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The Cattle Killing

The Cattle Killing

by John Edgar Wideman

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In plague-ridden 18th-century Philadelphia, a young itinerant black preacher's search for an endangered African woman plunges them both into the spiraling nightmare of a society splitting itself into white and black.


In plague-ridden 18th-century Philadelphia, a young itinerant black preacher's search for an endangered African woman plunges them both into the spiraling nightmare of a society splitting itself into white and black.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The voice of a contemporary novelist much like Wideman opens this haunting, powerful novel with stories about the city of Philadelphia as it was in his youth. Almost immediately, these memories give way to a tale of a plague-infested 18th-century city where most blacks were free, however precariously, but victimized by poverty and prejudice. White demagogues blame the blacks for the killing fever, irrationally accusing them of being carriers of the pestilence who are somehow immune to it, despite the decimation of the "Africans" and their efforts to attend the dying. In one of several evocations of historical figures, Wideman presents a brooding portrait of Bishop Richard Allen, founder of the A.M.E. church, besieged by bigots and by his own doubts. The main narrator of the tale, however, is a free, itinerant mulatto preacher, subject to visionary seizures, who travels to Philadelphia in 1793, driven by a vision (a ghostly black servant woman, a dead white child and their spectral reappearances). Also seared into his memory are the deaths of an extraordinary interracial couple and a small community of black worshippers, both murdered by white mobs under the compulsion of a racist ideology as dramatically false as its presentation is assured and absolute. Wideman attempts to grapple with the nature of truth, presenting stories and visions of a world driven to madness by warped prophecies, failed religious dogma, professional ignorance and class hypocrisy. In a piercing metaphor for the search for truth and what often passes for it, he uses the historical figures of British painter George Stubbs and American physician Benjamin Thrush to depict the absurd medical practices of the 18th century's learned men and the comically earnest rational enlightenment of their oppositesmedical amateurs trafficking in illegal corpses. At the heart of the book is the allegorical tale of the South African Xhosa people, dispossessed by white colonists, who receive a false prophecy that they must kill their precious cattle in order to magically drive the whites from their land. The misguided embrace of a prophetic lie is linked with other misshapen "truths" invoked throughout the narrative. Wideman's method here is at least as interesting as the story he tells. Sinuously winding and elliptical, brimming with mysteries and shadowy secrets, the narrative demands close attention of the reader, since the point of view segues from speaker to speaker, and time and place are deliberately left vague. His prose has never been so pure and clear, however, or so fiercely poetic. This is in essence a complex and humane riddle, an anti-prophecy that calls religious faith itself into question while invoking the tragic consequences of our racial history: the imposing spiritual presence of the uncountable souls of the dead that litter the triangle linking Europe, Africa and the New World. 30,000 first printing; author tour. (Oct.)
Library Journal
The Xhosa ritually kill off their herd in a vain attempt to keep Europeans at bay. A black preacher in 18th-century Philadelphia tries to help an endangered African woman. A contemporary narrator searches for the meaning of life on three continents. It's all here and more in two-time Pen/Faulkner award winner Wideman's first novel in six years.
Bonnie Smothers
It has been said that Wideman is a novelist who is "capable of reinventing the form." He does not quite reinvent the form with this work, but it is not due to lack of trying. This novel is multistoried and must be read more than once to appreciate its inventiveness. The first problem, or challenge, is identifying the narrator. Is it the boy/man of the prologue, trudging up a hill in Philadelphia to read his manuscript to his father, if the father will listen? Is it the itinerant preacher working a plague-ridden city and haunted by an elusive, featureless African woman? Or the storytelling griot trying to heal a bedridden woman, or perhaps the blind white woman, conjured up by the griot? Or is it all the elaborate tale of the father, alluded to in the book's epilogue? And resting uneasily at the center of all this telling and pleading with the reader to listen, in this novel within a novel about novels, is a fable about the Xhosa of South Africa, who believe a child's vision and destroy their cattle herd to appease some higher authority who would then rid them of their curse--the overbearing presence of white people bent on destroying, however blindly, the Xhosa's culture. But, of course, the cattle killing only ensured their own destruction. On that theme, Wideman's narrators riff, each trying a new improvisatory trick to keep the reader listening. Quite an interesting exercise; quite a lyrical little trap.
Vanity Fair
"Fiercely beautifuly and deeply affecting."
Kirkus Reviews
A complex and challenging new novel from the author of Sent For You Yesterday (1985), Fever (1989), and other rich, provocative examinations of America's heritage of racial injustice.

Wideman's narrator tells the "story" his book promises to contain to his father, who is also a writer. It's a static one, essentially a series of tableaux, with many protagonists. Among them is an 18th-century black preacher who has escaped from a "stricken city" (Philadelphia) in time of plague "to seek refuge in the peaceful environs of the countryside where I wandered preaching the word of God." The book's title refers to the African Xhosa tribe, who also figure in the narrative: Following the dictates of a false prophecy, they destroy their cattle herd believing that this will prevent their enslavement by European colonizers. Also central to the complex narrative are the mysterious appearances of a disabled young African woman (sometimes mute, sometimes blind) who represents to those who view her, variously, a teacher, a savior, an accuser, and a judge. The novel quite deliberately eschews linear plot, ranging across three centuries, circling back repeatedly to focus, from constantly shifting perspectives, on retold and transformed stories: of a racially mixed couple murdered by their neighbors; a black bishop who courageously removed his congregation from "the white people's church" in 18th-century Philadelphia; and an aristocratic white family that casts out a baby infected with the plague, bringing on its own eventual annihilation. Wideman, two-time winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award, is an accomplished and powerful stylist, and the sheer formal beauty of his tense, dramatic, image-filled sentences gives his angry summa of our violent history a commanding authority.

A dazzling apocalyptic meditation—and a brilliantly imagined portrayal of 18th-century America—that nevertheless lacks coherence and presents a web of enigmatic symbolism so thickly woven that many willing readers simply won't know what to make of it.

From the Publisher

"Captivating Language and emotion" The San Francisco Chronicle

"Fiercely beutiful and deeply affecting" Vanity Fair

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 8.51(h) x 0.84(d)

Meet the Author

JOHN EDGAR WIDEMAN is the author of more than twenty works of fiction and nonfiction, including the award-winning Brothers and Keepers, Philadelphia Fire, and the story collection God’s Gym. He is the recipient of two PEN/ Faulkner Awards and has been nominated for the National Book Award.

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