The American Academy of Arts and Letters was founded in 1904 as a highly selective group of 50 members within a larger organization called the National Institute of Arts and Letters. Over the years the two groups functioned separately with different memberships, budgets, and boards of directors. In 1993 the two groups finally agreed to form a single group of 250 members under the name of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Members are chosen from the fields of literature, music, and the fine arts. Members must be native or naturalized citizens of the United States. They are elected for life and pay no dues. New members are elected only upon the death of other members.
This year 12 new members were elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. One of the 12 new members is an African American.
John Edgar Wideman is the Asa Messer Professor and professor of Africana studies and literary arts at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Before joining the faculty at Brown, Professor Wideman was a Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Earlier, he taught at the University of Wyoming.
Professor Wideman grew up in Pittsburgh and then enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania where he was an all-Ivy League basketball player. His senior year at Penn, Wideman was named a Rhodes Scholar, the first African American to win the honor in over a half century. In 1992, Professor Wideman told JBHE that “I was very aware of race during the entire process” of being considered for a Rhodes Scholarship. “I knew I was being made an exception and that consciousness and awareness were there all the time.”
After returning from Oxford, Wideman graduated from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Professor Wideman is the author of numerous novels, short story collections, and memoirs including Brothers and Keepers (Henry Holt, 1984) and Fatheralong: A Meditation on Fathers and Sons, Race and Society (Pantheon, 1994).