The Best American Novelist Whose Name You May Not Know

illustration of Gayl Jones Johnalynn Holland

Story by Calvin Baker – When her first novels were published, in the mid-1970s, Gayl Jones’s talent was hailed by writers from James Baldwin to John Updike. Then she disappeared.

In the winter of 1975, a quiet young woman from Lexington, Kentucky, met her Ph.D. adviser in Brown University’s writing program for a series of unsatisfactory tutorials about an ambitious project of hers that had yet to fully reveal itself. The encounters were strange enough that her adviser still recalled them in an interview a quarter century later: “I was doing all the talking, and she would sit rigidly, just bobbing her head in a regal manner. Yet there was a kind of arrogance to her. Perhaps it was the arrogance of an artist fiercely committed to a vision, but I also sensed a bottled-up black rage.” There’s nothing unusual about a young writer seething at the world, especially in the 1970s, when protests and bad attitudes about race, war, and university curricula were so de rigueur that they may as well have been taught at orientation. Likelier than not, his student sensed her (white) adviser’s judgment and withdrew in response—and didn’t think he had much to offer, anyway. While her natural range was virtuosic, his work consisted primarily of a host of popular paperbacks and magazine stories whose titles, including Dormitory Women and “Up the Down Coed,” accurately convey their subjects and sensibilities.

However mutually frustrating the meetings between Gayl Jones and R. V. Cassill may have been, his comment is most striking for having been made to The New York Times after her husband, Robert Higgins, slit his own throat when a SWAT team stormed their house in February 1998 to arrest him on a 14-year-old warrant from another state. Two decades earlier, Jones had been hailed as one of the great literary phenoms of the 20th century, only to then drop out of sight; just days before her husband killed himself, she’d reemerged on the American literary scene with a new novel that would become a finalist for a National Book Award.Leaving aside the callousness of Cassill’s remarks (and the obvious question: What does “black rage” mean?), they violated the typical assumptions of academic privacy. That the reporter and his editors deemed Cassill’s observation useful in understanding Jones’s life does not confirm her anger so much as it affirms all there is to be angry about. No matter her insights and achievements, the frame through which she was viewed and understood by the white world remained the same. She sat silently as he read the early drafts of what would become her first novel. He talked. She left. He was flummoxed. She returned, because she had to. It could have been a Beckett play, almost funny until you lived it.

Fortunately, Jones also worked closely at Brown with a true mentor, the noted poet Michael Harper, who’d overseen her master’s degree and would become a lifelong friend. She received her doctorate in 1975 and published her first novel, Corregidora, the same year. The story is told by a 1940s Kentucky blues singer, Ursa, whose troubles with men are refracted through memories of slavery handed down by her matrilineal line:

My great-grandmama told my grandmama the part she lived through that my grandmama didn’t live through and my grandmama told my mama what they both lived through and my mama told me what they all lived through and we were suppose to pass it down like that from generation to generation so we don’t forget.

Or, as the protagonist, whose mother and grandmother were fathered by the same Portuguese slave owner, says at another point: “I am Ursa Corregidora. I have tears for eyes. I was made to touch my past at an early age. I found it on my mother’s tiddies. In her milk.”

What Faulkner saw in the haunted old mansions of Oxford, Mississippi, Jones saw in the ghosts of the Black dead. She was a pioneer in grappling with the contemporary legacy of slavery, and her debut was praised by the likes of John Updike, in The New Yorker, as well as a host of Black writers. “Corregidora is the most brutally honest and painful revelation of what has occurred, and is occurring, in the souls of Black men and women,” James Baldwin wrote.
Jones’s early novels were shepherded by Toni Morrison, then an editor at Random House, who’d dedicated herself to publishing Black writers, especially women. To put things in perspective, at the time Corregidora came out, Morrison had only recently published her first works of fiction, The Bluest Eye and Sula. She had yet to hit her stride as a writer, while Jones burst forth in her early 20s all but fully formed and requiring little editing. Jones needed a champion, however, someone who could understand and appreciate the sophistication of her approach to subject matter as well as language. “No novel about any black woman could ever be the same after this,” Morrison declared after reading the manuscript of Corregidora.Richard Ford, who got to know Jones when they were both fellows at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, called her a “prodigy”: “History may have caught up with her, but she was a movement unto herself. Toni knew this very, very, very well when she published her.”

