Brothers and Keepers

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Brothers and Keepers is a memoir written by John Edgar Wideman. It was published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston in 1984.

Plot summary[edit]

Two brothers, Afro-Americans, John and Robert, grow up together in the same neighborhood in Homewood. But they live very different lives. On November 15, 1975, the author's younger brother, Robert, was involved in a botched robbery that left a man dead. Being unemployed and in need of money to buy heroin he and his friends tried to steal a truck load of stolen TV sets, but one of his accomplices shot the fence who was trying to run away. Wanted for armed robbery and murder, Robert and his accomplices ran for three months. Suddenly Robert turns up at John's house in Laramie, and stays overnight, before he was arrested by the police the next day. John was a writer and taught literature and creative writing at the University of Wyoming at that time. As John got involved with them he himself became a suspect for the police. Robert, a junkie, drug dealer, and thief, eventually was sentenced to life in a Pittsburgh prison with no chance of parole, even though it wasn't he who shot the man. During his time in prison Robert is frequently visited by his brother John. Robert writes and talks to him about his experiences in the prison, and also earned a college degree whilst in prison.[1][2]

According to Lionel Mandy there are "at least two books within these covers", the first being a "biographical family portrait of the Widemans and their forebears", while the "second book concerns the prison, and the larger society within which it exists."[3]


The New York Times says that "by combining his [the author's] own literary skill with the candor and vitality of his brother's street style, Mr. Wideman gives added power and dimension to this book about the contrary values and goals of two brothers. It is a rare triumph in its use of diverse linguistic styles" and he "uses an impressive array of literary skills" and "convincingly mimes the rhythms and style of the Depression writings of Carl Sandburg and Margaret Walker."[1]


The book was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1984.[4] The New York Times describes the book as a "gripping account of the events, social pressures and individual psychological responses that led his brother Robert to prison for murder and him [the author] to a middle-class life as a professor of English" and also as "a sensitive and intimate portrayal of the lives and divergent paths taken by two brothers". It furthermore is described as a "source of some powerfully written scenes in which he conveys his impressions of American prisons" especially the experiences with the guards, "the Keepers", who degrade the prisoners as well as their guests. He has "succeeded brilliantly in both understanding his brother's life and coming to terms with his own."[1] Kirkus Reviews describes the book as having a "powerful initial grab [...], but only sporadic flickers of drama and insight amid the narrative convolutions."[5]

It was frequently quoted in Didier Eribon's 2018 book Returning to Reims.


  1. ^ a b c "John Edgar Wideman, Brothers and Keepers (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1984)". Portfolio at NYU.
  2. ^ Reed, Ishmael (November 4, 1984). "Of One Blood, Two Men". The New York Times.
  3. ^ Lionel, Mandy (2 November 1987). "Brothers and Keepers by John Edgar Wideman". National Black Law Journal. 10 (2).
  4. ^ "National Book Critics Circle: awards". Archived from the original on October 18, 2015. Retrieved June 25, 2017.
  5. ^ "BROTHERS AND KEEPERS by John Edgar Wideman". Kirkus Reviews. September 15, 1984.