No Witness to an Execution

Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File BY John Edgar Wideman. Scribner. HARDCOVER. 18.

The cover of Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File

At the end of Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, when the two hapless title characters, aboard their fatal voyage, open the letter that sentences them to death, Guildenstern says: "Who are we that so much should converge on our little deaths? . . . To be told so little—to such an end—and still, finally, to be denied an explanation—" He doesn't finish the sentence, of course; "to be denied an explanation" is simply his life's condition. In fictional narratives, and in the narratives we piece together uneasily out of history, some lives always seem like that: shapeless, except for the shape they give to other lives.

Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File is constructed in the spirit of Guildenstern's last sentence: parenthetical, indefinite, inconclusive. Louis Till was the father of Emmett Till, the black teenager from Chicago who was abducted and murdered by two white men, Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam, while visiting his family in Mississippi in 1955—allegedly for "wolf whistling" at a white woman in a grocery store. In a late phase of Bryant and Milam's trial, an unidentified source in the military leaked Louis Till's service records to the press, revealing that he had not died in combat in Italy in 1945, as previously assumed, but had been hanged by the US Army for an attack on three Italian women in which two were raped and one was murdered. (Some news accounts claimed that Mississippi's senators, James O. Eastland and John Stennis, masterminded the leak.) The revelation that Emmett Till's father had been convicted of rape, Wideman writes, "erased the possibility that [Emmett's] killers …would be punished for any crime, whatsoever."

Very little about Louis Till's life is an undisputed fact. He died ten years before becoming inadvertently famous, but even while alive he played almost no role in Emmett's life; in her autobiography, Mamie Till-Mobley describes her brief marriage to Louis as violent and abusive, including an incident in which he choked her nearly to death and she defended herself by scalding him with a pan of hot water. Apart from a few other details—he was born in New Madrid, Missouri, in 1922; after coming to Chicago as a teenager, he worked in an Argo corn-products factory—all that remains of Louis Till is an unidentified grave in a military cemetery in France and the Army's file on his case and execution. And, most bizarrely of all, a passing reference in Ezra Pound's The Pisan Cantos; Pound and Till were imprisoned together at the Disciplinary Training Center in Metato, north of Pisa, before Till was executed in July of 1945.

"As a writer searching for Louis Till, I choose to assume certain prerogatives," Wideman writes. "I assume the risk of allowing my fiction to enter other people's true stories. And to be fair, I let other people's stories trespass the truth of mine." The first part of this equation—"allowing my fiction to enter other people's true stories"—is what Wideman's fiction has been doing all along. His early novel The Lynchers begins with a collage of quotations, records, and eyewitness accounts; Philadelphia Fire centers on the MOVE bombing of 1985; The Cattle Killing ranges from plague-ridden Philadelphia in 1793 to the Xhosa homelands in South Africa. The second part of the quote—allowing for a certain kind of porousness, or transparency, between his own family stories and the larger landscape of history—captures the singular feature of Wideman's memoirs, Brothers and Keepers and Fatheralong, and his last novel, Fanon, in which he measures the life and teachings of the revolutionary psychiatrist and philosopher Frantz Fanon on the most intimate scale, wondering what difference they could have made, for example, in the life of his brother, who is still serving a life sentence for a murder committed in 1975.

Writing to Save a Life, like Fanon, is a book about the search for its subject; Wideman intended for it to be a novel about Emmett Till, but somehow—and he never says exactly why—he turned away from the exhaustive, endlessly recapitulated records of Emmett's murder, toward Louis Till's seemingly unrecoverable story, and then back to the well of his own memories. While he himself was exactly Emmett's age in 1955, his father was Louis's age, and also served in Europe in a colored regiment. "Some Sunday mornings," Wideman writes, in his father's voice, "before dawn they'd blow a bugle inside the colored soldiers' barracks. Roust our bad, no-sleep heads . . . everybody still stinking drunk, still asleep, half-destroyed, half-dressed…You might think the bugle call a damned go to church call, but not church on those Georgia crackers' minds. Slaves on their mind." Wideman's plan, as he makes clear, is to reawaken the living person from the fragments left in his archive, without ever pretending that a definitive version, a "truth," is possible. Which is why I think I found this passage, describing the moment Wideman finally receives Till's military case file in the mail, the most moving in the book:

Presumably, the original pages were entirely white once, white as only their edges are white today. White like a hopelessly soiled pillowcase might have been white once upon a time. The unpleasant color of the pages a history of what's been done to the file, and I can't help feeling a bit guilty and ashamed. Pages the color of my dried sweat and dirt and spit and snot. Color of my naked sleep, of where I sleep, who I sleep with, where sleep takes me and what my body leaves behind . . . Old, dirty secrets exposed to anyone who requests a transcript. The dead startled awake from uneasy sleep. Sleep the color of the file's pages.

