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States of Freedom

Edward P. Jones

     ... author. Mr. Jones is widely heralded for his literary novel The Known World, for which he won the 2004 Pulizer Prize in fiction. It is a story of Black American slaveholders and the institution of slavery which shaped the lives of all in that world. He won the PEN/Hemingway Award and was a National Book Award finalist for his prior book of short stories, Lost in the City. Washington, D.C. is his home.


Slavery’s “front door” is Black-and-White and known to all, Edward P. Jones understood. So rather than approaching The Institution through this “front door,” he chose, instead to enter into slavery through a lesser known “side door” -- the fact that Black people, as well as Whites, owned slaves during America’s long dark night as a slave nation. Mr. Jones learned this sad fact in college, long before he considered being a writer. He remembers how learning that terrible fact tilted the world for him.

Edward P. Jones created The Known World decades later. The novel is now widely admired, grounded entirely in Mr. Jones’ admirable imagination. In it, he explores the best and worst of humanity -- the lure of power and prestige, vanity and greed; the forces which seduced people of all colors into owning, using and abusing other people; the grace that comes of sacrifice, the pain of loss, the triumph of the human spirit in unbearable circumstances.

Always, it is characters that drive Mr. Jones’ stories, he says, referring also to his earlier, award-winning short form fiction. He says he knows that if readers open the door to his stories and see what they’re about, but are not sufficiently engaged and gripped, they won’t linger beyond the vestibule. They’ll be headed out before he can say anything to them. So in his stories, as in his craft, everything comes back to character.

And Character. Mr. Jones had intended to keep The Known World confined to “the lane,” home to the slaves owned by the Black slave master. Mr. Jones wanted to know how a person, enslaved, could survive the Institution of slavery. How they DID survive and got on with their lives? Whether their chains were forged of metal, enforced by crippled bones or created out of the love of a man for a woman, Mr. Jones wanted to know where people found their salvation from this terrible reality.

And, of course, he wanted to know why anyone -- Black or White -- owned slaves. What he found in his own fictional rendering of the World of Slavery was starkly clear. When God and the Law say slavery is OK -- when that’s the way the rushing of the river is going, as he puts it, and so many people are in the river and doing this terrible thing -- those who could afford to, owned slaves. The abuse of power knows no color.

Today, that American river of which he speaks is still moving, Mr. Jones says, mindful that America is not notably introspective. Whatever it was in slavery that lured some people to own others, it’s a thread that is still pulled along and along and along, he says, it has not yet ended. Nor does Mr. Jones know when or if that thread in America’s river will ever end. So that river is still moving, changed in a certain way, a little cleaner. But slavery’s debris remains.

[This Program was recorded September 22, 2003, in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.]

Conversation 1

Edward P. Jones tells Paula Gordon and Bill Russell how his short stories and full length novel relate to each other. Mr. Jones recalls the evolution of The Known World.

Conversation 1 RealAudio7:49

Conversation 2

Creating his fictional world out of nothing and without research, per se, Mr. Jones describes how it was to be The Creator of such a world. He describes reading what he wrote. Mr. Jones credits contributions from his editor. He remembers how the novel’s story unfolded, starting with the final line which he had in mind for 10 years. He differentiates going through the slavery’s “front door,” from his “side door,” Black slaveholders. He expands, describing how the story took form before he sat down to write. He distinguishes facts from his fiction.

Conversation 1 RealAudio10:21

Conversation 3

It is always people that drive his writing, Mr. Jones declares. He first intended to concentrate only on the slaves in the lane, he says, then other characters asserted themselves. He tells some of their stories. The interaction of writer and editor is again considered. Even though he wanted the novel to be about people, Mr. Jones says he also was interested in how individuals would survive the Institution of slavery. He points to several variations on this theme. He describes his own life, starting out as a math major.

Conversation 1 RealAudio9:43

Conversation 4

Wishing now that he’d kept a diary of the 10 years his World was taking form, Mr. Jones proposes why his stories are so powerfully visual. He recalls what he read as a youngster. As terrible as his fictitious slavery is, Mr. Jones compares it to far more horrendous realities. He explains the underlying rationalization of all of his novel’s slaveowners of all colors. He contrasts his 10 years thinking to 2.5 months writing the first draft, then describes how he goes about writing. He reveals the origin of several characters’ names, particularly “Darcy” and “Stennis.”

Conversation 1 RealAudio11:21

 Conversation 5

Introspection is not a high American priority, Mr. Jones notes, then considers the role of slavery in the nation’s past and present. Drawing on his characters, Mr. Jones considers character. He describes his own deep involvement with his characters, for all of whom “the sky only rises so high.” He explains. He examines the profound imbalance of power among the slaves and their owners, then adds the complications of gender. He anticipates more stories yet to come. He notes the importance of Washington, DC, his home, as a plot element.

Conversation 1 RealAudio10:31

Conversation 6

Mr. Jones offers reflects on America’s history of celebrating fighting over diplomacy, from Benjamin Franklin’s experience to the present. Mr. Jones concludes with lessons drawn from characters in The Known World.

Conversation 1 RealAudio4:43


We were as impressed with Mr. Jones as we are with his wonderful work. Our thanks to him for inviting us into his World.
Thanks, also, to the ever-vigilant Esther Levine, who has a gift for making rough places smooth.

Additional Links:

The Known World and Lost in the City are published by Amistad Press.

The history and impact of slavery in America continues to challenge us.  May of our guests have brought insight into the subject, including:  Richard Slotkin, Simon Schama, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Doris Kearns Goodwin, David Reynolds, Gail Buckley and David Blight.

Even after the nominal ending of slavery with the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, the effects of slavery compounded by racism continued past even the "second reconstruction" of the Civil Rights era of the 1950s and '60s.  We've had fruitful conversations on this subject with, among others: Taylor Branch, Cornel West, Johnetta Cole, Mark Curriden, Iris Chang, Kevin Baker, Jason DeParle, E.L. Doctorow, John Hope Franklin, Lani Guinier, David Halberstam, Darlene Clark Hine, Randall Kennedy, Joseph L. Roberts, Elizabeth Lasch-Quinn, John Lewis, Pearl Cleage, Orlando Patterson and Richard Rodriguez.

Critic and essayist Curtis White argues forcefully the importance of imagination and critical thinking to the success of any liberal community.

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