ENGL 291: The American Novel Since 1945

Lecture 22

 - Edward P. Jones, The Known World


In the first of her two lectures on Edward P. Jones’s The Known World, Professor Hungerford begins from the novel’s title, asking what counts as knowledge in the novel and why knowledge is central to the story. This leads to related questions: who is a knower, and what can be known? Highlighting several different versions of how knowledge of the past is communicated through storytelling within the novel, she draws distinctions between Jones’s model of historical knowledge and that of other writers on the syllabus. Professor Hungerford suggests that Jones revives a nineteenth-century form of the novel when his narrator takes on a God-like omniscience, but unlike the nineteenth-century novel’s narrators, Jones’s omniscient narrator provides little in the way of God-like consolation.

Transcript Audio Low Bandwidth Video High Bandwidth Video

The American Novel Since 1945

ENGL 291 - Lecture 22 - Edward P. Jones, The Known World

Chapter 1. Initial Student Reactions: The Known World in the Wake of Morrison [00:00:00]

Professor Amy Hungerford: Today, of course I’m going to talk about The Known World, the second-to-last of our novels. In the two lectures that I have planned, I’m going to take up fairly abstract questions, because I think this novel, for all its wealth of detail, calls for an address to these couple of questions. And I’ll tell you about those in a minute, but before I pursue that line of argument, which today will take a somewhat narrow scope and on Wednesday will take in the whole of the novel, I just want to hear from you, a little bit, about what reading this novel was like, just in a simple way. How did you respond to it? How did it make you feel as a reader? What was the experience like? What did you notice? So, who can tell me what they noticed? Yes.

Student: I guess it found it a little disorienting, because of all the names that were introduced quickly at the beginning, and jumping around in a different time, and also referencing the dead people as being alive. So, that was really confusing and disorienting, but I also really liked it, mostly because of the descriptive language that was used, particularly when referring to–I felt like he captured the environment really well, so I enjoyed it.

Professor Amy Hungerford: Uh huh. So, was the natural description a kind of grounding, in that context of disorientation? That’s a very, I think, perceptive take on what he’s doing in the novel. Yeah. What else? What else did you notice? Yes.

Student: Well, the lack of a strong sense of plot made it difficult for me to come back to the book, once I’d put it down, so that I thought that it was beautifully written, which meant that when I was sitting there reading it I had no trouble staying engaged with the book, but when I put it down I sort of forgot about it and had no interest in picking it up again until I did because I had to for class.

Professor Amy Hungerford: It’s terrible, isn’t it? Yes. Yeah. It has an interesting effect that way. It’s like, as I was saying, I think, to a friend in office hours, that it’s totally committed to plot, but on the tiniest scale, in the local sense, that there are so many tiny narratives within this novel that there isn’t one, or it’s hard to detect the one that will hold you for the whole novel. And I’ll definitely- I’ll talk about that in my second lecture. Yeah, absolutely, so that’s something we have to account for. Yes, Mary.

Student: One of the things that I thought was really interesting was how suddenly the narrative would jump into the future or the past, saying a lot of things about one character–

Professor Amy Hungerford: Yeah, absolutely: totally fluid chronological sense in the novel. So, we have to make sense of that. We have to know what to say about that. One thing I think we can say is–to put it in context–is that he’s doing something quite different from Toni Morrison, just to take a point of context that is totally apparent, I think, that he’s writing in the same vein as Toni Morrison; he’s writing an historical novel about slavery. And, after Beloved in the mid ’80s, you cannot do that without being in the realm of Toni Morrison. But what’s interesting about the contrast in time travel between Morrison and Jones is that with Jones it works proleptically, into the future. With Toni Morrison, Beloved develops the concept of what she calls re-memory. Any of you who have read the novel or thought about it in a classroom probably have thought about this. Re-memory is that way for the characters that the memories of slavery exist independent of persons, so that the daughter of a slave who is living in freedom, if she goes back to the South, is imagined to be capable of walking into a memory of slavery even though slavery is, in that moment, gone. So, it’s as if there is a free contact between the present and the past, but there is not this free contact between the present and the future, the way that you see in Jones. So, we want to ask ourselves: in what sense is he innovating on the aims of the historical novel, as Toni Morrison wrote it twenty years or so earlier? What else did you notice? What other feelings did you have about the reading experience? Is it like anything else we have read this term, and, if so, what? Is it like anything else? Yes.

