A Life Story, Buried and Unburied
By Jo Scott-CoeMarch 2, 2017
Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File by John Edgar Wideman
I seek out some nonfiction knowing I will find the author’s train of mind as compelling as his subject. This was certainly true with John Edgar Wideman’s latest book, Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File.
The lynching of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955 is a travesty Wideman explored more than a decade ago. In a long essay, “Looking at Emmett Till,” he recollected his early understanding that the same terrible fate could easily have befallen him at the same age. But something beyond private empathy or narrative history motivated Wideman further. Reflecting on what it meant to write about Till, he shared his suspicion that readers draw a line too readily—arbitrarily? conveniently?—between truth and lies. Wideman later wrote a commentary to accompany the republication of his "Looking at Emmett Till" essay, in which he noted that “All information includes a point of view, intention, and author. Facts pretend this isn’t so. Good writing reminds us everyone’s responsible for dreaming a world, and the dream, the point of view embodied by it, within it, is as close to fact, to reality, as we ever get.”
Writing to Save a Life is good writing by this standard, shaking readers into an awareness of a “serial” American nightmare that we must conjure, face, and own. Wideman this time revisits Till’s story through the lens of a less-known but equally devastating injustice: the hasty execution of Till’s father, Louis, on dubious military rape and murder charges in 1945. Furthermore, we discover how Louis’s confidential military file was leaked to the press—“conjured like an evil black rabbit from an evil white hat”—sabotaging forever any chance that a grand jury would indict his son’s killers for kidnapping after they’d already been acquitted of murder.
In excavating this narrative (a life story both buried and unburied), Wideman asks readers to consider how silence and amnesia have enabled violence against black men in courtrooms, in newsrooms, in military tribunals. He meditates on the ways individuals may themselves resort to silence as a strategy because they know their perspectives cannot be heard. Wideman allows us to watch him probe these gaps, taking them as seriously as the documents we get to see: newspaper clippings, transcript excerpts, and an entire section dedicated to the file Wideman eventually holds in his hands. We encounter expressions of fear both personal and social: “I’m afraid Louis Till might be inside me,” he says. “Afraid that someone looking for Louis Till is coming to pry me apart.”
Wideman’s style refuses quick summary. One important technique marks the book when he pauses—between examinations of artifacts, descriptions of site visits, or personal reflections—to intercut questions as flat assertions, indicating them with periods instead of question marks. These meditations often stretch into litanies, as here:
What if the person who prepared the Till file to be read by others had decided not only that Louis Till’s voice must be heard, but must be heard first. What if the reader of the file could enter its pages without being assaulted by the same unforgiving tale repeated by three review boards. What if the voices of Till’s wife, Mamie Till, or Till’s son, Emmett, or a buddy of Louis Till from the 379th Battalion, a colored GI not on trial for murder, were included in the file. What if the file included the hurry-up memo from General Eisenhower ordering expeditious completion of all capital court-martials in Europe. Or included statistics documenting the stunningly disproportionate number of colored soldiers accused, convicted, and executed for rape.
The periods slow us down, jarring us to recognize that our available set of “facts” cannot be extricated from the way our attention has been composed for us. Wideman’s “what ifs” pry open narrative room for considerations that were “impossible” only because they weren’t yet imagined or connected.
Even as the author pursues, investigates, and imagines evidence, Writing to Save a Life does not fall into a simplistic trap of refutation or straightforward argument. Some readers, predictably, will want precisely that, and these same folks may equally resist the more vivid and poignant stream-of-consciousness moments of the book, including stunning meditations about women (namely Mamie Till and Wideman’s own mother), whose lives are torn differently by racial violence.
But the book’s resistance to an expected order is precisely what makes its writing powerful: its inventive form demands that we wake, that we witness, without imposing aesthetic limitations to confine the writer’s message and impact. Like the boxer he imagines Till to have been, Wideman bobs, weaves, feints, and throws punches between the lines, not allowing the reader to settle down inside warm or self-affirming conclusions. Here is a master who invites us, warily, to descend with him into the uneasiness that is essential for “dreaming a world,” a world that must get closer to reality before reality can be seen for what it is.
Jo Scott-Coe is the author of two nonfiction books: Teacher at Point Blank and MASS: A Sniper, a Father, and a Priest. Her writing has appeared in many venues, most recently including Catapult, Talking Writing, Assay, Salon, and Superstition Review, and her work has twice received notable listings in Best American Essays. Jo is an associate professor of English at Riverside City College, where she was chosen this year to deliver the 57th Distinguished Faculty Lecture, titled “Private Letters and Public Witness: 50 Years After America’s First School Shooting."