Analysis and Review
Edward P. Jones has published stories and articles in a variety of venues, and his first book, the short-story collection Lost in the City (1992), earned a PEN/Hemingway Award. In his ambitious and significant first novel, The Known World, Jones has broken new ground. Centered on the death of a black slave owner in the decade before the Civil War, The Known World employs a host of characters in its consideration of slavery, unrestrained power, morality, and racism.
As a popular subject in literature, film, and legend, the great horror of slavery sometimes seems to have dimmed as a result of the contempt bred by its familiarity. The more obvious facts of slavery as practiced in the American South have become so shopworn and almost stereotypical that often a reader recognizes the tropes without appreciating them, and so the bleak realities of humanity revealed by slavery become glossed over by clichés.
African American writer Jones reverses the trend, however, in The Known World. By choosing a known but often overlooked historical truth—that some free black southerners owned slaves—Jones explodes the accountings of slavery that have become too familiar. He looks beyond the commonplace settings and stories to confront the dark truths of humanity that gave rise to the “peculiar institution.” At the same time, the author does not fail to consider the evil of slavery itself, the way its existence, with one foot in racism and the other in ungoverned and unrestrained power over other humans, can corrupt everything and everyone it touches.
In The Known World, Jones tells a series of stories; his focus is not the life of one particular character but rather how slavery affects a whole battery of characters. Although a slow linear narrative does develop over the course of the novel, the book’s structure follows a spiral pattern. The reader is introduced to a character and told things about that character; then the narrative moves away, only to return to that character in more detail as the plot develops. The novel begins with Moses (one of several ironically named slave characters), a slave who initially took two weeks to understand that “someone wasn’t fiddling with him and that indeed a black man, two shades darker than himself, owned him and any shadow he made,” and the resolution to his story is one of the last sections of the novel.
This spiral structure reminds the reader that everyone has a story to tell and that an institution as powerful and malignant as slavery can never be reduced to stereotype, because it affected each human life in powerful, poignant, and starkly individual ways. Ostensibly, the title of the novel comes from a large, antique wooden map given the town’s sheriff. More to the point, the title reminds the reader that the familiar renderings of slavery—the world one feels one “knows”—mean nothing without considering the lives behind each story.
Henry Townsend is the character who serves as the nexus of the novel. A former slave, Henry is the owner of a plantation and “thirteen women, eleven men, and nine children.” The stories of his wife, Caldonia; his teacher Fern Elston; his slave and overseer, Moses; his former master and patron in the ways of slave ownership, William Robbins; his parents; the sheriff John Skiffington; slaves like Elias, Stamford, Celeste, and Loretta; and a host of other characters all revolve around Henry’s life and death.
Augustus and Mildred Townsend, Henry’s parents, buy their freedom from William Robbins and work hard to pay for the freedom of Henry as well. Not long after his has been purchased, however, Henry buys Moses, his first slave, and damages forever his relationship with his parents. One learns that Henry always stated that he “wanted to be a better master than any white man he had ever known,” but that Henry 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, like Fern Elston, Caldonia, and a number of other characters who are free blacks and who own slaves, has...
(The entire section is 1694 words.)