Madison Percy Jones, Jr., was born in Nashville, Tennessee, on March 21, 1925, the son of a well-to-do businessman and Mary Temple (Webber) Jones. Madison was raised as a Presbyterian, absorbing an uncompromising moral outlook that dominates his works. Like most “Old South” families, the Joneses sent their son to private high schools so that he would receive a classical education. When Madison was thirteen, his father bought a farm in Cheatham County, north of Nashville, and as a teenager, Jones spent much of his time there, learning to farm and to train Tennessee walking horses.
After high school, Jones enrolled in Vanderbilt University, but he dropped out after three semesters and spent eighteen months working on the farm. He then returned to Vanderbilt for three more semesters before he was drafted in 1945 and sent to Korea, where he served in the military police for two years. When he returned to Vanderbilt, Jones took creative writing courses with the famous Agrarian writer and critic Donald Davidson. Although Davidson liked his writing, Jones returned to the farm for a year after receiving his B.A. in 1949 and seriously considered becoming a farmer.
Having decided to continue with his writing, he went to the University of Florida to study with Andrew Lytle, another prominent Agrarian. In 1951 he received his M.A. That same year, he married Shailah McEvilley. They would have five children. Jones continued his graduate study at the university for two more years, completing all the requirements for a Ph.D. except for writing a dissertation. In 1953 he left to write a novel. That fall he began teaching at Miami University in Ohio, but the following year, having obtained a Sewanee Review Fellowship, he moved back to Florida and worked on The Innocent. The next year Jones taught at the University of Tennessee. Then in 1956, he went to Auburn University. He became Auburn’s writer-in-residence in 1967 and a full professor in 1968. In 1982 he was named to a chaired professorship, which he held until his retirement five years later, when he moved permanently to a small farm outside Auburn.
Over a forty-year period, Jones published ten novels and one volume of connected short stories. Although all of the works are set in the South and deal with the same themes (the conflicts between good and evil, conscience and compulsion), their time frames vary widely. For example, Forest of the Night is set in the early nineteenth century, while A Buried Land deals with the Tennessee Valley Authority’s acquisitions of land in the mid twentieth century. By contrast, A Cry of Absence, the novel about integration which Jones considered his best work, appeared not long after the events that inspired it. Similarly, Season of the Strangler was written not long after the series of murders in Georgia that gave Jones the idea for his book, although he dated those stories ten years earlier.
Over the years, Jones won numerous honors, including an Alabama Library Association Book Award in 1967, a Rockefeller Fellowship in 1968, and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1973-1974. A chapter of To the Winds that appeared in the Summer, 1992, issue of the Sewanee Review was awarded the Lytle Prize for short fiction. Jones’s work also aroused the interest of filmmakers. An Exile was the basis of the popular film I Walk the Line (1970). Although Jones wrote a film treatment of his best-selling book, A Cry of Absence, the film was never made.
Jones’s many admirers cannot account for the fact that even though critics have ranked Jones with such writers as Sophocles, Thomas Hardy, and William Faulkner, his novels have not sold as well as those by other major southern authors. Although in the 1980’s and 1990’s Jones was the subject of more scholarly articles than in previous years, in 2002 there was still no book-length study of...
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