July 15, 2004

The Unknown World of Edward Jones

"Who would have thought that what may be the best novel ever written about American slavery would be about slaveholders who were black?" Earlier this week, Common-Place published a review of The Known World, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Edward Jones, and it began with that question. The review is a good introduction to the book for those who don't already know it, and it reminded me that I should finish reading the novel sometime.

Even so, I was more intrigued by this Guardian profile of Jones, who published his first novel at age 53 after working for 18 years as a proof-reader and columnist at a small tax magazine. After describing how the success of The Known World enabled him Jones to move out of his noisy apartment, the article writes:

Jones is still sleeping on the floor. Four months after moving in, his new apartment in north-west Washington DC remains bare except for the 100 cartons of unpacked books, the air mattress he cannot be bothered to inflate and the new laptop that is a recent and slightly grudging admission of his status as a full-time writer.

Yet for a man wedded to a minimalist lifestyle - unmarried with no children or pets, a self-described loner with a relatively compact group of friends - Jones has produced a book remarkably full of people and life.


The book is set in the entirely imaginary Manchester County, Virginia, whose existence is reinforced with references to 19th-century census reports, pamphlets and other archival material - also concocted by Jones. In The Known World, he describes the novel's characters and the power relations of slavery in the most minute detail - as intricate a creation as his external life is spare. When he leaves something out, he has a good reason. In this tale of the South, Jones never reveals what crop the slaves were growing in the fields; he was too afraid of getting it wrong.

Oddly enough, I feel a little misled to hear that Jones completely made up the census records he refers to in the novel, though I realize that my reaction is kind of irrational. (I assumed that the county was fictional and guessed that some of the books and pamphlets Jones describes were made up, after all, so I'm not sure why I was slightly bothered to hear that Jones's anecdotes about the census were fictional.) In any case, the whole profile is worth reading--even if I thought it was borderline-intrusive in some respects.

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