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Special Section: Affect and the Short Story and Cycle

To See the Lives of Others Through the Eyes of God: The Affectivity of Literary Aesthetics in the Short Stories of Edward P. Jones

Daniel Davis Wood
p. 31-47


Les études de l’affectivité dans le domaine de la littérature considèrent généralement la littérature comme un vecteur de représentation des expériences affectives de divers personnages. Cependant, en s’appuyant sur la conceptualisation de la relation entre affectivité et esthétique de Charles Altieri, cet article étudie la façon dont l’esthétique littéraire permet aux œuvres de produire une expérience affective chez le lecteur. Envisageant dans un premier temps les liens entre les propriétés formelles du cycle de nouvelles et la capacité qu’ont ces propriétés de déclencher une expérience affective, cette étude suggère que les deux cycles de nouvelles liés, Lost in the City et All Aunt Hagar’s Children, de l’auteur afro-américain Edward P. Jones, illustrent l’affectivité esthétique dont Altieri tente d’identifier les qualités définitoires.

Entrées d’index

Studied authors :

Edward Paul Jones

Texte intégral

I. Affectivity and Aesthetics

1In one of the many responses to Ruth Leys’ bold analyses of affective experiences, Charles Altieri issues some provocative remarks on the intersections between affectivity and aesthetics. Making a distinction between “emotions and feelings,” Altieri suggests that “[e]motions lead agents to shape experience in terms of plots with points of incitement leading to projected action” whereas feelings consist of “states of sensation that involve the imagination but that do not enter into the structure of cause and consequence because the state of attention becomes an end in itself” (880). “When I identify as angry,” he writes by way of example,

it follows that I identify a cause and desire to perform certain actions in relation to that cause. When I identify as fearful or joyful there will be other practical orientations. But is this the case when I suddenly recognize how a bird dips its wings or a color comes alive in relation to another color, as long as I attend to the concrete interplay among visual phenomena? (880)

2For Altieri, then, there is something qualitatively unique—and circular—about an act of beholding beauty, an awareness of the arrangement and movement of parts within a striking whole, to which the beholder’s initial response is a dumbfounded attentiveness directed towards seeking out the means by which this very response has been produced. The more specific point Altieri proceeds to make is that “when artists evoke feelings that depend on what we might call the counter-conceptual use of signification, quintessentially in surrealist art,” this particular use of signification generates the attentiveness which comprises myriad inchoate and perhaps unnameable feelings and thereby renders the work of art an agent of an affective experience. “In many of his landscapes,” Altieri goes on,

Paul Cezanne makes rocks virtually balloons that have no weight or mass. Then he has trees serve the counter-intuitive role of providing stability for the painting while insisting that this logic holds only because painting can define modes of vision to which we are blind in practical life. I submit that these trees and rocks elicit powerful feelings precisely because the stance of the painter and eventually the stance of the viewer recognize what cannot be coherently conceptualized except insofar as one honors the logic of the painting itself. And that logic is insistently particular in the sense that it holds only insofar as we see the painting as a distinctive event with qualities that depend on imagination rather than cognition. (880)

3What Altieri advances, then, is a view of art that privileges not its capacity to represent the affective experiences of human subjects but its capacity to generate an affective experience for those who stand before it. The work of art is, or can be, an event through which its beholders are, in a sense, shocked out of themselves by having been made privy to a way of seeing the world that subverts or supersedes the norms of human vision. Insofar as this shock escapes articulation and leaves the beholder with a sense of not knowing how to name exactly what he or she feels, it amounts to an experience of affectivity whose origins lie in the realm of aesthetics.

