In what is likely the best and most important novel about slavery since Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Edward P. Jones confronts a phenomenon that some might find unthinkable: in the years before the Civil War, many free blacks owned slaves. Beginning with this strange idea, The Known World—nominated for the National Book Award and named a New York Times Editor’s Choice pick—reveals a new side of slavery that subverts our historical and literary preconceptions and conventions. The archetypal images of the cruel, complacent white master and the noble slave yearning for freedom no longer apply: Jones has located new complications in the issue and in doing so had come closer to truth.
At the novel’s center is Henry Townsend, who was born into slavery and whose father eventually bought his freedom. When he was a teenager, Henry distinguished himself as a fine leather worker and boot maker, and once he was free, he earned enough money over the years to start a farm and build himself a house. Under the tutelage of William Robbins, who once owned him and now has a fatherly affection for the former slave, Henry adopted the lifestyle of the county’s upper-class whites, which, of course, meant owning slaves. The Known World opens with Henry’s death, and Jones proceeds to show how the event affects every citizen of Manchester County, Virginia.
Henry Townsend is not an anomaly. As Jones points out: “In 1855 in Manchester County, Virginia, there were 34 free black families… and eight of those free families owned slaves.” This number does not include individual free black slave owners like Fern Elston, a teacher who can pass as white. Several of her young students—including Henry and two of William Robbins’ children by a former slave—aspire to own human property, and they constitute “a free Negro class that, while not having the power of some whites, had been brought up to believe that they were rulers waiting in the wings. They were much better than the majority of white people, and it was only a matter of time before those white people came to realize that.”
Jones leaves it purposefully unclear what the white people will do when they come to realize that; Fern’s students naively believe they will finally live free, but more likely they will meet the brunt of those whites’ insecurities and rationalizations. This is the crux of the novel: Slavery pollutes everyone who participates in it and warps their concepts of justice and humanity.
In The Known World, Jones’ technique, which attempts to reinvent the novel form, is just as subversive as the side of slavery he presents. On one level his prose is direct and plainspoken, with a colloquial, decidedly nonliterary cadence, but it is no less evocative or powerful for being so modest. On another level, The Known World is about community and context, and Jones tailors the novel’s structure to play up these themes. He writes from a number of points of view, not just Henry, his wife Caldonia, and each of their slaves, but also Sheriff John Skiffington, his untrustworthy cousin and deputy Counsel, and his three rowdy patrollers, among many others. As one character states, “We are all worthy of one another,” and Jones captures this sense of potential equality through the congregation of voices. Every story is worthy of being told.
Many writers evoke a sense of community to reflect the widespread horrors of slavery, but Jones takes it one step further: He creates an actual community consisting of slaves and freemen, slave owners both white and black, and those who are apart from slavery but still pulled into its vortex. Furthermore, by portraying so many different sides of the community, Jones provides new contexts in which to view his characters and their actions. He includes not just the characters’ back stories, but also their fates—their lives, deaths, legacies. As viewed in these shifting perspectives, everyone in Manchester County is morally compromised; in a place where there are no heroes or villains, there are good intentions and noble gestures galore, but little that is noble and pure. The slave owners, while rarely cruel, struggle for a middle-ground justice, and the slaves trade their dreams of freedom for everyday comforts like food and companionship.
Jones creates an even larger context by providing fake, albeit historically founded, statistics and by quoting fictional historians like Marcia H. Shia and Roberta Murphy. At first the inclusion of these names and numbers makes the novel seem over-researched, but Jones’ intention is more purposeful. Connecting the past intrinsically with the present, The Known World not only uses the present as context for past—commenting on how we view the past through art, academia, and memory—but also uses the past to show us where we are today and how we arrived at this point in history.
For slaves and masters alike—as well as for this author and his readers—slavery creates a past full of horror that haunts the present and dooms the future. As The Known World makes clear, no American is ever free from its consequences.
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