Author: Robert Beuka

an associate professor of English, Bronx Community College

The Known World (2003)

The Known World (2003) is a novel by Edward P. Jones that centers on Henry Townsend, a free black slaveholder living in antebellum Virginia. Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction in 2003 and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2004, the novel was lavishly praised by critics, with Kirkus Reviews calling it “a harrowing tale that scarcely ever raises its voice.” The New York Times noted how racial lines in the book “are intriguingly tangled and not easily drawn.” In addition, The Known World has been compared favorably with classic American novels about slavery such as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), William Faulkner‘s Absalom, Absalom! (1936), and Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987). Jones’s book is distinctive, however, for its focus on the historical reality of black slaveholders before the American Civil War (1861–1865). Although the author, who received a master of fine arts degree in creative writing from the University of Virginia in Charlottesville in 1981, has downplayed the role of his research, the reality of Henry Townsend adheres to the historical record. According to scholarship done in the 1920s by Carter G. Woodson, 12 percent of all free black heads of families in Virginia in 1830 owned slaves.