Edward P. Jones has published stories and articles in a variety of venues, and his first book, the short-story collection Lost in the City (1992), earned a PEN/Hemingway Award. In his ambitious and significant first novel, The Known World, Jones has broken new ground. Centered on the death of a black slave owner in the decade before the Civil War, The Known World employs a host of characters in its consideration of slavery, unrestrained power, morality, and racism.
As a popular subject in literature, film, and legend, the great horror of slavery sometimes seems to have dimmed as a result of the contempt bred by its familiarity. The more obvious facts of slavery as practiced in the American South have become so shopworn and almost stereotypical that often a reader recognizes the tropes without appreciating them, and so the bleak realities of humanity revealed by slavery become glossed over by clichés.
African American writer Jones reverses the trend, however, in The Known World. By choosing a known but often overlooked historical truth—that some free black southerners owned slaves—Jones explodes the accountings of slavery that have become too familiar. He looks beyond the commonplace settings and stories to confront the dark truths of humanity that gave rise to the “peculiar institution.” At the same time, the author does not fail to consider the evil of slavery itself, the way its existence, with one foot in racism and the other in ungoverned and unrestrained power over other humans, can corrupt everything and everyone it touches.
In The Known World, Jones tells a series of stories; his focus is not the life of one particular character but rather how slavery affects a whole battery of characters. Although a slow linear narrative does develop over the course of the novel, the book’s structure follows a spiral pattern. The reader is introduced to a character and told things about that character; then the narrative moves away, only to return to that character in more detail as the plot develops. The novel begins with Moses (one of several ironically named slave characters), a slave who initially took two weeks to understand that “someone wasn’t fiddling with him and that indeed a black man, two shades darker than himself, owned him and any shadow he made,” and the resolution to his story is one of the last sections of the novel.
This spiral structure reminds the reader that everyone has a story to tell and that an institution as powerful and malignant as slavery can never be reduced to stereotype, because it affected each human life in powerful, poignant, and starkly individual ways. Ostensibly, the title of the novel comes from a large, antique wooden map given the town’s sheriff. More to the point, the title reminds the reader that the familiar renderings of slavery—the world one feels one “knows”—mean nothing without considering the lives behind each story.
Henry Townsend is the character who serves as the nexus of the novel. A former slave, Henry is the owner of a plantation and “thirteen women, eleven men, and nine children.” The stories of his wife, Caldonia; his teacher Fern Elston; his slave and overseer, Moses; his former master and patron in the ways of slave ownership, William Robbins; his parents; the sheriff John Skiffington; slaves like Elias, Stamford, Celeste, and Loretta; and a host of other characters all revolve around Henry’s life and death.
Augustus and Mildred Townsend, Henry’s parents, buy their freedom from William Robbins and work hard to pay for the freedom of Henry as well. Not long after his has been purchased, however, Henry buys Moses, his first slave, and damages forever his relationship with his parents. One learns that Henry always stated that he “wanted to be a better master than any white man he had ever known,” but that Henry did not “understand that the kind of world he wanted to create was doomed before he had even spoken the first syllable of the word master.”
Henry, like Fern Elston, Caldonia, and a number of other characters who are free blacks and who own slaves, has...
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The Known World
Edward P Jones
388pp, Harper Perennial, £7.99
In 1855, Henry Townsend, a former slave who is now the owner of 33 slaves and 50 acres of land in Manchester County, Virginia, lies dying on his bed. His wife, Caldonia, "a coloured woman born free and who had been educated all her days", offers to quiet his mind with a little reading. "A bit of Milton?" she suggests. "Or the Bible?" "I been so weary of Milton," Henry says. "And the Bible suits me better in the day, when there's sun and I can see what all God gave me."
One great achievement of Edward Jones's Pulitzer prize-winning novel The Known World is the circumscription of its moral vision, which locates the struggle between good and evil not in the vicissitudes of the diabolical slaveholding system of the American south, but inside the consciousness of each person, black or white, slave or free, who attempts to flourish within that soul-deadening system. There are no real heroes or heroines in the populous world of this novel, nor are there unmitigated villains, though there are many who fail to live honourably despite the best intentions.
The characters come in related sets. There are white southerners and free blacks, including the youthful Henry Townsend, his future wife Caldonia, and his parents, Augustus and Mildred. Slaves, some of whom eventually become free, include Henry's first purchase, Moses; Alice, a madwoman who turns out to be an artist; and the family of Elias and Celeste Freemen, a clan so numerous that "in 1993 the University of Virginia Press would publish a 415-page book by a white woman, Marcia H Shia, documenting that every 97th person in the Commonwealth of Virginia was kin, by blood or by marriage, to the line that started with Celeste and Elias Freemen".
In some ways The Known World is a 19th-century concoction, rich in character and plot, comprised of chapters with ironic titles (in "A Modest Proposal", free black slaveholders at a tea party discuss the provocations of abolitionist pamphlets) and narrated by an omniscient voice that can penetrate into the souls of the characters even as they leave their bodies behind. It's a hothouse world, thickly settled, endlessly policed, characterised by cruelty, brutality, and the same preoccupation with "propriety" that makes the works of Edith Wharton and Henry James so deeply frightening. Loyalties are byzantine and constantly shifting.
Summarising the plot of this rewarding novel is a hopeless enterprise. A lot happens. Time is fluid. Characters appear with their fate flung out before them. "My daddy made it for me," a slave child, Tessie, responds to a question about her doll. In the next sentence she is on her deathbed. "She would repeat those words just before she died, a little less than 90 years later." In sly Borgesian touches, intruders from the recent past and the distant future - a census taker, an itinerant Canadian pamphleteer, the genealogist who investigates the Freemen lineage - interrupt the narrative to provide documentation. God is afoot (this is America) and talks to folks when he feels like it.
The Known World is not an easy read, but it's a powerful experience. Through all the furious conflagration there flows the ironic, sympathetic, distant voice of the narrator, a voice that understands the madness of slavery as part of a grander picture, one that begins with bright angels clanging closed the gates on our progenitors, and Satan, cast on to the burning plain, vowing ever "out of good still to find means of evil". The Miltonic cosmos, in which human endeavour is a battlefield upon which outside forces exploit us to settle an ancient and extraterrestrial score, permeates the atmosphere of Manchester country, and those preoccupied with peace, order and justice will seek them in vain.
Long after Henry's death, his teacher fondly recalls the boy's fascination with Paradise Lost." 'Ain't that a thing to say' is what he said of the Devil who proclaimed that he would rather rule in hell than serve in heaven. He thought only a man who knew himself well could say such a thing, could turn his back on God with just finality. I tried to make him see what a horrible choice that was, but Henry had made up his mind about that and I could not turn him back."
· Valerie Martin's Property won the 2003 Orange prize.