Book 41: a book you own but didn’t read, The Known World by Edward P. Jones
This ambitious, sweeping narrative poignantly explores the complex yet visceral world of slavery and race relations in antebellum Manchester County, Virginia. While the story is framed around Henry Townsend, a former slave turned Master, Jones interweaves the narratives of the other souls affected by the institution of slavery–from the meanest slave to the county’s richest men. Through this series of brilliantly woven vignettes, Jones unflinchingly demonstrates the undeniably evil consequences of slavery on legal, moral, and practical fronts. In a brilliant move, Jones uses the narrative structure itself to mimic this central theme on the nature of slavery and racism, illustrating the key truth that every life is touched by the evils of slavery and racism, and every member of this county’s fate is connected by the decision to enslave and own human beings. There are moments of true beauty and of profound sadness as Jones beautifully navigates the complexity of relationships forged in the bonds of slavery.
Jones brings such relationships into the forefront in several instances. One of the most glaring occurs when he touches upon miscegenation. The idea of white men “taking black women for their own” without incident is commented upon frequently throughout the narratives, as well as the storylines following the products of miscegenation–several characters who are able to “pass” as white (and the decisioning behind whether or not to do so). Jones uses the prominent William Robbins, the wealthiest man in the county, to demonstrate the complex repercussions of miscegenation on his children and wives–both white and mixed–and in their interactions with other characters of varying races in the county. He also directly comments on the firmly held notion that it was no crime to rape a slave, but to kill one, and thus destroy another’s property, was a grave misdeed. There are so many instances like these where Jones forces us as readers to examine the institution of racism to see just how flimsy and yet solid it is. He does not ever shy away from “going there” with some of the ugliest human truths.
Other reviewers have a lot to say on the topic of free blacks owning slaves, like our main character Henry Townsend. This particular issue is one that continues to bother many people who look back on this period in history; we wonder how human beings that were once products of slavery could possibly consider doing the same thing to others of their race? It seems such an obvious thing to modern readers, but Jones demonstrates once again that the pervasiveness of racism as an institution is deeply and complicatedly entrenched into all of us. While many of the free blacks who own slaves feel horribly conflicted about owning slaves of their own, they, like everyone else in their community, are part of an economic and cultural system that relies on human bondage. While Jones never gives us an answer (because really, is there an easy one?) to this problematic question, he susses out the complexities that are often lost to us after generations of separation from the institution of slavery.
I feel that Jones did a beautiful job with this undertaking, and his Pulitzer Prize was well deserved. That being said, I did have one minor gripe while reading. I must confess myself a tad confused at various times with the sheer amount of characters we encounter throughout the narrative. We also jump forward and backward in time, which I love (with many of the characters, Jones flashes forward to give us a spoiler on how their lives will end up, which I appreciated) but one must be paying close attention or you will lose your thread for a bit and may need to retrace your way now and again. Also, some of the characters have the same names as over time, the younger generation is named after their elders. That made things a little more murky, but nothing too bad that you can’t fully enjoy the novel.