Jones, Edward P. 1950–
Edward P. Jones 1950–
In 1992 Edward P. Jones burst on the literary scene with his much-hailed collection of short stories Lost in the City, which was nominated for a National Book Award. Then after a decade-long silence, Jones published his first novel, The Known World. Initially catching reviewers’ attention for its unusual subject matter—the ownership of slaves by a black master in the antebellum South—the novel soon demonstrated its literary qualities as well. Reviewers lauded Jones for the novel’s epic grandeur, vernacular and lyrical prose, fully realized characters, and lively dialogue. Comparing Jones favorably with William Faulkner and Toni Morrison, several critics went so far as to dub Jones a major new force in Southern writing. For The Known World Jones earned a second National Book Award nomination in 2003, though the actual award continued to elude him.
Edward Paul Jones was born on October 5, 1950, in Arlington, Virginia. The only son of an illiterate hotel maid and kitchen worker, Jones grew up in his mother’s sphere for his father had drifted out of his life when he was a preschooler. After attending Catholic school for kindergarten and part of first grade, Jones was educated in Washington public schools. His interest in literature was sparked early, yet it was some time before he realized that African Americans, like their white counterparts, were writing works of literary merit. “I always loved reading,” Jones recalled to Robert Fleming of Publishers Weekly. Comic books formed the mainstay of his reading until as a thirteen year old, he discovered novels. “When I started reading black writers, I discovered two books that had a great impact on me: Ethel Waters’s His Eye Is on the Sparrow and Richard Wright’s Native Son. I felt as if they were talking to me, since both books had people in them that I knew in my own life. I was shocked to learn black people could write such things.”
Lost in the City Debuted
On a scholarship, Jones studied at Holy Cross College, in Worcester, Massachusetts. Many writers begin writing seriously during their college years, and Jones was no exception, writing his first fiction during his sophomore year. Although a professor encouraged his efforts, Jones did not consider writing as a possible career then, or even after his graduation in 1972, when he returned to Washington, D.C. Living with his terminally ill mother, he worked in various positions, including a stint with Science magazine. Once upon reading a short story in his sister’s copy of Essence, Jones decided he could write better stories, and during the after-work hours at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, he typed them up. In 1975 he sold his first story to Essence at a particularly difficult time in his life—after his mother’s death and when he was between jobs and living in a city mission.
Once after reading the collection of short stories Dubliners by James Joyce, Jones had decided to give Washington, D.C., a similar treatment. As he told Carole Burns in an online interview for the Washington Post, “I went away to college and people have a very narrow idea of what Washington is like. They don’t know that it’s a place of neighborhoods, for
At a Glance…
Born Edward Paul Jones on October 5, 1950, in Arlington, VA. Education: Holy Cross College, BA, 1972; University of Virginia, MFA, 1981.
Career: Columnist and proofreader for Tax Notes, 1990-2002; writer, 1992-; George Washington University, guest instructor, 2000s; University of Maryland, guest instructor, 2000s; Princeton University, guest instructor, 2000s.
Awards: National Book Award finalist, National Book Foundation, and Ernest Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award, for Lost in the City, 1992; grant, Lannan Foundation; grant, National Endowment for the Arts; nominated for the National Book Award for fiction for The Known World, 2003.
Addresses: Home—4300 Old Dominion Dr., No. 914, Arlington, VA 22207.
example, and I set out to give a better picture of what the city is like—the other city.” While working at various jobs and attending graduate school at the University of Virginia, Jones wrote these realistic and personal stories over a period of three years, although he had been thinking about them for years before then. He wanted each story to be unique in its characters and situations, rather than linked to each other. “Every major character, and even most minor characters, would be different, so that each story would be distinct from the others,” he recalled to Lawrence P. Jackson of African American Review. “I didn’t want someone to come along and be able to say that the stories are taken out of the same bag. I suppose that is one of the reasons that it has taken me so long.”