Student: Well, this is kind of an unfair comparison to make, because of the morality issues, but it reminded me of Blood Meridian, in the sense of its quality of lots of different thoughts and events.

Professor Amy Hungerford: Yeah. That’s an interesting parallel. So, it has a detailed attention to the particular, which ends up leeching significance out of the particular. Yes. Both novels do that, and it does call into question, I think, for both novels, how we’re to read its morality, because both deliberately take up subjects that evoke in us moral responses. So, Jones’ choice–if you think about Nabokov setting himself up with a problem (how can you make us love a pedophile?)–Jones’ problem, his chess problem, is: what do you do with a black slave owner? How are we to understand the phenomenon of black slave ownership? So, that’s the moral question he brings up, and we will have to see whether ambivalence finally gives away to critique, whether there is a strong moral critique of the situations that he sets up. Let me begin, then. I have some sense of how you’re receiving the book, so that’s helpful. I thank you for that.

Chapter 2. A Historical Novel: Reactions to Postmodern Historical Theory [00:06:31]

Let me begin, then, with my abstract question, and it really comes from the title of the book, The Known World. It raises in that title immediately the question of knowledge. How do you know anything? That is a central question for this book: How do you know anything? The abstract question I’m going to ask on Wednesday is how does anything exist, another extremely abstract question, how can anything exist? So, those are my two, sort of, governing questions. They will become much fuller and more detailed and concrete as I lecture. How do you know anything? A related question is, who is the knower? The Known World: known by whom? So, the question of the subject of knowing, the person who knows, is immediately also at issue. Who is that person? Is that person accessible to us? Can we know that person?

History poses, in the contemporary period, all of those problems of knowledge, and I think this is one reason why this is a historical novel. And it’s one reason why fiction turns to the historical in this period, because the practice of history at this time, in the second half of the twentieth century, begins to change. So, it used to be that historians felt that they could know the past; when they had gained a certain distance from it, it would become knowable, that objective distance. And so, any historian worth his salt would probably be loath to write about something too recent, because that wasn’t what history was all about. History was about getting perspective, the perspective and objectivity that time provides. Well, in the mid twentieth century this vision of history began to change, and I’m going to mention a couple of figures here that are especially relevant to literary studies.

One is Michel Foucault, a French historian and philosopher who in the 1960s began to argue that history was best understood as the evolution of discursive systems, systems, essentially, of language married to institutional power, and that those systems were properly understood as shaping what we could know and the social identities one could inhabit at any given time. So, in the early ’60s he writes about the history of insanity; he writes about the history of sexuality; he writes about the history of prisons and discipline. And he argues that institutions like the asylum and the prison form modern subjectivities, form how it is that we think we can be people and know things. So, the argument goes something like: you can’t be a modern madman without the asylum. It’s not like madness existed, and then asylums got built to take care of it. He sees the rise of the asylum and the rise of clinical insanity as requiring one another; you can’t have one without the other. So, it’s the rise of the defining institution that maps directly onto the rise of any condition like that: similarly sexuality, laws that govern deviants, norms of behavior that stabilize gender. There are some wonderful stories from medieval French literature, for, example that Foucault talks about, that feature girls who jump over ditches and suddenly become boys. There is this sense of instability of gender that he brings out of some historical material, and then he talks about how we came to believe that gender was stable, and what discursive systems were required, what laws, what kinds of etiquette, what kinds of education were required to make us believe that gender was stable, among other things.

So, this kind of history suggests a couple of things to those of us who study literature, and it did so very powerfully in the 1980s, and that is that discourse, language, is extremely powerful. It affects how we can know anything. It’s not just the medium in which we can describe what we know. It’s that very foundation through which we know anything. And I think some of the revisionist history that you see taking place in fiction– and here I’ll have recourse again to Beloved–demonstrates the belief in language’s power to make history.

Toni Morrison is, in Beloved, looking towards fiction to do something else, too, and that’s to replace lost history. Another development, out of Foucault’s work and the work of others, is an interrogation of the archive. What’s in the archive? What kind of archive do we use? If you’re interested in the history of institutions, that’s a very different-looking historical archive than it would be if you just think that great men make history. So, then you go and you look at the lives of the great men over time who have made history. That’s a very different-looking archive, or if you think that history is made by governments.

