Patrick Kurp, whose blog I recommended yesterday, posted the other day about the necessity of gratitude and about W. H. Auden: “Auden’s instinct was to offer thanks for the gifts he, like all of us, had done nothing to deserve.” The post resonated with an almost throwaway sentence I read recently in Edward P. Jones’s The Known World. This is very much how it is, reading Jones: peripheral details about peripheral characters, mentioned in passing, have the weight and pull of miniature stories in their own right. These stories might, in a half-sentence, be told, or they might be only gestured at. Through them a sense of the whole vast, connected world slips in, of its enormity and of the numberless threads of human plots therein. The effect, over pages and chapters, is not only of richness and plenitude but of a great humaneness–Jones’s and, the more you read of him, your own.
Jones’s novel is about slaves and slave owners in pre-Civil War America. In the passage I was reminded of, the young Virginian John Skiffington, who on principle owns no slaves, has just married a Northern woman. To the profound discomfort of half the wedding party, a cousin of the groom has made a wedding gift of a nine-year-old slave girl, Minerva. The next morning, her first in the house, Minerva rises early and tiptoes around her new surroundings.
The child now took more steps, passing her own room, and came to a partly opened door. She could see John Skiffington’s father on his knees praying in a corner of his room. Fully dressed with his hat on, the old man, who would find another wife in Philadelphia, had been on his knees for nearly two hours: God gave so much and yet asked for so little in return.
This fleeting narrative detour is lovely and painful at once: lovely for the humble and surprising act of gratitude it records, painful for being observed by someone not so fortunate. We don’t hear a lot more about the elder Mr. Skiffington, at least not as far as I’ve read, and that only makes this impromptu glimpse the more poignant.
Nobody else I’ve read is like Jones. He’s an unmatched teller of stories big and small–he’ll hook you on the stuff. His short stories in All Aunt Hagar’s Children had me over the moon when I read and reviewed them two years ago. The stories and the novel deal with some of the darker aspects of human experience; they look at this material hard and straight on. But there are always points of grace amidst the pain that are the most indelible moments, and the whole enterprise is characterized by a generosity toward humanity that isn’t ever blindered or phony. Definitely a writer to be grateful for.