1 intrusion signals the presence of dis- turbing autobiographical material that has not achieved aesthetic resolution,

And in fact we know from interviews as well as autobiographical and bio- graphical sources that Wideman, much like Cudjoe, has struggled to bridge the gap separating "the ghetto kid and the man of letters" (Sheppard 90). In

Brothers and Keepers, Wideman recounts his departure from home to

the University of Pennsylvania through a familiar nationalist narrative, in which entry into elite American institu-

tions is represented as a flight "from poverty, from blackness. To get ahead, to make something of myself, college had seemed a logical, necessary step; my exile, my flight from home began with good grades, with good English, with setting myself apart long before I'd earned a scholarship and a train

ticket over the mountains to Philadelphia. With that willed alien- ation behind me, . . . guilt was pre- dictable" (27). Wideman reiterates in an interview that "a destructive kind of guilt came with the goodies" (Rowel1 51). This sense of guilt was apparently compounded by the many academic and literary distinctions that fol- lowed-a Rhodes Scholarship, faculty membership in an Ivy League institu- tion, and two PEN/Faulkner awards for his fiction. Wideman has said to Charles Rowel1 that one of the central aims of his fiction is to measure the dis- tance between "the life of the black kid growing up in a predominantly black neighborhood" and "the life of a mid- dle-class academic in a white world," and to "make sense of the conflicts, contradictions, and possible resolu- tions" arising therein (Rowel1 52).

Cudjoe's theatrical project suggests one possible resolution of these con- flicts and contradictions. Through his production of the play, which Cudjoe describes as his "gift to the communi- ty," he believes that he can redirect and vindicate the lives of the schoolchild- ren, who are otherwise heading nowhere, "oozing off the corners of the map" (132). The ambitious hopes Cudjoe invests in this production seem absurdly inflated when he character- izes it as "real guerrilla theater. Better than a bomb. Black kids in the park doing Shakespeare will blow people's minds" (143). Cudjoe's play idea is cer- tainly better than a bomb-better to perform Shakespeare in the ark and blow people's minds than to blow up children's bodies as did the police bombing in West Philadelphia. It is also easy enough to understand how the unexpected sounds of Elizabethan English in West Philadelphia offer an aesthetic resolution to Cudjoe's sense of conflict between the poles of high lit- erary and black vernacular culture. But we cannot help but wonder what makes the black children's enactment of a literary text (whether canonical or vernacular) so politically subversive as to be called "guerrilla theater" and to raise fears of witchcraft, demonic pos- session, or outside agitation (149). More importantly, how can this liter- ary project alter the course of the chil- dren's lives?

One way of answering these ques- tions is to accept Cudjoe's own retro- spective assessment of the play scheme as a "harebrained project" (146) intend- ed primarily to assuage his own sense of guilt and superfluity. The play offers Cudjoe the comforting illusion of con- structive participation in the lives of the community from which he feels severed by class and educational dif- ferences. Cudjoe's fantasy of social rec- onciliation betrays the excesses of his literary imagination as well as the self- serving motives that drive him to over- estimate the intellectual's redemptive role in society. The fact that the play never happens supports this reading of Cudjoe's project as indeed harebrained, impractical, and far removed from the sphere of "real" social action.

But this judgment of the play pro- ject is anticipated and qualified in a passage that self-reflexively comments on Cudjoe's overvaluation of the liter- ary imagination: "This is an irresponsi- ble way of looking at things. . . . Better to light one little candle than to sit on one's ass and write clever, irresponsi- ble, fanciful accounts of what never happened, never will. Lend a hand. Set down your bucket. . . . World's out there and it needs your attention" (157). Read straightforwardly, this pas- sage devalues the writing of fiction as compared to concrete acts that serve pragmatic social functions, and sug- gests that the novel does not claim for writing the urgent utilitarian value it bears in cultural nationalist discourses. Yet this passage also seems to be ironizing, through indirect citation, nationalist concentions of the relation between 1iteratu;e and social change.15 In his interview with Charles Rowell, Wideman insists that literary writing is not "instrumental" but "expressive" (Rowel1 53). The fact that literature is not "totally task-oriented" (57) forms the very core of its value for Wideman. ~iteraturetaps into the human "capaci- ty for wonder, for play, for imagina- tion" and because that is "the capacity that modern civilization, mass cl'viliza- tion, is eroding, crushing," "the artist has a crucial role" (54). The unique function of literature is to bend realitv. create illusions, entertain imaginary possibilities that are socially valuable even if they do not directly fuel change.

