Plus, receive recommendations and exclusive offers on all of your favorite books and authors from Simon & Schuster.
Table of Contents
About The Book
“A powerful assemblage of short stories exploring late-in-life angst through personal myth, cultural memory, and riffs on an empire scorched by its own hubris” (O, The Oprah Magazine) from award-winning author John Edgar Wideman—his first collection in more than a decade.
“Race and its reverberations are at the core of this slim, powerful volume, a blend of fiction, memoir, and reimagined history, in which the boundaries between those forms are murky and ever shifting” (The Boston Globe). In this singular collection, John Edgar Wideman blends the personal, historical, and political to invent complex, charged stories about love, death, struggle, and what we owe each other. With characters ranging from everyday Americans to Jean-Michel Basquiat to Nat Turner, American Histories is a journey through time, experience, and the soul of our country.
In “JB & FD,” Wideman reimagines conversations between John Brown, the antislavery crusader, and Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist and orator—conversations that produce a fantastical, rich correspondence that spans years and ideologies. “Maps and Ledgers” eavesdrops on a brother and sister today as they ponder their father’s killing of another man. “Williamsburg Bridge” sits inside a man sitting on a bridge who contemplates his life before he decides to jump. “My Dead” is a story about how the already-departed demand more time, more space in the lives of those who survive them.
American Histories is “an important addition to Wideman’s body of writing and a remarkable demonstration of his ability to address social issues through a range of fictional forms and styles” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette). An extended meditation on family, history, and loss, American Histories weaves together historical fact, philosophical wisdom, and deeply personal vignettes. This is Wideman at his best—emotionally precise and intellectually stimulating—an extraordinary collection by a master.
Reading Group Guide
Get a FREE ebook by joining our mailing list today! Plus, receive recommendations for your next Book Club read.
In this new short-story collection, John Edgar Wideman reimagines the past and the present, the living and the dead, and the personal and the historical. Engaging with subjects both intimate and wide-ranging, Wideman explores birth, death, and the intricacies of family life with the same rigor and beauty as he does the experiences of famous historical figures like Frederick Douglass and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Dense with layered meaning and philosophical insight, these stories illuminate the joys and shadows of the human condition, particularly as they relate to love, aging, and race. From “Bonds,” about the lucky-or-unlucky birth of a child, to “Nat Turner Confesses,” about the life of revolutionary Nat Turner, this extraordinary collection builds in power and range to its striking conclusion—taken all together, a profound, essential meditation on American life.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. In the “A Prefatory Note,” John Edgar Wideman writes that his guess is that “slavery won’t disappear until only two human beings left alive, neither one strong enough to enslave the other” (page 2). What does this statement lead you to believe about Wideman’s definition of slavery, and how does that differ from your understanding of the concept?
2. In “JB & FD,” John Brown and Frederick Douglass, a white and black abolitionist, respectively, each believe in the eradication of slavery, but they disagree about how to get there. What is the effect, at the story’s end, of creating a black character named John Brown, after the figure who was, in life, the more militant of the two? How does this complicate the dialogue between the two men?
3. “My Dead” describes the narrator’s relationship with his brother Otis, or Gene. What do you make of the relationship between the narrator, describing his complex feelings about a man with the author’s last name, and the author himself?
4. “Bonds” is an unconventional story about labor, with its focus the mother’s attempt to delay her child’s birth so he won’t have an unlucky birthdate. He already has two strikes against him, she thinks—“strike of poor, strike of colored” (page 48)—and a third is too much. What does this unusual evocation of maternal love bring up for you?
5. In “Writing Teacher,” the narrator and his student, Teresa, work on her story, a story about a young woman of color, a single mother, that the narrator believes his student wants to “help.” The narrator implies that Teresa, being white and otherwise privileged, has little authentic understanding of the character she’s created. Do you believe that it’s impossible, or prohibitively difficult, for a white person to write well about people of color? What mistakes does Teresa make in this story?
6. “Williamsburg Bridge” follows a man contemplating suicide. At the end of the story, do you believe the narrator is “cured”? Do you believe that he jumps?
