“My soul’s often wondered how I got over…”

As Jeffrey previously observed, GWU will be experiencing another inauguration tomorrow: that of the university’s first Wang Visiting Professor of Contemporary Literature. I can only hope that Mr. Jones, with his hand firm upon The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, does not flub the swearing in.

With another new beginning at hand, it is appropriate for me to revisit my inaugural post as Communications Liaison. Some twenty-seven days ago, I presented my initial observations on The Known World as a way of introduction, and of demonstrating that I actually read the book. In my earlier musings, I suggested that Jones’ enigmatic zeroth-page words “My soul’s often wondered how I got over…” come from the mouth/mind of Henry Townsend. I confess that I developed this theory midway through the text; during the penultimate chapter, I had formulated an alternative explanation; after the final chapter, I had again accepted Henry Townsend as the likely speaker. I will elaborate on this point for two reasons:

  1. Self-indulgence, for my briefly-entertained alternative theory is more interesting than the likely reality;
  2. Question of Authorial Purpose, for I daresay Jones consciously intend for me to formulate a certain theory, reject it for a more intriguing one, and then be forced to accept it again in the face of last-minute evidence.

Let me explain. (Warning: Spoilers ahead!)

The focus on Henry Townsend in the first half of the book––his childhood, his family, and his death––implies his ownership of the opening phrase. It is easy to picture him observing and recollecting the events of the novel after having “gotten over” to Heaven. However, the latter half of the book (especially after Chapter 7), provides evidence supporting the thesis that it is Calvin, not Henry––Caldonia’s brother, not husband––who is speaking those words from Heaven. This evidence culminates in the penultimate chapter, presented as a letter written from Calvin to Caldonia. Calvin writes of arriving in Washington, D.C., a place he has always wanted to visit. He has met Alice Walker and Moses’ wife and son, who run a successful hotel. They give him steady employment and good lodgings. All developments that are contrary to what Jones previously led his audience to believe.

In the preceding chapters, Jones never mentions Calvin successfully arriving in Washington, D.C.; he writes only that Calvin spends much of his later years caring for his ill (and undeserving) mother. His arrival in his “dream” city can just as well be his arrival in Heaven; the ease with which he finds friends and employment a sign of Heaven’s bounty. Similarly, Jones allows his audience to believe that Alice, Priscilla, and Jamie were murdered by Moses. Their unlikely appearance can be taken as another sign that Calvin is beyond the grave. The chapter’s epistolary form suggests that Calvin is communicating to Caldonia from a distance––if not from the real D.C., then from Heaven.

Some of this evidence might be dismissed as coincidence. However, Jones is not shy of magical realism or of toying with his audience’s expectations. He has shown that there is life after death, as in the cases of Augustus and Mildred Townsend. The ostensibly minor status of Counsel Skiffington, written out of the narrative in Chapter 2, is reversed when he reappears in Chapter 7 and becomes a major actor in the latter half of the book.

In all, it seems more likely that Calvin’s letter is written from Heaven than from reality. The only flaw in this interpretation is that Jones makes it clear that Calvin has written a tangible letter to Caldonia. If the novel ended with Calvin’s valediction, then it would be implied that he was indeed writing from Heaven; the actual ending of the novel (Caldonia reading the letter) precludes this. The only way my alternative theory works is if

  1. Caldonia is imagining reading the letter, as in a dream;
  2. The tangible letter is another example of magical realism, and was indeed sent from beyond the grave.

As it is, I believe these assumptions are too large to make. I wish Jones had ended the novel with Calvin’s letter, allowing for a more ambiguous interpretation of the text. The survival of Alice et al. has major implications for the portrayal of Moses and John Skiffington. The fact that I can reasonably posit an alternative interpretation of the novel’s end raises questions about Jones’ intent. Is the audience intended to identify the speaker of the opening phrase? Is the audience intended to reverse its ideas about the opening phrase? If so, why?

Perhaps at tomorrow’s reading by Jones, I will seek the answers to these questions. In the meantime, I would love to hear your responses to my possible alternative interpretation.

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