After Chair of the English Department Jeffrey J. Cohen introduced GWU President Steven Knapp who introduced author Edward P. Jones, Jones read two selections from his Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Known World:
- From Chapter 5, the story of Sherif John Skiffington attempting to quell the fears of his sister-in-law Clara Martin. This roughly corresponds to pages 147-154 and 162-164 in the Amistad paperback edition of the novel.
- From Chapter 8, the story of runaway slave Jebediah Dickinson and his attempt to collect a gambling debt from Fern Elston. This roughly corresponds to pages 247-260, excluding the last paragraph on 260.
Jones began each excerpt by providing a brief history of the characters involved, to help the audience understand their relationships in the excerpt. Although primarily intended for those who had not read the novel, I also appreciated Jones’ notes as refreshing my memory of the text. Jones then took questions from the audience. It turns out that his opening line––“My soul’s often wondered how I got over…”––was based on a remembrance (or misremembrance) of a Negro spiritual, and it appealed to Jones so he placed it at the beginning of the book. The phrase was not intended to have larger significance in the text, although a case can be made that it does have larger significance in the text.
I will not catalogue the way in which Jones spoke, stood at the podium, or returned to his seat. Those details are best absorbed by attending a reading in person. I will mention one thing about the audience’s reaction to his reading. The audience laughed at Jones’ few intentionally-humorous phrases. On at least once occasion, however, the audience laughed at a sentence that would not be humorous when reading the entire novel, but which was humorous in the context of the excerpt:
“All this time Mann thought he was dealing with a white woman and he was never to know any different” (255).
I assume the majority of the audience laughed at the notion that anyone would be so foolish to mistake a white woman from a black woman. Except, by this point in the novel, Jones has fully established that Fern appears white; it is only her heritage that makes her “black.” In the context of the entire novel, Mann’s mistake is unremarkable; it is ordinary. And the ordinary is not intended to be humorous.
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