4Altieri is not alone in taking this view of the aesthetic wellsprings of affectivity. Eric Shouse, for instance, likewise contends that “the power of many forms of media,” artistic or otherwise, “lies not so much in their ideological effects, but in their ability to create affective resonances independent of content or meaning” (par. 14). Shouse’s point is that a text possessing unusual, unconventional, or somehow idiosyncratic formal properties forces its beholders to engage with it creatively, speculatively, in order to make it intelligible—a view that corresponds to Altieri’s sense that works of art “with qualities that depend on imagination” (880) are best able to generate an experience of affectivity. And, prior to drawing a response from Altieri, Ruth Leys takes Shouse’s work as a foundation for her exploration of affective experiences. “[W]e human beings are corporeal creatures imbued with subliminal affective intensities and resonances,” she writes, arguing that because these intensities and resonances “so decisively influence or condition our political and other beliefs,” “we ignore [them] at our peril” and ought to pay closer attention to the role that our “corporeal-affective dispositions” play in various modes of everyday thought (436). Given that affects are “nonsignifying, autonomic processes that take place below the threshold of conscious awareness and meaning” (437), Leys continues, “the way to understand [the affective experiences of] fear or joy is that they are ‘triggered’ by various objects, but the latter are nothing more than tripwires for an in-built behavioral-physiological response” (438). In using the word “trigger,” of course, Leys aligns herself with Silvan Tomkins, whose groundbreaking Affect Imagery Consciousness (1962-1991) reserves the word “trigger” for the event that sparks an affective experience (656ff) and in turn “produces attention that brings its trigger into consciousness” (Nathanson xi). Thus, to draw Altieri’s view of aesthetic affectivity into the language of Tomkins and Leys, a work of art can be the trigger for an affective experience in its beholder, and the more counter-conceptual the work—the more formally elastic and hostile towards conventional modes of representation and capable of shocking the beholder out of his or her habits of corporeal cognition—the more forcefully that experience is triggered.

5Which other art forms besides surrealist painting might now be brought into the orbit of this notion? Which other artists might be identified as having produced work that triggers affective experiences as powerful as those triggered by the paintings of Paul Cezanne? The aim of this paper is to argue that at least one other artist deserving of attention in this context is the African American writer Edward P. Jones. Jones is perhaps most admired for his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Known World (2003), a harrowing exploration of slavery in antebellum America told from the perspectives of free black slave-owners, but the present discussion will focus on Jones’ two short story collections, Lost in the City (1992) and its pseudo-sequel All Aunt Hagar’s Children (2006). My view is that each of these collections constitutes a short story cycle and that, crucially, the two cycles work together, in parallel or in a quasi-symbiotic relationship, so as to effectively expand the short story cycle’s capabilities as an art form and, in the process, to generate an affective experience which is in want of detailing although it may remain impossible to name.

6Before turning to Jones’ work, however, some qualifications and clarifications are necessary. First of all, having until now relied on Altieri’s remarks on the “feelings” generated by aesthetics, it is important to note that affect theorists maintain a general differentiation between the affects and what we call emotions and feelings. “Feelings,” according to Eric Shouse, “are personal and biographical [and] emotions are social,” while “affects are pre-personal” because hardwired into human corporeality (par. 2). Yet, in context, Altieri appears to have used the word “feelings” more or less interchangeably with “affects,” discussing feelings of a very particular sort which emerge from an experience of mystification in the face of unintelligible or estranging phenomena—a mystification that is pre-personal until the imagination opens up to provide the beholder with a sense of intelligibility drifting towards conclusive resolution. Related to this is the proposition that affective experiences in general, and those triggered by art in particular, are inextricably bound to human corporeality. Resulting from what Miranda Burgess has called “the flow of energies among and through sensate bodies and between bodies and the world” (293), they constitute “the states and responses of individuated bodies” (290). It is important to keep this in mind because the thwarting of corporeality, of the habits of sensate bodies, is precisely the means by which counter-conceptual art, including the work of Edward P. Jones, triggers affective experiences.

7Of course, given the autonomic nature of the affects and the individuated nature of affective experience, the very thing I hope to accomplish here may inevitably escape me. On the one hand, autonomic affectivity in its truest sense is fundamentally inarticulable. “Affect cannot be fully realized in language,” as Shouse points out, “because affect is always prior to and/or outside consciousness” and therefore amounts to “a non-conscious experience of intensity” (par. 5). On the other hand, even if articulation were possible, any single affective experience so articulated would not be applicable or transferable to others. As Burgess argues, an affective experience by definition “impossibly complicates any distinction between a perception and its object, or a stimulus and response,” or a trigger and a triggered response (293), and consequently the conditions of any given affective experience are, at bottom, irreducibly unique to the individual who owns the experience and are therefore beyond replication. Nevertheless, while the following cannot be expunged of all traces of my experiences with Jones’ work, the argumentative foundation of this essay remains Altieri’s notion that an affective experience can be triggered by a work of art whose counter-conceptual use of signification stimulates the corporeal basis of the affects, and it is on this foundation that I hope to show how the formal properties of Jones’ work spark exactly the sort of experience that Altieri has urged affect theorists to interrogate.

