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.