Edward P. Jones
Author of The Known World
by Bella Stander
Edward P. Jones's first novel, The Known World (Amistad Press), begins a few years before the Civil War with the death of Henry, a black man whose father had worked his way out of slavery and bought his wife's and then son's freedom. Instead of modeling himself after his righteous and principled father, though, Henry apes his former master and comes to own a plantation and slaves, whom he treats no better than a white man would. After he dies, the "known world" that centers on his Virginia plantation gradually disintegrates: freedmen are re-enslaved, slaves run away to freedom, mistress consorts with manservant, and men--white ones, anyway--get away with murder.
There are many questions I want to ask about the book and its author, but I soon realize that it doesn't do to approach Edward P. Jones with an agenda. He is a man who is going to say just what he wants in his own way and his own time. Pushing him to make a point, I discover, is as fruitless as peeking ahead to see what happens in his book, which loops around in time like an old family story told by an aging relative with a long memory. It's best to sit back, go with the flow and let Jones reveal himself in due course.
The classic "bookish" boy who preferred to stay inside reading, Jones, 52, was raised in Washington, DC, by his mother, an illiterate dishwasher from North Carolina. He earned an English degree at Holy Cross, then at the invitation of novelist John Casey, went to the University of Virginia for his MFA. After that he held a day job writing for a tax newsletter for 19 years.
Jones says that he first heard of blacks owning blacks when he was in college. "It was rather startling," he says. "I had never thought of slavery in those terms; it was just in white and black."The idea for The Known World came to him in 1992, around the time his prize-winning short story collection, Lost in the City, was published.
Although the world he creates is crammed with detail, Jones proclaims that he didn't do much research for The Known World. He estimates that in the 10 years it took him to get the book down on paper, "the amount of reading I did would come to 75 pages." Regarding the two shelves of reference works he'd collected, he recalls thinking, "I could spend six months or a year reading all this stuff, but would be sidetracked from the people in my head. They were very real, and I didn't want to bend them to any research I would come across. What was important was the relationships." What about all the names, facts and figures Jones so convincingly cites in the narrative? Well, he made them up--or rather, as his publisher's media coach instructed him to say, "They came from my imagination." He observes, "If you have authority behind you, people will believe anything."
While flipping through one of his books, Jones came across the story of a woman who hated a little girl she owned, and would hit her head against the wall. "There was no authority in the universe to stop that," he says angrily. "If I had wanted to tell the whole story of slavery, Americans couldn't have taken that. People want to think that there was slavery, and then we got beyond it. People don't want to hear that a woman would take a child and bang her head against the wall day after day. It's nice that I didn't read all those books. What I would have had to put down is far, far harsher and bleaker."
Jones says that he'd thought of a line from Faulkner: "Not only did they endure, but they prevailed." "Not only were black people free and given nothing," he elaborates, "but there was this great and overwhelming population that was determined to pull them back into slavery. So many of them managed to make it on the other side. They began to think that they could live for people other than themselves."
What does Jones hope that readers will take away from The Known World? He replies, "If I had some sort of statement to make, I would say that. But I don't. All I have is this group of people. With that, I can hope that long after, people will still remember the things that they said or did."
© 2003 Bella Stander