John Edgar Wideman: the voice of America’s great divide

Erica Wagner at The New Statesman:

John Edgar Wideman’s profound new book begins, as it must, with the American Civil War. The first story in this collection, “JB & FD” imagines a kind of conversation between two of the most important figures of that conflict, the white anti-slavery crusader John Brown, hanged in December 1859 for treason, murder, and inciting slave insurrection, and the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who had himself been born enslaved.

The story begins as historical fiction but swiftly moves away from the conventional, its ten sections shifting between the voices not only of Brown and Douglass but also that of the author himself, looking out of a motel window on a snowy morning, trying to imagine himself into his characters’ lives. He considers John Brown as a boy, driving cattle through a blizzard: “I compare his predicament to mine, and I’m ashamed.”