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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 IdentityTheory.com