With stories bearing such titles as “The First Day,” about a girl’s first day of kindergarten, “The Girl Who Raised Pigeons,” about a girl’s relationship with her birds, “The Store,” which tells of a man who tries to make a success of a neighborhood grocery, “His Mother’s House,” which recounts how a mother takes care of a home her son has bought by selling crack, and “Young Lions,” about the criminal element in the District of Columbia, Jones clearly showed his talent. Although only one story, “The First Day,” has a clearly autobiographical element, the others recapture the life Jones knew growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, especially the rich vernacular of his mother and her associates. “I remember black people’s poetic language,” he told Jackson. “Over years and years you absorb all of this stuff.” Yet according to Jones, writers must use such language judiciously: “I grew up with this wonderful way of talking. One of the things I remember about reading Zora Neale Hurston was that in certain novels you hear it too much. If you have lines like that in every paragraph, it’s too rich.”
Even the city itself, with its palpable presence, plays a character’s role in the stories. As the title indicates, some of the characters in these stories become lost, engulfed in the city, while others “eventually find their way a bit.” For these “insightful potraits” and “unsensationalized depictions of horrifying social ills,” to quote a Publishers Weekly critic, Jones earned a National Book Award nomination.
Novel Required Long Gestation
Even with the prestigious nomination to his name, Jones struggled to earn a living, and when a steady, if dry, job presented itself, he did not refuse. For over a decade Jones, a confirmed bachelor who has never owned a car, worked full time as a freelance columnist and proofreader for Tax Notes, a newsletter for tax professionals. It was tedious work and thus left room for his imagination to wander to other topics. After publishing his short story collection, Jones had pondered his subjects for future pieces. He had even bought and read portions of more than a dozen books on slavery. However, it was an obscure fact that remained with him since his college days that charged his imagination—the fact that some free blacks had become slaveowners. Yet because he was not planning to become a writer at that time, he had mentally filed away this information.
Finally Jones let his imagination run and started mentally plotting in intricate detail the story of Henry Townsend, a Virginia slave who buys his freedom and then becomes a slave owner himself. However, this novel, told in omniscient point of view and in a nonlinear form, is more than the tale of Townsend. Townsend is the pivotal character around which the stories of myriad other characters revolve. Winston-Salem Journal reporter Ken Otterbourg, who likened the novel’s structure to that of a tree whose branches intersect, remarked that “Jones’ skill is in the weaving and in the telling.” In concrete terms, there is no main character in The Known World. Yet in the abstract, the reader may consider the inhumane institution of slavery to be the novel’s central “character.” Structurally The Known World recalls Lost in the City for in both works various characters gather to tell a number of tales and consider the repercussions on the lives of those people somehow involved.
When Jones started writing The Known World after being laid off from Tax Notes in 2002, he began with the twelve pages he had at one time written down. He believed that he was writing a short story and was unaware that he was going to write a novel until he did. As Jones explained in a Bookbrowse interview, the novel’s structure developed as he committed it to paper: “I always thought I had a linear story. Something happened between the time I began the real work in January [of] 2002 of taking it all out of my head and when I finished months later. It might be that because I, as the ’god’ of the people in the book, could see their first days and their last days and all that was in between, and those people did not have linear lives as I saw all that they had lived.” Compared with the years he had spent plotting the novel in his head, the actual writing of The Known World required a very short time, a mere two and a half months. After the work had been accepted for publication, Jones again spent that much time shortening it at the publisher’s request.
Novel Earned Accolades
When it rolled off presses in 2003, The Known World quickly earned accolades from reviewers. Critics praised Jones for his use of language, well-drawn characterizations, and historical accuracy, nominating the novel for a National Book Award. While some readers may be drawn to the novel for the “hook” of its unusual subject matter, Jones did not have an agenda, an intent to say something particular about race. Rather, “It’s about a person deciding to control another,” he explained to Burns. “If someone reading it goes into it they’ll see that I’m just not stuck on that topic. There are other things going on. There are relationships among people, of various kinds.” Jones worked diligently to avoid creating stereotypical characters, a quality of the work that was not lost on reviewers.
Like he had in Lost in the City, Jones employed the colorful language that is a heritage of black Americans. He also enlivened the narrative with hints of humor and superstitions of his forebears. And although he wrote of some horrific events about slavery, he was able to remain emotionally detached from them because he had dealt with them during the novel’s lengthy gestation period. “I had enough time to come to grips with what was going to be in the novel, so it didn’t have that kind of immediacy,” Jones told Edward Guthmann of the San Francisco Chronicle. This detachment is evident in Jones’ narration, noted Book World reviewer Jonathan Yardley: “The pace of the novel is leisurely and measured, and Jones’ lovely but unobtrusive prose is tuned accordingly.” It is this “patient, insistent, sometimes softly sardonic, always wise” narrative thread that entices the reader to turn the next page, and the next.
