When Edward P. Jones learned in a college class that there had been black slave owners, he never dreamed that that surprising fact would blossom, some twenty years later, into a novel—never mind a prize-winning one. But last spring, The Known World did just that, garnering the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. The elegantly written novel tells the antebellum tale of a black farmer and former slave who comes to be the proprietor of his own plantation—and his own slaves. Called “exceptional…an achievement of epic scope,” it was the long-awaited follow-up to Jones’ first book, Lost in the City (1992). Nominated for the National Book Award, that book tells the stories of African Americans in the 1960s and ’70s in Washington, D.C., Jones’ hometown. “In stories and novels,” Jones says, “you can get to a certain truth you can’t get in any other way.”
Though formally educated at Holy Cross College and the University of Virginia, Jones muses that “I educated myself just generally for the pleasure of reading and somewhere along the way a lot of things stuck.” Winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award and recipient of the Lannan Foundation Grant, Jones has taught at George Washington University and Princeton University. He lives in Arlington, Virginia.
Excerpt from The Known World (2004)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 fields 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. When he, Moses, finally freed himself of the ancient and brittle harness that connected him to the oldest mule his master owned, all that was left of the sun was a five-inch-long memory of red orange laid out in still waves across the horizon between two mountains on the left and one on the right. He had been in the fields for all of fourteen hours. He paused before leaving the fields as the evening quiet wrapped itself about him. The mule quivered, wanting home and rest. Moses closed his eyes and bent down and took a pinch of the soil and ate it with no more thought than if it were a spot of cornbread. He worked the dirt around in his mouth and swallowed, leaning his head back and opening his eyes in time to see the strip of sun fade to dark blue and then to nothing. He was the only man in the realm, slave or free, who ate dirt, but while the bondage women, particularly the pregnant ones, ate it for some incomprehensible need, for that something that ash cakes and apples and fatback did not give their bodies, he ate it not only to discover the strengths and weaknesses of the field, but because the eating of it tied him to the only thing in his small world that meant almost as much as his own life.
Selected WorkThe Known World (2004)Lost in the City (1992)
LinksHarperCollins website for Jones, including reading group guidesInterview with Jones from Africana.com“We Tell Stories,” essay by Jones on writing