Introduction

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 766

Edward P. Jones’s The Known World moves back and forth between different times and locales to tell the varied stories of many characters, both white and black. A number of these stories center on the lives of people who have crossed the path of Henry Townsend, an African American man who was once a slave and is now a slave owner. Henry is certain that he will be a better master than the white slaveholders he has known, but once he becomes a slave owner, he does none of the good he had intended to do and becomes indistinguishable from the white slave owners in the county. William Robbins, a white plantation owner, helps the hardworking Henry acquire his own land and his own slaves. He also keeps a beloved black mistress by whom he has two children. A similar figure, Fern Elston, is a freed slave who could pass for white but who makes her living as a teacher of the local black children. Also a slave owner, she too forms an erotic bond with a slave, but, as with Robbins, her status as a slave owner makes a mockery of the possibility of real love, friendship, or family.

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Henry’s achievements as a slave owner begin to unravel at his death. His father, Augustus, a freed slave, dies after being sold back into slavery through the complicity of the county sheriff’s poor white deputies. Henry’s death brings not only vulnerability to Augustus but also a sense of opportunity for his favorite slave, Moses, who hopes to marry Henry’s widow. Disdaining association with the other slaves, including his son and his son’s mother, Moses nevertheless finds no white mentor and no success as a suitor to the wife of his former master; he ends ignominiously as a soon-captured runaway slave.

Although he is in principle against slavery, Sheriff John Skiffington tracks the runaway Moses to the house of Henry’s mother, Mildred, who, like her husband, is a freed slave. Frustrated and bedeviled by a toothache, Skiffington becomes indistinguishable from his vicious deputies, gunning Mildred down after insulting her with racial epithets. He shocks his more morally dubious cousin, Counsel Skiffington, who has just returned from a journey. Counsel’s odyssey outside his home county became a series of investigations into human corruptibility, and he returns home only to witness the moral downfall of the sheriff as well. Sensing an opportunity for profit in his cousin’s death, Counsel promptly murders him, staging the crime scene to look as if it were the fallen Mildred who had shot the sheriff. Moses, intimidated by Counsel into silence, is soon maimed as a disobedient slave. The sad fate of Moses, however, is contrasted to a growing sense that freedom is in the air. Ultimately, all the slaves on the Townsend farm will find liberation from what had previously been the only world they had ever known.

Sources for Further Study

Herbert, Marilyn. Bookclub-in-a-Box Discusses the Novel “The Known World,” by Edward P. Jones. Toronto: Bookclub-in-a-Box, 2007. Provides author information and discusses the novel’s themes and symbols, writing style, and use of historical detail.

Jones, Edward P. Interview by ZZ Packer. In The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers. San Francisco: McSweeney’s, 2008. African American writer ZZ Packer interviews Jones; part of a collection of conversations between writers and their mentors.

King, Richard H. Review of The Known World, by Edward P. Jones. Rethinking History 9, nos. 2/3 (June, 2005): 355-380. Important review that discusses the way in which the novel fits into the post-1960’s genre of the slave novel, as well as what the novel teaches readers about slavery as a historical institution.

Maslin, Janet. “His Brother’s Keeper in Antebellum Virginia.” Review of The Known World, by Edward P. Jones. The New York Times, August 14, 2003, p. E1. Praising Jones for his wisdom, effective understatement, and wide range of perspective.

Mason, Wyatt. “Ballad for Americans: The Stories of Edward P. Jones.” Harpers Magazine, September, 2006, pp. 87-92. Thoughtful, thorough, and appreciative analysis of a number of Jones’s stories, including those in The Known World.

Pinckney, Darryl. “Gone with the Wind.” Review of The Known World, by Edward P. Jones. New York Review of Books, October 21, 2004, pp. 14-18. Insightful review of The Known World as a new and intimate kind of historical novel.