II. The Aesthetics of the Short Story Cycle

8For a writer whose aim is to represent and convey the affective experiences of one or more characters, the art form of the short story possesses capabilities and conventions that make it well-suited to the task. Particularly in its contemporary incarnation as a vehicle for lyrical realism—chronicling some punctuation in the quotidian experience of a character whose inner turmoil, in the wake of James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway, reaches its apogee with an epiphanic moment matched by an objective correlative—the short story, as Michael Trussler writes, tends to “give voice to hermeneutic incertitude; that is, characters in short fiction discover themselves in situations in which their personal experience and cultural knowledge prove ineffectual for grasping existential and ethical crises” (599). Examples abound, from Sherwood Anderson’s “The Thinker” (1919) to Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” (1927) and Raymond Carver’s “So Much Water So Close to Home” (1981), as well as almost anything by more recent writers such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Yiyun Li, and Jhumpa Lahiri. Insofar as these writers’ protagonists are typically left to founder in an inarticulable emotional intensity triggered by external stimuli, the experiences depicted on the page are to a large degree affective. Moreover, as Trussler points out, the conventional inconclusiveness of the contemporary short story routinely allows the form to escape the trap of reducing an affective experience to merely one emotional state in a causal chain of events: it “intimate[s] that translating events into a continuum potentially reduces the ‘meaning’ of an event to its relative significance within an ongoing series” (599) and thus respects the quality of irreducibility that makes an affective experience precisely what it is. In terms of strategies of representation, as James Nagel has observed, the situation differs only slightly when a series of short stories are in some way connected so as to form a cycle. When a cycle of interrelated stories advances multiple representations of the events in which various related characters are swept up, events that include the affective experiences of those characters, the events themselves obtain a dimension of “duplicative time” (37, 48, 176, 186) which emphasizes the irreducibility of an affective experience by allowing a portrayal of the reactions of characters who stand outside it.

9Do the short story collections of Edward P. Jones qualify as short story cycles? If we are to follow Nagel’s definition of the form, the answer is surely no. Nagel argues that, by definition, short story cycles must revolve around a single event or a single character (17) and neither one of Jones’ collections is so focused as to do that. The stories are recognizably related insofar as all of them are largely set in the African American ghettos to the north of the government district of Washington, DC, in the midst of what J. Gerald Kennedy and Robert Beuka call the “imperilled communities” of economically marginalized minority groups struggling under a neoliberal socio-economic order (10). Yet because, as Kennedy and Beuka go on to point out, Jones’ collections consist of “disparate stories” that do not feature “a recurrent protagonist or interwoven fictive lives” (11), they are perhaps a better fit for the definition of the short story cycle that Malcolm Cowley put forth in his introduction to Winesburg, Ohio in 1960. They take place against “a single background” and share “a prevailing tone,” as Cowley says the stories of a cycle must do—although he, too, finally insists that a cycle must focus on “a central character” (14), much as Winesburg does, and in that respect Jones’ collections again fail to fully meet the definitional criteria. More recently, however, Susan Garland Mann has articulated a less restrictive and prescriptive definition of the short story cycle, arguing that it possesses “only one essential characteristic.” The stories contained in a cycle, she writes, must be “both self-sufficient and interrelated” (15), and on those terms Jones’ story collections unequivocally qualify as cycles. “On the one hand,” Mann continues, describing the ideal story cycle,

the stories work independently of one another: the reader is capable of understanding each of them without going beyond the limits of the individual story. On the other hand, however, the stories work together, creating something that could not be achieved by a single story. (15)

10In fact, Jones’ two collections satisfy Mann’s definition of a short story cycle much more than a large number of others do. Many stories in many so-called cycles—Winesburg, Ohio included—are, after all, not so much interrelated as either simply sequential or connected in only a tangential way when, perhaps, the central character from one story walks on as a background figure in a later story. Jones’ stories, however, are tightly interrelated on both a narrative and a structural level. Jones is the type of writer that Madison Smartt Bell identifies as “a mosaicist,” a writer akin to a craftsman who “assembl[es] fragments of glass and tile to form what can be understood, at a greater distance, as a coherent, shapely image” (213). The work of such a writer, for Bell, achieves “[a] sense of integrity … by symmetrical arrangement of the modular parts” (214). Given its formal capacity for the symmetrical arrangement of individual stories, the short story cycle is the exemplary “modular” form of art, and all the more so when, as Bell writes,

narrative elements are balanced in symmetry as shapes are balanced in a symmetrical geometric figure, or as weights are balanced on a scale... Modular design replaces the domino theory of narrative with other principles which have less to do with motion (the story as process) and more to do with overall shapeliness (the story as fixed geometric form). (214-15)