While one reviewer pointed out several errors in fact in The Known World, many cited the work’s verisimilitude as one of its strengths, praising Jones for his copious research. For his part, Jones admitted that the novel’s setting, the fictional Manchester County, Virginia, is just that—fictional—and that his research efforts were limited. Originally he had planned to visit Lynchburg, Virginia. “But I never got around to going down there, and so I was forced to create my own place,” he told Guthmann. “One can pick at its [the novel’s] small faults without detracting from its overall importance,” remarked Claude Crowley in a Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service review. What is the work’s importance? Although only the passage of time will provide the ultimate answer, Yardley concluded: “Jones has woven nothing less than a tapestry of slavery, an artifact as vast and complex as anything to be found in the [world-famous French museum, the] Louvre. Every thread is perfectly in place, every thread connects with every other. The first paragraph connects, nearly 400 pages later, with the last. Against all the evidence to the contrary that American fiction has given us over the past quarter-century, The Known World affirms that the novel does matter, that it can still speak to us as nothing else can.”
In 2003 Jones was working on another anthology of short fiction. Still intent on writing fiction “that matters”, he told Flemming: “I want to write about the things which helped us to survive: the love, grace, intelligence and strength for us as a people.”
Lost in the City, photographs by Amos Chan, Morrow, 1992.
The Known World, Amistad, 2003.
African American Review, spring, 2000, p. 95.
American Statesman (Austin, TX), September 21, 2003, p. K5.
Book, September-October, 2003, pp. 87-88.
Booklist, September 15, 2003, p. 211.
Entertainment Weekly, October 30, 1992, p. 80; August 22, 2003, p. 134.
Globe & Mail (Toronto, Canada), November 15, 2003, p. D8.
Journal (Winston Salem, NC), September 7, 2003, p. A24.
Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, September 17, 2003, p. K3969; October 8, 2003, p. K1755.
Library Journal, May 15, 1992, p. 122; August, 2003, pp. 131-132.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 12, 1992, p. 6.
New York Times, June 11, 1992, p. C18; August 23, 1992, section 7, p. 16.
New York Times Book Review, August 23, 1992, p. 16; August 31, 2003, p. 9.
Newsweek, September 8, 2003, p. 57.
People, September 29, 2003, p. 45.
Post (Cincinnati, OH), August 21, 2003, p. B3.
Publishers Weekly, March 23, 1992, p. 59; August 11, 2003, pp. 253-255; August 11, 2003, pp. 253-254.
San Francisco Chronicle, October 30, 2003, p. E1.
School Library Journal, January, 1993, p. 144.
Times Literary Supplement, October 10, 2003, p. 24.
Washington Post, July 22, 1992, p. G1; October 6, 1992, p. B4.
Washington Post Book World, June 21, 1992, p. 3; August 29, 2003.
“Edward P. Jones,” BookBrowe, www.bookbrowse.com/index.cfm? page=author&authorID=930 (November 10, 2003).
“Off the Page,” Washington Post, www.washington-post.com/wp-dyn/articles/Al1797-2003Oct24.html (October 30, 2003).
“Fresh Air,” interview with Edward P. Jones, National Public Radio, November 11, 2003.
—Jeanne M. Lesinski
Jones, Edward P.
Edward P. Jones
Edward P. Jones is a critically acclaimed fiction writer and winner of numerous prestigious awards, including the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. His slim output—three books in fifteen years—belies his status as one of the most important new voices in American fiction.
Edward Paul Jones was born on October 5, 1950, in Washington, DC. His father abandoned the family when Jones was three years old, and he and his younger sister were raised by his mother, a dishwasher and chambermaid who never learned to read. By the time he was eighteen years old, the family had moved eighteen times. As he told an interviewer at the Web site BookBrowse, "Each place was worse than the place before." After attending Catholic school for kindergarten and part of first grade, Jones was educated in public schools. He was a voracious reader, beginning with comic books and then moving on to fiction at the age of thirteen.