So, there’s a whole movement in the ’80s and ’90s, the new social history, that takes the archive to be much broader than it was before, to include all kinds of things that common people experienced. So, the letters of factory workers, the popular magazines and so on, all kinds of ephemera, what historians would call ephemera, came to be important in a new way. Morrison uses that to imagine a history that can’t be told because there is no archive for it, and in the case of Beloved, it’s the history of the illiterate slave woman. She finds a newspaper cutting about a woman who killed her children rather than have them return to slavery, and she lets fiction do the work that history cannot do, which is tell that woman’s story. So, it’s a kind of recovery that the new social history and the developments coming out of Foucault’s work are making happen in the discipline of history. Here it’s happening in literature and having its effects in literature.

There’s one other historian I want to mention, and that’s Hayden White. Hayden White was a historian who argued that our notions of how history should be written are deeply informed by our understandings of how narratives work, so this is part of the overthrow of what you might call teleological history, the idea that history has a trajectory, that it has a goal. And this would be related to, history is about either the inevitable rise of certain kinds of humanist thought in the West, or about the decline of civilizations over time. Both of those versions of history are teleological. They suggest that history has a point. Hayden White read history like literature. He argued that historical accounts were emplotted, that they were shaped in their argument by the very expectations set up by literary works. So, we expect stories to go a certain way, and so that’s how history gets written. I think that Jones is somewhat more interested in this second version of the new history, a history that’s very aware of its plotting, and it’s this question of the grand narrative of history that’s very much at issue. How do you know where history is tending? This is certainly a question for Jones.

And I’m going to now just say one small thing, and I’m going to come back to this question, in the course of this lecture, about postmodernism. So, one feature of what is called postmodernism is this decline of the grand narrative. So, when Jean-Francois Lyotard wrote something called The Postmodern Condition, he argued that we could have no overarching cultural narratives, religious narratives, historical narratives, social narratives, moral narratives, in the postmodern age, because in the postmodern age everything is fragmented. Fragmentation is the hallmark of the postmodern for him. It has to do with the rise of global capitalism, and this is an argument that is related to Fredric Jameson’s argument about postmodernism, and Jameson and Lyotard are parallel in their analysis. They give different value to this tradition–to this condition (sorry). Lyotard celebrates it. It’s a kind of freedom for him, the freedom from the grand narrative. Jameson is much more skeptical about its qualities, and sees it largely as damaging to persons. So, one question we want to ask is, if there are any grand narratives in Jones, are they seen as consolatory? Do they provide any compensation for the sufferings of the present?

Chapter 3. Thread-like Narratives and the Grand Tapestry: Modes of Telling Truth [00:17:09]

So, this is one question I want you to, sort of, hold in your mind. What is this novel’s attitude toward narrative as such, both on the small level and on the grand level? On the small level it’s a little more apparent. It’s clear the novel values the tiny version of narrative. Does it value the large version? So, with all those sort of abstract questions in mind, I want to turn to the novel and look at how knowledge, especially knowledge of history, knowledge of the past, is generated. And the first example I want to turn to is that of Moses telling Caldonia the story of Henry’s building the plantation. This is on page 209. So, this is after Henry’s death, and Caldonia calls Moses in, and as a way of comforting, Moses begins to tell this story.

Moses took his eyes from his lap and began to invent some early days when they were building the house and there was not much on the land except what God had put there. Caldonia was at the edge of the settee in her mourning dress. “Now, Master Henry always knowed what kind of house he wanted to build, Mistress. I don’t even think he knowed about you that particular time, but he must have had some idea that you was out there somewhere waitin’ in your own kind of way, ‘cause he set up about building a house that you would want. He built it up from nothin’. I was there, but I wasn’t there like he was there. He said to me that first day, he said, ‘Moses we gonna start with the kitchen. A wife needs a place to fix her meals for her family. Thas’ where we gonna start,’ and he bent down and Mastah drove in that first nail, bam. That was a Monday, Mistress, ‘cause Mastah Henry didn’t believe in startin’ somethin’ on a Sunday, God’s day.” Caldonia, her hands clasped in her lap, leaned back and closed her eyes. The story about the first nail came a little more than a month after Henry had been in his grave. It was gospel among slaves that one of the quickest ways to hell was to tell lies about dead people, but Moses did not think about that as he spoke of the first nail, did not think about the dead needing the truth to be told about them. He did not think about it until that day Oden Peoples, the Cherokee patroller, said to the men around him about Moses, “Heft him on up here. I’ll take him in. He ain’t gonna bleed for long.”