Saunders, James Robert. “A World of Irony in the Fiction of Edward P. Jones.” Hollins Critic, February, 2007, pp. 1-10. Featured article discusses Jones’s body of work, including The Known World, with regard to its deployment of irony, dramatic and otherwise.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 845

Moses, the favorite slave of Henry Townsend—a former slave himself—remembers his life as a foreman on Henry’s farm. Moses especially remembers how he had shared Henry’s ambitions and aspirations. Moses had deliberately disaffiliated with the other slaves with whom he had been forced to share quarters, including his son and his son’s mother, and after Henry’s untimely death, Moses had hoped to replace his boss as the new husband of Henry’s wife, Caldonia. Even though Moses had been more than able to run the entire farm, he could not convince Caldonia, the new boss, that he could do so.

It is now years earlier. Henry’s high status is the outcome of his relationship with William Robbins, a white plantation owner. Robbins and Henry develop a father-son relationship rather than a master-slave relationship; appreciating Henry’s potential, Robbins makes it possible for Henry to achieve freedom and acquire his own farm and his own slaves. Robbins also has a black mistress, Philomela, a slave with whom he has two children. Although Robbins loves Philomela, he fails to understand that his life with her is corrupted by her status as a slave; Philomela’s goal is to escape to freedom.

Similarly, Henry fails to understand that he is replicating the evils of slavery on his own farm, even as he assumes his regime will be a significant improvement over the regime of any white slaveholder. In reality, Henry is just as neglectful, punitive, and insensitive to the human rights of his slaves. In one case, Henry had one of the sheriff’s deputies, the Cherokee Oden Peoples, slice his slave Elias Freeman’s ear as discipline after Elias had tried to run away; Henry also allows one of his young black slaves to be worked to death in a neighboring field.

Fern Elston, a former slave who is so light skinned she could pass as white, is also a slaveholder, impervious to the ironies of her situation; Fern, however, never attempts to pass for white. She makes her living as a teacher of the local black children, including Henry when he was a boy. When she forms an erotic bond with one of her slaves, however, the power she enjoys as a slaveholder makes it impossible for this love to be truly reciprocated.

Henry dies, and Moses expects to take his place as farm owner; he is unable to do so because Henry’s high status had been dismantled upon his death. Henry’s father, Augustus Townsend, who had assumed that his own freedom would be honored and that his son’s success would continue to afford protection, is sold back into slavery through the machinations of Deputy Harry Travis, who delivers him to illegal slave traders. Deputy Peoples, whose wife also is a slave, had helped to sell Augustus back into slavery. Only a third deputy, the alcoholic Barnum Kinsey, had retained an uncorrupted conscience, but he had been overruled by the others.

Unlike his deputies Travis and Peoples, Sheriff John Skiffington is a high-minded, educated man who refuses to own slaves on principle. He and his wife receive a little black girl named Minerva as a wedding present, but they raise her as their daughter instead. The mind-set of Manchester County, however, affects their relationship with Minerva. Although they love her, and although she loves them, her status as their “property” is such that she chooses to break for freedom. While Skiffington is unsuccessful in his attempts to recover Minerva, he does capture Moses, who has run away to the house of Henry’s mother, Mildred Townsend.

Although he tries to distance himself from the institution of slavery, Skiffington eventually becomes indistinguishable from his own racist deputies. Suffering from a toothache and feeling overwhelmed by the first rumblings of a changing society, Skiffington insults Mildred with racial slurs, then guns her down. The downfall of the once noble Skiffington shocks even his far less ethical cousin, Counsel Skiffington, who, having lost his wife and his land, had just returned from a long, strange trip outside the county. Counsel Skiffington’s journey through the Deep South had been an education in the nature of evil, and it culminated in his witnessing of his own cousin’s fall from grace. Counsel himself had by this time gone bad; now, he is certain that he will reap monetary profit by murdering his cousin and arranging it to look as if the murdered Mildred had been responsible. Also by this time, Augustus has died while enslaved in the Deep South.

One of the Townsend-farm slaves, however, the clever Alice Night, whose addled demeanor allows her to wander the countryside unhindered, has made a successful break for freedom. Other slaves, such as the mystical Stamford Crow Blueberry and the devoted couple Elias and Celeste Freeman, also successfully escape the farm. In the meantime, Moses, back on the Townsend farm, is humiliated and hobbled, and his hopes are thoroughly dashed. The system in which he had hoped to succeed is destined for destruction.

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