7. What’s the distinction between Givers and Gratefuls in “Empire”? How does that map onto distinctions in our current society?
8. In “Yellow Sea,” the narrator asks the reader to “imagine an audience of Precious composed solely of big, dark-skinned, poor, unwed teenage mothers” (page 186). How does this engagement with film compare to the narrator’s feelings about watching and being watched in “New Start,” in which he and his wife consume episodes of Downton Abbey?
9. Death is a theme in many of these stories. “Ghost Dancer,” for instance, has the narrator visited by the ghost of a bird he once fed in his garden. What’s the emotional resonance of this visitation, coming after stories like “Williamsburg Bridge” and “My Dead”?
10. In “Collage,” Romare Bearden tells Jean-Michel Basquiat a story from the Italian Renaissance, that artists at that time sometimes intentionally rendered perspective imperfectly because they feared “deep cuts opening like doors into a canvas” (page 203). How do Bearden and Basquiat, in this story, create windows into other realities with their work?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Research the works of Romare Bearden and Jean-Michel Basquiat, many of which can be viewed online. How do they compare?
2. Watch Yellow Sea or Precious, referenced in “Yellow Sea.” Discuss how the films complicate your understanding of the story.
3. Pair your reading of American Histories with one of John Edgar Wideman’s nonfiction works, like Writing to Save a Life, to deepen your understanding of his writing.
- Publisher: Scribner (March 20, 2018)
- Length: 240 pages
- ISBN13: 9781501178368
Browse Related Books
Raves and Reviews
“With the scrupulous intelligence and meditative intensity that define all this author’s work . . . . Mr. Wideman’s explicit subject is racial injustice but his treatment of it quietly deepens into existential horror. . . . This, then, is not a book for the unwary. Mr. Wideman possesses a true and terrible vision of the tragic.”
—Wall Street Journal
"A powerful assemblage of short stories exploring late-in-life angst through personal myth, cultural memory, and riffs on an empire scorched by its own hubris ... His prose, its twisting suntax, is a kind of stylish jazz of his own making."
"Wideman's 50-year writing career has won him countless awards, and the author proves his continued vitality, reimagining historical figures with vigor and soul."
"Race and its reverberations are at the core of this slim, powerful volume, a blend of fiction, memoir, and reimagined history, in which the boundaries between those forms are murky and ever shifting."
"John Edgar Wideman's latest book feels like a coda to his impressive body of work. He deftly incorporates a range of black names from the 20th century — Emmett Till, Jean-Michel Basquiat — in his riffs, then plunges deeper into history."
"John Edgar Wideman has established himself as one of the country's most formally inventive writers ... an important addition to Mr. Wideman’s body of writing and a remarkable demonstration of his ability to address social issues through a range of fictional forms and styles."
"Wideman . . . boldly subverts what a short story can be in this wonderful collection. . . . Each story feels new, challenging, and exhilarating, beguilingly combining American history with personal history."
—Publishers Weekly, starred review
"Linked by astringent wit, audacious invention, and a dry sensibility whose owner has for decades wrestled with what he describes as “the puzzle of how and why and where and who we come from." Wideman’s recent work strides into the gap between fiction and nonfiction as a means of disclosing hard, painful, and necessary truths.
—Kirkus, starred review
"Wideman’s shape-shifting, lyrical narratives offer mesmerizing and challenging perspectives on the creative process and the black experience, decisively affirming his stature as a major voice in American literature."
—Booklist, starred review
Resources and Downloads
High Resolution Images
Book Cover Image (jpg): American Histories
Author Photo (jpg): John Edgar Wideman
©Jean-Christian Bourcart(0.1 MB)
Any use of an author photo must include its respective photo credit
You may also like: Thriller and Mystery Staff Picks
More to Explore
Our Summer Reading Recommendations
Red-hot romances, poolside fiction, and blockbuster picks, oh my! Start reading the hottest books of the summer.
This Month's New Releases
From heart-pounding thrillers to poignant memoirs and everything in between, check out what's new this month.