By Hope Katz Gibbs
Be Inkandescent Magazine
The characters started coming to Edward P. Jones sometime in 1991.
“I’d be standing on the comer waiting for a bus, or picking out some broccoli in the supermarket, and there they’d be,” says Jones, author of The Known World.
He’s referring to Henry Townsend, the black slave owner; Moses, the dirt eater; Alice, the night walker; and the other inhabitants of antebellum Manchester County, Virginia, whom he brings to life in his award-winning historical novel.
By the time Jones finally banged out the novel a decade later, he was thrilled—and a bit relieved—to get the characters out of his head. The next goal for the author was to find a publisher.
“When I did,” he says, “I didn’t think things could get any better.”
They did. Since he wrote his 388-page tome, Jones’ book has won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It also won the National Book Critics Circle Award and was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2003.
After reading just the first two sentences, it is clear why the book’s artful prose has captured the nation’s attention. “The evening his master died he worked again well after he ended the day for the other adults, his own wife among them, and sent them back with hunger and tiredness to their cabins. The young ones, his son among them, had been sent out of the field an hour or so before the adults, to prepare the late supper and, if there was time enough, to play in the few minutes of sun that were left.”
Yet, it is the grace with which Jones challenges our modem-day ideas about slavery that has impressed critics. Consider an analysis by Jonathan Yardley, the Washington Post’s book critic: “This extraordinary novel—the best new work of American fiction to cross my desk in years—takes as its subject one of the most peculiar anomalies of that endlessly provocative and troubling subject: In the antebellum South, where whites systematically enslaved blacks, there were free blacks who themselves owned black slaves.”
Indeed, early in the book we learn that freed slave Henry Townsend bought a man named Moses, for $325 and a bill of sale, from William Robbins, a white man. Jones writes, “It took Moses more than two weeks to come to understand that someone wasn’t fiddling with him and that indeed a black man, two shades darker than himself, owned him and any shadow he made.”
With each page, the story pulls readers into a world rich in detail, aching with drama, and filled with a family tree so complex that publisher HarperCollins added a guide in its most recent paperback printing to help readers keep track.
Jones’ own early family life was not filled with luxury.
“My mother washed dishes and scrubbed floors to support me and my sister and brother [who is disabled]. We moved 18 times in 18 years, and spent a little time in a homeless shelter. When you grow up like that, having a job is important.”
Ironically, it was because he lost his job that he found the time to write this novel.
“In early 2002, 1 was fired after 10 years at Tax Analyst,” he sadly reports. (He worked at Tax Analyst as a proofreader and writer for the trade magazine Tax Notes.)
He now spends his days touring the country’s bookstores, appearing on radio shows, and adjusting to not having a day job.
He says he always knew there was a story or two inside him, and although he never planned to be a full-time fiction writer, “I am glad that I now have the chance.”