by Edward Porter
Edward P. Jones collects netsuke—miniature figures typically carved out of ivory or wood, that were originally a kind of decorative button which Japanese men attached to the sash of their kimonos but later evolved into their own highly developed art form. Jones’s interest in these crafted figures calls attention to the carvers, whittlers, carpenters, and weavers—craftsmen and creators—that fill his fictional worlds.
In the last pages of The Known World—Jones’s 2003 novel, set on a southern plantation in the mid-19th century—one of the characters travels to Washington, where he sees an exhibit of two enormous composite art works, “part tapestry, part painting, and part clay structure . . . a map of life made with every kind of art man has ever thought to represent himself.” One tapestry shows the fictitious county in rural Virginia in which the novel is set, and the other depicts the Townsend plantation, home to most of its characters. Through the image of the tapestries, all those characters are present, including those who have died in the course of the previous pages—spirits risen from the grave: “Each person’s face . . . is raised up as though to look in the very eyes of God.” It is a profound, highly emotional moment. It is not in any conventional sense a religious or spiritual one. Jones has said, “I’m not a religious person but I’m doomed to write about people who are.” Moreover, by this point in the book, there’s been so much dark irony about the deeds God is called upon to endorse that a straightforward religious reading is clearly not intended (the spirits of the dead, on the other hand, are presented as absolutely factual). The novel invites us to read the tapestries as metafictional: the characters are looking up at not at their big-C Creator, but rather at their author—netsuke staring back at the carver.
The Known World won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize, sold well (and continues to do so), and would likely appear on short lists for the most significant book published by an American in the 21st century. Such an impact can be attributed to the triple-threat combination of daring subject material, unusual structure, and plainspoken prose that evokes the Bible (if one can imagine an Old Testament book in which a latter day Onan “took his thing in his hand and did it”).
The novel centers around free African-Americans who owned plantations and slaves in the years before the Civil War. The book opens with the death of Henry Townsend, a black slave-owner, at the age of 31, flashes back to Henry’s rise to owner status, then moves forward to the dissolution of his small empire after his death. As we might expect, we see how the institution of slavery warped the moral fabric of nearly everyone and everything with which it came in contact. At the same time, the novel has no interest in critiquing slavery per se; its evil is a given, the assumed reality along the road to other explorations.
The Known World also declines to revolve around a Thomas Sutpen-like protagonist. While the Townsend plantation is the novel’s familial, geographic focal point, the novel gives literally dozens of other figures equal weight with Henry: all are treated by the narrator with equal gravity and interest. Jones is unwilling to let any of his people serve as background for others, or, put another way, he insists on the possibility that anyone might move into the foreground.
This democracy of narrative importance makes The Known World a favorite in the academy, as an embodiment of postmodern theory. What’s more, the novel’s egalitarian agenda extends to the worst of its characters as well as the best—it levels in both directions. From Jones’s 2008 interview for The African American Review:
[i]t’s the sense that for every character you create, you have to give them their due. There is a character in The Known World who is crippled, for instance, who is the most angelic character in the whole book. You don’t have to spend a lot of time on her. Good people come with their own stories because there are not a lot of good people in the world. There are a ton of bad people, and you have to explain how they got to the bad part of their lives.
Equally unconventional is the novel’s handling of time and space. From paragraph to paragraph, and even within paragraphs, we are swept backwards or forwards, sometimes abruptly. While most of the action takes place during the 1840s and ’50s in Virginia, the course of three pages may take us from an accused Frenchman in his cell in the county seat, to his family in France in the years after his hanging, to the destruction of the records of his trial in 1912, to a conversation in bed between a juror and his wife the night of his conviction. The novel is divided into 12 chapters, each containing a dozen or so subsections. It would be difficult to find a subsection that does not contain the past, present, and future.
The most disconcerting, and wonderful, thing about The Known World is that it never stops beginning. New characters keep entering, bringing with them the kind of exposition we’re accustomed to seeing only in a novel’s first chapter. It is typical of The Known World that on page 340 of the 388-page book, we come across a passage like this.
