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LAce Posted Monday, April 12th, 2004
A Pulitzer Well Won
Jessica Taylor

Edward P. Jones was awarded the Pulitzer Prize last week for his novel The Known World. Let me state for the record that I haven't read the book yet, but I am looking forward to it in the same way that I look forward to summer vacation. I expect to be removed from the workweek and transported by masterful storytelling to a bygone era.

Several weeks ago, at the Virginia Festival of the Book, I met Mr. Jones and heard him read from his novel. He is a shy man, but he took the time to shake my hand and say hello before taking the podium. While all of the scenes he read are still with me, one in particular shines brightly in my memory:

Clara Martin is paranoid that her most loyal slave, Ralph, is plotting a violent rebellion against her. She recollects a series of nights many years ago when he offered to brush her hair and she allowed him to.

Once, some five years before, he had come into the parlor and found Clara struggling to comb and brush her hair. "Oh, my goodness," she kept saying. "Better I should have no hair at all than all this mess." "Now don't you say that, Miss Martin." "Well, it's just a mess, Ralph. It most certainly is." It had been raining all day and it was summer so his bones gave him nothing to complain about. "My sister," she said, "got the hair God shoulda given me. And she has never appreciated it, I must say. Wondrous red hair. A queen's hair. Not one day has she thanked God for that hair and yet he lets her keep it right on." "Yo sister got nothing on you, thas for sure, Miss Martin. Let me now, if that be fine by you," he said, standing behind her, touching the back of her hand.

This scene, like others he read, accomplishes much with few words. It demonstrates the essential human connection between master and slave while hinting at a sexual tension mounting between them. But ultimately the scene points out just how ridiculous it is that the slave owner fears her own slave will murder her. Or is it ridiculous? The unsettling issue of owning another human being is clearly the core of this novel.

The Known World explores the true phenomenon of blacks who owned slaves. In the question-and-answer session after the reading, Mr. Jones explained that he intended to read all of the history books on the subject, but when after 10 years he'd read only 150 pages of the first book, he scrapped the research and wrote the novel from pure imagination. It took him 7 months.

The story is set in Manchester County, Virginia—a place of Mr. Jones' invention. At the reading, Mr. Jones recounted that he had hoped to drive around Lynchburg, Virginia in a buddy's pick-up truck as research for the book, but in the end he let his imagination create the landscape, so that he would not be limited by the history of a real place. This setting becomes the stage for his remarks about America and her history.

Mr. Jones comments on our nation without an ounce of didacticism—only characters that are real enough to see, smell, touch, and feel. He combines Faulkner's dense character webs with Dickens's sense of intrigue. In short, he has brought the literary world back from "smart, funny prose" and "lyrically written" MFA fiction to what we came for—storytelling of the highest degree. It is for this reason that I believe that my daughter will be reading The Known World in college.

Several well-bred white ladies in the audience asked Mr. Jones what of himself he brought to the anecdotes in the book. These women were obsessed by this question. Were the stories historically accurate? Were they taken from his life? Mr. Jones answered simply that he made them up. I believe him, but I also suspect that he wrote from the shared experience of the African-American community. Are these stories not an oral history of slavery that have been passed down from generation to generation? Or perhaps they are allegories for growing up black in our country. At any rate, the representatives from Virginia's country clubs missed this point altogether.

Mr. Jones grew up in the District of Columbia. He received a scholarship to the University of Virginia's MFA program in the 1980's, but as he said himself at the reading, "They gave me a scholarship, but I still had to pay a lot of money." He worked full-time as a civil servant until very recently. A friend of mine who works in publishing told me that Mr. Jones's agent had to call and implore him to quit his day job to write full time.

I've collected a number of other anecdotes about Mr. Jones as my admiration for him has grown: His favorite neighborhood coffee shop is McDonalds. He doesn't drive, and he doesn't have an email address. Before the reading, he sat in the last row of seats, withdrawn from the audience, absorbing his own words, until the moderator finally called him up onstage. In a world saturated by self-important no-talents showcased on reality TV programs, Mr. Jones's humble ascent is refreshing and inspiring.

Upon receiving the Pulitzer Prize, Mr. Jones commented that it was good news despite the rainy weather: "I've been feeling sick and I'm in the middle of having to move, because the upstairs neighbors are so noisy," he said. "This should give me strength to finish up tomorrow."

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  • The Known World

    Comments [post a comment]

    Posted by Amanda French [ ] on Tuesday, April 13th, 2004 at 8:10 AM
    I love reading things by people I've met. I'm probably not unique in this regard, which is why poor bastard authors have to get out on the road to events like the Festival of the Book to promote their stuff. Personally I really do believe that you can tell whether you're gonna like someone's writing by whether you like them. I think it's a semiotic thing. A human presence is inifinitely more complex and resonant than even complex and resonant language itself.

    Posted by C. Lindsay Sagnette on Tuesday, April 13th, 2004 at 10:23 AM
    A beautifully written essay about a beautiful man and the work of his life. My summer is lucky to hold this book in its future, as well.

    Posted by Megan Gillespie on Tuesday, April 13th, 2004 at 12:25 PM
    Excellent and enticing review. I only hope Jessica can make this kind of insightful commentary on my own work one day . . .

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