Jones had a marked effect not only on Morrison’s subsequent novels but on an entire generation of writers, whether they realized it or not. The tentacles of slavery in the present day have grown into a principal concern of Black literature, and Jones’s early work was absorbed into this canon almost imperceptibly. Over time, her literary ambitions would evolve, as she published and then receded from the public eye, published and then receded. This spring, she self-published her first novel in 21 years—Palmares, a six-volume work about the last fugitive-slave settlement in Brazil. In mid-June, Beacon Press bought the rights to the book, with plans to release it in September 2021.* In the sprawling narrative, set in the 17th century, Jones’s feats of linguistic and historical invention are on ample display. Describing the impact of her singular vision and intensity, John Edgar Wideman remarked 22 years ago: “I think she scared people.”

Gayl jones was born into a modest family in 1949. Her father, Franklin, worked as a line cook in a restaurant, an occupation she would later give to the father of the narrator of her second novel, Eva’s Man. Her mother, Lucille, was a homemaker and a writer; Jones would incorporate lengthy passages from her work into her experimental fourth novel, Mosquito.

Jones spent childhood weekends visiting her maternal grandmother on a small farm outside Lexington, where she absorbed the stories of the adults around her. It is an unremarkable detail, save for the importance and seriousness Jones later ascribed to this time, as an educated woman channeling those locked out of institutions of so-called higher learning, as a daughter in communion with her mothers, as a formidable theorist validating the integrity and equality of oral modes of storytelling. “The best of my writing comes from having heard rather than having read,” Jones told Michael Harper in an intimate interview conducted the year Corregidora was published. She hastened to add that she wasn’t dismissing the glories of reading, only pointing out that “in the beginning, all of the richness came from people rather than books because in those days you were reading some really unfortunate kinds of books in school.”

In the mid‑1960s, when Gayl and her younger brother were teenagers, Lucille managed to enroll them in the segregated but academically well-regarded Henry Clay High School. (The public-school system in Lexington did not formally integrate until the mid-1970s, 20 years after Brown v. Board of Education.) Jones proved an extraordinary student, and through the efforts of her Spanish teacher she was introduced to the poet Elizabeth Hardwick, who, together with her sometimes husband, Robert Lowell, helped arrange a scholarship for Jones at Connecticut College. She proved an equally exceptional student in New England, devoting herself to literature.

Jones published Eva’s Man in 1976, a year after Corregidora. Like Ursa, Eva is a 40ish woman recounting her life story, in this case from prison. Eva landed there after murdering and castrating in graphic fashion a lover she’d spent a few days with—ostensibly because she’d learned he was married. In conversations with a fellow inmate and a prison psychiatrist, Eva “stitch[es] her memories and fantasies into a pattern of sexual and emotional abuse,” as the critic Margo Jefferson wrote. When the psychiatrist asks Eva if she can pinpoint what triggered her to kill the man, she replies only, “It was his whole way.”

Jones called Corregidora a “blues novel,” because it communicated the “simultaneity of good and bad, as feeling, as something felt,” she told Harper. Meanwhile, she considered her second novel a “horror story,” explaining in another interview—with Charles H. Rowell, the editor of Callaloo, an African American literary magazine—that what Eva “does to the man in the book is a ‘horror’ … Eva carries out what Ursa might have done but didn’t.”

