The author John Edgar Wideman was 14 years old and living in Pittsburgh when a horrific photo began making the rounds back in 1955. It depicted the mangled corpse of 14-year-old Emmett Till, a black kid from Chicago who was lynched—supposedly for flirting with a white woman—while visiting relatives down in Mississippi. Till was brutally beaten and shot. His partially decomposed body was recovered later from a nearby river, his face half bashed in. Till’s distraught mother famously insisted on an open-casket funeral, “so the world can see what they did to my boy.”
Wideman saw what they did. “It just scared the shit out of me,” he recalls.
Now 75, Wideman is a professor at Brown University. He’s built a distinguished career in academia and literature, with some 20 works of fiction and nonfiction under his belt. Among other honors, Wideman won the Pen/Falkner award in 1987 for the novel Sent for You Yesterday, and again in 1991 for Philadelphia Fire. His 1994 memoir, Fatheralong, was a National Book Award finalist. His trophy case also includes an O. Henry Award (for his short story “Weight”), a James Fenimore Cooper Prize for historical fiction (for his 1997 novel, The Cattle Killing), and a MacArthur Fellowship—a.k.a. “genius grant.”
But the Till photo remained with him all these years. His captivating new book, Writing to Save a Life, tackles the Till family saga—and Wideman’s own—through a lens of history, mystery, memoir, and fiction. In the book, which comes out next week, readers are introduced to different versions of Louis Till, Emmett’s father, who was charged with rape and murder while stationed in Italy during World War II, and then court-martialed and hanged by the US military. Wideman struggles to make sense of old documents from the proceedings (obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request), as well as the parallels between the Till family and his own.
In the process, Wideman revives an incredibly disturbing but largely forgotten detail from the Emmett Till affair. After the white racists accused of killing Till were acquitted of murder in a farcical trial, a grand jury was convened to consider kidnapping charges against the men. That’s when portions of Louis Till’s military file were abruptly declassified and leaked to the local press. The victim’s family was thus sullied, and the kidnapping charges, for whatever reason, never came to pass.
Mother Jones: I’ll begin with a not-so-serious question. Why don’t you use question marks?
John Edgar Wideman: I’ll give you a serious answer. I don’t like the way they look. They’re really ugly. They look like blots. At some other point in my life, I might have disliked them because I never knew how to properly apply them. Also commas, and whether they were outside the quote or inside the quote—that all seemed like an unnecessary pain in the ass.
I really love James Joyce, Dubliners and other work. And I was interested in the way the dash was used in English topography—in his work particularly—and I realized there was no compulsion to use those ugly dot-dot curlicues all over the place to designate dialogue. I began to look around, and found writers who could make transitions quite clear by the language itself. I’m a bit of a maverick now. I’m always trying to push the medium.
MJ: As a reader, I particularly enjoy the way you get distracted in the telling of one story, and suddenly we’re off in some other direction—it’s Joycean, I suppose, like we’re riding your daydreams. Louis Till’s military file finally comes in the mail, you put it aside, and a few minutes later you start thinking about turkey. Before long, we’re back at your family Thanksgiving table.
JW: Remember that a book is many drafts—mine certainly are. It’s improvisation. It’s as much jazz and the way we talk and the way I heard people preach coming up as it is writing. When you’re at the basketball court watching a game, one person may be talking about a fight he had with his wife, another is talking about the last hard-on he got, someone else is talking about the presidential election. The language and the tone and the voice—I’d love to be able to capture that spontaneity.
MJ: There’s a fine line with the improvisation, though. I mean, there were definitely places I had to work hard to puzzle out who’s talking, or from whose perspective a particular passage is written.
JW: I don’t mind that. As a reader, Mike, I do not like to have everything handed to me. Because after a while it gets formulaic and I’m thinking, “If this is so thought through, then why do I need to read it. It’s done!” It becomes a beach book at a certain point.
MJ: Writing to Save a Life is stylistically unusual. It’s often hard to tell what’s real and what’s made up. Is there a precedent?
JW: There are plenty. I read all the time, and lots of European fiction. Sometimes it’s not a question of reading contemporaries: You read Moby-Dick again, Melville again, and it had those same kinds of issues with style, trying to accommodate this new American language with traditional style. I really dislike it when people talk about “experimental,” because any good writer is experimental. As a writer, you don’t know what the hell you’re doing. You’re just doing it. You hope it works out well. I’ve been experimenting with these things myself in my own books.
MJ: At one point you put yourself and Louis Till in a boat full of slaves and Confederate officers—back in 1861!
JW: You think that’s fiction? [Laughs.]
MJ: Until I read your book, I was unaware that Emmett Till’s killers had escaped kidnapping charges after details from Louis Till’s military trial were leaked. It made the news back in 1955. But have Americans of your generation buried that part of the Emmett Till story?
