ENGL 291: The American Novel Since 1945
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The American Novel Since 1945
ENGL 291 - Lecture 23 - Edward P. Jones, The Known World (cont.)
Chapter 1. Meditations on the Difficulty of Writing: The Right-to-Left Directionality of Creation [00:00:00]
Professor Amy Hungerford: My first lecture on The Known World focused on the question of knowledge and the problems of knowledge that the text raises for us throughout, both at the formal level and at the thematic level. So, I ended up with a reading of the account of the Broussard trial and how more and more detailed knowledge comes to us through the voice of the narrator, and we’re really left with that question: where does that knowledge come from? Now, I suggested in the first lecture that my second lecture was going to be about an equally abstract subject, and that is: how can anything exist in the world? I’m going to get to that about in the middle of the lecture, beginning from this question, though, where we ended last time, about the Broussard trial and the problem of knowledge, where knowledge comes from. If we look a little bit earlier in the passage about the Broussard trial on 171, 172, you find what I think is quite a striking model for the very problem of this novel as a whole. And this is when Skiffington is trying to write an account of Broussard’s crime, and here it is on the bottom of 171. He’s having trouble filling out this form.
So, the problem of evidence and the problem of whether witnesses are to be trusted, the problem of enumerating a crime, these are all problems that the novel as a whole takes up for the crime of slavery. So, we can think of the novel itself as a version of Skiffington’s report. Now, it’s important that Skiffington has such a problem writing it. The very difficulty of writing is thematized over and over and over again, not just in moments like this where it’s actually talking about writing, but, I’m going to argue, in a number of ways that are much more subtle. And to show you one of them, I want to look on 192 with you. This is the scene where Stamford, the slave, is trying to remember the names of his parents, and this is how he does it. This is the middle of 192.
And you get more of the story, and he finally comes to remember the parents’ names, his parents’ names. Why does he take them in these specific hands, his father in his right hand and his mother in his left; “that did not feel right so he put his father in his left and his mother in the right”? I would argue that this is for two reasons: a figure of Jones’ own writing, first of all in the obvious sense that it’s an act of recovery, of recovering a past that needs to be imagined, or somehow entered into, not through rational thought, but through an imaginative act. So, that’s one reason that Stamford in this moment is a double of Jones. But the other reason is this “handedness” that’s noted.
I’m going to tell you, throughout the lecture, a few things about Jones’ life and his work outside of this novel, and so here’s the first piece of that story. Edward P. Jones was the son of a very poor single mother living in D.C. He had a younger brother who was mentally disabled who had to be given away to an institution because the mother could not support him. Jones’ mother was illiterate. So, here is someone writing this novel, and his background is an illiterate mother. This matters enormously to him. He, in his first story collection, has a story called (I think it’s called) “First Day,” where he tells the story of a young girl going off to school for the first time, holding the hand of her illiterate mother. Jones reveres his mother. When he talks about her, it’s with incredible reverence and love. Jones sees his mother very much as a source of his writing. So, here’s that first tension in the act of writing, that here is a writer who takes as his source, spiritual source, an illiterate woman. That’s why the mother has to go in his right hand in this scene.
Now, of course, not everybody writes with their right hand, but I think no matter whether Jones is right or left handed–and I thank Andy Heisel for pointing out, our wonderful TA Andy Heisel, for pointing out that in the photograph of Jones he is wearing his watch on his left hand, and so this would suggest that he is, perhaps, right handed. But even if we didn’t want to rely–Oh, Neil, you’re going to give me trouble–even if you did not want to rely on that little piece of evidence, we can say that in the cultural vocabulary of handedness the dominant hand is the right hand for writing. So, I would say that whenever you see right-handedness or left-to-right movement, Jones is meditating on and figuring the act of writing, and I’m going to show you some more examples ‘cause it’s quite striking. It’s subtle and strange, but quite striking. So, the mother has to go in the right hand because she is the source of inspiration.
The father–Jones’ father–was very distant. He only met him when he was much older, and he was not really a part of Jones’ life at all. It really revolved around his mother. So, if writing is undermined by the shadow of illiteracy for Jones, it’s undermined in other ways, too, and I want to look at one of those stranger episodes. This is on 142, 143. This is the story of how Henry began to court Caldonia at Fern Elston’s dinner table, and this is a very detailed scene. This is in the middle of 142. He’s telling Caldonia that she needs to look up when she rides her horse.
