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.

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Book review

Since the 1980s, John Edgar Wideman has collected the usual prizes and accolades due a major literary figure while creating an impressive body of work. Yet, as a black writer intent on mapping the American experience through the lens of his race, he has never claimed the fame or readership of contemporaries such as Toni Morrison and Alice Walker.

The reasons are keenly felt in his latest book, “American Histories: Stories.”

In the first place, Wideman tends to draw outside the lines of traditional narrative. As seen in the new book, he combines fiction techniques with autobiography to create what might be called a memoir of the universal. Like Walt Whitman, he mines his own experience and lets it speak for the many.

Second, Wideman’s writing is so fierce and specific. The plight of black men in America has been his particular theme, and the world that judges them viciously. If white readers like me want to understand where the Black Lives Matter movement comes from, Wideman’s voice either makes sense or not but is compelling either way. Anger and resignation are the force fields of his work.

The writer’s best-known book, “Brothers and Keepers,” is frankly memoir, comparing his own path as writer and academic to that of his brother, who was convicted of robbery and murder and went to prison. Several of his novels are set in his old Pittsburgh neighborhood, where the cycle of poverty and crime grinds on.

“American Histories” feels like a coda to his impressive body of work, a series of improvisations ranging from mere fragments to the lengthy “Williamsburg Bridge,” an extended meditation told from the viewpoint of a man looking down from the girders, preparing to jump. If this sounds grim, the piece has many bedfellows, and the entire book has an autumnal feel, its words those of a man who has known too much personal tragedy and sees the interlocking issue of race as an unending part of that story.

“Time for a change is what we shout. Way past time if truth be told. And change got to start with biting the hand that claims to feed us,” he writes in “Yellow Sea.” But those lines scarcely do justice to the reach of his imagination and ideas. 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:

In “Nat Turner Confesses,” he employs the voice of the famous rebel slave on his way to the gallows. In “JB & FD,” he creates an imaginary conversation between radical white abolitionist John Brown and his more cerebral black counterpart, the famous orator Frederick Douglass.

Wideman witnesses Brown as he drops feathers like a bird, molting from white to black. Brown wonders if others notice but is afraid to ask, he tells Douglass, “for fear I will be thought mad.” Certainly many thought him so.

Douglass obviously shares Brown’s antipathy for slavery but has no appetite for his storm-the-barricades invitation. “I must die one day, John Brown, sure enough. But I feel no need to hurry it,” he says.

Their conversation, a tantalizing thought experiment, encapsulates the alternating strategies, violence versus nonviolence, that have been employed on the road to racial justice. Clearly Wideman believes that we’re all a long way from our destination.

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“American Histories: Stories” by John Edgar Wideman; Scribner; 227 pp., $26