Lost in the City: An Exploration of Edward P. Jones's Short Fiction

Introduction: Teaching Edward P. Jones

By Kenton Rambsy

In the fall semester of 2017, I taught a graduate-level African American literature course, ENGL 5324 or “Lost in the City.” In this course, we explored Edward P. Jones’s consistent use of Washington, DC as a setting in two collections, Lost in the City (1992) and All Aunt Hagar’s Children (2006). Collectively, these 28 stories shed new light on the development of short fiction in the contemporary era and the significance of Washington, DC in the literary imagination of a Black writer. 

Despite the long history and dense population of African Americans living in or near the nation’s capital, the predominantly Black quadrants of Washington, DC have a relatively small presence in the scholarship on African American literature. Jones’s stories, however, provide thorough and expansive depictions of neighborhoods and cultural landmarks in DC. Focusing on what were then predominantly Black neighborhoods in Washington, DC, these two collections offer unique and enriching opportunities for analyzing, or more accurately, geocoding an African American author’s repeated treatments of the nation’s capital. Jones enacts a kind of cultural map-making by mentioning physical environments, streets, and locales. His references to specific locations throughout his stories provide impressions of the city that are geared towards social interactions of neighbors and community members.

John Harrison’s review of All Aunt Hagar’s Children takes note of the centrality of DC to Jones’s characters in his short stories. He writes, “Jones’s heavy reference to the street plan of DC leads me to recommend having a map of the area handy. Each story traces a journey–planned or unplanned, taken or failed–and an obvious root/route symbolism runs throughout the collection.” The locations identified in Jones’s stories are not tourist destinations but are instead neighborhoods or routes taken by Black people who are residents of the District. In a footnote to his review, Harrison adds, “The only time I’ve been to Washington was for an 8th-grade field trip, and we decidedly did not visit the areas in question” (Harrison 2006). The many references to street names outside the purview of tourists give range and depth to our understanding of Washington. Furthermore, Jones’s attention to geographical details gave our class a unique opportunity to apply digital humanities methodologies to this digital book. 

Jones is hardly the first Black writer to implement what might be referred to as literary geo-tagging. Rudolph Fisher’s “City of Refuge” (1925) refers to street intersections and locations in Harlem to discuss how the wide-eyed King Solomon Gillis is enthralled by Black people living in the New York environment. James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” (1957) places the title character in Harlem neighborhoods as well as locations in the Village that complement Sonny’s involvement with music scenes throughout the story. Toni Cade Bambara’s “The Lesson” (1972) follows children as they travel between their neighborhood in Harlem to the historic FAO Schwarz toy store. Jones extends these practices by identifying, in a notably detailed way, location-specific information concerning DC.

While African American migration remains a significant subject in literary and historical scholarship, geography itself has not been a major feature of literary analysis—especially in Black short fiction. Yet geographical references have been integral to the production of narratives by Black writers. Black writers enact cultural map-making by mentioning physical environments, streets, and locales. The identification and categorization of those places correspond to our contemporary age of GPS. Taking account of the many instances of writers marking and referencing locations throughout their works illuminates the centrality of geography in African American artistic compositions. 

Our edited collection is comprised of several essays that seek to explain how maps enhance our readings and understandings of Jones’s work. This publication incorporates digital resources to track how Jones’s characters interact with the District by visualizing their immersion primarily in the Northwest and Southeast quadrants. This collection also includes videos that serve as reference guides for readers. These resources help to better contextualize our essays and Jones’s stories with regards to DC’s physical layout.

The first section, “Visualizing Edward P. Jones’s Short Fiction,” explains the methodologies we used when compiling data to explore Jones’s stories. Collectively, our class contributed to the creation of a dataset that traced information related to Jones’s location references, character demographics, and character dialogues.

The second section, “Traversing the Known World,” provides an overview of Washington, DC, as it relates to Jones’s stories. This section contains images and links to various maps that help explain the nuances of Jones’s DC, that might better help readers interpret the cultural differences among the four quadrants and neighborhoods.

Lost in the City: A Multimedia Literary Analysis” and All Aunt Hagar’s Children: A Multimedia Literary Analysis” offer close reads of both collections. These sections contain close reads of two kinds: 1) This section uses data to map specific settings and character demographics; 2) This section contains thematic interpretations of collective features of Jones’s stories. Taken together, these two chapters reflect my students’ efforts to explain how themes ranging from generational conflicts and displacement as well as Deep South migrations and Black speech shape overall impressions of his short fiction.

Jones’s inclination to map the city by identifying streets and landmarks in such detail allows him to achieve new ground among prominent Black writers known for presenting a sense of place in their works. Overall, Jones pinpoints a wide range of locations in his stories, presenting a view of Washington, DC through storytelling that has been relatively uncommon in the canonical history of African American literature. Jones’s high frequency usage of location-specific phrases reveals that he is distinguishing himself, in part, from other widely known Black short story writers based on his devotion to detail-rich, geographically-precise narratives about a single city.

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