There are all kinds of cues in this little, tiny passage to the production of knowledge. So, first of all, let me point out a literary resonance, and that’s to Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom, which is the story of Henry Sutpen, another Henry, and the way he built a plantation out of nothing. And what’s remarkable about Sutpen, his overarching and overwhelming characteristic, is that he had a plan, a plan that reached all the way down through his heirs, and part of that plan was the unblemished whiteness of the line he was establishing. So, this story about another Henry, another Master Henry, pulling a plantation out of the wilderness with his bare hands, echoes those literary stories that we have in our minds. Now, of course we aren’t to believe that Moses has read Absalom, Absalom. It’s not that Moses is taking that story in particular, but just that for Moses the story of a masterful creator is already in his vocabulary and for Jones that he wants to have us think about stories like that. So, this is what it calls to mind on two levels. He deliberately casts it, Moses does, as a godlike creation, having him start on a Monday as if it were the first day of God’s seven days of creation in the Book of Genesis.

Now, then you get warnings: “The quickest way to hell was to tell lies about dead people.” That knowledge suggests a whole body of oral tradition among the slaves, so it is folk wisdom; it is a folk warning. What Moses does, then, is stand up against folk wisdom, and he takes on for himself the power of a masterful creator. So, he does himself what he assigns to Henry. He becomes a creator, here, in language. The warning from the collective wisdom stands at odds with his individuality at that moment. It’s at odds with his seizing that power for himself, and we will see as the novel goes on the repercussions of his having done that for the slaves in the slave quarters. It will have serious repercussions, some good, some bad, and here we’re told that there is something in the future for him, too, that is a repercussion, that involves blood and his disabling. This kind of knowledge is that old, familiar friend: foreshadowing, of course.

So, this is yet another kind of knowledge that Jones puts in front of us. It’s the proleptic knowledge, the knowledge looking ahead to the future, that the author of a grand narrative is in the sole position of giving. It’s the prerogative of the maker to tell us what’s coming next, because it’s only the maker who knows what the whole is looking like, what the whole will look like, because it’s the maker’s intention that will determine everything that happens. And so, there’s yet this other layer of knowledge and of voice. There is a narrator in the mix here who is not Moses, who is Jones, or the writer of this novel, whoever we want to imagine that to be–we’ll call him Jones–who knows something that Moses doesn’t. We are put in the position of being on the same plane as that creator, so it puts Moses in the tragic position of not knowing his fate. He’s a little like Oedipus in this way, that the gods all know what the facts are about his life, and the life of the world, but he doesn’t. He blunders along. There is that ironic distance between the knowledge of the audience and the knowledge of the character in the dramatic situation, so Moses is in that position here.

Now, what is exactly he lying about? Well, we get other versions of Henry’s beginning. On 122, we see a slightly different story, and I’m not going to read too much out of here. But if you turn there, you’ll recall that early in the building of the plantation, Moses and Henry are tussling in the dirt, when William Robbins rides up. And Robbins makes a point of scolding Henry for thinking that he is somehow not different from his slave, and he advises him that he must make that a bright and enduring line between them. So, this plantation is founded on the white man’s policing the divide between master and slave, even after his slave, Henry, has bought his freedom. So, it’s perpetuated between Robbins and Henry, that seigniorial power, and Henry acquiesces and disciplines Moses in an arbitrary way. Moses, when he comes–when Henry comes–back from speaking with William Robbins, wants to continue working. Moses loves to work. He loves the completion of work. He is a very fine builder. We learn in the scene that he can build in the dark just by feel and by the sense of the place of things. And so, Moses is told not to work. Henry slaps him, and Moses then keeps on working anyway after Henry leaves. So, in that story, Moses is the maker, not so much Henry. And, if there is an origin, before that scene of Moses building in the dark, it’s a scene of the two of them tussling on the ground. So, William Robbins is right. There is a blurring of the distinction between master and slave. It’s that, and it’s sundering, that is the origin of the plantation. And we’re told also in this chapter that he hadn’t even thought–he, Henry–hadn’t even thought about Caldonia yet. Equally, we learn, in passing, on page 59, that very soon before that scene of him and Moses that Henry was already dreaming of his plantation. This is at the very bottom of the page:

Moses made to go down the lane of cabins, eight on one side of the lane and eight on the otherside, laid out just the way Henry Townsend had seen them in a dream when he was twenty-one years old and without a slave to his name.

