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Wideman Vs. Limerick
John Edgar Wideman’s “Our Time”, and Patricia Nelson Limerick’s “Empire of Innocence”, are two very different stories about one particular theme. In these selections both authors are writing history. Wideman is writing the history of his brother’s life, and Limerick is writing the history of the old west. Although the theme is the same, the two authors’ styles, methods, and writing concerns differ greatly.
In the following passage from “Our Time”, John is visiting his brother, Robby, in prison. While listening to Robby’s story, John begins to question the type of book this project will become:
The business of making a book together was new for both of us. Difficult. Awkward. Another book could be constructed about a writer who goes to a prison to interview his bother but comes away with his own story….the inevitible conflict between his role as detached observer and his responsibility as a brother would be at the center of such a book. When I stopped hearing Robby and listened to myself listening, that kind of book shouldered its way into my consciousness. I didn’t like that feeling. That book compromised the intimacy I wanted to achieve with my brother. (Wideman p. 723)
This passage stresses the concern Wideman expresses on how to make this book the type of book he wants to present. Later in the selection the answer to this problem appears.
Still listening to Robby’s story, John discovers their recollections of the past are very different. Through this discovery Wideman’s problem is solved. He shows this by writing:
Words are nothing and everything. If I don’t speak I have no past. Except the nothing, the emptiness. My brother’s memories are not mine, so I have to break into the silence with my own version of the past. My words. My whistling in the dark. His story freeing me, because it forces me to tell my own. (Wideman p. 739)
The variance between John and Robby’s stories brings Wideman to the decision to write the selection as both of the brothers’ recollections.
As Limerick tells the story of the old west, she explains, “One skill essential to the writing of Western American history is a capacity to deal with multiple points of view” (Limerick p. 504). She explains this through many stories, including the stories of Narcissa Whitman, the missionary sent to save the Indian tribes, and Julia Bulette, a prostitute. Both were murdered. Narcissa by the Indian tribe she was working with, and Julia by John Milleain of Virginia City. The Indians were looked upon as beasts, and Milleain was praised by the “respectable women” of Virginia City. In perspective, and in Limericks opinion, the Indians may not have been to blame, due to the fact that they were merely protecting themselves from the diseases brought on by Narcissa that had already killed every infected tribe member. Not to forget Julia Bulette’s favored death just because her profession was not morally accepted. These are the “views” referred to by Limerick that are often skipped over in stories of the old west.
In finishing “The Empire of Innocence” Limerick writes:
In movies and novels, as will as in histories, the stories of men and women who both entered and created a moral wilderness have begun to replace the simple contests of savagery and civilization, cowboys and Indians, white hats and black hats. By questioning the Westerner’s traditional stance as innocent victim, we do not debunk Western history but enrich it.
(Limerick p. 516)
In this passage Limerick pulls together the essence of her argument. She stresses that the old west is not simply black or white, good or bad. People like Narcissa Whitman and Julia Bulette can be both victim and villain. Bringing this to the peoples attention is Limericks way of enriching history.
Both authors tell their story well, but do their different methods keep them from reaching the same level? Wideman wrote the story of his brother’s life by letting his brother tell the story in his own words. John then reflects on his brother’s accounts of the past. By doing this he is able to avoid distorting his brother\'s story with fiction. Wideman writes his story in an entertaining way and is able to draw readers in from the very beginning. He does this
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John Edgar Wideman, Sphinx Senior Society, Limerick, Wideman, Bulette, American frontier
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