Where fiction meets reality

Characters move in and out of Edward P. Jones' new novel of the 19thcentury by the dozens - American slave owners, slaves, lawmen, lovers, wives.Some cast longer shadows than others, but all fall under the overwhelmingumbra of slavery.

This is the strange turf of The Known World, from which Jones will read at6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Enoch Pratt Central Library.

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

Small comfort lies in knowing that a white slave patroller did not reallyconfiscate a free black man's emancipation papers, chew and swallow them likeso much cornbread and immediately sell the hapless fellow back into bondagefor $50 and a mule. Jones made that up, along with a thousand commoncruelties.

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

"Maybe some professor mentioned it, maybe it was something I read," saysJones, 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'rein college."

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

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

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

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 ofAmerican 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 circumstancesdescribed in the book weren't ironic enough.

Jones says he did hardly any research. Yes, he has provided details of aManchester County census and various prices paid for slaves. He even citeshistorical pamphlets and several late 20th-century scholarly texts, but noneof this is any more "researched" than the little flight-of-fancy errandsseveral characters undertake immediately after they die. Magic realism entersthis work along with historical particulars.

If anything, Jones says he willfully steered clear of all those historicalbooks 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'vealways 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 atColgate University in Hamilton, N.Y. He was surprised to hear that Jonesclaims to have done little research, as "everything I'm reading in that bookI've seen in documents."

One might quibble about some points.

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

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

Based on general knowledge and reading, Jones says, "I felt I had a firmgrasp 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 anotherturn. The notion boggles the mind of Townsend's slave, Moses:

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

For his part, Henry Townsend sees no conflict in all this, not even whenhis father, Augustus, beats him with a stick and throws him out of his housewhen 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 whiteman wouldn't do. Papa, wait."

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

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

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

According to Carter G. Woodson's 1924 book, Free Negro Owners of Slaves inthe United States in 1830, there were 3,775 African-Americans listed as slaveowners that year. That was about 2 percent of the free black population of182,000 in the 15 slave states and the District of Columbia.

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

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

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, aWashington public school teacher whose name is mentioned on page 352 of thebook as the author of a made-up book that ties Virginia genealogy to two ofthe novel's key characters, Celeste and Elias Freemen.

"He's very, very observant," Shia says of Jones. "If you're having lunch ina 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 20years ago, is also transformed into the author of a fictitious text mentionedin The Known World. At first, she says, Jones is apt to strike you assoft-spoken and reserved.

"He's very private," says Murphy, a novelist who teaches English at theEdmund Burke School in Washington. Jones can be sociable and funny when he'sat 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 stretcheswithout answering his phone or returning calls, especially if he's bearingdown on a writing project.

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

He'd taken an extended vacation that December from his day job writingarticle summaries for Tax Analysts, a nonprofit agency in Arlington thatprovides information on tax laws for professionals in the field. While onvacation, he got a call from the office in January 2002 saying that after 19years 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. Hesat at his dining table tapping away at a computer that was old when TaxAnalysts 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 dozenpages 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 firstexperience accepting accolades. In 1986 he won a National Endowment for theArts grant for his short stories, most of which revolved around the worldknown most intimately to him: people living on the economic margins ofWashington.

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

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

Now The Known World, and further acclaim. His friend Roberta Murphy sayshe'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 hisfax machine to bar the unsolicited sales pitch - seems on the threshold of acareer breakthrough. Who knows, he may even move out of the one-bedroomapartment 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 ofManchester County, "I felt I could make it believable."

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