Where fiction meets reality

Author Edward P. Jones pauses for a photo during a book signing for his novel "The Known World" in February.
Author Edward P. Jones pauses for a photo during a book signing for his novel "The Known World" in February. (AP photo)
Characters move in and out of Edward P. Jones' new novel of the 19th century by the dozens - American slave owners, slaves, lawmen, lovers, wives. Some cast longer shadows than others, but all fall under the overwhelming umbra of slavery.

This is the strange turf of The Known World, from which Jones will read at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Enoch Pratt Central Library.

Lewis Carroll's Alice might have fallen down a rabbit hole and landed in such a perverse place. Trouble is, this world or something like it did exist after all, on the ground where you're standing.

Small comfort lies in knowing that a white slave patroller did not really confiscate a free black man's emancipation papers, chew and swallow them like so much cornbread and immediately sell the hapless fellow back into bondage for $50 and a mule. Jones made that up, along with a thousand common cruelties.

He did not invent the point around which the book revolves, that some free black people owned slaves. Jones says he stumbled upon this touchy historical fact decades ago when he was in college.

"Maybe some professor mentioned it, maybe it was something I read," says Jones, who is 53, in a telephone interview from his apartment in Arlington, Va. It was, he says, "one of thousands of facts that come your way when you're in college."

This fact evidently stuck to Jones like a burr, sowing curiosity and book-buying. He says he has 40-some nonfiction books on American slavery, then quickly adds that he has read no more than a chapter or two in any one of them.

From stray scraps of information and literary imagination, Jones has surveyed, mapped and populated an invented place, Manchester County, Va., in the years before the Civil War. Here the reader finds Henry Townsend, a black man and former slave, dying of some illness at 31 years, the master of 33 slaves, beneficiary of an economic system that has caused his fellow black Americans dreadful suffering.

How could such things happen? How did people make their way through this world?

Jones' pursuit of such questions takes the form of this 388-page book, which is winning praise in high places.

Jonathan Yardley of The Washington Post calls it "the best new work of American fiction to cross my desk in years."

Says Janet Maslin of The New York Times: a "stunning new antebellum novel ... "

Kirkus Reviews calls it "impressively researched," as if the circumstances described in the book weren't ironic enough.

Jones says he did hardly any research. Yes, he has provided details of a Manchester County census and various prices paid for slaves. He even cites historical pamphlets and several late 20th-century scholarly texts, but none of this is any more "researched" than the little flight-of-fancy errands several characters undertake immediately after they die. Magic realism enters this work along with historical particulars.

If anything, Jones says he willfully steered clear of all those historical books on the subject, lest they gum up the works.

"I didn't want the facts to get in the way of the story," says Jones. "I've always gone on the assumption that fiction writing is just that."

Perhaps, but at least one scholar of African-American history finds Jones' version of the culture of slavery substantially accurate.

"It rings so true," says Charles "Pete" Banner-Haley, who teaches at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y. He was surprised to hear that Jones claims to have done little research, as "everything I'm reading in that book I've seen in documents."

One might quibble about some points.

Jones found it necessary for the narrative to say that Henry Townsend had to buy his first slaves through his former master, William Robbins, because until the law changed in 1850, Townsend was forbidden by law as a black person to buy slaves. Sounds plausible, but both Banner-Haley and Paul Finkelman, a scholar on American law and slavery at the University of Tulsa, say they know of no such law ever existing in Virginia.

Finkelman, who has not read the novel, says the notion of a black man operating a plantation in Virginia at that time distorts the cultural history of that state. A Henry Townsend would be plausible in South Carolina or Louisiana, but not in Virginia, Finkelman says.

Based on general knowledge and reading, Jones says, "I felt I had a firm grasp of the world I was creating."

The novel presents slavery as the central social and economic fact of life, the "tar baby," as Banner-Haley puts it, that leaves no soul unmarked.

The ownership of black slaves by other blacks only gives the screw another turn. The notion boggles the mind of Townsend's slave, Moses:

Moses had thought that it was already a strange world that made him a slave to a white man, but God had indeed set it twirling and twisting every which way when he put black people to owning their own kind. Was God even up there attending to business anymore?

For his part, Henry Townsend sees no conflict in all this, not even when his father, Augustus, beats him with a stick and throws him out of his house when the young man shows up to announce that he just bought his first slave.

