Edward P. Jones’s Carefully Quantified Literary World
By A.O. Scott
In June, Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas made a speech opposing statehood for the District of Columbia, comparing its residents unfavorably with the people of Wyoming, who while fewer in number were in the senator’s view more deserving of a star on the flag. Wyoming, he said, is a “well-rounded working-class state,” while Washington is a city full of “bureaucrats and other white-collar professionals.”
My first thought was that Cotton must not have read the short stories of Edward P. Jones. There are 28 of them, evenly divided between “Lost in the City” (1992) and “All Aunt Hagar’s Children” (2006) and all set mostly within the boundaries of the nation’s capital. They are populated by hard-working people, some of them employed by agencies of the federal government, many more striving to gain a foothold in the middle class while toiling as chauffeurs, shopkeepers, retail workers and bus drivers. A few are doctors, lawyers and soldiers. There are some criminals and layabouts in the mix too, but even Wyoming has its share of those. A population granted such exquisitely detailed literary representation might also deserve the political kind. This may be the place to note that nearly all of Jones’s Washingtonians, like roughly half of their real-life counterparts, are Black.
I know that it’s silly to imagine that a hard ideological position could be dissolved by fiction, and I should point out that statehood doesn’t figure explicitly among the concerns voiced by Jones’s characters, who are of course entirely imaginary. Although nobody who has read these books will quite believe that they aren’t real.
The city they live in very much is. “All the places that I write about are real,” Jones said in an interview with Hilton Als in 2013. Every story abounds in specific, knowable locations — blocks, intersections, street addresses, all encrypted in the abstract alphabetical-mathematical-geographical code of Washington’s neighborhoods: the barbershop “on the corner of 3rd and L Streets, Northwest”; “Georgia had always considered the corners of 5th and M as her lucky corners”; “Miss Jenny had come out of Hahn’s shoe store, crossed New York Avenue and was going up 7th Street”; the building at 1708 10th Street, “around the corner from the fire station on R Street.”
That last address, the home of a domestic worker named Roxanne Stapleton who is suddenly and mysteriously struck blind, was one of Jones’s childhood homes. “I never knew anybody that happened to,” Jones told Als. “But I had to put her someplace to live, so I might as well put her in our 10th Street apartment, in a building that I knew.”
The cumulative effect of this kind of knowledge, this abundance of verifiable local information, is to endow the stories with a distinctive credibility. If Jones tells you someone found a parking space “on S Street, between 10th and 11th,” you believe him. And this trust extends beyond geography into matters of history, genealogy and family life. The word “realism” isn’t quite adequate, and in any case not everything that happens in Jones’s Washington can be called realistic. The Devil, having swum across the Anacostia River, appears in a Safeway supermarket to tempt and bamboozle a young mother who secretly lusts after a man who isn’t her husband. Another woman experiences a series of “miracles” — an unsettling euphemism for horrifying mishaps in which she is the only survivor. Superstition and formal religion shape the thinking of many characters, especially those old enough to remember the Southern places where they lived before the capital summoned them.
But “magical realism,” a worn-out phrase in any case, doesn’t capture what Jones is doing in these stories from “All Aunt Hagar’s Children,” or in the sections of his novel “The Known World” (2003) that depart from a narrow set of assumptions about what might happen and why. While he was making his way as a writer, Jones, who was born in Washington in 1950, spent time working at Science magazine and then at a journal called Tax Notes, and there is a patient, empirical precision in his writing that might be said to fit in with the missions of those publications. His prose, even when it evokes natural mysteries and complex emotions, is always exacting in its observation and meticulous in its accounting. The world he invites us to know is a scrupulously documented, carefully quantified world. The attentive reader will notice the profusion of numbers: ages calculated to the month, times something has happened noted as if in a ledger, significant events measured mathematically. In the second paragraph of “Old Boys, Old Girls,” we learn that “seven months after he stabbed the second man — a 22-year-old with prematurely gray hair who had ventured out of Southeast for only the sixth time in his life — Caesar was tried for murder in the second degree.” At the end of the story “Common Law,” we are told that Georgia, a woman who has been trapped in an abusive relationship, is “one and a half years from marrying Alvin Deloach,” “more than eight years from marrying Vaughn Anderson,” “just about 30 years from seeing her first grandchild come into the world” and “more than 40 and a half years from death.”
Sometimes the numbers are from literal receipts — bills of sale for goods and services, and in “The Known World,” which takes place mostly in Virginia in the decade before the Civil War, for human beings. Jones also offers receipts in a more recent, metaphorical sense — as evidence of something that somebody might have reason to doubt, as proof against equivocation, indifference and outright denial.