There was once a generally well-liked white man in Georgia, near Valdosta, quite a wealthy man with his slaves and his land and his money and his history. This man, Morris Calhenny, suffered from a crushing melancholy, particularly on days when it rained.
Morris will not affect any of the storylines that we’ve come to know so far, nor will his childhood-friend-now-slave Beau, but they will watch a woman named Hope perform an interesting negotiation with a mule in the rain, and Hope will marry a man named Hillard. Someone we know and love will run across Hillard and Hope, and a terrible thing will happen. The total effect can be confusing and disorienting, but also powerful and hypnotic.
These narrative strategies are uncommon but not unknown: Tristram Shandy is digressive, Catch-22 disrupts chronology. But The Known World does this without ironic self-consciousness, conveying literary play for its own sake only sparingly (mostly in deliberately referential chapter headings such as “A Cabin in the Sky,” “Stormy Weather,” and “A Death in the Family”). The chronological and narrative schemes of The Known World result from Jones’s determined lack of concern for the “rules” of novel-writing: “I did things in that novel I never learned you’re not supposed to do. In one paragraph you leap forward ninety years, things like that.” Questioned on this point in a TV interview with E. Ethelbert Miller, Jones replied,
If I’d have heard the things people are saying now when I was composing the book in my head, well there are a lot of characters and it’s a little difficult here and there, maybe I’d have taken a different path. So I’m very glad now that I’m sort of a loner and I just went on my own way.
There is a conventional narrative at the heart of The Known World, a story about a son given a choice between a good father and a bad father. He chooses the bad, and the world is worse for it. Many of the good people suffer and some of the bad people are rewarded, but in the end some of the characters find freedom and redemption. Still, the story is intersected, interrupted, and inter-spliced with so many others: the story of the man who wouldn’t let go of a debt and lost his foot; the story of the man who lost everything and traveled far into the west and saw strange and wonderful things and returned curiously unchanged in his bitter heart; the story of a man whom lightning would not strike down because it knew it was not yet time for him to die; the story of the evil comedy team that travels the land kidnapping free blacks back into slavery (Jones speaks of reading “four or five” Erskine Caldwell novels in his youth, and the patter of Darcy and his slave Stennis sounds like nothing so much as outtakes from Tobacco Road); and many, many others.
The Known World’s publishing history was attended by two controversies. The book is laced with assertions of historical fact, items from census records, references to current day historical scholarship, and, most notably and insistently, a relentless accounting of the prices of slaves. Such assertions are in fact invention (as the novel’s initial press releases were careful to point out), but initial reviewers such as Alan Cheuse missed this and praised Jones for his deep research. In actuality, Jones bypassed research entirely.
I remember this one line fact from college that there were black people who owned slaves . . . I had all these books about American slavery that I really didn’t have the heart to read and I kept putting it off. In the meantime, I was creating a novel in my head. Then, finally after ten years, I began thinking that maybe I should get down to writing.
In a strange inversion of the James Frey A Million Little Pieces scandal, Jones was forced to defend his choice to present a novel that was “just fiction” and not fact masquerading as fiction. Jones’s own dry pronouncement: “There might be something of historical value in it, but I don’t know what it is.”
The second controversy was generated by his choice to write a book about black slave owners at all, which some readers construed as an offensive apologist stance towards slavery. In a 2008 interview for African American Review, Jones was asked about critics who felt he had “let white people off the hook.” His response:
Well, if that had been the case, then I would have gotten letters from all these white people saying thank God, niggers can finally shut up . . . I was on another radio station in Philadelphia . . . there were two black men who called in. One wondered if they had given me the Pulitzer Prize because they knew I was making it easier on white people. This is how ignorance cuts to the bone. My response was to say I didn’t know anything about why they had given me the prize.
Often in Jones’s interviews there is the sense that he feels doomed in yet another way—to write deeply but be read superficially.
