The Known World – Review

Edward P. Jones. The Known World. New York: Harper, 2003. Print.

The Known World is a great book, and yet when I explain it, it may sound flawed. Its narration is somewhat disjointed. It is told from multiple points of view over a period of 16 (or is it 26?) years. All the characters have their faults. The narrative spirals—but instead of spiraling out of control, it returns in time with the narrator in control, and we, the readers, get a glimpse of the known world.

The known world in this novel is the fictional Manchester County in rural ante-bellum Virginia. At first it is difficult to keep track of all the characters. Henry Townsend, who appears to be the main character, dies about fifty pages into the book. Yet most of the incidents that follow in the story are dated from the time Henry died, both before and after he died.

Henry is a free black who owns about a dozen slaves. He has been successful following the advice of William Morris, one of the two richest landowners in the county. When Henry dies, things gradually spiral out of control on his farm. His widow, Caldonia, is competent, but things begin to happen; for example, Moses, the black overseer of the slaves, thinks he will be become Mrs. Townsend’s new husband. He tells his slave wife and son to head north to freedom and he will join them, only he never does. Neither does he become heir to the Townsend property.

About a quarter of the story is told from the perspective of Sheriff John Skiffington. He does not believe in slavery, but he and his wife are given a girl servant when they marry. The Skiffingtons never have any children and do treat Minerva “like a daughter,” but in the eyes of the law she is still a slave.

Skiffington oversees the dozen or so patrollers who patrol the county roads at night to insure no slaves escape. He feels responsible to enforce the law, but he also understands that some of the patrollers are easily corrupted. One of them destroys the manumission papers of a free negro so that a slave trader who is passing through the county can capture him and sell him further south.

I recall an old Appalachian recording from the 1930s called “The Pateroller Song.” By then, the song referred to men on patrol looking for escaped convicts, but the song probably is rooted in an older tradition since it appears patroller would have been more widely used before abolition.

Fern Elston is a free black woman who has a school in her house where she teaches other free blacks. She says that her best student was Henry who had a fondness for Milton and Thomas Gray. She had siblings who have passed as white. She could, too, if she wanted to, but why pretend to be something she is not? Part of her story is told from the perspective of 1871 when being interviewed by a Canadian journalist who is writing a story on negro ex-slaveholders.

There are moments when it appears that The Known World will spin into magical realism. People have encounters with ghosts or out-of-body experiences. Skiffington’s brother goes to Texas where he encounters a house that is about fifteen feet wide on the outside and seventy-five feet wide on the inside. Perhaps that is symbolic of the distance between family members in the house. Still the story always spins back into realism, I guess.

Even a subject like slavery, even when approached by an African-American author, is not black and white. Jones by no means condones slavery or white racism, but he suggests that the true story is far more subtle. Even in the known world of a few plantations in one rural Virginia county between 1844 and 1861, the relationships are nuanced and people’s perspectives vary quite a bit. It is not merely an issue of black and white or European and African but of subtle social strata. Where do people belong?

Counsel Skiffington, the sheriff’s amoral brother, considers leaving the South and going to California. He gets as far west as Texas—the legal limit of slavery—and encounters (maybe magically?) a wagon train of settlers who are white, black, and Asian and who treat each other without discrimination. Counsel simply could not understand a group of people without social distinctions, so he returns east and ends up working for his brother as his deputy.

Because of the Southern panorama that focuses and race and family relationships in a fictional county, The Known World does lean toward Faulkner in its approach. While not stream of consciousness, it reminded me also of Joyce’s Ulysses. Near the end of that somewhat disjointed novel, Molly Bloom gives her soliloquy. It is eloquent, moving, and captures the sense of place, isolation, and humanism that Joyce is trying to get across.

So there is a piece near the end of The Known World that similarly ties things together artistically. Like Molly’s soliloquy, Calvin’s letter it itself a work of art. While I read the novel in a way that I usually read fiction, when I read Calvin’s letter, I had to go back and read it three times. I did this not because I could not understand it the first time, but because it was so lovely. It is not quite like, say, the portions of Dostoyevsky novels which  could (and sometimes do) stand as stories by themselves. You have to read the whole novel to appreciate it. But it ties up all the narratives and spins the story into a sharp point. It is a thing of beauty.