What risks being denied is what has historically, in America, been dismissed and devalued: the matter — the material, human actuality — of Black lives. Jones isn’t an overtly political writer. Historical currents like the civil rights movement and abolitionism flow past and over his characters, but don’t tend to sweep them up. Apart from an occasional reminder that the president also lives in Washington, the drama of American politics takes place far from the parts of Northeast, Northwest and Anacostia where Jones’s people work, love and dream. This is partly an effect of segregation, which, depending on the decade, is either a matter of overt policy or of longstanding practice. Jones’s depiction of the pleasures of life in Washington’s Black neighborhoods might seem nostalgic if some fundamental change had taken place to sweep away a social environment defined by racism, but that isn’t the kind of reassurance he is inclined to provide.
As for the gospel singers, doctors, nurses and clerks — which is also to say the grandparents, husbands, ex-lovers, orphans and spinsters — who populate these places, they hardly need to spell out the facts of American life to themselves or one another. Toni Morrison often said that her goal as a writer was never to solicit or pander to “the white gaze,” in other words to cast off the burden assumed by many earlier Black writers of explaining and instructing white readers in matters of race. Jones, like many African-American writers who arrived in Morrison’s wake, renders his world with a similar kind of confidence. This isn’t a matter of exclusion or separatism — a book can be opened by anybody, and open any mind — but of fidelity to the truth of experience.
So it might go without saying — though nothing really does — that a white reader enters Jones’s world from a different angle. What comes as news to me may strike you as a gentle reminder of something you always knew. What I feel as revelation you might experience as recognition. Places that seem strange to my eyes are no doubt home in someone else’s.
And realities that white people have the privilege of ignoring, euphemizing or attempting to justify are part of the infrastructure of Black existence. Children in Jones’s stories are told that movie theaters and other amusements are off limits to them. Neighborhoods are broken up for redevelopment, discovered by gentrifying “pioneers,” allowed to fall into decay. The police show up now and then — useless, brutal, occasionally helpful. The violence and cruelty of the Jim Crow South, and of slavery before that, is an aspect of shared memory, as is the sweetness of life in a region about which someone says, “It’s the worst mama in the world and it’s the best mama in the world.”
An ordinary word that Jones uses frequently enough to make it feel freighted with special meaning is “people.” It can refer to kin and community, but also to powerful collective entities that periodically assert their will and influence. “White people,” of course, and “the world the white people had made for themselves,” but also specialized departments within that world. “The Social Security people.” “The city government people.” “The American military people in Okinawa.” There is, I think, a quiet point being made by this locution, which is that however much we may think about power and racism as systemic or structural phenomena, they are never truly impersonal. Every injustice, like every kindness, is carried out by human beings, even if they are unaware of the effects of or reasons for what they do. Sometimes “the government people” and others are benevolent, sometimes mean (generally they are less brutal than their equivalents in Louisiana or Arkansas), but their presence is always at once intimate and alien, their rules and attitudes arbitrary and often inscrutable.
In “Marie,” the final story in “Lost in the City,” Marie Delaveaux Wilson, a widow living in an apartment at 12th and M, finds herself ensnared in a Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare, summoned by “the federal government people” to a meeting with a Social Security official who is never available to see her. “Given the nature of life — particularly the questions asked by the Social Security people — she always took more than they might ask for — her birth certificate, her husband’s death certificate, doctors’ letters.” Receipts for her existence.
In the face of this indignity, Jones allows Marie a small gesture of rebellion: She slaps the face of an inconsiderate receptionist named Vernelle. But the story isn’t primarily about oppression and defiance. It’s more about the way certain dramatic moments occur in the flow of time and consciousness that defines who a person is. The episodes at the Social Security office (at 21st and M, Northwest) are threaded through other memories and encounters, including a series of interviews conducted by a Howard University student named George Carter as part of an oral history project. Marie is willing to share reminiscences of her arrival in D.C. (where her mother had thought “God and his people” must live), and the reader samples some excerpts, but in the end she stashes the tapes in a drawer, “away from the things she needed to get her hands on regularly,” and resolves never to listen again.
Her biography is thus consigned to a kind of epistemological limbo, recorded but not entirely known. And this kind of half-light — the intuition that the whole story can only be grasped through the flickers and shadows cast off by the facts — is part of the atmosphere of Jones’s world. There is always more to be discovered within its boundaries. Read a few chapters of either collection and you will become aware of a distinctive chronological rhythm, a way of pulling time forward, backward and sideways, slowing it down and speeding it up.
Jones comes close to inventing new verb tenses. “One day, you will see that Tennessee Creek again for the first time,” a woman writes in a letter to a child she has recently met. “And I will see the house again for the first time.” The beginning of “Tapestry,” the closing story in “All Aunt Hagar’s Children,” offers a vivid, richly detailed narrative of events that didn’t actually happen, but that would have happened “were it not for the sleeping car porter.” It’s not until four pages in that we learn the porter’s name, and at the end, after he has married Anne Perry (who might otherwise have married Lucas Turner, but definitely not Ned Murray), Jones shifts back to a slightly different subjunctive mood, as Anne pictures what would happen if she were to abandon her new husband.