11Jonestwo story collections appear to take Bells observations about structural symmetry almost literally. Each of them contains fourteen short stories, sequenced according to the age of the central character, so that each collection opens with the story that focuses on the youngest character and ends with the story that focuses on the oldest. Characters reappear throughout the two collections, as do specific features of and locations within the ghettos that give the stories their setting. More intriguingly, though, each story in each collection corresponds to its equivalent number in the other collection—the first story in Lost in the City is somehow connected to the first in All Aunt Hagar’s Children, the second to the second, the third to the third, and so on—with the most recent story of any structural pair either focusing on a minor character from the earlier story or maintaining a focus on the earlier story’s central character in order to stand as a direct sequel. The overall effect of these features is precisely what Charles Altieri identifies as the aesthetic trigger of an affective experience: “the counter-conceptual use of signification” (880). The use of this signification seems to allow Jones to fashion, for his readers, a way of seeing the world that takes a step towards deification and so thwarts the reader’s corporeality as to generate an affective experience I think of as—because no other term suits it—an elevated estrangement from oneself.

III. The Aesthetics of Lost in the City and All Aunt Hagar’s Children

12By and large, the stories collected in Lost in the City and All Aunt Hagar’s Children adopt conventional subject matter and follow the stylistic and structural conventions of contemporary literary realism. They typically open in medias res as a character finds himself or herself faced with some sort of exceptional incident, some unintelligible rupture of daily routine, which triggers an affective experience that leaves him or her struck speechless and in a state of affective, and thus inarticulable, extremity: extreme misery, extreme fear, extreme bliss, and so on. They then usually proceed to a flashback that establishes the character’s social and personal context—a context that conveys the character’s personal experiences of social difficulties including systemic racial discrimination and the dissolution of a marginalized ethnic community—until a return to the beginning of the story brings the rupture of quotidian routine once more into the narrative foreground. Time and again, however, the character’s experience of this rupture, this affective trigger, remains strictly affective rather than developing into something more epiphanic in the Joycean sense, since the stories typically end abruptly, leaving characters mired in their various experiences and unable to draw lessons from them or arrive at some new understanding of their existence. When they undergo these sorts of experiences, Jones’ characters are plunged into states of attention that orient them towards the experiential trigger but “do not enter into the structure of cause and consequence because the state of attention becomes an end in itself” (Altieri 880).

13“The Girl Who Raised Pigeons,” the first story in Lost in the City, stands as both an example of and a template for the structure to which the later stories adhere. A widowed father struggles to cope with his young daughter’s insistence on raising the small flock of pigeons she receives from a neighborhood friend. After a long flashback portrays the father’s own efforts to raise the girl following the sudden death of his wife, the story returns to its own beginning. The pigeons are devoured by a colony of rats, and the father, who never wanted to keep them in the first place, is plunged into an inarticulate state when faced with their tattered corpses. He arrives at no new insights into his relationship with his daughter or into her needs and wants. He is simply dumbfounded, triggered into paralysis by the carnage he beholds. This structural pattern holds true for other stories in both collections. In the title story from Lost in the City, a woman’s uncharacteristic behavior arises from an affective state triggered by news of her mother’s death; in “A Rich Man,” from All Aunt Hagar’s Children, a widower is bewildered and distraught by the behavior of a much younger woman who nearly marries him but then abruptly leaves him. Each individual story, then, is self-contained and therefore separable from the story collection as a whole, even as the stories collectively assemble a panoramic picture of a community and the affective experiences of its people in ways that correspond to Susan Garland Mann’s definition of a short story cycle: the stories are all “both self-sufficient and interrelated” (150).