Instead of sermons, sense and sustenance flow from a web of intimacy and memory, at least for Jones’s female characters. The men are mostly phalluses tumescent with bad news. Their collective role is as a source of fear and pain, but also desire. Love is not absent, but the word can’t capture what transpires between her women and men. Jones has often been read as a political warrior speaking for unvoiced Black women, but she’s too great a writer with too broad a mind—and too mesmerized by psychological complexity—to pass any ideological purity tests. As she told Rowell, her preoccupations were “contradictory character and ambivalent character, and I like to explore them even without judgments entering the work.”Jones’s politics are inscribed in her choice to write about the lowborn and low-down, giving them as much intelligence as she possesses; to work in flawless Black English; and to position herself inside rather than outside her characters. The vantage stands in contrast to the approach of Zora Neale Hurston, for example, whom Jones admired for her up-close treatment of relationships between Black men and women, but who at points wrote on behalf of Janie, in Their Eyes Were Watching God, not as her. As Jones well understood, Hurston, like all writers, was a product of her time, and of the circumstances of her oppression. She and her fellow members of the Harlem Renaissance were self-consciously striving to create a literature of Black people’s expanding worlds beyond slavery, but the mission could devolve into representing Blacks for a white audience, giving their fictions an unintended stiltedness. The problem might be summarized as one of code-switching between the Black world and the white gaze. The Black writer who knows the codes of both must always explain the lives, decisions, and humanity of her Black characters to whites who might not otherwise credit them. In Jones’s storytelling, however, there was no “ ‘author’ getting in the way,” Morrison noticed.

The other Black inventors of the modern novel about slavery were Leon Forrest (Two Wings to Veil My Face), who wrote with lyrical, epicurean elegance, and Charles Johnson (Oxherding Tale), whose stories of slave escapes are entwined with the Buddhist quest to get off the wheel of suffering, as well as with the ontological questions of Western philosophy. They bring the high-minded into the lives of the low. By working the other way around, Jones challenges literature itself to embrace other registers of the language, including the obscene, as in this relatively mild example from Corregidora:

A Portuguese seaman turned plantation owner, he took her out of the field when she was still a child and put her to work in his whorehouse while she was a child … I stole [the picture of him] because I said whenever afterward when evil come I wanted something to point to and say, “That’s what evil look like.” You know what I mean? Yeah, he did more fucking than the other mens did.

Jones elaborated on the politics of the English language with Harper:

I usually trust writers who I feel I can hear. A lot of European and Euro-American writers—because of the way their traditions work—have lost the ability to hear. Now Joyce could hear and Chaucer could hear. A lot of Southern American writers can hear … Joyce had to hear because of the whole historical-linguistic situation in Ireland … Finnegan’s Wake is an oral book. You can’t sight-read Finnegan’s Wake with any kind of truth. And they say only a Dubliner can really understand the book, can really “hear” it. Of course, black writers—it goes without saying why we’ve always had to hear.

Telling stories out loud was a matter of survival and wholeness for a community forbidden to read, as well as an act of rebellion, and the way Jones wields this tradition transforms even a kind of nursery rhyme shared between daughter and mother into something dirty, dangerous, and important.

I am the daughter of the daughter of the daughter of Ursa of currents, steel wool and electric wire for hair.

While mama be sleeping, the ole man he crawl into bed …

Don’t come here to my house, don’t come here to my house I said …

Fore you get any this booty, you gon have to lay down dead.

When Harper asked for her thoughts on the architects of 20th-century Black literature, namely “Gaines, Toomer, Ellison, Hurston, Walker, Forrest, Wright, Hughes, Brown, Hayden et. al,” Jones pointed out the wide variation in a group that to the mainstream might appear homogeneous:

You know, I say the names over in my mind, and I think about those people who will speak of black writing as a “limited category,” the implication being that it’s something you have to transcend. And it surprised me because I thought critics had outgrown that sort of posture.

She certainly had. Whereas Baldwin famously lashed out at the protest-novel straitjacket put on mid-20th-century Black writers—“The ‘protest’ novel, so far from being disturbing, is an accepted and comforting aspect of the American scene”—Jones came of age breathing the air of the Black Arts Movement. Founded by LeRoi Jones (no relation), who combined immense talent, critical acumen, and, after being brutalized by the police, a rusty shank of disdain for the lassitude of white America, the movement advanced the idea that white people’s approval was beside the point. Why bother being the Black exception in a country where attempts to control the mind and body of Black people knew no bounds? In his fiery 1965 manifesto, “The Revolutionary Theatre,” LeRoi Jones described the mission for Black artists this way: “White men will cower before this theatre because it hates them … The Revolutionary Theatre must hate them for hating.” Gayl Jones’s “fuck off ” was less explicit but no less radical: She wrote fiction as if white people weren’t watching.

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