His name, by the way, is George Carter, just like the young man in “Marie,” who might be one of the 21 grandchildren or even 12 great-grandchildren noted in the final passage of “Tapestry.” That seems likely. The temporal loops and echoes don’t just happen within the stories, but between them. We are frequently meeting people again for the first time. Reading the part of “Marie” in which she deters a would-be mugger by stabbing his hand with a seven-inch knife she keeps in her coat pocket casts you back to “Young Lions,” the fourth story in “Lost in the City,” whose main character is Marie’s assailant, Caesar Matthews. He will return in “Old Boys and Old Girls,” the fourth story of “All Aunt Hagar’s Children,” which follows him through a stretch in prison.
The links and knots are too many to enumerate, and I’m by no means sure that, after multiple readings, I have accounted for all of them. “Lost in the City” begins with a delicate vignette called “The Girl Who Raised Pigeons.” The man who gave the girl those pigeons is a barber named Miles Patterson whose remarkable origins are related in the first story of “All Aunt Hagar’s Children,” called “In the Blink of God’s Eye.” Georgia, the survivor of domestic abuse in “Common Law,” figures in the title story of “Lost in the City.” Those are, by the way, the eighth stories in their respective books.
After a while, you learn to pay close attention to the names and addresses. Have I met this person before? Will I be seeing her again? Didn’t she and that other family live on the same block of H Street? Was it at the same time? Did they know each other? These aren’t just puzzles to solve, but invitations to reread, to retrace your steps until you feel as if those people know you too.
There is precedent for this method, of course, though I can’t think of any writer who has sustained this kind of intricate symmetry in books published more than a decade apart. James Joyce’s “Dubliners” is 15 stories set in and around a single city, with some similar echoes and overlappings. In the story “Bad Neighbors,” Jones has a book-loving high school student named Sharon Palmer fall for a pair of books that seem to provide a clue to her author’s influences: “The Street,” Ann Petry’s multivocal, time-shifting 1946 novel of life in Harlem; and the Irish writer Mary Lavin’s “Tales From Bective Bridge.”
“Lost in the City” and “All Aunt Hagar’s Children” communicate with each other across the mighty expanse of “The Known World,” which won a Pulitzer Prize. The novel is a major work about American slavery that grows out of what Jones calls the “footnote” that there were a few Black slaveholders in the antebellum South. The principal “master” in the book is Henry Townsend. Henry’s father, a skilled woodcarver named Augustus, purchased his own freedom and then his wife’s and their son’s, and was dismayed when his son grew up to purchase slaves for himself.
“In 1855 in Manchester County, Virginia” — a fictional “postage stamp,” like William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha, slotted into the geography of the real world — “there were 34 free Black families, with a mother and father and one child or more, and eight of those free families owned slaves, and all eight knew one another’s business.” This business, intimate and economic, is the broad subject of the book, which centers on Henry’s death and its aftermath.
But like the stories in “Lost in the City” and “All Aunt Hagar’s Children,” “The Known World” moves freely, at times vertiginously, in time and space, propelling characters and their descendants suddenly into the decades after Emancipation and invoking the perspectives of invented 20th-century scholars to illuminate Manchester County’s history. We are led on journeys to Louisiana, Texas, the Carolinas, Philadelphia and Boston — and Washington too, naturally — always circling back to the knotted destinies of the people, white and Black, enslaved and free, who live on and around Henry’s plantation.
Their lives are linked, and defined, by the institution of slavery, another abstract, dehumanizing system of laws and customs that is also a network of human choices, desires, crimes and mercies. The essential cruelty of the system is stark and simple — the threat and arrival of horrific violence, the forcible separation of families, the unending plunder of dignity, labor and joy — but life within it is as complicated as anywhere else. Like the people we meet in Jones’s stories, everyone in “The Known World,” however brief our encounters with them, has a mind, a soul and a destiny that defy caricature or easy summary. They dwell in a terrible, beautiful place that draws you back to it again and again.
Edward P. Jones, who turns 70 this year, has produced a compact body of work that keeps growing. I hope that he adds to it, but I also think it’s bad manners for critics to demand more work from the artists we admire. I’m content to set aside a month each year to make my way, a story a day, through “Lost in the City” and “All Aunt Hagar’s Children,” and to make room on the calendar for further explorations of “The Known World.”
I’m also aware that every writer is unique, and that it’s absurd to dream of an Edward P. Jones for Wilmington, Del., or Cincinnati, or Salt Lake City. Washington, D.C., a city as neglected by our literati as it is scorned by our politicians, is lucky to have this one.
But I do occasionally allow myself to wish that Jones could somehow become a government agency, something like the Census Bureau or the I.R.S., with a reach that could extend beyond Washington, across the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers, past the Virginia and Maryland state lines, moving block by block, house by house, in every direction, until every lost child and forgotten grandparent is accounted for and we see our country again for the first time.
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