14As above, however, none of this is particularly unique to the work of Edward P. Jones. Much the same material can be found in the work of the classic lyrical realists as well as in the work of most of the writers examined by James Nagel. What makes Jones’ work unique, what enables it to extend the formal particularities of the short story cycle and to thereby constitute an aesthetic trigger for an affective experience, are the various ways in which the interactions of his characters cause his stories to interrelate. It is through these interactions that Jones advances the counter-conceptual use of signification which allows for a spatio-temporal view of his subjects that transcends human corporeality. Consider, first of all, the character interactions that occur by way of both the reappearances of characters throughout the various stories and the symbiotic structure of the two story cycles. In “The Girl Who Raised Pigeons,” Betsy Ann Morgan, the young daughter of the widower Robert Morgan, receives her pigeons from a minor character named Miles Patterson, a middle-aged barber who lives with his elderly mother (12). The same Miles Patterson features as the central character in the first story in All Aunt Hagar’s Children, “In the Blink of God’s Eye,” which explores his abandonment by his birth mother and his chance adoption by the old woman in Lost in the City. Similarly, in “The First Day,” the second story in Lost in the City, the narrator is a child enrolled at Walker-Jones Elementary School, as is the narrator of “Spanish in the Morning,” the second story in All Aunt Hagar’s Children; and in “The Night Rhonda Ferguson Died,” the third story in Lost in the City, the doomed Rhonda attends Cardozo High School alongside several other girls including one Anita Hughes, whose story is told in full in “Resurrecting Methuselah,” the third story in All Aunt Hagar’s Children. This interrelation of characters continues throughout the two story cycles and is supplemented by the recurrent appearances of minor characters, whose presence is noted in passing, in ways that do not depend on any two stories occupying a parallel position in Lost in the City and All Aunt Hagar’s Children. For example, in the title story from All Aunt Hagar’s Children, the fifth story in that collection, the narrator meets two women who used to go to school with his brother, and when their names are given as Mary Saunders and Blondelle Steadman (110), they are implicitly identified as the older, married versions of Mary Keith and Blondelle Harris, the two girls who appear together in only one sentence in “The First Day” (33), the second story in Lost in the City.

15But these relatively simplistic character interactions are not the only means by which Jones interrelates his stories. The formal uniqueness of his story cycles is strengthened, and the affective experience they trigger is intensified, by other, more subtle interactions. These sorts of interactions take place without any regard for the temporal divisions amongst characters via the many specific geographical markers that appear in Jones’ stories. In all of his stories, as Kennedy and Beuka observe,

Jones maps the terrain of African American Washington, DC, situating his narratives precisely in areas (Northwest, Northeast, Southeast, Southwest) defined by their compass relation to the “Washington they put on post cards,” the city centre that “the white people called the federal enclave.” (Kennedy and Beuka 11; Jones, Lost 72, 154)

16The key word in this observation is “precisely.” In every single story in Lost in the City and All Aunt Hagar’s Children, Jones situates his characters in very specific real-world locations. Every day, he writes in “The Sunday Following Mothers Day,” Madeleine Williams “pass[es] the apartment building at 427 M Street, Northwest” (Lost 126) while, in “Common Law,” “Carlos [wakes] in his bed at 450 Ridge” (Aunt Hagar’s 212). Caesar Matthews, the young thug in “Young Lions,” ends up in “the park at the corner of Pennsylvania and 16th” (Lost 72), while Roxanne in “Blindsided” is “able to catch the D.C. Transit bus heading down 14th Street, N.W.” (Aunt Hagar’s 293). These are only four examples of a device that Jones employs hundreds of times throughout his story cycles, and one might just as easily turn to any page of either of the two cycles in search of other instances of it.

17Why does Jones so specifically direct the attention of his readers towards the geographic markers amongst which his characters evolve? His purpose may simply be to amplify the verisimilitude of his fiction—a verisimilitude geared towards encouraging readers to sympathize with his characters, to understand their troubles, and so, perhaps, to connect these to the real-world situation of the marginalized communities of present-day Washington, DC. For Kennedy and Beuka, the significance of the specificity of Jones’ geographical markers is first and foremost politically oriented. “Attentive throughout to sectors and boundaries, to unmarked yet unmistakable racial zones,” they write, “Jones reminds us that the geographical difference between ‘the land of white people’ (110) and the neighborhoods inhabited by his characters physically reflects the center-margin relationship of dominant and minority cultures” (11). Similar positions have been taken by Jessica Maucione, who argues that the possibility of a close-knit integrated community stands as a “lost world” for Jones’ characters; by Jessica Brown, for whom the architecture and urban planning of the neighborhoods portrayed by Jones bring a physical dimension to socio-economic segregation; and by Lorraine M. Henry, who sees the preponderance of public buildings and memorials that honor celebrated leaders of the struggle for civil rights as a bitterly ironic backdrop to Jones’ accounts of African American communal disintegration. Whatever Jones’ objectives may be, the immediate effect of his geographic specificity across his two story cycles is, if not quite apolitical, then at least pre-political in the sense that it precedes the advancement of an orientation towards a social power structure. His use of the location of 1st Street is emblematic of the effect he achieves. The narrator of “The Store,” the fifth story in Lost in the City, makes a point of having grown up in the area of 1st Street and New York Avenue, “the area around Dunbar [High School]” (98). The nearby area of 1st Street and North Capitol, which New York Avenue intersects at an angle, is where the widower Robert Morgan considers abandoning his newborn daughter at the beginning of “The Girl Who Raised Pigeons” (17), and the intersection of Pierce Street and 1st Street, just south of the New York Avenue intersection, serves as both the home of Blind Willie in “In the Blink of Gods Eye” (21) and a stopping point on the narrator’s journey to school in “Spanish in the Morning” (35), respectively the second and fourth stories in All Aunt Hagar’s Children. When a reader of “The Girl Who Raised Pigeons” reaches the later stories, it is difficult to read them without noticing the ghost of Robert Morgan, frozen indecisively over the sleeping infant he intends to leave on the sidewalk, while the narrator of “The Store” walks past him on his way to work—and it is nearly impossible not to see Blind Willie coming and going between the ghosts of both those characters while the child walks to school through the wispy traces of all three of them.