It is in this sense that even Cudjoe's project of staging The Tenyest is partially reinstated. The play is never staged, but the "endless circles of its possibility" allow Cudjoe and the reader to arrest, capture, and borrow time (1331, which is a scarce


commodity in the modern city. Literature, according to Wideman, can counter the "collective amnesia" (Trueheart, "Wideman" 2) caused bv "the accelerated push of cbntemporiry life" and exacerbated by the "s 2eed of the mass media" (Rowel1 57).l The


abilitv of literature to escaDe absolute social determination and to steal a "long stunned moment between" (138) is affirmed in Philadelphia Fire as a significant but limited value. This high- ly mediated and modest social function is all that Wideman's novel can assign to literature. Philadelphia Fire refuses to sanctify the writer as "a cultural hero, or a priest" (Wideman, in Rowel1 54), or even as a direct agent of social and political change, as is clear from its sober assessment of the sacred text (The Book of Life) that aspires to trans- form urban dystopia into utopia.

Whereas nationalist aesthetic theorists construed literary form as a transparent vehicle of social and political content,17 Philadelphia Fire obtrusively calls attention to its own literariness, as if to accentuate its departure from nationalist resolutions to problems of urban literary represen- tation. Jack Kroll memorably remarks that the novel's "literary pyrotechnics," its linguistic "brilliance bleaches out the reality it seeks" (67).18 But instead of bleaching out the urban reality it seeks to render, the hyperliterary style of Philadel~hia Fire ~erformsan abort- ed modernist mission to shore up liter- ary value against the ruins of the con- temporary city. Contrary to nationalist aesthetics, Wideman's novel suggests that causal links between literature and social change can never be precisely calculated. However, this suggestion of literature's tenuous relation to social reality stops short of a modernist cele- bration of aesthetic transcendence. The novel warily flirts with but ultimately reiects both-nationalist and modernist assessments of literary value. As we read the novel, we are tossed between contradictory impulses to inflate and deflate the im~ortance of literary value. This ambivalence toward literature is manifested in the novel's appraisals of the pastoral and primitivist modes, of the possibilities of socially oppositional readings, and of self-reflexive meditations on writing, Cudjoe's theatrical project. Although it and autobiographical confession. This persistently seeks to envision literary confusion also appears at the linguistic alternatives to the repressive urban level, where the high literary and black system of law and order, the novel's vernacular styles do not quite mesh. fragmented form underscores the diffi- Jan Clausen, a rare critic to offer a

culty of realizing this imaginative charitable interpretation of the novel's

order. If the novelist must ideally write "literary schizophrenia" (Bray 9),19 from many places at once in order to writes that the "strategic disruptions" grasp the complex and abstract struc- that occur from Part 2 of the novel

ture of urban space, Philadelphia Fire onward create "a layering of voices ultimatelv fails to draw its diverse that represents not an organic commu- points of reference into an aesthetically nity, . . . but a community of strangers" totalized order. This failure is a conse- (Clausen 50).Clausen accurately pin- quence of Wideman's rigorous refusal points the source of the novel's formal to resolve or banish the question of lit- incoherence-its incapacity to locate, erature's relation to social reality. Even represent, and serve, even at an imagi- though it will not settle the question of nary level, the fully knowable and uni- literature's proper contribution to fied community that authenticates the social change as decisively as did the social purpose of literature in cultural cultural nationalists. Philadel~hia Fire nationalist discourse. Philadelphia Fire insists that we struggle with ;his ques- cannot achieve a synthetic narrative tion in order to preserve an historical form that might bring the academy and political understanding of literary into the street, and span the various value.

urban communities divided along The novel's deliberate vacillation overlapping class and racial lines.

on the issue of literature's social value Wideman's fictional persona, Cudjoe, plays out at the level of form, which is wishes that the writer could perform neither politically functional nor grati- this mediating function, but the novel's fying in a purely aesthetic sense. The "anxious design" (Pinckney 19)fractured form of Philadelphia Fire emphasizes its distance from both claims neither to transform nor to offer nationalist and modernist aesthetics.

aesthetic compensations for an acutely The novel cannot legitimize itself by dystopian urban reality. The narrator affirming tangible and meaningful ties confesses, midway through the novel, between the literary writer and the

that he feels his "narrative faculty weakening" (115), and his difficulty in black urban community, but this

maintaining formal order is clear inability produces extreme stylistic dis- through the rest of the novel, which tress. Advertising its literariness, contains several undigested quotations Philadelphia Fire strains to grasp the from other writers, short and broken modernist solace of a distinctive stylis- paragraphs lacking sequential order or tic signature, but the illegibility of this flow, and an assortment of disparate signature conveys its author's strong and often unspecified narrative voices suspicion of a literary language that and ~ers~ectives. cannot render itself readable to the

The novel tries out


and discards several generic options, underprivileged urban audiences it including realist social commentary, wishes to address.