Jones attended Holy Cross College, in Worcester, Massachusetts, on a scholarship, writing his first fiction during his sophomore year. Although a professor encouraged his efforts, Jones did not consider writing as a possible career then, or even after his graduation in 1972, when he returned to Washington, DC. Living with his terminally ill mother, he worked at odd jobs and struggled to make ends meet. Reading short stories in his sister's copies of Essence, Jones decided he could do better. In 1975 he sold his first story to Essence at a particularly difficult time in his life—his mother had died, and he was between jobs and living in a shelter.
In 1979 Jones enrolled in the Master of Fine Arts program at the University of Virginia, with the encouragement of the writer James Alan McPherson, who was teaching there. Jones graduated in 1981, and the following year he finally found steady work, as a proofreader at the industry publication Tax Notes, where he remained for the next two decades. Despite steady employment, Jones never felt financially secure, and for a time he was careful to live on $2 per day. "When you grow up with a mother who has to wash dishes and clean hotel rooms, you know the importance of having a job and you can't be without a job for any length of time, or you will be without anything," he told Suzanne Goldenberg of the Guardian. A Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1986 allowed him to write fiction while working part time.
Published First Book
Jones's first book, the short story collection Lost in the City, was published in 1992, when he was forty-two years old. Inspired by James Joyce's Dubliners, Lost in the City depicts the lives of African Americans in Washington, DC. As Jones told Carole Burns in an interview for the Washington Post, "People have a very narrow idea of what Washington is like. They don't know that it's a place of neighborhoods, for example, and I set out to give a better picture of what the city is like—the other city." He wanted the characters and situations in each story to be unique, rather than linked. "Every major character, and even most minor characters, would be different, so that each story would be distinct from the others," he recalled to Lawrence P. Jackson of African American Review. "I didn't want someone to come along and be able to say that the stories are taken out of the same bag. I suppose that is one of the reasons that it has taken me so long."
While only one story, "The First Day," has a clearly autobiographical element, the collection recaptures the life Jones knew growing up in the 1950s and 1960s and uses the rich vernacular of his mother and her friends. "I remember black people's poetic language," he told Jackson. Critics praised Jones's naturalistic depiction of lives that were rich and human despite often bleak circumstances. Lost in the City was a National Book Award finalist and the winner of an Ernest Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award and a Lannan Literary Award.
Jones thought about his next work, the novel The Known World, for ten years. "I would say, ‘I'm working it out in my head,’" he told Rachel L. Swarns of the New York Times. "People don't see that as writing. But I can see the people and I can hear them," he said of his characters. "I would just go over and over and over it in my head." After he was laid off from his job at Tax Notes, he produced the first draft in less than three months.
The Known World is based on the historical oddity that there were free black men in the antebellum South who were themselves slave owners. Beginning with the death of one such slave owner, Henry Townsend, the essentially plotless novel moves forward and backward in time to detail the lives of its many characters, who have all somehow intersected with Townsend. While some readers may be drawn to the novel for the "hook" of its unusual subject matter, Jones maintained that he did not intend to make a statement about race. Rather, "it's about a person deciding to control another," he explained to Burns. "If someone reading it goes into it they'll see that I'm just not stuck on that topic. There are other things going on. There are relationships among people, of various kinds."
Novel Earned Rave Reviews
Upon its publication in 2003, The Known World won near universal acclaim. Critics praised Jones for his beautifully drawn characterizations, historical accuracy, and skillful use of the colorful language. He also enlivened the narrative with hints of humor and superstitions of his forebears. While he wrote of some horrific events, he maintained that he was able to remain emotionally detached from them because he had dealt with them during the novel's lengthy gestation period. "I had enough time to come to grips with what was going to be in the novel, so it didn't have that kind of immediacy," Jones told Edward Guthmann of the San Francisco Chronicle. This detachment is evident in Jones's narration, noted Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post: "The pace of the novel is leisurely and measured, and Jones's lovely but unobtrusive prose is tuned accordingly." It is this "patient, insistent, sometimes softly sardonic, always wise" narrative thread that draws the reader in.
At a Glance …
Born Edward Paul Jones on October 5, 1950, in Washington, DC; son of Aloysius and Jeanette Majors Jones. Education: Holy Cross College, BA, 1972; University of Virginia, MFA, 1981.
Career: Proofreader and later columnist for Tax Notes, 1982-2002; writer, 1992—; guest instructor at George Washington University, University of Maryland, and Princeton University, 2000s.
