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...