18Each character is caught up in his or her own private drama, separated from the others sometimes by many decades, and yet, for the reader who is privy to all of their stories, the specificity of their locations at various points in their lives calls to mind the exploits of other characters who have undergone experiences in exactly the same places in earlier stories. In other words, the actions of Jones’ characters invest various geographical markers with experiential significance. For the attentive reader of both story cycles, the recurrent specificity of such markers has the effect of collapsing distinctions between different and disparate temporal moments. Jones’ uses of analepsis and prolepsis, the “deictic shifts” by which his stories leap backwards and forwards in time, have been examined in compelling detail by Christopher Gonzalez who focuses on these devices only as features of individual stories without looking towards their cumulative effect throughout both of Jones’ story cycles. As the actions of characters scattered across the stories transform these markers into signifiers of multiple events in the past and the future—that is, in the past and the future relative to any given story—the signifiers themselves unite the divergent temporalities of the story cycles. In doing so, they force Jones’ readers to focus on a specific location and to see, there, the actions of characters who cannot see one another. Consequently, the streetscapes of Washington, DC, modified by the actions of human characters who are largely strangers to one another, obtain identities as distinct as those of the human characters themselves.

19In effect, each recurrent location becomes a “character” in William H. Gass’ infamous sense of the word. “A character for me is any linguistic location of a book toward which a great part of the rest of the text stands as a modifier,” Gass once declared. “Just as the subject of a sentence … is modified by the predicate, so frequently some character, Emma Bovary for instance, is regarded as a central character in the book because a lot of the language basically and ultimately goes back to modify, be about, Emma Bovary” (53). And just as a human being may constitute a “character” insofar as he or she stands as a linguistic location modified by other aspects of the text, Jones’ specific geographic markers constitute characters by virtue of having their signification modified by his human characters’ actions—modified so as to signify not only a particular site in an urban environment, but also an accretion of the experiences of the characters who, unlike the reader, remain unable to perceive the experiences of others in the very same place.

