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Ekphrasis and the Postmodern Slave Narrative: Reading the Maps of Edward P. Jones’s The Known World
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Ekphrasis and the Postmodern Slave Narrative
Reading the Maps of Edward P. Jones’s The Known World

In 2003, the United States Library of Congress raised ten million dollars—the highest price ever paid for a historical document—to acquire the sole extant copy of the 1507 Waldseemüller world map (Lester xxi). Called “the crown jewel of New World cartography” and “America’s birth certificate,” the 1507 Waldseemüller map (formally titled “Universalis Cosmographia”) is the earliest known document to name America as such (Weeks, “Chart”). When, in late 2003, the Waldseemüller map arrived at the Library of Congress, Edward P. Jones’s The Known World simultaneously appeared on the literary market. That a description of a strikingly similar map—prominently titled “The Known World”—turns up in the pages of the novel proves to be significant.

In the years leading up to the purchase, Washington Post journalist Linton Weeks covered the Library of Congress’s century-long attempt to procure the map and how that effort finally came to fruition. Familiar with the Waldseemüller story, Weeks immediately recognized the presence of the map in the process of reviewing Jones’s novel; however, after interviewing Jones about the novel’s release, Weeks suggested that the allusion to the real historical map stood out as an anomaly in a novel where Jones “made just about everything up” (“True World”). Weeks found it fitting, then, that when Jones does refer to the Waldseemüller map in The Known World, “he gets the mapmaker’s first name wrong” (“True World”). Jones responded to Weeks’s discovery by saying, “Well-crafted fiction can uncover ‘a greater truth … as long as you can tell a wonderful lie’” (qtd. in “True World”). In light of Jones’s orientation toward the truth of history and fiction, how does The Known World compare to other contemporary African American fiction about slavery? My essay will address this question.

Because contemporary African American novels frequently explore the history of slavery in the United States, recent scholarship on these novels investigates the motivations and effects of this choice of topic. Of particular concern to scholars working on contemporary African American fiction are questions of genre: how should we define and categorize recent novels about slavery? In the late 1980s, scholars began to answer this question by repeatedly theorizing the neo-slave narrative, but two of the most recent studies—by A. Timothy Spaulding and Tim A. Ryan—deal with the influence of postmodernism on these novels’ treatment of history.1 Spaulding distinguishes neo-slave narratives from what he calls postmodern slave narratives, suggesting that while neo-slave narratives “deal with slavery in its historical context” (5), postmodern slave narratives rely on non-mimetic devices to “create an alternative and fictional historiography based on a subjective, fantastic, and anti-realistic representation of slavery” (2). However, Ryan challenges Spaulding’s [End Page 1181] formulation, insisting that contemporary African American fiction engages in imaginative dialogic exchange with specific historiographical accounts, which makes them neither essentially postmodern nor meaningfully related to original slave narratives.

Though both Spaulding and Ryan examine The Known World in their monographs, the novel has not received the level of scholarly attention one might expect since it won the Pulitzer Prize in 2004.2 Scholars have been primarily preoccupied with explaining African American slaveholding in the novel,3 though some critics have extended these discussions to study the novel’s relationship to history or genre.4 Spaulding and Ryan examine The Known World under the lens of both history and genre in engaging theories about the postmodern slave narrative. While Spaulding contends that The Known World cannot be considered a postmodern slave narrative because it maintains realism, Ryan disputes the existence of the postmodern slave narrative genre, asserting that no novel, including The Known World, can be so categorized.

I propose that we advance the examination of The Known World’s relationship to both history and genre, as Spaulding and Ryan do; however, we must turn our attention to the novel’s depiction of historical and artistic creation and consumption in order to do so. To date, the textual descriptions of the images behind the...