Edward P. Jones
Author and professor
Born Edward Paul Jones, October 5, 1950, in Arlington, VA. Education: Holy Cross College, BA, 1972; University of Virginia, MFA, 1981.
Addresses: Home —4300 Old Dominion Dr., No. 914, Arlington, VA 22207.
Worked for Science magazine; worked at the American Association for the Advancement of Science; sold his first story to Essence, 1975; columnist and proofreader for Tax Notes, 1990-2002; author, 1992—; guest instructor at George Washington University, University of Maryland, and Princeton University, 2000s.
Awards: National Book Foundation Award, for Lost in the City , 1992; Ernest Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award, for Lost in the City , 1992; grant, Lannan Foundation; grant, National Endowment for the Arts; National Book Critics Circle for The Known World, 2004; Pulitzer Prize for fiction, for The Known World, 2004.
In 1992 Edward P. Jones burst on the literary scene with his much-hailed collection of short stories called 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
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 because 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 13 year old, he discovered novels. "When I started reading black writers, I discovered two books that had a great impact on me: Ethel Waters' 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.
After reading Dubliners, a collection of short stories by James Joyce, Jones decided to give Washington, D.C., a similar treatment with Lost in the City. As he told Carole Burns in an 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 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 African American Review 's 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 portraits" 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 more than 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 free 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. 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 because 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 12 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 the Washington Post 's 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 Washington Post 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 the San Francisco Chronicle 's 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, Washington Post Book World 's 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 2004, The Known World won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. That same year, Jones was working on another anthology of short fiction. Still intent on writing fiction "that matters," he told Publisher's Weekly : "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.
Globe & Mail (Toronto, Canada), November 15, 2003, p. D8.
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. 131-32.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 12, 1992, p. 6.
Newsweek, September 8, 2003, p. 57.
New York Times, June 11, 1992, p. C18; August 23, 1992, sec. 7, p. 16.
New York Times Book Review, August 23, 1992, p. 16; August 31, 2003, p. 9.
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. 253-55.
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," BookBrowse, http://www.bookbrowse.com/index.cfm?page=author&authorID=930 (September 30, 2004).
" Known World, Gulag win Pulitzers," CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/2004/SHOWBIZ/books/04/05/pulitzers.arts.ap/index.html (September 30, 2004).
"Off the Page," Washington Post, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A11797-2003Oct24.html (September 30, 2004).
"Fresh Air," interview with Edward P. Jones, National Public Radio, November 11, 2003.
—Jeanne M. Lesinski