Why not present this material with the almost endlessly forgiving designation "a novel"? Wideman is one of the great prose stylists of contemporary American fiction, a master of parallel fragments and the question-as-statement. "Sunshine or rain that day," he writes, speculating about the unknowns of Louis Till's execution. "Did the condemned meet their fate resolutely or falter. What thoughts were they thinking on the gallows steps. How many steps." As I read Writing to Save a Life, I felt jealous on behalf of the more capacious narrative that could have been, had Wideman sought to imagine more of Louis's experience.

Of course, Wideman has good reason for emphasizing the gaps in the story. Early in the book, he writes of "the silence that confronted me when I sought his voice in documents from the file," and as a reader I was acutely aware of that silence, and how desperately Wideman seems to wish he could make up for it, without ever quite finding a way. In a short section describing Louis Till's possible encounter with Pound—they may or may not have had a conversation shortly before Till was executed—Wideman relies on Pound's cryptic allusions in The Pisan Cantos, which refer to Till as the mythological ram with the golden fleece and describe him using a Chinese character meaning "no" or "is not." It's all we have. Nonetheless, it's frustrating that Wideman never attempts to describe their dialogue from Till's point of view. What would Till have seen in this grizzled, wretched poet-traitor, imprisoned in an outdoor cage? At moments like these I thought of the figures brought to life in Wideman's previous fictions and wished that he had taken one further step over the threshold of Till's consciousness. I wanted Pound's gnomic dismissal of Till to be answered, even refuted.

But there's a purpose, too, to the subtitle The Louis Till File: As Wideman discovers, the Army records offer almost no proof that Till actually committed the rape and murder he was executed for. By July of 1945, Germany had already surrendered, Hitler was dead, and the war in Europe was all but over. Military legal teams were under tremendous pressure to resolve all outstanding cases. Till was already being held in the Disciplinary Training Center for stealing sacks of sugar, and he seems to have fallen under suspicion for largely circumstantial reasons. The judge at his trial ignored the lack of any reliable eyewitness evidence locating him at the crime scene. As any good investigator would, Wideman moves back and forth over the available facts, including the trial testimony, finally concluding that Louis Till's crime—like Emmett Till's supposed flirtations, and like Trayvon Martin's trespassing in a gated community—was, as likely as not, simply "a crime of being":

I decide after spending hours and hours one afternoon, poring through the file, an afternoon not unlike numerous others, asking myself how and why the law shifted gears in its treatment of colored soldiers during World War II. Asking why colored men continue to receive summary or no justice, a grossly disproportionate share of life sentences and death sentences today. . . . In Till's court-martial as in the case of that fuck in a bed in Ohio, all the details are managed scrupulously—every t crossed, every i dotted. But seamless, careful, by the book performance provides no evidence of what the spider's thinking about the fly enmeshed in its web.

Passages like this—discursive, roundabout, more like notations than a finished text—are what make Writing to Save a Life not a novel but a file, a loose collation, intentionally unfinished and circuitous. What does it mean to save a life by writing about it, particularly a life already dispatched and politically manipulated and misused? Correcting the historical record, of course, is inherently important; Writing to Save a Life might inspire a military or legal historian to have Till officially exonerated. But Wideman's commitment is to imaginative, not legal, truth: to the realm in which, according to an Igbo proverb he often quotes, "all stories are true." In that sense, I came away wanting Wideman to create a more cohesive fiction—a coherent, consistent, fictional Louis Till—to work against the shapelessness of Till's historical presence. While understanding, at the same time, that Wideman wants me to walk away, as he walks away, still frustrated.

Jess Row is the author of the novel Your Face in Mine (Riverhead, 2014). He is at work on a new novel and a collection of essays, White Flights.