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.”
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.
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.
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.
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. 1950–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 14, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/jones-edward-p-1950
"Jones, Edward P. 1950–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved July 14, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/jones-edward-p-1950
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
Jones, Edward P.
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.
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.
—Jeanne M. Lesinski and Paula Kepos
"Jones, Edward P.." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 14, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/jones-edward-p
"Jones, Edward P.." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved July 14, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/jones-edward-p