How odd, that insistence on the movement left to right, right to left. It figures Henry’s mixed-up relation to both language and the act of creation. It’s mixed up, because when he is moving in the direction that text is read and written, left to right, he’s using his left hand, and the correlative of that left handedness of his relation to language is in the dialect. He doesn’t speak correctly in Fern Elston’s house no matter how hard she tries to teach him. So, he is clumsy, not only in spilling pepper on the table, but also in not being able to speak proper English. But the other thing about that movement is that when it goes left to right pepper spills on the table. This is an image of ink flowing out of a pen–it is black on the white tablecloth–and it’s an image for language in jeopardy because of course it’s dust; it’s powder; it will never cohere; it’s the sign of his uncouth table manners. So, it’s never going to be a redemptive medium for him, and it’s represented by this pepper that then he can scrape into a little pile.
This is the fragmentation of language in its very literal sense. There are other examples of this, on 189 when you get the first account of the frozen dog that Calvin is so interested in, in the photograph from New York. Once again, direction is carefully noted.
“Off to the right” is the direction of flowing narrative, a world, a possible world that his imagination is drawn to, and it’s a visual image of the imagination and its seduction. But because of this obsessive direction noting, I would read it as a textual imagination, that there’s a narrative off to the right. And you can see that Jones’ novel works this way. There is always a narrative proximate to wherever you are, a little narrative that arises from the next character who shows up on the road, and you’ll get that narrative. So, this is just one of those that doesn’t quite get articulated, but Calvin can imagine that it’s there; he can see, as if he can see the form of the novel that Jones is writing.
And then there are just even tinier ones. On 162, this is John Skiffington sitting and reading the Bible after visiting Clara’s house. “Skiffington looked up and followed a male cardinal as it flew from the left to right and settled in one of the peach trees.” They’re all over the place once you start noticing them, so I think this is why: that it’s a constant meditation among the multiplying versions of meditations on the composition of this novel within the novel. So, we’ll get to some others. The problem is that the written word is always threatened.
Chapter 2. The Fragile Power of Text: Insubstantiality of Freedom [00:13:43]
So, if writing has all this static that surrounds it, it also has some more direct and aggressive enemies, and on 375 you see one version of that. This is the account of Barnum Kinsey’s grave marker that his son makes after they leave Manchester County and he dies. This is at the bottom of 374.
Text is simply fragile, as a material object, so that’s what this scene tells us, in a poignant way. But, of course, the most poignant example of this is when Augustus’s free papers are eaten by Travis. So, the real terror of the written word comes in that scene. Now the terror is of course that it’s an exercise of power–arbitrary, violent. It will end in Augustus’ death back in slavery. There are lots of ways of imagining what the terror is. I’m going to go into some of them, but this is the sign of it, that even though Augustus has memorized every word of his free papers–remember, we’re told that he has them read to him every day for a month. He’s illiterate. He has them read to him every day for a month until he has them totally memorized after he gets his freedom–even though those words will exist forever in Augustus’ mind, his freedom is nowhere, once the written word is gone.
So, this is my question: How can something exist in the world? Here, the ultimate thing to which that question applies is freedom. How can freedom exist? What makes freedom exist? Well, in the law, those free papers make freedom exist for Augustus, but the law cannot guarantee that freedom exists when the physical artifact of the text is gone. That’s how weak writing is. It seems to be everything. This is something that Mildred understood quite early on. On 113, when she and Augustus are worried about Henry hanging out with Robbins, she says, in suggesting that it’s okay to let Henry go about with William Robbins, “ ‘Them free papers he carry with him all over the place don’t carry enough freedom,’ she said to her husband, ‘with slavery behind him.’” She wanted her son to go about and see what had always been denied him, so she wants the world to be a big place for him. She sees that freedom is something much more than those papers, but the problem is that freedom cannot be without them, and that once they’re gone, it is gone too.
So, that is one of the threats that is associated with writing, but there are more of them. On 311 and 312, one danger is that, in the effort to write justice in law, it’s simply ineffective. So, here is the story we get of Skiffington trying to write up this crime, the crime of selling Augustus, a free man, back into slavery. This is on 312. He’s been in contact with a man named Sanderson in, I think he’s in Georgia.
