Writing to Save a Life

The Louis Till File

Writing to Save a Life

An award-winning writer traces the life of the father of iconic Civil Rights martyr Emmett Till—a man who was executed by the Army ten years before Emmett’s murder. An evocative and personal exploration of individual and collective memory in America by one of the most formidable Black intellectuals of our time.

In 1955, Emmett Till, aged fourteen, traveled from his home in Chicago to visit family in Mississippi. Several weeks later he returned, dead; allegedly he whistled at a white woman. His mother, Mamie, wanted the world to see what had been done to her son. She chose to leave his casket open. Images of her brutalized boy were published widely. While Emmett’s story is known, there’s a dark side note that’s rarely mentioned. Ten years earlier, Emmett’s father was executed by the Army for rape and murder.

In Writing to Save a Life, John Edgar Wideman searches for Louis Till, a silent victim of American injustice. Wideman's personal interaction with the story began when he learned of Emmett’s murder in 1955; Wideman was also fourteen years old. After reading decades later about Louis’s execution, he couldn’t escape the twin tragedies of father and son, and tells their stories together for the first time. Author of the award-winning Brothers and Keepers, Wideman brings extraordinary insight and a haunting intimacy to this devastating story.

An amalgam of research, memoir, and imagination, Writing to Save a Life is completely original in its delivery—an engaging and enlightening conversation between generations, the living and the dead, fathers and sons. Wideman turns seventy-five this year, and he brings the force of his substantial intellect and experience to this beautiful, stirring book, his first nonfiction in fifteen years.
  • Scribner | 
  • 208 pages | 
  • ISBN 9781501147289 | 
  • November 2016
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Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Writing to Save a Life includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


In the process of researching civil rights martyr Emmett Till—a fourteen-year-old black boy who was beaten, mutilated, and murdered in 1955 in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman—John Edgar Wideman finds that Emmett’s father, Private Louis Till, was hanged in Italy in 1945 for rape and murder. Like Emmett Till, Wideman was fourteen in 1955; like Louis Till, Wideman’s father served in World War II. Struck by their similarities and the horror of Emmett and Louis’s stories, the author embarks on a search for the truth of Louis Till’s life and death. From gospel music documentaries to official court transcripts to a cemetery in Brittany, France, Wideman researches the circumstances of Louis’s life and simultaneously explores his own memories of growing up black in the 1940s and 1950s. Wideman imagines what life looked like from the perspectives of Emmett, Louis, and Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till, conjuring their voices to offer up the truth absent from official records.

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About the Author

John Edgar Wideman

John Edgar Wideman’s books include American Histories, Writing to Save a Life, Philadelphia Fire, Brothers and Keepers, Fatheralong, Hoop Dreams, and Sent for You Yesterday. He is a MacArthur Fellow, has won the PEN/Faulkner Award twice, and has twice been a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and National Book Award. He divides his time between New York and France.