Awards: Creative Writing Fellowship, National Endowment for the Arts, 1986; National Book Award finalist, National Book Foundation, and Ernest Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award, both 1992, for Lost in the City; Lannan Literary awards for fiction, 1994, 2003; National Book Award finalist, 2003, National Book Critics Circle Award and Pulitzer Prize for fiction, both 2004, and International Impac Dublin Literary Award, 2005, all for The Known World; MacArthur Fellowship, 2004; O. Henry Prize, 2005, for short story "A Rich Man"; finalist, PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction, 2007, for All Aunt Hagar's Children.
Addresses: Agent—Eric Simonoff, Janklow & Nesbit Associates, 445 Park Ave., New York, NY 10022.
While one reviewer pointed out several errors of fact in The Known World, many cited the work's verisimilitude as one of its strengths, praising Jones for his copious research. For his part, Jones admitted that the novel's setting, the fictional Manchester County, Virginia, is just that—fictional—and that his research efforts were limited. Originally he had planned to visit Lynchburg, Virginia. "But I never got around to going down there, and so I was forced to create my own place," he told Guthmann. Praising the creation of this universe, Yardley wrote: "Jones has woven nothing less than a tapestry of slavery, an artifact as vast and complex as anything to be found in the Louvre. Every thread is perfectly in place, every thread connects with every other. The first paragraph connects, nearly 400 pages later, with the last. Against all the evidence to the contrary that American fiction has given us over the past quarter-century, The Known World affirms that the novel does matter, that it can still speak to us as nothing else can."
The Known World was a finalist for the National Book Award and won a Lannan Literary Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, an International Impac Dublin Literary Award, and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2004. Also that year Jones was awarded a MacArthur "genius" grant for $500,000. For the first time in his life, he did not have to worry about earning a living.
Published Second Collection
In 2006 Jones published his second short story collection, All Aunt Hagar's Children, with the title taken from an expression his mother had used for black people. Like the stories in Lost in the City, most of those in the second collection take place in Washington, DC. Writing in the New York Times, Dave Eggers stated, "Put side by side, ‘Lost in the City’ and ‘All Aunt Hagar's Children’ are extraordinary works of empathy and imagination." Of the latter, he continued, "The collection manages to stun on every page; there are too many breathtaking lines to count." All Aunt Hagar's Children was awarded a PEN/Faulkner Prize for fiction.
Acclaimed as one of the most important new voices in fiction of the past twenty years, Jones had finally achieved a measure of success and security many writers can only dream of. Nonetheless, he told Goldenberg, he took pains to keep his success from going to his head, for fear of insulting the memory of his mother. "I am beginning to realize now all the indignities she suffered in her life and, God, I want to be humble as I can as I go through life," he said. All of his books are dedicated to the memory of his mother.
Lost in the City, photographs by Amos Chan, Morrow, 1992.
The Known World, Amistad, 2003.
All Aunt Hagar's Children, Amistad, 2006.
African American Review, Spring 2000, p. 95; Fall 2006, p. 596.
Booklist, February 15, 2004, p. 1027.
Guardian (London), July 14, 2004, p. 4.
Harper's Magazine, September 20, 2006, p. 87.
Jet, October 18, 2004, p. 36.
New York Times, June 11, 1992; October 16, 2003; August 27, 2006.
Washington Post, August 24, 2003.
"Edward P. Jones," BookBrowse,http://www.bookbrowse.com/biographies/index.cfm?author_number=930 (accessed February 19, 2008).
"Edward P. Jones' Tales of ‘Aunt Hagar's Children,’" Weekend All Things Considered, National Public Radio, August 27, 2006.
Interview with Barbara Bogaev, Fresh Air from WHYY, National Public Radio, November 11, 2003.
Interview with Tavis Smiley, Tavis Smiley, PBS, October 8, 2004.
—Jeanne M. Lesinski and Paula Kepos
Jones, Edward P. 1950–
Jones, Edward P. 1950–
PERSONAL: Born October 5, 1950. Education: Attended College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, MA, and University of Virginia.
ADDRESSES: Home—4300 Old Dominion Drive, No. 914, Arlington, VA 22207.
CAREER: Fiction writer. Columnist for Tax Notes.