1. According to Benedict Anderson's definition, "A community is imagined because the members of Notes even the smallest . . . will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion." Anderson emphasizes that "all communities larger than primordial villages of face-to-face contact (and perhaps even these) are imagined" (6).

  1. Community grasped as a "concrete abstraction" entails "concrete representations" of local expe- rience which are fully explained only by way of "abstract and non-observable" global structural processes. See Harvey 9.
  2. This activist academic ideal is articulated in many of the essays collected In Blassingame's edit- ed collection New Perspectives on Black Studies and reaffirmed In Houston Baker's retrospective account of early Black Studies programs: "Both formally and informally Black Studies forged a con- nection between everyday black urban life and traditionally disinterested academic provinces" (Black Studies 23).
  3. In a 1986 address to his alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, Wideman, after stating, "I don't think progress is a valid notion," went on to repudiate common equations of urbanism with progress (qtd. in Chip Brown 132).
  4. For an astute account of the ways in which the ideology of a consumer democracy has worked fetishistically to camouflage the inequities organizing the sphere of production, see Ewen 37.
  5. See David Harvey's persuasive discussion, in the first chapter of The Urban Experience, of the shift from the Fordist city to the Keynesian city, which "put much greater emphasis upon the spatial division of consumption relative to the spatial division of labor" (40). Sharon Zukin, in Landscapes of Power, also extensively analyzes recent reconstructions of urban spaces into landscapes "explicitly produced for visual consumption" (219).
  6. In an interview with Jessica Lustig, Wideman says that in his fiction he tries to avoid represent- ing place in "static" and "nostalgic" terms: "The neighborhood, the place, is an artistic contrivance, . . . and it works to the degree that it is permeable" (456).
  7. It is telling and entirely unsurprising that an article on MOVE (by Jim Quinn) in Philadelphia Magazine was entitled "The Heart of Darkness" (cited in Assefa and Wahrhaftig 18).
  8. 1 am drawing here on Susan Willis's influential discussion of funk imagery in Toni Morrison's fic- tion (Specifying 83-1 09).
  9. Wideman has remarked that in the story of the MOVE children he saw the story of his own chil- dren (Trueheart, " 'Fire' " 2).
  10. In a 1982 interview, Wideman said, with reference to the Homewood trilogy, that "family is the metaphor that describes the whole community of Homewood . . . . It goes back to traditional African notions of community" (qtd. in Coleman 328). Taking their cue from Wideman, several critics writing on the Homewood trilogy construe family as Wideman's sustaining myth (see Coleman), enabling him to counter the "atomization of individuals caused by the pressures of contemporary urban Afro- American life" (Wilson 259). However, unlike Wideman's earlier fiction, Philadelphia Fire does not portray family as a bulwark against urban collapse or as a useful metaphor for urban community.
  11. MOVE was commonly referred to in the media as an Afrocentric organization, perhaps because all MOVE members adopted the last name "Africa."
  12. See Massey and Denton 59. Wideman, in "Dead Black Men and Other Fallout of the American Dream," wonders whether the commodity riots in Los Angeles following the Rodney King verdict sig- naled "the beginning of the end of capitalism" (152).
  13. The quoted phrase is from Wideman's Preface to The Homewood Trilogy (vii). Also see Alvin Sanoff, who pits Wideman's modernist literary sensibility against black oral tradition (93), and Darryl Pinckney, who mocks Wideman for trying to "prove that he can be both poetic and funky, . . . be of the street but not in it" (19).
  14. This conception is also ironized in another passage in Philadelphia Fire, in which the narrator, seemingly discrediting the novel's more extravagant flights of fancy (such as Cudjoe's fantasy of redi- recting the children's lives through the play), asserts that "What we need is realism . . . Demographics, statistics, objectivity. . . . If we could arrange the building blocks, the rivers, boule- vards, bridges, harbor, etc, into some semblance of order, of reality, then we could begin disentan- gling ourselves from this miasma . . . called urbanization" (157).
  15. In interviews and essays, Wideman expresses some anxiety about the fact that his writing must compete with the mass media, especially television. In "Dead Black Men and Other Fallout from the American Dream," Wideman writes that television's "power to create reality" makes him feel "overwhelmed" and "marginalized" as a writer (154).
  16. For example, Addison Gayle, Jr., a prominent Black Aesthetic critic, asserted that "the form is the delivery system while the message is the thing delivered" (qtd, in Townes 17).
  17. Reviewers tend to see the very category of "literature" as incongruous with contemporary urban realities. For example, Sheppard writes that the novel "pits the author's refined literary sensibil- ity against the crudity and violence" surrounding him in the city (90). Or see Darryl Pinckney, who argues that "the novel's literary ornamentation is unfortunate because Wideman has a genuine feel- ing for ghetto life" (19).