I note that Calvin’s letter is dated April 12, 1861, the day that the Civil War began. In four years and after the deaths of 600,000 fighting men, slavery would be dead in the nation for good.

So what was it like in a land of legal slavery? The Known World in one sense reads like reminiscences from oral history, but even with eyewitness accounts we can only “know in part.” (I Corinthians 13:12) Fern Elston is not going to tell that Canadian muckraker everything she could? Who would? Who wants to look bad? Aren’t some things better left unsaid?

The novel gets its title from two sets of wall hangings. One of the white families has a replica of sixteenth-century map of the world. It is labeled “The Known World,” but there is hardly any land mass on this map in North America. It is of historical interest, but how accurate is it?

Calvin’s letter describes two large paintings in Washington, D.C., done by one of the slaves who left the Townsend farm with Moses’ wife. One of the paintings is a bird’s eye view of Manchester County showing every building and road. The other is a bird’s eye view—Calvin calls it a God’s eye view—of the Townsend farm with the house, the field, the garden, each slave shack, every chicken, and every person on the farm, even those who have died. The mothers are holding babies who died in infancy. Henry is standing by a flower bed where his grave would be.

And everyone is looking up so we see their faces, or as Calvin says, “every face, including yours, is raised up to look in the very eyes of God.” (385) As detailed as this artwork is, the person who painted it is considered “soft in the head.” What witness is reliable? Ultimately, the objective truth is only visible from God’s eternal and infinite perspective. “Then we shall see face to face.” (I Corinthians 13:12 NIV)

Every person—prominent landowner, crippled slave, tiny baby—we are all made in God’s image. He loves us more than He loves the sparrows. (Matthew 10:29-31) Or as another old Appalachian song says: “There is sunshine in the shadows.”

P.S. I read this book because an excerpt was on this year’s English Literature Advanced Placement Test. Nearly every year I read at least one of the books from the AP test. You can read my comments on the one I read from last year. This year I am really glad to have read this book.

 Also, being a teacher, I really appreciated what Fern Elston said about teaching: “I have been given credit where I should not have. And there have been times when I was denied the credit due me. But that is the fate of many teachers, the good and the bad.” (245)

4 thoughts on “The Known World – Review”

  1. Since a passage describing the character of Moses from The Known World was on the AP test, I had a chance to discuss the book at some length with AP readers. Moses’ name is likely ironic if it has any significance. He does not lead anyone to freedom—he is no “Black Moses” like Harriet Tubman. However, he does ironically send three people north to freedom, telling them he will join them. He really has no intention of joining them, but they do become free.

    The Biblical Moses, we are told, gave up the attractions of Egypt to lead the Israelites into the desert. (Hebrews 11:24-26) Moses of The Known World stayed on the plantation because he thought he had a chance of becoming the new master. He stayed for the attractions of Egypt.

  2. I’m a student in New Jersey and was extremely engrossed while reading your well thought review of the novel The Known World. As I was reading your review I remember the quote that Barnum made about the truth lantern. While considering the novel and complex characters, I was wondering if it was possible for any of those characters to actually have the truth lantern. Is there anyone who actually has access to this mystical “lantern” in the ethically doubtful County of Manchester. I was thinking that maybe some of the characters like Alice for example embodies parts of this lantern. As I was reading your review, I was wondering your opinion on this complex question. Your review was very insightful and well thought out and I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

  3. Dear Lila,
    Thank you for the note. That is an interesting question. My understanding is that it is impossible in the County to see the truth. Indeed, one can argue that no mortal human can really see all the truth because of his or her physical, social, and mental limitations. In the novel, Calvin’s letter comes close because he is no longer a part of the County. I suspect the biggest clue, though, is the painting which Calvin calls a “God’s eye view.” God is the only one who can see all the truth, and the people are all looking to Him. As the English liturgy says about Him, “To whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden.” As has been pointed out by others, the “truth lantern” does have an echo of Diogenes, too.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *