The Known World
Author: Edward P. Jones
Publisher: HaperCollins Publishers
Publication Date: May 25, 2004
Pages: 432 (Trade Paperback Edition)
(Note: This review was previously published in the LamLight, the physician newsletter of The Lynchburg Academy of Medicine in Lynchburg, Virginia)
In an 1856 letter to his wife, Robert E. Lee called slavery “a moral and political evil”. Slavery as an institution has existed as long as civilization, and Europeans began taking Africans from their homeland for use as servants as early as the 14th century. French and Spanish explorers brought their slaves with them on various New World expeditions and the first Africans were brought to Virginia aboard a Dutch ship in 1619. One of the more curious aspects about slavery in the South is the ownership of African slaves by freed blacks. In his book “Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees in Civil War Virginia”, Ervin L. Jordan Jr. writes that, as the American Civil War approached: "Free Afro-Virginians were a nascent black middle class under siege, but several acquired property before and during the war. Approximately 169 free blacks owned 145,976 acres in the counties of Amelia, Amherst, Isle of Wight, Nansemond, Prince William and Surry, averaging 870 acres each.” Many, it seems, also owned other Afro-Virginians. The Known World by Edward P. Jones superbly explores this circumstance.
First, this is an exquisitely crafted story, earning Mr. Jones the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Jonathon Yardley, the Washington Post book critic, called this “the best new work of American fiction to cross my desk in years.” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution states that “It belongs on the shelf with other classics of slavery like Toni Morrison’s Beloved and William Styron’s Confessions of Nat Turner.” This book really is that good. It is compulsively readable, captivating and thought provoking. The format reminded me somewhat of Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain. That is, the book is divided into relatively long chapters, each of which can stand alone like a long short story or novella. Each chapter moves the overall story along, however.
This is the story of Henry Townsend. Henry is born into slavery on a plantation in fictional Manchester County, Virginia. He is trained as a cobbler and soon is renowned for his expertise. It is noted that even people from Lynchburg considered Henry to be among the best boot makers in Virginia. There are other references to our area as well, which is another appeal of the book. Henry is allowed to keep some of the proceeds from his work and saves enough to purchase his own freedom. Henry eventually purchases land and, finally, slaves. His land becomes very productive and his “legacy,” as he calls it, grows. The cast of other main characters includes Henry’s wife Caldonia, his former owner William Robbins, the local sheriff James Skiffington and his Pennsylvania-born wife, Skiffington’s deputies or slave patrollers, Henry’s overseer Moses and a multitude of other unforgettable slaves. There are “stories within the story” that are wonderful. One of the most memorable occurs early in the book. James Skiffington is to be married to Winifred Patterson, born in Pennsylvania and schooled at The Philadelphia School for Girls. Her discomfort with the institution of slavery is magnified when North Carolina relatives of her husband-to-be give her a young female slave as a wedding present. Another story involves a slave cook in Arlington baking ground glass into the deserts for her masters. The plot turns when Henry unexpectedly dies of a fever and Caldonia must carry on the affairs of the farm which become increasingly problematic. Some of the slaves escape and there is growing competition and unrest among those remaining on the Townsend farm. The book ends in the post-Civil War era with a reunion of sorts of ex-slaves from the Townsend plantation in Washington, D.C. There is some resolution of the pre-war tensions and some satisfaction in the success of these survivors.
The magic in The Known World, however, is in the author’s ability to the convey emotions and perceptions of his characters. The gut-wrenching despair of being a human owned by another human is certainly conveyed here, but not as the dominant theme. The confusion and anxiety felt by the slaves as well as the owners in this “blacks owning blacks” scenario is also a major undercurrent. There is certainly a sense of loss portrayed here as well, in terms of lost potential contributions by these servants forced into manual labor and menial tasks. The over-riding sentiment here is that the warped and morally abominable practice of slavery created a hugely dysfunctional society that affected whites as well as blacks and owners as well as slaves. The ramifications of that dysfunction are still being felt today, almost one hundred and fifty years later. This is a fascinating work of historical fiction which sheds light on to the culture and life in Virginia in the 1850s as well as offering a unique insight into the practice of slavery.