Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Known World by Edward P Jones

The Known World opens in the years before the American Civil War with the death of Henry Townsend, a freed slave who, at the time of his death at 31 years of age, was the owner of a significant landholding and 33 slaves. Henry is probably the book’s central character although the narrative rambles across a wide cast of up to one hundred characters all touched in some way by the effects of slavery.

It is a surprising fact that some slaveowners were black although most of those listed in official records technically owned members of their own family; their wives, children, relatives. Henry Townsend is one of the exceptions who operated similarly to a white landowner. ‘Henry had always said that he wanted to be a better master than any white man he had ever known. He 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’s father, Augustus, a talented woodcarver who bought his own way to freedom and then bought his wife’s and son’s freedom, is at odds with his son’s choice of life.

‘“I ain’t done nothin I ain’t a right to. I ain’t done nothin no white man wouldn’t do.”…

Augustus took down a stick, one with an array of squirrels chasing each other, head to tail, tail to head, a line of sleek creatures going around and around the stick all the way to the top where a perfect acorn was waiting, stem and all. Augustus slammed the stick down across Henry’s shoulders and Henry crumpled to the ground. “Augustus, stop now!” Mildred shouted and knelt to her son. “Thas how a slave feel!’ Augustus called down to him. “Thas just how every slave every day be feelin.”

Henry squirmed out of his mother’s arms and managed to get to his feet. He took the stick from his father. “Henry, no!” Mildred said. Henry, with two tries, broke the stick over his knee. “Thas how a master feels,” he said and went out the door.’

Another fact that comes through clearly – one I’m not sure I understood fully before – is how the relatively high monetary value of the slaves influenced all dealings to do with them. A slaveowner who killed his own slave tended not to be punished by the law as ‘the loss of his property was considered punishment enough’. Setting a slave free was a costly thing to do and even those who, on principle, rejected slavery thought twice before doing so.

The tone of the novel is distinctive and takes a little getting used to at first. It is a curious mix of journalistic, detached reporting and confidential, almost gossipy, asides such as when the author breaks away from the current moment when Elias, one of Henry’s slaves, is carving a wooden doll for his six-year-old daughter to tell us that she would live until she was ninety-six years of age and would ask for the doll on her deathbed. Often we are made privy to information about what will happen to a character in years to come even while we are unsure about how he will survive the next twenty-four hours or the narrative might suddenly follow another seemingly incidental character in another direction. There is a certain omniscient distance created between the reader and the characters which is unusual in today’s fiction but for me it worked well in the end as it reinforced the idea that each person is the lead actor in his own life and follows his own destiny.

Edward P. Jones explores the moral complexities of slavery through the eyes of many without judgment or condemnation but what becomes clear through the mosaic of accounts is that this system is corrupt and that it corrupts utterly, even those who start out with relatively pure intentions. For example, Skiffington, the sheriff, a devout Christian who personally wants no part of slavery, is given a wedding gift of an eight-year-old girl, who he keeps because he doesn’t know what else to do with her. Initially, he acts to protect her but the purity of his relationship with her wavers over the years. Also, he has the responsibility of patrolling the slaves and ensuring that they don’t run away but even his relatively good intentions have tragic consequences as he fails to control his deputies and to understand the fragility of life for the black people in his territory, even the free men and women.

This is a very different but complementary approach to Toni Morrisson’s Beloved. Where Beloved plumbs the depths of slavery in one woman’s psyche, The Known World has a breadth of vision which shows its impact not only on a wide range of individuals but on society itself. Both approaches give us other valuable perspectives on a situation whose existence most of us now have difficulty imagining.

HarperPerennial (5 Jul 2004), 400 pages, ISBN-10: 0007195303

Articles and Interviews
The Guardian on The Known World
Interview with Edward P Jones from

4 comments on “The Known World by Edward P Jones

  1. rosyb
    May 6, 2008

    I want to read this! This sounds like an incredible book and the distancing and wide scope and overview of all the different individual situations you describe makes it sound even more interesting to me.

    I went to the brilliant Breaking the Chains exhibition at the Bristol Museum of Commonwealth and Empire (it is an incredible museum, I went for half and hour and stayed for 6 and would’ve have stayed even longer if I could have – it blew my mind, what it revealed about the past and how entangled we are with it all now.)

    The other aspect I get from this and the exhibition was the difficulty in dismantling an entire system – almost like the collapse of communism. According to the exhibition, some freed slaves starved and were in such terrible conditions afterwards because there was no system or transition or way of surviving for certain people – they were just flung out, so to speak, with no way of surviving or earning a living.

    What the exhibition got across so well was how Britain and its wealth was built on the back of slavery – and how, although slavery had been going for a long time before – in the 18th century it becomes almost industrialised – the amount of people being taken and the economic dependence on it is frightening. You can’t read Jane Austen in the same way again. Nor look at some of the beautiful architecture built from the money from such suffering.

  2. Jackie
    May 6, 2008

    This sounds like a book one could get very engrossed in. Except I think I would find the subject too upsetting, but it’s still tempting, especially since it’s a slightly different angle than usual. Peter Carey does that flash forward thing with some of his characters too, in a way, it’s reassuring. I found your comparison with Morrison’s book interesting too, not everyone makes those sorts of connections when they read.
    Rosy, I thought your comments about the museum exhibit was a great addition to Mary’s good review.

  3. rosyb
    May 6, 2008

    Jackie – it’s probably too far for you to go but I urge anyone else who can go to that museum. I was so stunned when I came out I grabbed the arm of a complete stranger and started going on about how extraordinary it was and how my mind was blown. Turned out she was someone who dealt with the school groups and she said – would be mind noting down a couple of remarks for the organiser – she’d be pleased to hear it had such an effect on you. So I ended up writing 2 sides of A4 and handing it in and now I’m quoted on the website! See, I’m everywhere. LIke a rash. I just wanted to tell this story in case anyone is visiting and thinks “what’s she doing quoted there, maybe one of her relatives work for the place” which isn’t the case at all. I don’t even know anyone in Bristol!

    It did make me think that maybe it’s worth letting places know when you have really thought something was so good, though. Usually they only hear the complaints. I would never have thought of doing that normally, but I was seriously in a bit of a funny state when I came out.

    I heard the other day on Radio 4 that it’s on a shortlist of 4 museums for a major award. I was pleased that it had been recognised.

  4. marygm
    May 6, 2008

    That exhibition sounds amazing, Rosy. I’d love to see it but it’s unlikely that I’ll find my way to Bristol in the near future.

    Yes, it is upsetting, Jackie but insidiously so. It’s not at all a graphic novel: there’s very little physical brutality or violence but the awfulness of the thing does get under your skin.

    I had an interesting discussion with friends while I was reading this book. Seeing it, they asked about it and we ended up talking about slavery. They weren’t defending it but they said it had to be considered in context of its time and that in any case the slaves were mostly well treated while in many parts of the world serfs, peasants etc lived in worse conditions. I didn’t argue very well at the time but it made me think afterwards. I think slavery is indefensible, a far, far worse moral wrong than the examples they cited. Since then I’ve realised that in Ireland at the same time as this book was set 2 million Irish people died of hunger in the Great Famine and 2 more million were forced to emigrate to survive all because they were oppressed by a foreign power but still I think the scar caused by the humiliation of reducing a whole race of people to the status of objects is deeper than that caused in Ireland. There is such a thing as a fate worse than death!

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