So, Skiffington wasn’t sure whether it was really a crime. Somehow he began to get confused, and you can see that confusion–I won’t read it–on the prior page, on 311 in the middle of the page. So, when Skiffington once again starts writing up the crime, he becomes confused. Did he really have a crime to describe? He gets confirmation that he does.
So, the law’s effort to deliver justice through the writing of a crime, the documenting of a crime, is displaced by a woman’s effort to recover her lost husband by telling that story. So, there are competing claims on language in this scene: the widow’s and Skiffington’s, and more distantly Augustus’ and Mildred’s. None of these claims are adjudicated in any kind of way that puts one above the other, and Skiffington’s weakness, of course, is that he will never seek to right that balance. He resigns himself to the weakness of writing.
Chapter 3. The Complicity of Creation [00:20:45]
More chillingly, and I think more complicatingly, writing also carries the risk of reinstating the master-slave relationship, and I think it does this by direct reference back to Jones himself. If you read slowly through the scene of Augustus being sold back into slavery, it’s quite striking the way contingency or happenstance plays a part in the scene. So, after Travis has eaten Augustus’ papers–this is at the very bottom of 212–“a wagon twice as large as Augustus’ came up to the four men. Driving it was a large black man, and beside him a much smaller white man.” And Travis teases Darcy, the slave trader, about how he’s never known the time in his life, but suddenly here he is at exactly the right time. Then he later says–as he’s formulating the idea of selling Augustus to Darcy, he says–“God works in mysterious ways. This ain’t exactly what I had in mind when I stopped this nigger but this here will do just the same.” Who made that wagon appear? Why does that wagon appear? Jones made that wagon appear. What we’re given is not a fiction about Travis intending to sell Augustus back into slavery, but what we’re given instead is a surprise on the road. Who makes that surprise appear? Only one person, the person in charge of making the narrative.
So, the problem with writing is not just that it’s shadowed by the fact of illiteracy. It’s not just that it’s vulnerable to physical decay. It’s not just that it’s weak and it can’t make anything exist in law. It’s not just that it’s demanded by multiple people for different purposes that come to cancel each other out. It’s that by writing, by taking on that quality of masterfulness, you begin to be complicit in the very crime that you’re describing. The imagery of God looking down on his creation is everywhere in this novel, and it’s applied to all kinds of characters, including Henry, who thinks that he will look down on his slaves the way God looks down on his creation from heaven. That position of mastery and that geographic remove of being above your subject is associated with the slave-master, but it’s associated very much with Jones. And I’ll come back to this in a minute when I talk about the tapestry, because of course the tapestry at the end of the novel–Alice’s tapestry–is the most dramatic figure for the whole novel. There are lots of figures for the novel, including the map of the “known world,” but foremost that tapestry at the end which mimics the novel in every way. Even that has the perspective of little figures looking up, so it even puts Alice in that masterful position, or indeed anyone who looks upon that tapestry.
Chapter 4. The Durability of Plastic Arts: Augustus’s Carving and Alice’s Weaving [00:24:58]
So, if writing is so weak, if it entails such terror, are we given any alternative for creative durability? And I think we are, in the plastic arts. Now, I’m sure you’ve noticed how much carving goes on in the book, not just because Augustus is a woodworker, but because Elias carves for Celeste; that’s his first act of love. And, if you read Jones’ stories, this is rampant in his stories. He has carvers everywhere and various kinds of workers in plastic arts. Alice is another example working in textiles, clay, paint, some amalgamation of sculpture and painting. On 279 the two arts, the verbal art and woodworking, are put in competition with one another, or in juxtaposition with one another, and I think you see who has the upper hand here. This is an account of Skiffington’s bookcase, which Augustus made.
Augustus’ art is durable. It can be passed from person to person, and it maintains its figurative power. It’s important that all of his work is figurative. It suggests narrative, and so it’s aligned with Jones’ art, in that way, but it is not subject to the vulnerability of text, and here in this bookcase you see the vulnerability of text set right next to the wondrous durability of the bookcase. There are other examples. When Rita is discovered in the box of walking sticks, when she is sent in a box out of slavery to New York, she hands the boy who is looking down at her the walking stick with Adam and Eve and all their generations. It’s as if in that act Rita’s freedom is instantiated, that she and all her descendants emerge into this new world, and that that is a kind of gift to the family that takes them in, in the North. So, it has a very evocative narrative power that doesn’t depend on people’s being able to read it, and we’re told in that scene that the boy receives it as if this is what he had been waiting for all along, suggests a perfect receptivity, no going blind here, perfect receptivity. There is also on 219 one of Augustus’ chairs that I think is worth looking at. This is when Travis is reflecting on, or we are being told about, how Travis first came to know Augustus.