It’s not a kitchen for a future wife, but a line of slave cabins for his future slaves that Henry has in mind. That’s the origin that Moses is lying about, so there are two layers of lies here. One is the lie about the plantation being built on a vision of slavery, and two is the lie on its being built by Henry alone. So, Moses, in telling his story, asserting his authority to tell history, effaces himself from that history, and also effaces the line of difference between slave and not slave. He doesn’t say it was built on that distinction, and that serves his purposes, of course, because his stories to Caldonia will have as their final dream the effacement of the line between him and Caldonia. His dream is that she will see him as the next Mr. Townsend, and we’ll see by the end of the novel what happens to that dream.

So, how do you know about the past? Caldonia can only know about that past through Moses, and we’ve seen that it’s an incredibly complex view backward, with all these layerings. And once again we’re asked to stand in the position of knowing more, even, than Moses does. We know about Henry’s dream of the line of slave cabins. Moses doesn’t know that piece, so there is that difference cropping up. On page 75, you have another version of telling those stories.

When Augustus and Mildred, Henry’s parents, lay down and held each other after Henry’s death, one of them started talking–they would not remember which one it was–all about Henry from his birth to his death, starting a weeks-long project of recalling all that they could about their son. If they had known how to read and write, they could have put it all in a book of two thousand pages.

This is a very different kind of telling. If there is a literary model here, it’s that of Odysseus and Penelope. I don’t know if any of you have read The Odyssey. There’s this beautiful scene, at the end, when Odysseus finally reaches Ithaca, and he and Penelope stay up all night telling each other stories; they talk all night. And so that’s the vision you have here. It’s a private exchange of history, and we’re not told all the things that occur in their conversation. That is a kind of storytelling that is compensation for loss. It’s history as compensation, and this is much more in the realm of what Toni Morrison is doing in her fiction, fiction as filling in the gaps of loss as best fiction can. Now there’s no fantasy about how complete that could ever be, but there is the effort and the effort honors what’s been lost, and here Augustus and Mildred honor their ambivalent love for their son. They completely disagree with what he has done in his life, and yet they honor that loss telling stories to one another and they blend together as people, as separate people, in that act.

On 239, we can see yet a third version of how history and the world make sense, and this is when Counsel Skiffington rides into Texas after his plantation burns down. How do you know anything? Well, as he meets the sort of motley crews of people that he meets on the road, he continually thinks back to the burned library at his plantation. (And this is in the middle of the page.)

He had seen a dark old man driving the wagon, not really a Negro, not really from any race that was recorded in any of the books in his destroyed library. [And then a little further down] When he turned from the wagon with the pregnant women, a boy smiling with perfect teeth was facing him. He knew the origins of this one from another of the destroyed books, someone from the Orient.

Counsel brings with him from the destroyed library the categories of knowledge that he hopes will make the world make sense. It fails him, often, as in the brown man he can’t quite categorize from the books. It gives him satisfactions on those occasions when its categories do apply. So, Counsel is a model for that person who takes the discursive knowledge of his culture and tries to fit the world he encounters into it, and he’s troubled when it doesn’t work. So, this is a mode of knowledge that fits quite nicely with what I’ve been telling you, in a sort of simplified way, about Foucault’s understanding of how history works. And so, here, you have a version of that right in the character of Counsel.

Chapter 4. The Question of Knowing: A Syllabus Retrospective [00:34:19]

So, some of the problems that these scenes point up are: how can the knower know anything, when the knower himself or herself is a fragmented person? And, I think, the fragmenting of knowledge across layers–what do we know, what does Moses know, what does Caldonia know, what does the narrator seem to know–that fragmentation makes it impossible to imagine a subjectivity for any of these characters that can truly encompass a stable world view. So, that fragmentation of self is another layer of the problem of knowledge. How can you know anything, when you’re not a stable knower yourself?

And I just want to look back to some of the other readings on our syllabus, to think about how these problems have been addressed. So, how do you know about the past in Robinson, for Marilynne Robinson? For her, writing is the transcription of consciousness, of human consciousness. There is an endless present to her work and when she talks about writers from the nineteenth century for example–Hawthorne, Dickinson, Emerson, Thoreau–she calls them aunts and uncles. I think it’s very telling. It’s as if they were part of her family, part of her present, and I think that’s indicative of how she thinks of writing and its access to the past. Because writing is continuous with consciousness, you can simply know the past by reading it. And if you read her essays on history, that’s fully borne out in the assumptions that she makes.

If you think about Cormac McCarthy, how can you know the past? Well, his trans-historical vision suggests that to know the past is simply to know human nature, or to know human nature is to know the past. So, remember those epigraphs about the ancient evidence of scalping. It suggests that the human tendency towards violence has no origin, has no end. It’s a different kind of eternal present from Robinson’s, and yet it is still one that gives him a seamless access to the past, so he can make modern U.S.-Mexico border look very much like, for example, the U.S.-Mexico border in the 1840s (and this is later in his Border Trilogy when you see the nuclear tests in this same landscape that we’ve seen all the action of Blood Meridian). So, he makes those two look very similar in that landscape.

Philip Roth: how do you know the past? Well, this is a major theme of my lecture on Wednesday of last week. How does Nathan know any of Coleman’s past? He has to rely on other narrators. We have to rely on him. I was questioning his credibility as a narrator, as someone who could tell us about the past, so there’s that level of problem raised in that novel. At the same time, like McCarthy, he has a trans-historical understanding of what access to the past would be, through the trans-historical theme of desire. So, desire is the same now as it was in Hawthorne’s time. The desire to purify the American libido in the Monica Lewinsky trial is not different, for Roth, from the spasm of purification that Hawthorne writes about in The Scarlet Letter. So, that is a different vision of what it means to be trans-historical, and I think it allows for Roth that fearless setting of the contemporary. He doesn’t look to a historical setting that’s distant from himself. He sees the present as history. And, if you believe in the trans-historical, you can make that move, ‘cause you don’t need the distance from history to get objective purchase on it. It’s all, sort of, part of the same story.

And then, if you think about The Woman Warrior: how do you get a usable past out of the layers and layers of secrecy, partial narration, fragmentation that you get from parents telling you stories about your past and about their past? Well, you have to stitch it together. So, her argument is that the past is what you make it usable for; the past becomes its use for you. She builds a self out of that past. In the face of these difficulties, empathy and sentiment come to be much more powerful, and I think the writers in this part of the syllabus, this last part of the syllabus, depend a lot on sentiment, and because of that they look back to the nineteenth century.

Chapter 5. Jones’s Anti-Modernist Return to an Omniscient Narrator [00:39:59]

Edward P. Jones is very busy using the tools of the nineteenth-century narrative. The omniscient narrator is very much characteristic of nineteenth-century novels. So, if you read Harriet Beecher Stowe for example, if any of you have taken English 127a and have read that novel, you’ll remember all the very broad addresses to the reader about what’s going on. There is that omniscient sense that the narrator has all the pieces under her control. Jones looks back to that tradition and borrows from it, also, fearlessly. This has been, since modernism, quite a less distinguished mode of narration.

So he’s trading modernist limitation of knowledge. If any of you have read Henry James, my favorite example is this novel called What Maisie Knew, which is told in free indirect discourse through the consciousness of a child, Maisie, who is the child of an aristocratic family, the parents of whom are always having extramarital affairs. It’s a very confusing family to be living in, for this young girl, and the narrative is extremely confusing. Well, Jones will have nothing to do with that kind of partiality, that kind of limit on perception, so he has left behind those modernist experiments with transcribing the very limits of human consciousness, and he is up in the God consciousness of the nineteenth century. Is that God consciousness any consolation? Well, if we look at page 51, this is just one tiny example. They’re all over the place. This is one of those tiny interpolated stories about the woman who opens the box of walking sticks and Rita is hiding inside. She’s escaped from Robbins’ plantation. So this is her little story, the bottom paragraph.

Mary O’Donnell Conlon would never live comfortably in America. [She comes over from Ireland.] Long before the HMS Thames had even seen the American shore, America, the land of promise and hope, had reached out across the sea and taken her husband, a man who had taken her heart and kept it, and America had taken her baby, two innocent beings in the vastness of a world with all kinds of things that could have been taken first. She held nothing against God. God was simply being God. But she could not forgive America, and saw it as the cause of all her misery.

So, God is seen, in this little, tiny snippet, to be totally arbitrary and I think that’s the sense you get in most of these passages about the divine, that God allows violent actions to occur without seeming cause, without reason, and it’s up to the human beings to try to stitch stories together that can make sense of them. And Mary, in this passage, chooses to be angry at America, instead chooses America as the story that will unify these deaths even in a negative way. It doesn’t offer consolation, exactly, but at least it offers a target for her anger.

