The Known World by Edward P. Jones

A list gave the final nudge. I had noted this book, its praise, its award, and the intriguing subject, but never picked it up. Something else was always more pressing. Then, over at The Millions, this book came in slotted as #2 on their list of “The Best Fiction of the Millenium (So Far)”. I took the hint.

TheKnownWorld2
While this is a very good book, a fine literary accomplishment, and an impressive feat of imagination, it is not a favorite book of mine. I can be a very finicky reader. I hold things against books. I probably did with this one. Discussing what things would reveal too much, but I can assure you they are likely my own personal quirks. The book is fine.

If you do not know, this book relates the history of black slaveowners in a fictional county in antebellum Virginia. Jones uses this intriguing setup to examine the effects of slavery and a racial caste system on human relations. The task Jones sets himself is a demanding one, but he manages to pull off a spin good yarn while having something interesting to say. He could have done much worse.

A slave, Augustus Townsend, manages to purchase his own freedom. He then works to purchase the freedom of his family. He purchases his wife, Mildred, first. Augustus and Mildred then save to purchase their son, Henry from William Robbins, the white plantation owner who, at one time, owned them all. Henry is a very smart boy and a dedicated servant to William Robbins. His industriousness leads him to have an atypically close relationship with Robbins. Further, he learns a skill, bootmaking, that earns extra money. Robbins is loathe to sell the boy and raises the price. Henry is well into his teens by the time Augustus and Mildred are able to purchase him.

Henry’s intelligence, ambition, and relationship with Robbins set the stage for Henry to purchase a slave to work for him. His parents are outraged that Henry, a former slave, would choose to own another human being. Henry’s rise and fall (death) provides the basic framework for the novel. (Lest you worry, the book opens with Henry already dead.)

Henry’s life is interesting enough, but Jones did not settle for the examination of a single man. The novel contains a large cast of characters, to almost all of whose thoughts we are privy at one point or another. Henry’s first slave and eventual overseer, Moses, is a more central character than Henry himself. The inner conflicts and turmoils of Sheriff John Skiffington, a man who wanted to move to the North and never own slaves, are often more compelling than those of Henry. Alice, “the Night Walker”, may be a more potently symbolic character. Elias and Celeste, too, are essential and as fully developed as Henry, perhaps more so. In short, this book is much more than an examination of what one black slaveowner may have been like. The novel contains a fully realized and populated Virginia county, however fictional it is.

The structure, too, is worth mentioning. The novel does not tell a linear story. Henry begins the novel dead, but Jones takes the reader backwards and forwards in time throughout the novel. TheKnownWorldOccasionally, time and location are shifted for seemingly unconnected or tangential digressions. Jones fits it all together, however, without leaving the reader stranded. In some ways, the approach feels unnecessary, but, by jumping around as he does, Jones does make connections for the reader that might otherwise be lost.

And Jones is sensitive to his reader. The cast of characters is sufficiently large that most readers would have at least some trouble keeping them all straight. Jones often reminds readers of information they should already know, such as that Alice is the slave who had been kicked in the head by a mule, several times throughout. Towards the end of the novel, this technique feels like a little too much hand holding, but I will admit it helped in the beginning.

Less intrusively, Jones helps orient the reader to the incongruity of black slaveowners in the American South by sharing the thoughts of the slaves:

Moses as the first slave Henry Townsend had bought: $325 and a bill of sale from William Robbins, a white man. It took Moses more than two weeks to come 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. Sleeping in a cabin beside Henry in the first weeks after the sale, Moses thought that it was already a strange world that made him a slave to a white man, but God had indeed set it twirling and twisting every which way when he put black people to owning their own kind. Was God even up there attending to business?

***
Moses went into his cabin and met the darkness and a dead hearth. Outside, the light of Elias’s lamp leaned this way and that and then it dimmed even more. Elias had never believed in a sane God and so had never questioned a world where colored people could be the owners of slaves, and if at that moment, in the near dark, he had sprouted wings, he would not have questioned that either.

And, too, Jones provides us with some historical (fictionally historical) context. He gives the reader census statistics, information about the area, and introduces Anderson Frazier:

Beginning in the mid-1870s and continuing throughout most of the 1880s, a white man from Canada, Anderson Frazier, made a good living in Boston publishing two-cent pamphlets about America and its people, especially what he called their ‘peculiarities.’….

…It was in the South that Anderson came upon material he would later put in a new series of pamphlets he called Curiosities and Oddities about Our Southern Neighbors. The Economy of Cotton. Good Food Made from Next to Nothing. The Flora and Fauna. The Need for Storytelling. This series was Anderson’s most successful, and nothering was more successful within that series than the 1883 pamphlet on free Negroes who had owned other Negroes before the War between the States.

Anderson Frazier happens upon Fern Elston, a woman who taught free black children and, when he was grown, Henry Townsend. Jones uses their conversation to provide greater historical context, some perspective, and something of a postscript. The chronological hopscotch occasionally lands on Elston’s porch where Frazier is trying to find out as much as possible from Elston about Henry and the history of the county.