The chair gave nothing. Well, it gave nothing in terms of knowledge to Travis. It would not give up its secret of durability, and that’s, in a way, what makes it durable, that it can hide the essence of itself, keep it to itself. It takes the weight without one squeak. Its very silence is what marks its invulnerability. It’s also what enrages a man like Travis.
So, the novel sets up a competing set of art forms, carving foremost among them, against the art form of language. The tapestry at the end answers one of our questions from the first lecture, which is who knows the known world, known by whom? What we come to find out is that Alice, although she seemed insane, is the one who knows Manchester County. She has walked all over it, in the freedom carved out by her insanity. One thing that’s interesting about Alice is that she–despite her insanity, seeming insanity–is the one most in control of her language. She is the most successful storyteller in this novel. So, if you think of other alternatives, Moses–He tells Caldonia stories that finally fail to persuade her imagination that any slave she owns could be free. We’re told explicitly, as Calvin tries to persuade her at the end of the novel, that it’s her failure of imagination that keeps her from emancipating her slaves after Henry’s death. Despite all of Moses’ stories, she still cannot see him, or anyone else, as a free person.
So, Moses’ storytelling is a complete failure in this way, but Alice’s storytelling about the mule that kicked her in the head, we find that out early in the novel that the story about her–that’s why she is said to be crazy we’re told–so vivid, so sad, that everybody believed it. The very control she has over her crazy chants is what persuades the whole world around her that she is not worth bothering with, as she wanders around the roads with impunity. It also gives her occasion to mock the master, the structure of slavery, the patrollers, and she can do it with impunity, as well. So, she has a freedom of mind as well as a freedom of movement that nobody else in the novel has who is a slave. So, she is doubly marked as an artist in language and in the plastic arts, but she is–importantly, I think–not a writer.
Chapter 5. Edward P. Jones’s Authorial Project: Weaving Unity into the Fragmented Modern Narrative [00:33:32]
You’ll note, if you look at 384, 385, where the tapestry is described, there is still some whiff of that fragility. And I see that in the admonition that is hung next to the tapestry and that Priscilla repeats when Calvin reaches out to touch it. She says, “Please do not touch.” There is that sense that this is still something that needs to be protected. Now, why the terror? Why the fragility? Well, I think this has a lot to do with how this novel was composed. Edward P. Jones wrote his first book of short stories in the 1990s, in the early ’90s. I can’t remember the date exactly. And it was very successful, but not successful enough to support him, so he worked as an editor at a journal called Tax Notes. It was a journal of tax law, scintillating. Jones was working there, and I’m going to tell you a story, now, that he tells in some of his interviews, but I heard first from his agent, a guy named Eric Simonoff, who I had up to visit one of my classes when we were studying this novel. Eric says that he heard from Edward that Edward had this idea for a novel about a black slave owner but he said, “Don’t tell anyone. This is a stealable idea.” So Eric, when he went down to D.C., would occasionally stop in over the years and see Edward and he’d say, “Well, how’s the novel going?” Didn’t seem to be much on paper, and time passed, ten years or so, and Eric thought, “I’m not sure if this novel’s ever going to get written.” In the meantime Jones had amassed about a hundred and twenty five books of history of the period that he is working in, in the novel, because he felt that in order to write a novel like this he really needed to master that history.
It was very intimidating to him, though, so that–combined with his Tax Notes job–he had about twelve pages written. So, he went on vacation after a long time. He hadn’t had a vacation. He had about a six-week vacation, and he finally got a start, and one of the ways that he got himself to start was he decided that he was going to forget about the history; he was going to make it all up. So, all the historical sources– if you read the back of the book you will know this–all the historical sources are fictional, here. The census reports, every detail is fictional, so that was his first move. Then he got laid off from Tax Notes right after this vacation. Edward P. Jones then wrote this novel in three months, and Eric says that it became clear to him over the years that Jones had in fact memorized entire chapters of what became this novel. It was all in his head, all the words in their order, and so when he had the time and when he freed himself from the obligation to history, out it came.
