Before reading The Known World, Edward P. Jones' staggeringly accomplished first novel, I had no idea that there had been free black people in the antebellum South who themselves owned slaves. This strange and disturbing footnote to African-American history forms the core of a truly remarkable work of fiction by a writer who was a National Book Award finalist and winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award for his 1992 collection of short stories, Lost in the City (just reissued by Amistad Press).
Set in the 1850s, the novel begins with the death of Henry Townsend, "a black man of thirty-one years with thirty-three slaves and more than fifty acres of land that sat him high above many others, white and black, in Manchester County, Virginia." Henry had been born a slave. His father, Augustus, bought his own freedom with money saved doing carpentry work, then freed his wife, Mildred, and finally Henry. In the intervening years, though, Henry becomes a favorite of his owner, William Robbins. By the time Henry is freed, he has absorbed Robbins' keen business sense, and that includes the knowledge that land, and the slaves necessary to work it, are the sources of power in the agrarian South.
Robbins sells Henry a parcel of land and his first slave, Moses, who will become overseer of the Townsend place. Augustus and Mildred's joy over having secured their son's freedom is spoiled by the fact that he would choose to own other humans. Henry marries Caldonia, a light-skinned, free black woman, and sets about running his farm. When Henry dies, Caldonia has the moral support of Robbins and a small group of fellow free blacks, but she turns increasingly to Moses for the day-to-day running of things. Before long, the two begin a sexual liaison that blurs the line between owner and slave, and gives Moses dangerous notions about his "place."
Meanwhile, the fragile balance of the Southern caste system is teetering throughout the county. The local sheriff is John Skiffington, an anti-slavery Southerner. When he and his Philadelphia-born wife are given a young girl as a slave for a wedding present, they choose to raise her almost as a daughter. Yet despite his personal views, Skiffington has vowed to uphold the law of the land, which means hiring patrollers to round up escaped slaves. When Augustus is sold back into bondage by one of these men, Skiffington's unfortunate destiny is sealed.
There are so many characters and sub-stories in The Known World that it is impossible here to convey adequately the elegant complexity of this tale. Even the minor characters have rich interior lives. We get a clear understanding of what motivates each of them as they navigate through this complicated world where it is not uncommon for people to own their own wives, children or other relatives. Indeed, one of the most admirable things about the novel is that every character is flawed—there are good blacks and bad, just as there are good and bad whites.
Jones' narrative style is leisurely, and the impact of his story builds slowly yet steadily, until its full meaning takes shape. While the storytelling is never overtly political, the underlying message is strong. Even in this world where people are marked by the color of their skin, it is not always clear who is enslaved and who is free. Who's to say if Alice, a seemingly simple-minded slave who wanders the woods at night, is less free than Henry, who is saddled with the responsibilities and shame of slaveholding? Or than a white man like Skiffington, who does not have the freedom to exert his own beliefs in the circumscribed racist community?
Wise reviewers tend to be cautious, but I'll go out on a limb here and assert that The Known World is a masterwork of fiction. If the talent he displays with this new book is any indication of things to come, Edward P. Jones is poised to join the rarefied ranks of Toni Morrison and Alice Walker among contemporary black writers.
Robert Weibezahl has worked as a writer and publicist for 20 years. Copyright 2003 BookPage Reviews
BookPage Reviews 2004 August
The Known World
Readers of Edward P. Jones' Pulitzer Prize-winning novel are likely to find it nothing short of revelatory. The foundation of the book—the institution of slavery as practiced between blacks—is a little-mentioned bit of history that makes the South's tempestuous past seem even stormier than before. Set in 1850s Virginia, the novel focuses on Henry Townsend, a free black man, and his wife Caldonia. The two buy a slave to serve as overseer on their new farm—an odd transaction for Henry, himself a former slave, but one Virginia society seems to take in stride. The book features a broad cast of characters that includes Sheriff John Skiffington, who opposes the owning of slaves but doggedly fulfills his duty of apprehending those who escape, and William Robbins, Henry's vicious former master, who has fallen in love with a black woman. Conflating traditional notions of freedom and bondage, Jones offers a unique vision of history. A reading group guide is available online at www.harpercollins.com. Copyright 2004 BookPage Reviews.