AWARDS, HONORS: National Book Award finalist, and Ernest Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award, both 1992, both for Lost in the City; Lannan Foundation Literary Award and fellowship, 2003; National Book Award nomination for fiction, 2003, and National Book Critics Circle award, and Pulitzer Prize for fiction, both 2004, all for The Known World; O. Henry Prize, 2005, for the short story "A Rich Man."
Lost in the City (short stories), photographs by Amos Chan, Morrow (New York, NY), 1992.
The Known World, Amistad (New York, NY), 2003.
Contributor of short fiction to periodicals, including the New Yorker.
SIDELIGHTS: Called "a poignant and promising first effort" by Publishers Weekly, Edward P. Jones's first book, Lost in the City, was greeted with critical and popular acclaim. The work was nominated for the 1992 National Book Award, an honor last granted to a short-story collection six years earlier. The appeal of the fourteen-story collection lies in the realness of the people and the experiences that Jones presents. Each of the stories profiles African-American life in Washington, DC. The characters are all lost in the nation's capital, some literally, others figuratively. They are black working-class men and women who struggle to preserve their families, communities, neighborhoods, and themselves amid drugs, violence, divorce, and other crises. Jones's assortment of characters include a mother whose son buys her a new home with drug money, a husband who repeatedly stabs his wife as their children sleep, and a girl who watches her pigeons fly from her home after their cages are destroyed by rats. They are all stories that "affirm humanity as only good literature can," remarked Michael Harris in the Los Angeles Times Book Review. "There's no secret to it, or only the final, most elusive secret: Jones has near-perfect pitch for people…. Whoever they are, he reveals them to us from the inside out."
Washington Post writer Mary Ann French noted that in Lost in the City Jones "creates sympathy through understanding—a sadly needed service that is too seldom performed." Washington Post Book World reviewer Jonathan Yardley commented that the assembled stories are set in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, "so there is little sense of the drug-and-crime haunted place that the inner city has become." Nevertheless, Yardley added, "danger and death are never far in the background." While the stories usually convey a sense of hope despite some bleak settings and horrible events, "Jones is no sentimentalist," according to the critic. Rather, he is "a lucid, appealing writer. He puts on no airs, tells his stories matter-of-factly and forthrightly, yet his prose is distinctive and carries more weight than first impressions might suggest."
The Known World, Jones's first novel and second published book, generated even more critical acclaim than his short-story collection. In 2004 the work won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle award for fiction, both on the heels of a National Book Award for fiction nomination in 2003. The Known World begins with the antebellum story of African-American Henry Townsend, a farmer, bootmaker, and former slave. Townsend, an intelligent man with a fondness for John Milton's Paradise Lost, has taken an unusual adviser: William Robbins, a powerful man residing in Manchester County, Virginia. Under Robbins's guidance, Townsend rises economically to become a landowner and, ironically, a slave owner. When he dies, his widow, Caldonia, cannot carry on alone and things at the Townsend plantation begin to deteriorate: slaves run off in the night, and families with once-strong bonds start to turn on one another. Outside the farm, everything else, in other words, "the known world," is falling apart, too: free black people are sold into slavery and rumors of slave rebellions circulate widely, setting white families on edge and destroying their trust in the blacks who have worked for them for years.
According to Champ Clark, writing in People, readers of The Known World "will be rewarded many times over by Jones's masterful ability to convey even the most despicable aspects of the nation's history with humanity and poetic language." In Booklist, Vanessa Bush described the novel as "a profoundly beautiful and insightful look at American slavery and human nature." "Jones moves back and forth in time," she explained, "making the reader omniscient, knowing what will eventually befall the characters despite their best and worst efforts, their aspirations and their moral failings." Newsweek reviewer Susannah Meadows was less enthusiastic about the novel, writing that while "The human mystery that drives the narrative is the question of how a freed man could own another,… Jones never quite solves the puzzle of Henry's odd spiritual kinship with his former master." Mark Harris, reviewing the book for Entertainment Weekly, cited the "difficulty and occasional randomness of Jones's storytelling." This "doesn't seem accidental," Harris maintained. Jones "is writing about a landscape in which families, identities, and the very notion of self can be destroyed in the course of a casual business transaction—and he doesn't want you to get too comfortable tracing a single life across a tidy narrative line."