I think this says a lot about the images of writing that you see all over the novel. Imagine the kind of terror that you would feel, knowing that you had all this in your mind and knowing also that it didn’t yet exist on paper, that you had only twelve pages. Maybe if you’re writing papers now, you feel this terror of the blank page. It’s possible. That’s a real terror for a writer. Combine that with the shadow of illiteracy, the feeling of possible betrayal, for a son to be a writer when his beloved mother had no access to the written word. This is a very vexed, complex psychological relationship that I would suggest–my guess is–that has a lot to do with how he imagines the relative fragility and the relative power of fiction versus these other arts. So, Jones models his narrative on those other arts in an effort to solve the problems that are presented by the terror of the written word’s fragility, its very uneasy relation to existence. Does a novel exist? Does it not? And I think there is, actually, even a figure for Jones in a particular character, one of these tiny characters, on 343. This is a young man with a wonderfully complicated mind.
Here you see a figure for someone whose imagination is so powerful that it makes the dead talk, and think back again to the image of Stamford finding–by placing the image of his parents all over the mansion, all over the plantation–finding their names. That’s a little like talking to cadavers. They are dead, those parents. It verges on insanity. This is another problem with the mode of composition, that a mind this powerfully populated by an alternate reality comes to look insane, and I think this is another reason why Alice is what she is as a character. If she is going to be one of the major doubles for Jones, her insanity is part of that picture. We can think of it as a willed insanity, but it has the residue of doubt about it. Maybe she really is insane to some degree. Is there a sharp line between an imagination that can produce a narrative so thoroughly populated as this one and a mind that sees cadavers talking to you?
Another thing that is remarkable about Jones’ work–and this relates back to what I was saying about postmodernism and grand narrative last time–Jones’ work is seemingly very fragmented. There are lots and lots of narratives, but they don’t all come together in one narrative, so it seems fragmented, and when you start to read it, it looks disorienting. If you read his stories, you will see that all of the stories are interconnected back to the novel, to Jones’ life. So, for instance in All Aunt Hagar’s Children, his most recent story collection, and I think it came out in 2007, there is a woman who has a walking stick that is clearly made by Augustus, in the twentieth century. What I was saying about the durability of the plastic arts is imagined in that quality of his fiction. These objects of carving turn up throughout his stories. Also, people are related to each other in separate stories. They’re related to people in this novel. The title of this novel appears in a story called “Tapestry” in All Aunt Hagar’s Children. He is obsessive about putting the locations of all the places that he lived in D.C. into his stories perfectly accurately. When an editor at The New Yorker tried to get him to change one of these descriptions and the address, in one of the stories that he submitted for the magazine, he was very resistant. He finally changed it for The New Yorker, but when it went into the story collection it went back, because he wanted it to be absolutely accurate to what it was like when he lived there, what it actually looks like on that corner in D.C.
What I think Jones is doing, in the largest version of his project, is actually one of the most wide-reaching and ambitious unifying efforts that I know of in contemporary fiction. So, this is not about the fragmentation of grand narrative. It’s about the enormous, large-scale accumulation of wholeness. He is piecing a world together, bit by bit by bit, as he adds to his literary oeuvre. So, this is a vision of unity that goes way beyond generic boundaries. Is it a short story? Is it a novel? This is something more like an opus that Jones is building, and, more importantly, it’s something that lives in his mind very clearly. These people, these characters, live in his mind. There is no one doing what Jones is doing today. If there is something truly postmodern, I would say Jones is it. He looks very different from what comes before him, in modernism, and its ascendancy in the mid-twentieth century. He is making pretty dramatic claims for the power of fiction, for the power of narrative, to put the world together, but at the same time, as I’ve noted, acknowledges the very difficulty of that project, the very weakness that lies at its heart.
And I think that’s what, for me, makes his work extremely powerful, that for all its ambition we’re never allowed to forget its ambivalence. That ambivalence is always there on the surface, and it’s bodied forth in the kinds of moral problems that this novel dwells upon, the question of how human love can exist in slavery, whether it can exist, all its complicated forms, what the forms of freedom look like, how freedom can possibly exist, how you build it, how it can be maintained. All these things are there in an incredibly ambitious literary form. That’s what Jones is doing that nobody else is doing at this moment. So, I will stop there and we will think about what Foer is doing on–I will think about what Foer is doing on Monday.
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