The Known World
by Edward P. Jones
In this vividly-imagined historical novel, Edward P. Jones explores an oft-neglected chapter of American history, the world of blacks who owned blacks in the antebellum South. Viewed through the unique prism of slaves and masters of the same race, even of the same family, the “peculiar institution” of slavery is seen in a new, more immediate way. The human costs and moral distortions inherent in a slave-based society are given a glaringly original focus.
Jones’ fictional examination of this unusual phenomenon starts with the dying 31-year-old Henry Townsend, a former slave-now master of 33 slaves of his own and more than 50 acres of land in Manchester County, Va., worried about the fate of his holdings upon his early death. Although his widow, Caldonia, tries to maintain his slave-based plantation, the slaves begin to run away. Henry’s black overseer, Moses, the first character that we meet, embodies the contradictions in this world. Moses hopes to take his master’s place, and although he ends up in Caldonia’s bed, he fails at securing his own freedom. Another character who experiences slavery from many perspectives is Henry’s father, Augustus. Freed from slavery as a young man, Augustus is shocked when his son becomes a slave-owner. Augustus, himself, is eventually sold back into slavery—to say this is done illegally presses the issue of what is legal to begin with.
The insecurity of free black people in the antebellum South is reiterated throughout the novel. As Henry’s mother tells him, “If a white man say the trees can talk, can dance, you just say yes right along...” Even a formidable character such as Fern Elston, a disciplined teacher to Caldonia and many other free blacks, is dependent on white protection. The most powerful of these protectors is Henry’s mentor and former owner, William Robbins. This power, however, is limited, even in his ability to protect his black mistress, Philomena, and her children, Dora and Louis. Robbins urges Henry to maintain a distance with his slaves, to ensure his own power as a master. This method is also employed by Caldonia’s mother, Maude, whose icy and poisonous control of others to maintain her own security extends even to her own husband.
If life is precarious for the free blacks in the fictional Manchester County, Va., the depredations and ever-threatening violence experienced by the enslaved blacks is conveyed in a heartbreaking, yet almost casual, way by the author. We learn, sometimes in a mere aside, about disfiguring punishments for running away, about young slave children worked to death in the fields or left to freeze outdoors. Loretta, Caldonia’s maid, has to walk a fine line to avoid Maude’s wrath. The arbitrary, color-based nature of antebellum slavery is evoked in many ways, as is the violence which can strike all classes of society. We learn early on of slave rebellions and escapes, and of a case where a white woman was enslaved by her own slaves. In a telling comment, the author notes that the white woman “did not remember that she was supposed to be the owner, and it was a long time before she could be taught that again.” One of the “patrollers” who hunts down runaway slaves for Sheriff Skiffington is a Cherokee with slaves of his own, who are members of his own family. Skiffington, himself, becomes a victim of the endemic violence. The novel ends, though, on a tender note, as Moses, now hobbled and old, is cared for by Celeste, one of the slaves. The reader is touched and humbled by the humanity that is seen to survive the soul-damaging permutations of slavery.
This month's title was selected to coincide with Black History Month. For On the Same Page, the Library has purchased the 2004 paperback edition of The Known World, published by Amistad Press. It is also available at the Library as an unabridged talking book in cassette and CD formats. Large print and Spanish language editions are also available at the Library.
About the Author
Edward P. Jones was born in 1950 and raised in Washington, D. C. by a single mother, who was illiterate and worked as a dishwasher and a hotel maid. She encouraged her son’s studies as did a Jesuit priest who recommended that Jones apply for a scholarship at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts. There, Jones took a creative writing class and was encouraged to write by one of his professors. He also discovered an odd fact about the antebellum South—that some free blacks owned slaves. Two decades later, this was to become the central theme of his first novel, The Known World.
After earning his B.A. in English, Jones returned to Washington, D.C. in 1972, worked in non-writing jobs and lived with his mother when she became ill. Jones published a short story in Essence magazine in 1975. That same year, his mother died and Jones moved briefly to Philadelphia, but returned to Washington, D.C. He met authors James Alan McPherson and John Casey, both of whom taught creative writing at the University of Virginia. Inspired by the two men, Jones enrolled at the university in 1979. He taught creative writing there and received a Master of Fine Arts degree in 1981.
The financial insecurity of a creative writing career led Jones to retain a business writing job for almost 19 years. He took writing seminars and did some writing on the side, eventually seeing his 1992 debut, Lost in the City, become a National Book Award finalist and winner of the PEN-Hemingway Foundation Award for best first fiction. This collection of 14 stories about black people in Washington, D.C. in the 1950s to ‘70s, was inspired by James Joyce’s Dubliners. After this success, Jones began planning his first novel, editing and revising it in his head. The actual writing of the novel coincided with Jones being laid off. Supporting himself on his severance pay and unemployment checks, he wrote the first draft of what was to become The Known World. It became a National Book Award nominee and won the fiction prize from the National Book Critics Circle and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2004. It also won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and the Lannan Literary Award. The author also received a MacArthur Fellowship in 2004.
The details of The Known World seem heavily researched, but the author maintains that the creation of antebellum Virginia’s Manchester County was almost entirely a product of his imagination. This fictional Southern world has been compared with William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. His highly-praised short story collection, All Aunt Hagar’s Children, was published this year. Jones has taught fiction at a number of universities, including Princeton. He lives in the Washington, D.C. area.