The Known World feels like a book that took a long time to write. The writing proceeds at a slow but churning pace. Jones meticulously ties each character to one another, to the land, to the curious circumstances of the “peculiar institution” of slavery. We are taught in school that slavery was a black and white affair, but Jones takes great pains to describe a human landscape where such distinctions are blurry: the most powerful man in Manchester County, William Robbins, dotes upon the two children he has fathered with his slave, Philomena; Oden, the Indian, exaggerates his cruelty towards blacks to maintain his tenuous superiority; and Henry Townsend, the gifted young black man at the center of this novel, acquires a plantation full of slaves from which discord flows, imperceptibly at first. The lesson is the messiness of slavery made real by the vivid lives of each character. Over the course of the novel, Jones sketches out each character, from birth to death, using deft flashbacks and flash-forwards that are scattered throughout like crumbs and give the book a marvelous depth. In this sense, the book reminded me of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. The book ends before the Civil War begins, and so the triumph of good over evil is not allowed to mitigate the brutal picture of slavery that Jones paints. Perhaps because it was so assiduously researched, this novel feels like history and it feels like life. Here’s hoping that Jones’ next one doesn’t take ten years to write.
When I was in college, I became excited about some poets, Frank O’Hara, Tennyson, C.K. Williams, and some others. This interest stemmed from a poetry class and from hanging around too much in the local used book store. But I’ve never been grasped by poetry, there’s something too arbitrary about it for me. Still, Some poems by Williams in the New Yorker piqued my interest and I picked up his collection, The Singing, which went on to win the National Book Award. There are handful of very moving poems in this collection. Williams’ best poems are grounded by concrete imagery, and they are engagingly anecdotal. But there are too many poems in this book that aren’t tethered to earthly things at all, and it is difficult for the reader to reach them. He writes engagingly about growing old and about war. The best in the collection is called “The Hearth.” It can be found here.
‘Tis the season of back-to-school, back-to-work; back to various labors of love and life. In that vein, I recommend two books, in two Parts, on the subject of work – literary, intellectual, manual. Today, Part 1, I give you former Poet Laureate Donald Hall’s Life Work.
Life Work has been a beacon for me since my early days of writerdom. I came to the writer’s vocation late and from off-the-map, which has contributed to a general awkwardness around the word “work” – a word reserved, in my experience, for that which involves antagonism, obligation, and toil; and which generally refers to a physical destination as opposed to an activity. (Syntax is everything in the statement, “I am going to work.” Is the second part a verb infinitive or an adverbial prepositional phrase?) “Ok, off to the gulag,” my partner jokes wryly as he heads to his downtown office. Surely, he is going to work; what the hell will I be doing all day?
“Once, in a headlong sentence I clearly intended to say ‘life,’” Hall writes of a therapy session during dark years of marital meltdown and alcoholism, “but by mistake…said ‘work’ instead.” This recollection illuminates the theme of Hall’s beautifully crafted meditation cum memoir: the lost sense of work as integral, devotional, absorbing; distinct from labor, including but not limited to “what we do to feed ourselves and keep ourselves warm,” and, if not nobler than the toilsome sufferings of humankind through the ages – Hall cites, for example, Mexican farm laborers, 19th century merchant sailors, black American slaves – then indeed no less.
Work. I make my living at it. Almost 20 years ago I quit teaching – giving up tenure, health insurance, and annual raises […] I worked like crazy to pay tuitions and mortgages – but because I loved my work it was as if I did not work at all.
There are jobs, there are chores, and there is work.
Life Work takes the form of life (and work) in real time: “Today makes a week of Life Work.” Hall pulls back the curtain on his daily regime, his “best day”: up at 4:30, coffee, dress, drive out for the paper (this is rural New Hampshire), breakfast, then at the desk until “I feel the poetry juices drying out.” A household chore, more coffee, and on to prose. By 11am, the writing work is done; now lunch, then a short nap, after which he and his (second) wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, “know what we will do next. How nice to be old enough, living together and alone, to make love in daylight…”
If all this makes ye industrious urbanites want to retch, Hall anticipates your repulsion:
I worry that my enthusiasm over work, over the best day […] will seem to a saturnine or grumpy reader the ultimate in complacency […] Why is happiness unforgivable? […] I make for myself a golden age.
Only depressives make a golden age; or maniacs create a golden age because their dark brother lurks behind the barn.
But he does not anticipate what comes next: Part I of Life Work ends in early April; 10 days later he begins Part II, having been diagnosed, in the interim, with liver cancer.
The book shifts markedly in tone henceforth, and yet an even deeper fidelity to inquiries regarding work takes hold. “I realized I had always worked in defiance of death.” We learn of family histories (generational transitions from manual, to white-collar, to creative work), the sculptor Henry Moore’s model of work, and Hall’s journey in Christian faith (the work of the spirit). The book ends three months after it began, with Hall about to start chemotherapy: we are suspended in uncertainty with him, as he works on short projects “which absorb me as much as any work can.”
Seventeen years after publication, we know “the ending.” Hall survives cancer, but it’s his beloved wife Jane, 20-some years his junior, who dies of leukemia two years later. How profoundly prescient was Hall’s understanding of “work” as the avatar for “life,” as the two of them confront ruthless mortality together. He writes: “There is only one long-term project.”
Coming up: Part 2, in which a philosopher-motorcycle mechanic makes the case for the cognitive riches of manual work, for living concretely in an abstract world.