(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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.

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....

(The entire section is 766 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 845 words.)