Kirkus Reviews 2003 July #2
Slave-owning by free blacks in antebellum America is the astonishingly rich subject of this impressively researched, challenging novel debut by Faulkner Award-winning Jones (stories: Lost in the City, 1992).Set mostly in the period 1830-50, many nested and interrelated stories revolve around the death of black Virginia farmer and slaveholder Henry Townsend, himself a former slave who had purchased his own freedom, as was-and did-his father Augustus, a gifted woodcarver. Jones's flexible narrative moves from the travail of Augustus and his wife Mildred through Henry's conflicted life as both servant and master, to survey as well the lives of Armstrong slaves, from their early years on to many decades after Henry's passing. The first hundred pages are daunting, as the reader struggles to sort out initially quickly glimpsed characters and absorb Jones's handling of historical background information (which virtually never feels obtrusive or oppressive, thanks to his eloquent prose and palpable high seriousness). The story steadily gathers overpowering momentum, as we learn more about such vibrant figures as Henry's introspective spouse Caldonia, his wily overseer Moses, the long-suffering mutilated slave Elias and his crippled wife Celeste, the brutal "patrollers" charged with hunting down runaways (one of whom, duplicitous Harvey Travis, is a villain for the ages), and county sheriff John Skiffington, a decent man who nevertheless cannot shrug off "responsibilities" with which his culture has provisioned, and burdened, him. The particulars and consequences of the "right" of humans to own other humans are dramatized with unprecedented ingenuity and intensity, in a harrowing tale that scarcely ever raises its voice-even during a prolonged climax when two searches produce bitter results and presage the vanishing of a "known world" unable to isolate itself from the shaping power of time and change.This will mean a great deal to a great many people. It should be a major prize contender, and it won't be forgotten.Author tour. Agent: Eric Simonoff/Janklow & Nesbit Copyright Kirkus 2003 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.
Library Journal Reviews 2003 May #2
The author of National Book Award nominee Lost in the City, Jones ventures into fiction with this story of antebellum Virginia, where freed slave Henry Townsend has a plantation-and slaves of his own. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal Reviews August #1
This ambitious first novel by National Book Award nominee Jones (Lost in the City: Stories) looks at slavery from an unusual angle. Henry Townsend is a former slave who was purchased and freed by his own father. Through hard work, he has acquired 50 acres of farmland in Virginia. Given the slave-based agricultural economy, Townsend believes that the logical (and legal) way to work the land is with slaves, and, eventually, he owns more than 30. Although he is less brutal than his neighbors, most of his slaves dream of escaping north. When they try, Townsend must pay the white patrollers to return them or be seen as irresponsible. But as rumors of bloody slave rebellions spread through the South, unscrupulous bounty hunters begin to round up free blacks, Native Americans, and white orphans along with the escapees. By focusing on an African American slaveholder, Jones forcefully demonstrates how institutionalized slavery jeopardized all levels of civilized society so that no one was really free. A fascinating look at a painful theme, this book is an ideal choice for book clubs. Highly recommended. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 5/15/03.]-Edward B. St. John, Loyola Law Sch. Lib., Los Angeles Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Publishers Weekly Reviews 2003 August #2
In a crabbed, powerful follow-up to his National Book Award-nominated short story collection (Lost in the City), Jones explores an oft-neglected chapter of American history, the world of blacks who owned blacks in the antebellum South. His fictional examination of this unusual phenomenon starts with the dying 31-year-old Henry Townsend, a former slave-now master of 33 slaves of his own and more than 50 acres of land in Manchester County, Va.-worried about the fate of his holdings upon his early death. As a slave in his youth, Henry makes himself indispensable to his master, William Robbins. Even after Henry's parents purchase the family's freedom, Henry retains his allegiance to Robbins, who patronizes him when he sets up shop as a shoemaker and helps him buy his first slaves and his plantation. Jones's thorough knowledge of the legal and social intricacies of slaveholding allows him to paint a complex, often startling picture of life in the region. His richest characterizations-of Robbins and Henry-are particularly revealing. Though he is a cruel master to his slaves, Robbins is desperately in love with a black woman and feels as much fondness for Henry as for his own children; Henry, meanwhile, reads Milton, but beats his slaves as readily as Robbins does. Henry's wife, Caldonia, is not as disciplined as her husband, and when he dies, his worst fears are realized: the plantation falls into chaos. Jones's prose can be rather static and his phrasings ponderous, but his narrative achieves crushing momentum through sheer accumulation of detail, unusual historical insight and generous character writing. Agent, Eric Simonoff. (Sept.) Forecast: This is a new tack for Jones, whose collection Lost in the City was set in Washington, D.C., in the 1960s and '70s. Amistad is sending the novel off with a bang-a 10-city author tour, a 20-city national radio campaign-and it should attract considerable review attention. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.