19. For uncharitable readings of the novel's form, see Bray (7), Rosellen Brown (136), and Koenig (66).

Anderson, John, and Hilary Hevenor. Burning Down the House: MOVE and the Tragedy of Works Philadelphia. New York: Norton, 1987. Cited Assefa, Hizkias, and Paul Wahrhaftig. The MOVE Crisis in Philadelphia. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1990. Baker, Houston A,, Jr. Black Studies, Rap, and the Academy. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1993. Bartelt, David. "Housing the 'Underclass.' " The "Underclass" Debate: Views from History. Ed. Michael Katz. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1993. 118-57. Blassingame, John W., ed. New Perspectives on Black Studies. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1971. Bray, Rosemary. Review of Philadelphia Fire. New York Times Book Review 30 Sep. 1990: 7+. Brown, Chip. "Blood Circle." Esquire Aug. 1989: 122-32. Brown, Rosellen. "The Year in Fiction: 1990." Massachusetts Review 32.1 (1991): 123-60. Clausen, Jan. "Native Fathers." Kenyon Review 14.2 (1992): 44-55. Coleman, James. "Going Back Home: The Literary Development of John Edgar Wideman." CLA Journal 28 (1 985): 326-43. de Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: U of California P, 1984. Ewen, Stuart. All-Consuming Images: The Politics of Style in Contemporary Culture. New York: Basic Books, 1988. Harvey, David. The Urban Experience. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1989. Koenig, Rhoda. Review of Philadelphia Fire. New York 1 Oct. 1990: 66. Kroll, Jack. Review of Philadelphia Fire. Time 1 Oct. 1990: 67. Leiss, William. The Limits to Satisfaction: An Essay on the Problem of Needs and Commodities. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1976. Lustig, Jessica. "Home: An Interview with John Edgar Wideman." African American Review 26 (1 992): 453-57. Marx, Leo. The Machine in the Garden. New York: Oxford UP, 1964. Massey, Douglas, and Nancy Denton. American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993. Pinckney, Darryl. Review of Philadelphia Fire. Times Literary Supplement 23 Aug. 1991: 19. Rowell, Charles. "An Interview with John Edgar Wideman." Callaloo 13.1 (1990): 47-61 Sanoff, Alvin. Review of Philadelphia Fire. U.S. News and World Repod 15 Oct. 1990: 92-93. Scruggs, Charles. Sweet Home: Invisible Cities in the Afro-American Novel. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP. 1993. Sheppard, R. Z. Review of Philadelphia Fire. Time 1 Oct. 1990: 90. Squires, Gregory D. Capital and Communities in Black and White. Albany: SUNY P, 1994. Steinberg, Sybil. Review of Philadelphia Fire. Publishers Weekly 17 Aug. 1990: 53. Towns, Saundra. "Addison Gayle Interviewed by Saundra Towns." Black Position 2 (1972): 4-36. Trueheart, Charles. "The 'Fire' This Time." Washington Post 20 May 1991: 82. -"Wideman Wins Book Prize." Washington Post 3 May 1991: 82.
Wideman, John Edgar. "The Architectonics of Fiction." Callaloo 13.1 (1990): 42-46.
-. Brothers and Keepers. New York: Penguin, 1984.
-. "Dead Black Men and Other Fallout from the American Dream." Esquire Sep.1992: 149-56.
-"The Divisible Man." Life 11.5 (1988): 116.

-. The Homewood Trilogy. New York: Avon, 1985. -. Philadelphia Fire. New York: Vintage, 1990. Williams, Raymond. The Country and the City. London: Oxford UP, 1973. Willis, Susan. Specifying: Black Women Writing the Amer~can Experience. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1987. Wilson, Matthew. "The Circles of History in John Edgar Wideman's The Homewood Trilogy." CLA Journal 33 (1 990): 239-59. Zukin, Sharon. Landscapes ofpower. Berkeley: U of Califorma P, 1991

essay "The Divisible Man." the necessary offshoots of Like his fictional narrator hyperliterary the progress achieved by Cudjoe, Wideman here Style of the city of conspicuous mourns the absence of "the consumption: "At the same alternative institutions we Philadelphia time over in the nortl~ and dreamed of creating in the Fire pe~orms in the west where people

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