In his 1949 essay “Everyone’s Protest Novel,” James Baldwin criticized Richard Wright’s Native Son for being constrained by racial polemics:
Beneath the surface of this novel there lies, as it seems to me, a continuation, a complement of that monstrous legend it was written to destroy. . . . The failure of the protest novel lies in its rejection of life, the human being, the denial of his beauty, dread, power, in its insistence that it is his categorization alone which is real and which cannot be transcended.
With this in mind, it is tempting to locate Edward P. Jones in a particular place in the course of African American literature—to say that, in his insistence on Chekhovian compassion, he stands in the same relationship to Toni Morrison that Baldwin did to Wright. The first epigraph to Morrison’s Beloved reads “Sixty Million and more,” referring to those African Americans murdered in the course of slavery. The epigraph to The Known World is a lyric from a spiritual and gospel song: “My soul’s often wondered how I got over.” We could read the first as striving to remember the past; the second as more forward-looking. Such symmetry is interesting to notice, especially for those drawn to thinking about a writer’s larger context, but this interpretation perhaps oversimplifies both Jones and Morrison. In any event, Jones denies being in deliberate conversation with anyone, as expressed in this 2011 interview for The Rumpus:
Rumpus: Do you view your work as having a specific place in the contemporary literary community?
Jones: No. I don’t know a lot about what’s out there so I don’t know where I fit in. That kind of thing really doesn’t concern me. Not at all.
Rumpus: Do you feel in dialogue with previous writers?
Jones: No. I’m out here by myself. I don’t know where in the line I am and don’t really care.
Jones was born in 1950 in Washington, D.C. His mother, Jeanette, to whom all his books are dedicated, had come from the rural South, could not read or write, and did, according to Jones’s recent Paris Review interview, “what they called ‘days work,’ taking care of a white child and cooking and cleaning,” as well as caring for her own three children by herself (Jones’s father left her when Jones was still young). Jones’s younger brother was severely mentally challenged and was taken from the family by the authorities, which was an emotionally devastating event for his mother. Jones, his mother, and his sister moved frequently within D.C., often just a step ahead of eviction. The social world of his childhood was almost uniformly African-American; the only white people he knew were shopkeepers. By his own account, Jones was a well-behaved son, an introspective child who escaped into books and television whenever he could.
He did well in school and went to college at Holy Cross in Massachusetts, where he majored in English, with a focus on journalism. After college, he came back to D.C. to live with his mother, eventually becoming her caretaker as her health wore down. For work, he wrote press releases for the National Park Service. His mother died in 1975; he published his first story in Essence later that year. Consistently in interviews, Jones resists dramatic interpretations of his life, telling the African American Review in 2008, “I wouldn’t want anyone to think my mother’s death was the event that started me to writing.” The more prosaic reason he gives is that his sister had a subscription to Essence, and after paging through the stories, he thought he could do better. He was rootless for several years following his mother’s death, stabilizing when he found a job at Science magazine. By chance, he took a fiction workshop with the novelist Susan Shreve, and then, encouraged by James Alan Macpherson, he applied and then went to the MFA program at the University of Virginia, where he worked with Macpherson and Peter Taylor, among others.
Jones cites Chekhov, Joyce, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and “all the Southern writers,” particularly Faulkner, as influences. He also counts himself indebted to “all the black writers,” specifically Ann Petry, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Richard Wright, particularly the story collection Uncle Tom’s Children.
After earning his MFA, Jones lived in Arlington, VA, and worked a day job without much literary ambition—until, in the late ’80s, two friends of his died. “They had both wanted to be writers. And I thought, here I am, still alive, in good health, and I feel guilty. So I started working on the stories.”