20Countless examples emerge from Lost in the City and All Aunt Hagar’s Children. Some of them are simple. The narrator of “The Store,” the fifth story in Lost in the City, passes by the house of a character named Mojo, near the intersection of Capitol and North Florida Avenue, while on his way to interview for a job that will change his life (87). The attentive reader can ‘see’ his ghost walking past Mojo’s window when the narrator of “All Aunt Hagar’s Children” visits Mojo in his home (Aunt Hagar’s 110), and both of those narrators linger in the background when Mojo is visited at home by Melvin Foster, a pivotal character in “Blindsided” (Aunt Hagar’s 213). Likewise, in “The Sunday Following Mother’s Day,” the seventh story in Lost in the City, Samuel Williams is arrested after murdering his wife, leaving his children in the care of his sister, Maddie, who seeks solace amongst her friends at Cleopatra’s Hair Emporium at the corner of 9th and P Streets NW (130), and one can sense a trace of Maddie’s emotional turmoil when the superstitious Laverne Shepherd retreats to the same place after an encounter with the Devil in the tenth story in All Aunt Hagar’s Children (273). Other examples are more complex and nuanced than these. In “Gospel,” the eleventh story in Lost in the City, the elderly Maude Townsend decides to join a gospel choir partly in order to escape the tedium of her daily life at a housing complex called Claridge Towers (194). In Jones’ oeuvre, the shabby apartments at Claridge Towers serve as something akin to a smaller scale version of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg or William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. They reappear in “Marie,” the poignant final story in Lost in the City, when octogenarian Marie Delaveaux Wilson is visited at home by a student of sociology who persuades her to talk frankly about her harrowing past (233-34). They appear again in “A Rich Man” and “Bad Neighbors,” the twelfth and thirteenth stories in All Aunt Hagar’s Children. In “A Rich Man,” readers witness the dissolution of the marriage of Horace and Loneese Perkins, residents of Apartment 230 (323), followed by Loneese’s death and Horace’s new relationship with Elaine Cunningham, the friend of a daughter of another resident of Claridge Towers (330). In “Bad Neighbors,” the death of Arthur Atwell, longtime resident of 8th St NW, forces his widow Beatrice to move into Claridge Towers (367), and for readers of the previous stories, her arrival at the complex is marked by traces of Marie’s private tragedies and the lingering tensions between Horace and Elaine although Beatrice herself remains oblivious to them. Similarly, in the eighth story in Lost in the City, Lydia Walsh recalls how she spent her girlhood in the company of an old woman named Georgia Evans, who lived next door at 459 Ridge Street (155), and years later, in the eighth story in All Aunt Hagar’s Children, Georgia Evans remains the occupant of that house (207). Georgia’s favorite place in the city, however, is the corner of 5th and M Streets NW, the “lucky corner” where she once met her second husband (203-04). Readers who watch her reliving her fond memories of this place are made aware, by the specificity of the location, that the pivotal events of Georgia’s life have taken place only a stone’s throw from 427 M Street, where Agnes Williams will be murdered years later by her husband Samuel in “The Sunday Following Mothers Day” (Lost 126), and 423 M Street, where Ike Appleton was murdered several years earlier in “All Aunt Hagar’s Children” (Aunt Hagar’s 112). As in the stirring final pages of Jones’ novel, The Known World, readers are presented with a literary map of Washington, DC, in which “[t]he dead ... have risen ... [and] stand at the [places] where they once lived” (Known World 385).

21To further engage the geographical aspects of Jones’ stories, something disquieting happens to the reader who uses these geographic markers as points of transition between the life of one character and that of another, instead of transitioning from story to story via the symbiotic structure of the two story cycles. A reader of “Gospel,” for instance, can locate Maude Townsend in relation to all of the other characters who are occupants of Claridge Towers—Marie in “Marie,” Horace and Loneese in “A Rich Man,” Beatrice Atwell in “Bad Neighbors”—and can then trace a path through all of Jones’ stories by following Maude as she joins a gospel choir whose members include, among others, Anita Hughes. Anita, in turn, is a friend of Rhonda Ferguson in “The Night Rhonda Ferguson Died” in Lost in the City. When she reappears in “Resurrecting Methuselah” in All Aunt Hagar’s Children, she is a middle-aged woman who finds herself driving aimlessly through the city, distraught by the absence of her husband, and noting her location as she passes the intersection of 7th Street and Massachusetts Avenue (64), which is where Betsy Ann Morgan steals candy from a store in “The Girl Who Raised Pigeons” in Lost in the City (26). Betsy Ann’s neighborhood GP is a man named Dr. Jackson (15) who reappears as the cousin of the narrator’s mother in “Spanish in the Morning,” from All Aunt Hagar’s Children (48). This specific narrator attends Walker-Jones Elementary School along with the orphaned Madeleine in “The Sunday Following Mother’s Day” (Lost 129), and with Carlos Newman in “Common Law” (Aunt Hagar’s 230). Carlos, as a young boy living at 450 Ridge Street, wins the affections of Georgia Evans (212), the same elderly woman who befriends the young Lydia Walsh (207)—Lydia who, decades later, learns of the death of her mother in the title story of Lost in the City and then, in a haze of confused thoughts, drives the streets of Washington at night, through the intersection of 5th Street and New York Avenue (154). This intersection is where the narrator of “The Store” suffers abuse and humiliation at the hands of a white policeman (85), before he tries to get his life back on track by taking his girlfriend on a date at the Howard Theater (97), which is also visited by the confused Roxanne Stapleton in “Blindsided, from All Aunt Hagar’s Children (293). Roxanne lives at 708 10th Street (297), on the same block where the wayward Caesar Mathews grew up in “Young Lions,” from Lost in the City, and on the same street along which Caesar walks when he determines, with the toss of a coin, whether he should continue his life of crime or to attempt to reinvent himself (100-01). In this manner, on and on, alternating between the two story cycles practically ad infinitum, Jones’ readers can trace a path, and often multiple paths, through this piecemeal but cumulative representation of Washington, DC, webbing together each of the “self-sufficient” stories with the divergent and connective strands that form an “interrelated” network (Mann 15) of which the characters and the geographical markers taken together are the nodes.

