National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  March 12, 2004

By Edward P. Jones
Amistad Press,
400 pages, $24.95
A luminous look at an obscure world

Much-praised novel focuses on black slave owners in America


Edward P. Jones’ The Known World is a work of historical fiction about a little-known phenomenon in American history -- black freedmen in the South who owned slaves. The book traces the fortunes of the family of Augustus Townsend, an exceptional woodworker and furniture maker in Manchester County, Va., from 1830 to about 1850.

The premise of Jones’ book is startling; from the opening pages, effortlessly on the spill of the author’s smooth prose, we are pulled into an alternative world that turns out to be a perverse mirror image of the familiar pre-Civil War white-owner/black-slave world. This extraordinary work details the corruptive effects the “peculiar institution” has on everyone who embraces it as a way of life.

Early on, Henry Townsend, Augustus’ son, is given a stern lesson in what it takes to be a successful slave owner by a white planter named William Robbins. “Henry,” says Robbins, “the law expects you to know what is master and what is slave. And it does not matter if you are not much more darker than your slave. The law is blind to that. You are the master and that is all the law wants to know. The law will come to you and stand behind you.”

In the eyes of the white people who run things in Manchester County, being slave masters hardly makes the free blacks acceptable. Though granted a kind of grudging respect by their fellow white owners (slaves are property; when they die or run off owners black or white lose money), they are still despised by the poor whites for whom the color of a person’s skin, and little else, determines their ranking in the rigid caste system. These rednecks also serve as “patrollers” in the local constabulary, men who ride the county roads at night to make sure that no slave has left his plantation without a written excuse from his master.

As a sociological tract, a depiction of a vicious system that continues to plague the consciousness of both races, The Known World unfolds with startling clarity and precision. That achievement is remarkable enough, but where Jones really succeeds is in the depiction of character, the interaction between the myriad figures -- black-white, black-black, white-white -- who populate this excruciating world.

From the most menial field worker to William Robbins, the richest white slave owner in the county, Jones presents a remarkable gallery of characters, densely rounded and memorably distinguished. Rarely in this reviewer’s experience has a novelist so fully inhabited the world he creates or so fully fleshed out the people who make up that world. The book opens on the evening of the death of Henry Townsend. Moses, the first slave Henry ever purchased, a man he admired but thoroughly dominated, gazes out with mixed feelings on the fields in which he and his fellow slaves have just labored for 14 hours. He bends down and takes a pinch of dirt and chews on it, working the dirt around his mouth and finally swallowing it, tasting its flavor and consistency, judging its potency as a nurturer for this year’s crops.

The bond between the man and the soil he works without hope of recompense is established in these opening paragraphs, where the prose slips effortlessly from hard-bitten fact into the realm of magic realism. Again and again Moses is drawn to the woods and meadows of the Townsend plantation, where he strips down so he can roll in the dirt and the foliage. Another slave, Crazy Alice, kicked in the head by a mule, prowls the plantation at night spouting gibberish (though, as it turns out, she’s not quite so crazy as she seems). A third slave named Stamford has a vision one rainy night of being pelted by dead crows and eggshells, which leads eventually -- after the war, after the slaves are freed -- to his founding a home for colored orphans in Richmond.

Unlike their black masters, who imitate the proprietary mannerisms of white owners, the slaves’ oppressive poverty renders them incapable of pretense or artifice. They see and feel things with profound insight and passion. They take comfort in the proximity of the earth and the primacy of their feelings. While the slave world they inhabit is fitfully charged with moments of grudging contentment, those moments are never enough to make up for the system of bondage that holds them fast.

Today we tend to forget that one of the compelling forces driving the settlement of the American wilderness was the search for an authentic religious presence in the woods and open spaces. At times in Jones’ book, it seems as if this wilderness is filled with visionaries crying out for an experience that will fulfill their perception of the real and lasting apotheosis of this new land. Not since the mystical green stories of the East Texas writer William Goyen has an American novelist projected the apocalyptic glory of this exalted and destructive worldview upon the wilderness. Grounding these flights of fancy like a dead bolt at the center of the book is the specter of human slavery, that wretched blot on the fabric of our history that will not go away.

The texture of The Known World with its layered subplots and multifarious characters is densely interwoven. Jones takes his sweet time unraveling as much of it as he wishes to unravel; he writes calmly yet forcefully, fully in command of his materials, spontaneous and inventive when he needs to be. The result is one of those miracles that now and then light up our literary lives; a book so fully realized, so brilliantly designed, so powerfully inhabited, that to read it is to rejoice and to rejoice is to come away gladdened and astonished that anyone could get it so right the first time he sat down to write a novel.

Conger Beasley Jr. is a novelist and travel writer who lives in St. Joseph, Mo.

National Catholic Reporter, March 12, 2004

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