In an interview with Robert Fleming of Publishers Weekly, Jones explained his use of a dispassionate voice when describing the brutal episodes that take place in The Known World by noting that he wanted "to highlight the inhumanity of the whole situation of slavery." "I didn't want to preach," he added. "It was my goal to be objective, to not put a lot of emotion into this, to show it all in a matter-of-fact manner. But still I knew I was singing to the choir. In a case like this, you don't raise your voice, you just state the case and that is more than enough."
Sarah Anne Johnson, in an interview with Jones for the Writer, asked the author where he found his inspiration for The Known World. "You just wake up one morning with some image or some words in your head, and you go from there," Jones replied. "The first thing that set me off with The Known World was the image of Henry Townsend on his deathbed in the first few pages. You have to figure out how he got to be in the bed and who's in the room with him. Then you branch out further and further until finally you have all the pages that are in the book right now."
Despite praising Jones's award-winning novel, several critics have noted that The Known World is not an easy read. A contributor to Kirkus Reviews described the first hundred pages as "daunting," saying, "The reader struggles to sort out initially quickly glimpsed characters and absorb Jones's handling of historical background information." But then the novel gains "overpowering momentum," the critic added, and becomes "a harrowing tale that scarcely ever raises its voice." "By focusing on an African-American slaveholder," Edward B. St. John noted in Library Journal, "Jones forcefully demonstrates how institutionalized slavery jeopardized all levels of civilized society so that no one was really free." The novel, St. John continued, is "a fascinating look at a painful theme." "Everyone in The Known World exhibits good, bad, and every other shade of humanity inside their actions," added Carroll Parrott Blue in Black Issues Book Review. "Jones uses his hard-won mastery of craft to gently entice us to stare directly into the face of our universally human quest for freedom."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Yearbook 1992, Volume 76, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1992.
Black Issues Book Review, November-December, 2003, Carroll Parrott Blue, review of The Known World, p. 50.
Booklist, September 15, 2003, Vanessa Bush, review of The Known World, p. 211.
Entertainment Weekly, August 22, 2003, Mark Harris, review of The Known World, p. 134.
Kirkus Reviews, July 15, 2003, review of The Known World, p. 928.
Library Journal, August, 2003, Edward B. St. John, review of The Known World, p. 131.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 12, 1992, p. 6.
Newsweek, September 8, 2003, Susannah Meadows, review of The Known World, p. 57.
New York Times, June 11, 1992, p. C18; August 23, 1992, section 7, p. 16.
People, September 29, 2003, Champ Clark, review of The Known World, p. 45.
Publishers Weekly, March 23, 1992, p. 59; August 11, 2003, Robert Fleming, interview with Jones, p. 254.
Washington Post, July 22, 1992, pp. G1, G4; October 6, 1992, p. B4.
Washington Post Book World, June 21, 1992, p. 3.
Writer, August, 2004, Sarah Anne Johnson, interview with Jones, p. 20.
Jones, Edward P.
Edward P. Jones
Edward P. Jones began by publishing short stories in magazines such as Essence, Callaloo, and the New Yorker. However, it was his two books that brought him acclaim. The works were written ten years apart but when published, each made an impact. The first, Lost in the City, is a collection of fourteen short stories set in Washington, D.C. The second work, The Known World, is a novel about slavery.
For these two works, Jones has received recognition and awards, including a National Book Foundation Award and the PEN/Hemingway Award for Lost in the City in 1992. In 2004, he received a MacArthur Foundation grant, the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for The KnownWorld. In spite of this success, Jones has remained low-keyed and committed to honesty in writing. He presents strong, realistic characters who survive despite the reality of racism.
Edward P. Jones was born in Washington, D.C. on October 5, 1950. He was raised in a single parent home and attended kindergarten and part of the first grade in a Catholic school. Due to the family's financial limitations, he then transferred to the local public schools. Until he was thirteen years of age, Jones mostly read comic books. Then he discovered two influential novels: Ethel Water's His Eye Is on the Sparrow and Richard Wright's Native Son. He became an avid reader and began unconsciously to educate himself in the craft of writing. He attended Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts, on scholarship, earning a BA. in 1972. In his sophomore year at Holy Cross, he began writing fiction, but it was not until much later that he considered fiction writing for a career. Following graduation and while caring for his terminally ill mother, he held various jobs, including a job with Science magazine. In 1975, his first story appeared in Essence magazine. In the same year, his mother died. After working three years in Washington, he entered graduate school at the University of Virginia in 1979.