Henry protests that this is just the way things are:

"Papa, I ain't done nothin I ain't a right to. I ain't done nothin no white man wouldn't do. Papa, wait."

Jones says he's aware this is a sticky topic, not least for its capacity to give ammunition to those who would argue that the fact of black slave ownership somehow mitigates white responsibility. Once the story captured his imagination, however, it would not let go.

"Henry was part of a society that was mostly white slave owners," says Jones. Black slave owners "were just these little black dots in this greater white flood."

In Jones' Manchester County of 1855, eight of 34 free black families own slaves, a percentage that is hardly representative of the historical record. The reliability of the numbers is considered debatable, but it's clear enough that very few black people owned slaves.

According to Carter G. Woodson's 1924 book, Free Negro Owners of Slaves in the United States in 1830, there were 3,775 African-Americans listed as slave owners that year. That was about 2 percent of the free black population of 182,000 in the 15 slave states and the District of Columbia.

Some historians argue that most black slave owners bought spouses and family members to free them. Others say the more convincing evidence shows most black slave owners bought slaves for economic reasons, as whites did.

Jones has chosen to render these circumstances in a quite detached way, as if to emphasize how buying a person could be considered no more morally horrifying than buying a horse. Jones has said the novelistic voice is meant to convey a view of human doings from way on high, as if through the eyes of God.

The low-key tone also to a certain degree reflects the man.

Jones is not the sort to work a room, says his friend, Marcia H. Shia, a Washington public school teacher whose name is mentioned on page 352 of the book as the author of a made-up book that ties Virginia genealogy to two of the novel's key characters, Celeste and Elias Freemen.

"He's very, very observant," Shia says of Jones. "If you're having lunch in a diner, he's very aware of all the people that are around."

Roberta Murphy, who met Jones in a writer's group in Washington about 20 years ago, is also transformed into the author of a fictitious text mentioned in The Known World. At first, she says, Jones is apt to strike you as soft-spoken and reserved.

"He's very private," says Murphy, a novelist who teaches English at the Edmund Burke School in Washington. Jones can be sociable and funny when he's at ease, but she says "he isn't easy to get to know."

As Murphy tells it, Jones is a fellow who is apt to go long stretches without answering his phone or returning calls, especially if he's bearing down on a writing project.

Jones, who holds a master of fine arts degree from the University of Virginia, wrote much of The Known World during an intense stretch in the winter of 2001-2002.

He'd taken an extended vacation that December from his day job writing article summaries for Tax Analysts, a nonprofit agency in Arlington that provides information on tax laws for professionals in the field. While on vacation, he got a call from the office in January 2002 saying that after 19 years of service he was being fired, along with a couple dozen other people.

Jones kept writing. He was trying to stay on pace for five pages a day. He sat at his dining table tapping away at a computer that was old when Tax Analysts gave it to him four years ago so he could work at home. To this day, he says, the agency hasn't asked him to return it.

After walking around for 10 years turning the story of Henry Townsend, Moses et al. over and over in his head - he had written only about a dozen pages of it years ago - he says he finished the manuscript in March.

It's his first novel, but hardly his first published work or his first experience accepting accolades. In 1986 he won a National Endowment for the Arts grant for his short stories, most of which revolved around the world known most intimately to him: people living on the economic margins of Washington.

His mother, who cannot read, raised Edward and his brother and sister on the pay of a hotel maid and kitchen worker. His father left the family when Edward was a young boy.

The stories were published as a collection, Lost in the City, in 1992. The book won a PEN/Hemingway Award and a National Book Award nomination. Two years later, he won a $50,000 Lannan Literary Award for short fiction.

Now The Known World, and further acclaim. His friend Roberta Murphy says he's been underplaying the whole thing.

"I don't think he's quite sure what he's accomplished," she says.

Jones - who owns neither a car nor cell phone, who customarily unplugs his fax machine to bar the unsolicited sales pitch - seems on the threshold of a career breakthrough. Who knows, he may even move out of the one-bedroom apartment where he has lived since 1983. Perhaps, but he's not quite sure.

His most certain visions evidently concern imagined worlds.

"As long as I believed it," he says, referring to the universe of Manchester County, "I felt I could make it believable."