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Jones, Edward P.(1950–) - Writer, Lost in the City, The Known World, Chronology

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Edward P. Jones began by publishing short stories in magazines such as Essence, Callaloo , and the New Yorker . However, it was his two books that brought him acclaim. The works were written ten years apart but when published, each made an impact. The first, Lost in the City , is a collection of fourteen short stories set in Washington, D.C. The second work, The Known World , is a novel about slavery.

For these two works, Jones has received recognition and awards, including a National Book Foundation Award and the PEN/Hemingway Award for Lost in the City in 1992. In 2004, he received a MacArthur Foundation grant, the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for The Known World . In spite of this success, Jones has remained low-keyed and committed to honesty in writing. He presents strong, realistic characters who survive despite the reality of racism.

Edward P. Jones was born in Washington, D.C. on October 5, 1950. He was raised in a single parent home and attended kindergarten and part of the first grade in a Catholic school. Due to the family’s financial limitations, he then transferred to the local public schools. Until he was thirteen years of age, Jones mostly read comic books. Then he discovered two influential novels: Ethel Water’s His Eye Is on the Sparrow and Richard Wright’s Native Son . He became an avid reader and began unconsciously to educate himself in the craft of writing. He attended Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts, on scholarship, earning a BA. in 1972. In his sophomore year at Holy Cross, he began writing fiction, but it was not until much later that he considered fiction writing for a career. Following graduation and while caring for his terminally ill mother, he held various jobs, including a job with Science magazine. In 1975, his first story appeared in Essence magazine. In the same year, his mother died. After working three years in Washington, he entered graduate school at the University of Virginia in 1979.

While at the University of Virginia, Jones studied under and was encouraged by John Casey, Peter Taylor, and James Alan McPherson. At the university, he wrote assignments and pursued his own writing, too. Literature classes, including one in the Bible, helped him more than creative writing classes. He received the M.F.A. from the University of Virginia in 1981.

In an interview with African American Review , Jones stated that he developed his own style while being influenced by the work of Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston. He uses the 1950s and 1960s in his short stories, a time he knows firsthand. In his discussion of his craft and his philosophy about writing, Jones stated that he is an African American writer, and he cannot drop this description until people in the United States have transcended race. He has taught creative writing at both George Washington University and Princeton University.

Lost in the City

After reading James Joyce’s Dubliners , Jones realized that no one had provided this treatment for Washington and a collection of short stories on this order could explore the capitol’s diversity. Stories in Lost in the City (1992) present a fresh and candid view of the city. It portrays the Washington beyond the monuments, Capital Hill, and politicians. It took three years to write the fourteen stories; however, the characters and storylines had been germinating in his head for years. The city of Washington itself becomes a character in these stories. As is true of any locale, some individuals are literally lost in the city, while others are able, after a time, to move on.

Set in the 1950s and 1960s, such stories as “The Girl Who Raised Pigeons,” “The Night Rhonda Ferguson Was Killed,” and “The First Day” (originally published in Callaloo ) are set in a time when adults knew children in the neighborhood, were free to reprimand them, and knew the child would receive another reprimand upon his arrival home. In presenting the diversity of the city and its people, Jones also writes about the criminal side of the city in “Young Lions” and in “His Mother’s House.” These stories present ordinary working-class African Americans living their lives, struggling to survive.

The Known World

Jones’ novel The Known World tells the story of Henry Townsend, who goes from slave to freeman to slave owner in the course of the work. The story is set in Manchester County, Virginia. The town and the characters in the book are fictional. In creating a town, Jones follows in the tradition of William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County and Ernest Gaines’s Bayonne, Louisiana. The creation of place requires detailed history. Jones refers to real places, real historical people (for example, President Fillmore), and actual historical events (for example, the Civil War). Added to this historical information, he presents population statistics: number of Indians, blacks, and whites in the county at a given time. He even accounts for the inability of the reader to locate Manchester County; it was absorbed into surrounding counties. This woven history frames the story, giving it a sense of accuracy and credibility.

The novel, like Lost in the City , which begins with the epigraph, “My soul’s often wondered how I got over,” has strong characters and character development. The characters struggle through hardships, face the tenuousness of life (free today and slave tomorrow, part of a family unit today and sold the next), and challenges. The novel has many characters, and each has his or her own story. However, the central subject in The Known World is the institution of slavery as is the city in Lost in the City .

Jones’ female characters are strong and independent. There is Caldonia Townsend, who is left to run the plantation upon Henry Townsend’s death; Fern Elston, a free black woman who chooses not to pass for white as many of her family have, who remains in Manchester County with her husband, Ramsey, and teaches the young; Celeste on the Townsend plantation, Minerva, the Skiffington’s wedding present; and Alice Night, an artist. Through these women, Jones pays homage to black women in their disparate, challenging situations.

Edward P. Jones is at work on another collection of short stories, which evolve and use characters from his earlier collection. Two of the stories have been published: “In the Blink of God’s Eye” and “All Aunt Hagar’s Children.” In 2005, Jones won the O. Henry Prize for “A Rich Man.”



Born in Washington, D.C. on October 5


Earns B.A. from Holy Cross College


Publishes first story in Essence magazine


Earns M.F.A. from University of Virginia


Publishes Lost in the City; wins National Book Foundation Award and Ernest Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for Lost in the City


Receives a Lannan Foundation grant


Publishes The Known World


Wins National Book Critics Award and Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for The Known World; wins 2004 MacArthur Fellowship


Wins 2005 O. Henry Prize for short story “A Rich Man”

Jones, Edward Perry(1872–1924) - Activist, minister, Moves from Business to the Ministry, Chronology, Figures Prominently in Fraternal Societies [next] [back] Jones, Bobby(1938–) - Television show host, musician, Chronology, Pursues Degree in Elementary Education, Enters Teaching Profession

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