While at the University of Virginia, Jones studied under and was encouraged by John Casey, Peter Taylor, and James Alan McPherson. At the university, he wrote assignments and pursued his own writing, too. Literature classes, including one in the Bible, helped him more than creative writing classes. He received the M.F.A. from the University of Virginia in 1981.
In an interview with African American Review, Jones stated that he developed his own style while being influenced by the work of Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston. He uses the 1950s and 1960s in his short stories, a time he knows firsthand. In his discussion of his craft and his philosophy about writing, Jones stated that he is an African American writer, and he cannot drop this description until people in the United States have transcended race. He has taught creative writing at both George Washington University and Princeton University.
Lost in the City
After reading James Joyce's Dubliners, Jones realized that no one had provided this treatment for Washington and a collection of short stories on this order could explore the capitol's diversity. Stories in Lost in the City (1992) present a fresh and candid view of the city. It portrays the Washington beyond the monuments, Capital Hill, and politicians. It took three years to write the fourteen stories; however, the characters and storylines had been germinating in his head for years. The city of Washington itself becomes a character in these stories. As is true of any locale, some individuals are literally lost in the city, while others are able, after a time, to move on.
Set in the 1950s and 1960s, such stories as "The Girl Who Raised Pigeons," "The Night Rhonda Ferguson Was Killed," and "The First Day" (originally published in Callaloo) are set in a time when adults knew children in the neighborhood, were free to reprimand them, and knew the child would receive another reprimand upon his arrival home. In presenting the diversity of the city and its people, Jones also writes about the criminal side of the city in "Young Lions" and in "His Mother's House." These stories present ordinary working-class African Americans living their lives, struggling to survive.
The Known World
Jones' novel The Known World tells the story of Henry Townsend, who goes from slave to freeman to slave owner in the course of the work. The story is set in Manchester County, Virginia. The town and the characters in the book are fictional. In creating a town, Jones follows in the tradition of William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County and Ernest Gaines's Bayonne, Louisiana. The creation of place requires detailed history. Jones refers to real places, real historical people (for example, President Fillmore), and actual historical events (for example, the Civil War). Added to this historical information, he presents population statistics: number of Indians, blacks, and whites in the county at a given time. He even accounts for the inability of the reader to locate Manchester County; it was absorbed into surrounding counties. This woven history frames the story, giving it a sense of accuracy and credibility.
The novel, like Lost in the City, which begins with the epigraph, "My soul's often wondered how I got over," has strong characters and character development. The characters struggle through hardships, face the tenuousness of life (free today and slave tomorrow, part of a family unit today and sold the next), and challenges. The novel has many characters, and each has his or her own story. However, the central subject in The Known World is the institution of slavery as is the city in Lost in the City.
Jones' female characters are strong and independent. There is Caldonia Townsend, who is left to run the plantation upon Henry Townsend's death; Fern Elston, a free black woman who chooses not to pass for white as many of her family have, who remains in Manchester County with her husband, Ramsey, and teaches the young; Celeste on the Townsend plantation, Minerva, the Skiffington's wedding present; and Alice Night, an artist. Through these women, Jones pays homage to black women in their disparate, challenging situations.
Edward P. Jones is at work on another collection of short stories, which evolve and use characters from his earlier collection. Two of the stories have been published: "In the Blink of God's Eye" and "All Aunt Hagar's Children." In 2005, Jones won the O. Henry Prize for "A Rich Man."
- Born in Washington, D.C. on October 5
- Earns B.A. from Holy Cross College
- Publishes first story in Essence magazine
- Earns M.F.A. from University of Virginia
- Publishes Lost in the City; wins National Book Foundation Award and Ernest Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for Lost in the City
- Receives a Lannan Foundation grant
- Publishes The Known World
- Wins National Book Critics Award and Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for The Known World; wins 2004 MacArthur Fellowship
- Wins 2005 O. Henry Prize for short story "A Rich Man"
Jackson, Lawrence P. "An Interview with Edward P. Jones" African American Review 34 (Spring 2000): 95-103.
"Robert Birnbaum Converses with Edward Jones." January 21, 2004. http://www.identitytheory.com/interviews/birnbaum138.php (Accessed 6 February 2006).
Helen R. Houston