JW: I’m almost positive they have. Christopher Hitchens, who died a few years back, and who was a radical journalist in certain ways and kind of a pain in the ass in other ways, was a tremendously well-read guy who liked to be ahead of everybody else. He included an essay I wrote about Till [“Fatheralong”] in The Best American Essays 2010 and he said he could not believe that he’d never heard this story. I’ve had that response many times from individuals.
MJ: Now, you’d originally planned to write a fictional work about Emmett Till. What happened?
JW: It got put on the back burner. I got very interested in Frantz Fanon and Martinique. And I wanted to write stories about my own family and background. I started to do research in South Carolina on our family history. All that stuff, without my knowing it, kept leading back to Emmett Till. But I had to do something about him, because I never got over seeing that photo.
MJ: Tell me more about your reaction to seeing Emmett Till’s corpse.
JW: It was incomprehensible. I could not understand what had happened to this kid. It was too horrible. I literally could not look at it. I had a young person’s ambitions and dreams. I thought, “Hell, I’m going to play pro basketball. I’m going to maybe be famous. I’m going to write books.” And then this face is looking at me: Here’s another thing that could happen to you, son.
My grandfather had asked me many times whether I’d like to come to South Carolina with him. He wanted to introduce me to our people down there and I didn’t want to go. In those days, the South was still a place where black kids were lynched. Something horrible could happen to you. I’ve had that feeling my whole life. Even in my adult years, when I heard a white person speaking in a Southern accent I was initially suspicious. So I had a deep prejudice against the South. It’s taken me many years to get over that, be more open and thoughtful. The Till stuff brought all that up.
MJ: There’s a parallel to all of this in the book. Mamie Till is nostalgic about the South while her husband, from Missouri, is scornful of the South. I don’t know how much of that is real.
JW: Louis Till’s internal monologues are my invention. But he is based on many people I knew, including my father, who shared that deep ambivalence about the South and their own identity. And this goes along with color. You know, Michael Jordan was a hero of mine. But what nobody ever talked about at the time he was becoming world-famous, and it always struck me, is that in many circles of black people he wouldn’t have been acceptable. He was too dark. He had that Southern look. He was from the Deep South, and even for African Americans in the North, the South still represented something vestigial, something primitive, and Jordan was the wrong color. There were fraternities and sororities where he wouldn’t be all that welcome. Some of us have transitioned out of that kind of stuff, but my grandmother, if Jordan had walked in the door, she wouldn’t have been impolite, but she would have treated him like she treated my [other] grandfather, whom she always called “Mr. Wideman” and kept her distance from him because he was Deep South and she was very fair-skinned.
MJ: In what ways were your father and Emmett Till’s father alike?
JW: Well, they both liked to box. And they were both survivors. To be a survivor as an African American man—maybe any man—you have to be pretty tough. Or at least that’s what we all understand. You have to be a minor superhero just to get to be a dignified man, and that’s kind of exacerbated for men of color.
My father was also quite patriotic—he rooted for the Yankees when no one else did because they were “America’s team.” He made us stand up when the national anthem was on when there was a ball game on the radio, and later TV—you couldn’t sit! My father was also a loner, like Till. He could be very loving, but he was also capable of looking out for himself, for doing what he wanted to do. He combined many of the elements that were feared in the culture, but also he was a warm figure, a figure we needed. We depended on him to give us a little bit of strength and courage. My mother loved my father. From my view, she let him get away with too much. It broke my heart to see him in an old people’s home and stop being strong and lose his voice. He was a very articulate guy and he told good stories. Much of what I think about in Louis Till I project from my own father.
MJ: Your dad related to you how his own black military regiment in the South would get hauled out on Sunday mornings and made to do hard labor. Yet he remained a patriot?
JW: Oh, yes. That split is inside all Americans. There are contradictions inside all of us about color and race. We’ve learned to cover them up and live with them and pretend that deep cleavage is not there. We all bear that illness.
MJ: The file on Louis Till’s court-martial is a central character in the book, and one with which you have a tortured interaction. When it arrives, you are filled with fear and suspicion. What were you were afraid of?
JW: I’m not a fearful person, but I’m a pretty pessimistic person. So some of my best times are waiting, anticipating. That’s the way it always has been with me, whether anticipating a ball game, anticipating a relationship. Things seem to fall apart inevitably. I get off on anticipating and waiting much more than I get off on the actual event. When I’m writing, I’m thinking, “Well, this might be a book that I’ll always be happy with, and certainly readers will be happy with.” But another part of me knows that when I’m past the stage of writing, the book is gonna have good things about it, bad things about it—probably more bad than good. I just know that. That’s who I am.
MJ: My sense is that you had hoped to find yet another moral outrage in that file, another lynching, but it turned out to be complicated.