22To put this another way, even if a reader does not deliberately move through the stories in the manner outlined above, he or she will nevertheless find that the two cycles’ formal particularities force the stories to move towards the reader himself or herself. Whenever one’s eyes pass over a geographical marker charged with signification from the events of an earlier story, those events and the characters they involve are effectively drawn into a story that is not their own, where they tint or superimpose themselves over that story’s events. Every story is thus haunted by the characters of other stories, who hover into view not by virtue of having actually been placed in the story, but by virtue of having invested a particular geographical marker—at a different historical moment—with new significance. When I read about Roxanne Stapleton making her way home in “Blindsided,” for instance, I ‘see’ Caesar Mathews on a different night, in a different year, lingering not too far from her front door as he struggles to decide what to do with his life. Whenever a character is thus encountered in Jones’ Washington, DC, the specificity of his or her location allows the location to signify the presence of every other character who has been in the same place. Moreover, whenever the reader is reminded of those other characters, he or she is again brought into contact with the locations and the other people they encounter, so that, ultimately, almost any given location signifier includes a signification of its relation, through human characters, to other locations. Almost every character and specific location in Lost in the City and All Aunt Hagar’s Children is, by varying degrees of association, a signifier not only for itself but also for every other character and location in both story cycles.

23That this feature of Jones’ story cycles exemplifies Charles Altieri’s notion of “counter-conceptual signification” (880) is clear insofar as a signifier that signifies both itself and specific elements of other texts, enmeshed within a collection of texts replete with signifiers of a similar nature, is commensurate to a landscape painting containing “rocks... that have no weight or mass” and “trees [that] serve the counter-intuitive role of providing stability” (880). Throughout Jones’ story cycles, it has the effect of countermanding human corporeality, affording readers something closer to a deified view of Washington, DC—a view that utterly disrespects the temporality of human experience, forcing readers to behold the convergence and conflation of past, present, and future events on almost every page as well as the causal connections they bear to other events in other stories. Crucially, this way of countermanding human corporeality becomes possible only by virtue of Jones’ exploitation of the formal possibilities of the short story cycle, and of two cycles structured synchronically, as distinct from the form of the single short story or that of the novel.

24It is through this imposition of a sort of divine perspective on the reader that Jones’ short story cycles generate an affective experience in those who encounter them. Jones’ readers may or may not choose to pay sufficient attention to the details of the text in order to actually undergo this experience, but the details seem to me to have been selected so exactly and in such an elaborate way that some experience of this sort, above and beyond verisimilitude, must be their intended outcome. The experience is, as mentioned above, one for which I do not have a name but which I would describe as an uncanny sense of having myself estranged from myself, of becoming godlike, of being given knowledge of certain characters’ actions and of then having that knowledge reactivated in a way that is neither explicit nor intrusive. It is a sense of being afforded capabilities of sight and knowledge that transcend the human limitations of these capabilities, and of then being made aware, incrementally by the recurrent use of counter-conceptual signification, of the very fact of the estrangement without being able to pinpoint its precise trigger. It is in this sense, and on the basis of these qualities, that I would place Lost in the City and All Aunt Hagar’s Children alongside the landscapes of Paul Cezanne as engines of affective experiences triggered by aesthetic means. This is not to downplay the political purposes of Jones’ stories or their achievements in the area of literary realism, but to note that if the connection between affectivity and aesthetics remains largely buried beneath unbroken ground, Jones’ stories should be some of the first jewels to turn up when this territory is mined.


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Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Daniel Davis Wood, « To See the Lives of Others Through the Eyes of God: The Affectivity of Literary Aesthetics in the Short Stories of Edward P. Jones », Journal of the Short Story in English, 66 | 2016, 31-47.

Référence électronique

Daniel Davis Wood, « To See the Lives of Others Through the Eyes of God: The Affectivity of Literary Aesthetics in the Short Stories of Edward P. Jones », Journal of the Short Story in English [En ligne], 66 | Spring 2016, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2018, consulté le 07 août 2020. URL :


Daniel Davis Wood

Daniel Davis Wood teaches literature at Arts Educational Schools in London. He completed his PhD at the University of Melbourne, focusing on concepts of frontier justice in the novels of James Fenimore Cooper and Cormac McCarthy. He is the author of a novel, Blood and Bone (Sydney: Xoum, 2014), and editor of Edward P. Jones: New Essays (Melbourne: Whetstone Press, 2011).

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