And, now I just want to see on 176, to look at this with you. In addition to these tiny thematic visits to some of these questions throughout the novel, the question of stitching together–can you stitch together the events of the world according to some larger consciousness?–this becomes a question with formal implications. This is in the middle of 176. If you remember, this is about the trial of Jean Broussard, who has killed his partner. He is the original person who brought Moses into Manchester County, and this is what we learn. We’ve just–at the top of page 176–heard about what happened to Broussard’s family in France.

If Alm Jorgensen, [this is the partner] the murdered man, had any heirs, no one knew about them. [Now listen as we go on.] The records of the Jean Broussard trial, along with most of the judicial records of nineteenth-century Manchester County, were destroyed in a 1912 fire that killed ten people, including the Negro caretaker of the building where the records were kept, and five dogs and two horses. The Broussard trial took one day, actually part of a day, the trial itself all that morning and the jury deliberations a portion of the summer afternoon. One of the jurors was a man who had studied the law at the College of William and Mary where his father and grandfather had gone. When that man, Arthur Brindle, returned from college…

Okay, and I’m not going to go into Brindle’s story quite yet. Notice how, sentence by sentence, we get from the erasure of the past–there are no records for a whole century because of this fire–to historical detail that makes us ask where the details come from. “Destroyed in a 1912 fire that killed ten people, including the Negro caretaker of the building.” It gets more and more specific: where the records were kept, “and five dogs and two horses,” animals who you’d think, maybe, wouldn’t be part of the public record, their loss wouldn’t necessarily be recorded. We’re told, even, in the absence of the trial papers, that it took one day, and then it gets even more specific, actually part of the day, and more specific still, which part of it was in the morning, the regular trial, jury deliberation in the afternoon. It was a summer afternoon. We know more and more and more, as we go from sentence to sentence. How do we know all that? How does this narrator know all that? Where does this knowledge come from?

The knowledge becomes more and more intimate as this passage goes on, as we learn about Arthur Brindle, his insomnia, the way he liked to talk to his wife as a mode of relaxing himself before trying to sleep, and then we get his reflection, finally, on the trial and why Broussard was convicted, and this is on 177. He says it was not the insistence on his American citizenship that was the problem; it wasn’t the fact that his partner wasn’t an American citizen that was the problem; it was the accent. The accent gave him “the stench of a dissembler.” You want to know where that quotation comes from. It feels like we’re hearing Broussard’s voice. Who is there with them in bed to tell us this?

Everything Broussard said came out warped because of the accent, even when he spoke his own name. The jurors, the merchant told his wife, would have been able to accept why the partner was killed if Broussard had sat on the stand and told his whole story without an accent.

Well, what’s interesting here is that Jones and Brindle do tell the story without an accent. Brindle is convinced of the man’s–not innocence–but the way he should not be convicted, and yet he votes with the others to convict him. He tells the wife this. We hear the case without accent, but when we do hear the accent it’s very telling where we hear it. If you look back on 171, and sort of flip through this, when we feel most Broussard’s alienness of voice, it’s when he calls slaves humans. This is on 171. “See, see, Monsieur Bill,” [he’s talking to Robbins] “finest humans, good humans, the finer of the slaves,” Broussard said, “but, Monsieur Bill, they are finer human beings,” and so on.

It’s in those moments that he speaks something closest to the truth, right, that we can hear him speaking to us the truth of slavery, and to his interlocutors the truth of slavery. It’s the accent that actually reveals the truth. So, when we hear the accent, even though we’re hearing it through the narrator that doesn’t speak with an accent, we hear the critique of slavery shining through that the people in the situation living there and listening to his accent cannot hear, but why? Remember that little sentence I read at the beginning. “If Alm Jorgensen, the murdered man, had any heirs no one knew about them.” What an odd caveat. If this narrator knows all this, why doesn’t he know about Jorgensen’s heirs, his family? So, what accounts for the lapses in knowledge? How do we know where this knower is situated? So, I’m going to stop there, but before you pack up, what I’d like you to think about for next time is what it means to make something so that it exists, and think about that in relation to the novel. If knowledge is this complicated to produce, what is the status of those things that are made with care and intention, and made as whole objects? So think about the art forms, the different art forms in the novel, and think about those individual small stories, and the whole novel itself.

[end of transcript]

Back to Top
mp3 mov [100MB] mov [500MB]