Search and Rescue: John Edgar Wideman’s “Writing to Save a Life”

Search and Rescue: John Edgar Wideman’s “Writing to Save a Life” January 9, 2021

I read Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File is a very personal meditation on, and investigation into, the other Till case. After Emmett Till was lynched in Mississippi in 1955, when his family was seeking justice, sources leaked his father’s military file, which spelled out details which even his family had never been told: that Louis Till was executed by the military for rapes committed in wartime Italy. This leaked file was used to discredit the family and prevent any justice for Emmett’s murderers. Wideman reads the file on Louis Till. He reads it backwards, he cuts it up and collages it, he visits Till’s dishonorable and nameless grave in France; he tells us what he ate in France and what his friends there are like.

For a long time as I was reading this book it seemed like the more personal and meditative it was, the more often it turned vague or self-indulgent. (And I’ll say that some of the passages speculating on the rapes for which Louis Till was sentenced seemed to me prurient and/or stereotyped–although Wideman also listens to the victims’ voices with much more attentiveness, much more willingness to hear and imagine their reality, than the US Army ever did.) And yet toward the end I began to see something I think the book is doing, and it’s a haunting, penetrating thing.

Wideman makes a lot of unusual analogies and associations: algae on a French beach is shorn hair on the floor of a black barbershop, or mounds of stolen warehoused hair for wigs. “X is Y” is poetry. Is it also dehumanizing? A lot of this book is about the identification, or deliberate confusion, of one black man with another. Wideman identifies his father with Louis Till, Till with his murdered son, St. Martin de Porres with a man he once feared who bore the evocative name of Clement. All of them are any black man. They’re any black man to the prosecutors who have reasons to execute Louis Till even if another man committed the crimes. They’re any black man to the highly-placed military men who made sure that Louis Till’s shameful death was leaked to the press in order to discredit his widow after the murder of her child. Wideman’s mother says he’s selfish, just like his father; Wideman’s brother sits in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.

There’s a moment where Wideman describes himself, “Afraid that someone looking for Louis Till is coming to pry me apart.”

But this identification of any black man as all black men is also how community works. It’s how Wideman can see his own losses and his own family in the Tills. It’s how he can see himself in both abusive parent and saint; and if he couldn’t see himself in the former, how could he approach the latter? In the AA terminology, we “identify with” someone else. We see his possibilities as our own. All are responsible for the sins of all.

I know this is only one thing the book is doing, and other aspects of its investigation into unknowable, necessary truths will be more powerful to others. But this was the thing that struck me. There are a lot of painful scenes in this book, as you might expect: the 4×4 nameless, numbered graves of the American soldiers executed by their own country, a grave too small for a man in spite of their hidden cemetery’s “preposterous dignity.” There’s the pain that comes from the fact that nobody at the time had any interest in determining the truth of what happened the night before Louis Till was arrested in Italy—nobody with any power, that is. And so now the truth is fragmented and dissolving, misleading, impossible to know which story carries more of it. Wideman says that all the stories are true. That might be the closest thing the book can offer to hope, because it suggests that he is not only one of these men, but all of them. The hope is that a black man can open the door shaped like his shadow and find, on the other side, friendship and not destruction.

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