In all, I do think this is a very successful novel. As I noted, most of the “history” is actually fiction. The county itself is a fabrication, for instance. But it works in ways that The March did not. At least for me. Of course, I have my disappointments with the novel. There are things I would have preferred the author handled differently. There are some weaknesses both in the writing (very minor) and in the substance (my own opinion, no doubt). Finally, though, the novel achieves what I suspect the author set out to achieve. It is hard to give higher praise, particularly when the author’s goals were set high. While not my favorite of the decade, it may legitimately be included on a list of the best.

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6 Responses to The Known World by Edward P. Jones

  1. anokatony says:

    Hi Kerry,
    First I read “All Aunt Hagar’s Children”, then “Lost in the City”. I thought both these short story collections were outstanding. So I had high expectations for “The Known World”, but I couldn’t get in to it for some reason and gave up after only a few pages. For some reason, probably another book, I didn’t give it a sufficient chance. Must put it back on my TBR list or may wait until he comes out with another book.

  2. While I definitely admired this book, I was unable to love it or even like it, probably because (in my eyes at least) it was so unremittingly bleak. The bleakness kept me at a distance as a reader, and while objectively I thought the book was quite good, I was glad when I finally finished it. I know this is all highly personal and subjective, so my opinion of the book should not keep others from reading it, but it is not the kind of novel I would go around recommending to my friends.

  3. I keep looking at this book and then putting it back down again — this review pretty much convinces me that leaving it down is the best idea. While I appreciate that it explores a particular aspect of American history, I have not found in any review a reason why another version of that story would supply added value to me (and the two previous comments seem to add bleakness as another reason for concern).

  4. Kerry says:

    Tony, I completely understand the inability to “get in to it”, though I did at first. Sounds like I his short story collections (which are linked to each other, I understand) are the best place to start. I won’t be reading those anytime soon, but I will keep them in mind.

    Anna, The story is quite bleak. I am glad you had a similar feeling, I half thought the problem must be with me. It’s good, but it just wasn’t a book I could love.

    Kevin, Based on my reaction to this book and what I have heard about Jones’ short stories (including now from Tony), I would recommend starting with the short stories rather than this book if/when you try Jones.

    I think part of the problem is that Morrison overshadows the field and Jones’ book is not sufficiently better than others in the genre to really grab the reader…at least this reader.

  5. Is it among the best of the millennium because of its writing, or because of its subject matter would you say Kerry?

    I don’t mind bleakness, but I do mind a lack of humanity, humanity can be bleak, can be downright unremittingly awful in fact, so it’s a hard line to draw but I think sometimes an author does cross that line. Tobacco Road for me didn’t work not because it was bleak (though it was), but because it lacked humanity. I don’t know if that makes sense, I’m struggling to crystallise what I mean, but I guess my question would be was the bleakness an issue because you don’t enjoy bleak works or was it something more fundamental about how it was bleak?

    Also, to what extent is this a novel and to what extent a history lesson do you think? I appreciate one work can successfully be both, is this successfully both?

    Sorry for all the questions, they’re only because your review got me thinking…

  6. Kerry says:

    Max,

    I think someone could legitimately include it on a list of the best books of the decade both because of its writing and because of its subject matter. I suspect, however, that the admiration for it is driven by the fact that Jones has managed to write about race, slavery, and the South without falling into either banality or pedantry.

    I actually tend to like bleak works (1984, All Men Are Mortal, The Trial, The Stranger, The Immoralist are all favorites and, I would say, bleak).

    I think that maybe the reason the book keeps at least some readers at a distance is because it shifts so often between perspectives. This results in at least two things. First, while ostensibly about Henry Townsend, there is not a single protagonist. The book is as much about John Skiffington, Mildred Townsend, Moses, Alice, Elias, William, or any of a few others, as it is about Henry. Second, the book definitely has the feel of history. Jones even includes fictional census data and some history of the county subsequent to the primary events described. I think this makes it a little less personal.

    And, yet, many of the plotlines, characters, and are emotionally compelling. So, maybe that is not it.

    To answer your last question out of order, I think it is successful as a novel. It does have the feel of history, but it is not really a history lesson. It is deceiving on that front. It feels more like history than it actually is.

    SPOILERS (sort of)

    To circle back around, I will have to say, I backed away a little when literal ghosts entered the picture. It became a little too “magical” and not sufficiently “realist”, at that point. I know it is me, but if you are going to have ghosts in your novel, I want either ghosts or foreshadowing of ghosts early. If not, it feels to me precisely the same as if someone in a western novel suddenly pulled out a light saber midway through. I am not saying it cannot be done effectively, but it takes some skill to pull it off without yanking me out of the story.

    So, bleakness was not the issue that kept me at a distance, that had me admiring the book but unable to love it.

    SPOILERS END

    I cannot say the novel lacked humanity. The characters are all well-drawn and rounded. The moral and social issues addressed are compelling and genuine. These, in fact, are the book’s strengths. Most of the characters oozed humanity in all its complex messiness.

    I may have to ponder the bleakness issue more to be able to say much sensible about it. I think I understand your query, but I am finding it hard to describe the bleakness, particularly without giving too much away about the plot.

    And don’t apologize. Thank you for the insightful, thought-provoking questions.

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