The stories turned out to be the collection Lost in the City, published in 1990 when the author was 40. The book was inspired by Joyce’s Dubliners without directly modeling itself on it. “I had read Joyce, and I didn’t want to do a thing like The Wiz where I took all the stories and made them all black.” The collection’s 14 stories follow working class African Americans living in Washington D.C. during the ’50s and ’60s. The stories are often set at particular corners, streets, and even addresses where Jones spent his childhood. They are arranged in the order of the age of their protagonists, from youngest to eldest. All but three are narrated in the third person, which allowed him to perform the omniscient time-tripping he would develop further in The Known World: in “A New Man,” we are introduced in the first paragraph to Woodrow Cunningham, age 52, on the day he will cause, with an unkind remark, his 15-year-old daughter to run away. At the end of the paragraph, we are casually told how he will die at his maintenance job 13 years hence, an event that does not figure further in the story, but continues to hang over Woodrow like distant weather.
Lost in the City was a National Book Award finalist and brought Jones immediate attention from the literary establishment. But then, he all but disappeared for 10 years. He was prone to depression, an obstacle in itself, and anti-depressant medication also hampered his writing. During this time, as he worked for the journal Tax Notes, he slowly composed The Known World in his head as he rode the bus, went to the supermarket, and otherwise went about his life. He started actually drafting during a five-week vacation in 2001. When Tax Notes laid him off, he kept writing, finishing the first draft in March, 2002. The book was published in 2003.
Lost in the City and The Known World had each been preceded by a decade of apparent gestation, but Jones followed the success of The Known World with a second collection in 2006. In fact, he had been working on All Aunt Hagar’s Children since the mid-’90s. Jones revisited working-class African American Washington D.C. in the ’50s and ’60s, and again, the collection contained 14 stories, arranged in order of the protagonist’s age. Each story in All Aunt Hagar’s Children links directly to a corresponding story in Lost in the City through a character. For example, the first story in All Aunt Hagar’s Children, “In the Blink of God’s Eye” follows the infancy of Miles Patterson, the man who will give Betsy Ann Morgan her first pigeon in “The Girl Who Loved Pigeons,” the opening story of Lost in the City. “Old Boys, Old Girls” returns to the story of the now imprisoned Caesar Mathews, the young criminal of the earlier “Young Lions.” In “A Rich Man” we find out what happened to Elaine Cunningham, the runaway daughter of Woodrow in “A New Man.” The stories in All Aunt Hagar’s Children are long, and many of them, particularly the title story, have a novelistic scope. The stories tend to be looser and less determined in structure than those of Lost in the City. Speaking of the short story form in general, Jones says, “The more I do them, the less confident I am about what goes into them.”
In his PBS interview with E. Ethelbert Miller, Miller good-naturedly tells Jones that he thinks the character of Elias in The Known World is a stand-in for Jones himself, because Elias whittles figures. The figures aren’t exactly netsuke-like, but they include the doll he makes for his daughter Tessie that will be the last thing she thinks about on her deathbed far in the future. Jones doesn’t really confirm or deny this, but the idea seems to please him.
Regarding the netsuke themselves, his Paris Review interviewer Hilton Als asks Jones about his interest in them.
There is one I have of a woman standing with a pot, and sitting on a little stool beside her is a man. The sense you get is that it’s her husband and he’s about to pour her, I would think, tea. You look at that, and you can just begin from there, thinking of a story. There’s another one, it’s a geisha figure, brown—the coloring of the whole figure is brown—but it has a cat face. Just lovely, lovely, lovely. At times I have told my students about the importance of having a beginning, a middle, and an ending, but sometimes I think you can make a story out of just about anything.
Edward Porter’s short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Gettysburg Review, Colorado Review, Barrelhouse, Booth, and elsewhere, and has been anthologized in Best New American Voices and Best Indie Lit New England. In 2012, his story “Tough Little Wife” was a winner of AWP’s Intro Journals award. A former James C. McCreight Fellow in Fiction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he has also received fellowships from The MacDowell Colony, and LaMuse in Labastide-Esparbairenque, France. He holds an MFA in fiction from Warren Wilson College, and a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Houston, where he was a fiction editor for Gulf Coast magazine. Currently, he is a faculty teaching fellow and creative writer in residence at Millsaps College.
Edward Porter’s previous features: Zora Neale Hurston: Consequences Be Damned, What’s in a Title: Shannon Cain’s The Necessity of Certain Behaviors