Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File by John Edgar Wideman

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In 1945, an Army private named Louis Till was arrested by military police and court-martialed. In jail, awaiting sentencing and death, he found himself a neighbor to the great American poet and traitor Ezra Pound, who wrote of him in the Pisan Cantos: “Till was hung yesterday/for murder and rape with trimmings.”

This was more information than anyone had told Louis’s wife, Mamie. She learned the story of her husband’s death only 10 years later, when the details were leaked to the press by Mississippi senators who were seeking to justify the murder of Louis Till’s 14-year-old son. The son’s name was Emmett.

“It is difficult to get the news from poems,” Pound’s friend William Carlos Williams once wrote, “yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” The facts about Louis Till that lay buried in Pound’s poem could have provided a grieving woman with closure. When they passed on from poetry and became, once again, news, they served only to reinforce the official Southern account of Emmett Till’s lynching: he was, like his father, just a sexually rapacious you-know-what.

In this book, the novelist John Edgar Wideman has taken the facts of Louis Till’s life and death back from journalism and fashioned them again into literature. He details his obsession with the story of Louis and Emmett, two fatherless sons, and his attempts to determine whether Louis’s court-martial was fair. As in most of Wideman’s late novels, the style is full of fragments, run-ons, long riffs of memory and chance association, as if to capture the obsessive second-guessing of a great mind trying to get out of the labyrinth that is American history.

The book freely blends fact, fiction, and chance memory, as Till’s murderers did on the stand—the white woman Emmett supposedly grabbed recently admitted that he never touched her—but with this difference: Wideman always tells you when he’s making things up. The result is a portrait of American life truer than a thousand newspapers. (Simon & Schuster)

About the Author

Phil Christman teaches English at the University of Michigan and attends St. Clare's Episcopal Church in Ann Arbor, Mich.

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