JW: I didn’t find an open-and-shut case. I didn’t find one more lynch-law shooting in the street, and villains—good guys, bad guys. Reading the Till file, I hoped, would clarify some of my pessimism about my country, about myself, about my family, about the Tills. But in another way I knew it wouldn’t. So the file sat there as a sort of challenge before I even opened it.
MJ: Like a forensic defense attorney, you interrogated the file from every possible angle: the questions not asked, the abridged statements and translations, the mystery of Louis Till’s silence about his own guilt or innocence.
JW: I started out to solve a puzzle that bothered me very deeply. The file was what I thought might be my means for solving it, but I was asking an awful lot of a bunch of old papers. I found not the solution to a puzzle, but many puzzles. There was the old paper, the file itself, which was a couple hundred pages, but then there were files inside of files inside of files, and the process never ended. It still hasn’t.
MJ: What’s your theory about why Louis Till never gave a statement to his accusers?
JW: Well, he sort of understood the way things worked. He came into the world an orphan, and when you’re an orphan you don’t have a daddy to appeal to. I guess maybe you could become religious and have a Heavenly Father to appeal to, but he had to learn to find the answers to problems and issues on his own. That’s quite a burden.
MJ: You write, “Not even truth is close to truth. So we create fiction.” Talk about that.
JW: Our thoughts, our language, are always at a distance from whatever they’re trying to describe. We have other kinds of languages, like mathematics, like music, like art, but there’s always that gap. We’re dreamers and—since we only have one life, and if we screw up we can get in a world of trouble—we’re very intense dreamers. That’s the beauty and the terror of being human beings: We just have these symbolic languages, these dreams, and that’s all it ever is. There is no American history. There is no French history. There is no John Wideman. There are all these dreams that are floating around. People construct them and fight with them and criticize them, and the world goes on. I don’t think the stars pay much attention.
MJ: I sense that this book was a struggle for you.
JW: Yes, absolutely. To write a story about Louis Till puts me on trial. If I have objections to the way that he was treated, I certainly don’t want the way I treat him, or the way I treat myself in this book, to mirror what I think of as unfair or unjust. I want to give the evidence in a way that is convincing, but I don’t want to cheat. You can say, “Has this guy done a Till story any justice? Has he done America any justice?” You can make your own choice.
MJ: Shame comes up a lot in this book—for making a scene at your first haircut, for being caught spying on your mom in the bath, for your tryst with Latreesha. These little moments from the past still haunt you. Where did this deep propensity for shame come from?
JW: I have continued, throughout my life, to commit the same kinds of transgressions. I’m still vulnerable and still weak. I’m still divided in my principles and what I think is right and what I’m actually able to do, whether talking about writing or being a citizen or being a husband or being a father. And I’m trying to get better. I can’t pretend that I did one really awful thing—I took a bite out of the apple but now I’m never going to sin again. I believe—what did Faulkner say? “The past is not even past.”
MJ: I’m really struck by your willingness to put your vulnerabilities on paper, even when they might be embarrassing or politically incorrect. Do you feel any qualms about sharing so much of your internal life?
JW: If I felt too apprehensive, I would declare the Fifth. I don’t tell everything. I want the reader to have the feeling that maybe they know the whole truth, but they don’t.
MJ: In Brothers and Keepers, you wrote of being the academic success while your kid brother went to prison as an accomplice to murder. Today you have a daughter playing pro basketball while your son has been incarcerated for a killing. I don’t quite know how to put this, but the irony of that situation…
JW: I don’t know how to put it either. Maybe that’s why I write books. Books are an attempt to control something that’s uncontrollable. That’s one of the beauties, I think, of African American life. There was this thing called slavery and adjustments were made. It literally destroyed millions, but it didn’t destroy everybody and it didn’t destroy the inner lives of all the people who experienced it. There are still horrible things that go on because of the myth of race, but we don’t have to succumb totally. If I had only a negative side of things to present, I think I would have much less of a drive to do it. Because what would be the point?
MJ: You visited a cemetery plot in Italy where the US military buried in numbered graves the remains of 96 American soldiers executed during World War II—83 of them were black men. Louis Till was number 73. What did you hope to find there?
JW: I wasn’t sure. I was just amazed that this history that had preoccupied me for so many years actually had a kind of physical environment that I could touch and see. That was the attraction.
MJ: The fact that 86 percent of those executed were black, at a time and place where blacks made up less than 10 percent of American soldiers: That alone seems to cast doubt on the fairness of Louis Till’s prosecution.
JW: Well, clearly his prosecution did not begin after the alleged crime of murder and rape. The persecution and prosecution of Till began a long time before that, and I really want the book to point that out. There’s a kind of a puzzle at the end: Well, did he do it or didn’t he? I was more interested in the long view. What is all this? What’s happened to cause this situation? What happened to make this cemetery real?