The Known World has no real plot; rather, it glides back and forth in time, zooming in on the lives of its characters. Set in fictional Manchester County, Virginia, the story begins with the premature death of Henry Townsend. A former slave whose freedom is bought by his father Augustus, Townsend comes to own thirty-three slaves. In one scene, he admits to making his first purchase, and his parents are horrified. (Augustus, a carpenter and walking-stick carver, once used a boxed shipment of his sticks to smuggle a runaway slave to freedom, a vignette that echoes the true story of.) When Henry tells Augustus of his purchase, the father replies, “You could not have hurt me more if you had cut off my arms and my legs.” He then attacks Henry with one of his sticks, breaking his shoulder.
Moses, Townsend’s first slave, is an overseer who eats dirt as a way of tracking the life of the earth he helps to farm. (“This was July, and July dirt tasted even more like sweetened metal than the dirt of June or May.”) When Townsend buys him, Moses is bewildered by the fact “that indeed a black man, two shades darker than himself, owned him and any shadow he made” and, reflecting on this strange irony, wonders, “Was God even up there attending to business anymore?” Jones’s portraits of Townsend’s slaves are full and arresting: mule-kicked Alice, who wanders the night issuing forth a kind of mystical babble; Stamford, whose pursuit of “young stuff” is a comical, shameless, self-destructive, and poignant attempt at surviving a life in bondage; and Elias, whose attempt to flee leaves him without part of an ear.
William Robbins, the largest slave owner in Manchester County, is no simple villain but “one of the few white men who would not suffer from sitting across from a black man.” He mentors Henry, loves a black woman, but nevertheless is a strict and cruel enforcer of the slave owner’s code. “You are the master,” he instructs Henry, “and that is all the law wants to know.” Although Henry had “wanted to be a better master than any white man he had ever known,” when he dies, his slaves cry no tears.
In the end, Jones’s story is as much about Manchester County as it is about Townsend and his slaves. Like Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, it is a fictional, even mythical place that is nevertheless imagined down to the tiniest detail. It is “the largest county in Virginia, a place of 2,191 slaves, 142 free Negroes, 939 whites, and 136 Indians, most of them Cherokee but with a sprinkling of Choctaw.” While white elites like Robbins compete for power, Manchester’s lower classes carve out their places as best they can. The sheriff, John Skiffington, abhors slavery but owns a slave that a spiteful relative gave to him. All the while, an antique map of the Americas hangs on his wall and is labeled “The Known World.” Supposedly three hundred years old and wildly inaccurate—”North America on the map was smaller than it was in actuality, and where Florida should have been, there was nothing”—the map serves as an ironic comment on the strange, insular, upside-down world of Manchester County, a place that by the end of the novel has disappeared.
In many respects, The Known World is a southern plantation novel, a genre popular at least sincewrote The Valley of Shenandoah (1824) and notable for its sometimes controversial depictions of African Americans and slave life. While Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (1936) is perhaps the most famous (and infamous) plantation novel, not all such books apologize for slavery. In fact, Tucker’s novel, written while he represented Virginia in the U.S. House of Representatives, was antislavery, and ‘s (1940), set near antebellum Winchester, Virginia, also has been interpreted as an indictment of the “peculiar institution.” Still, in the last forty years critics have attacked many of these novels for their portrayals of African Americans, taking note, for instance, of Cather’s references to “gay darkies” and her dated and condescending rendering of black dialect—”Lawd-a’mighty, Miss Sapphy!”
(1967), a novel about slavery by the Virginia-born writer William Styron, has been criticized for its depiction of the slave-revolt leader and his lust for a white woman. Styron achieved something that Cather did not, however, by acknowledging the complexity of Turner’s inner life. The novel is told in Turner’s modern and sophisticated voice, but when he speaks out loud, especially to whites, he sounds jarringly like one of Margaret Mitchell’s or Willa Cather’s caricatures. In this way Styron explores the ambiguous nature of communication between slaves and other slaves, and between slaves and their masters.
While communication and identity are complex in Confessions, the lines between black and white are nevertheless clear. Not so in Jones’s The Known World. A black man owning slaves is merely a symbol of a world in which black and white are everywhere tightly entwined. Some blacks pass as white, while others with skin even lighter do not. Moses’s lighter skin does not make him less of a slave or Henry less of a master, and yet Henry still largely speaks like a field hand. African American speech patterns, meanwhile, are more muted, and more consistent, in Jones’s novel than in Styron’s. “Papa, I ain’t done nothin I ain’t a right to,” Henry protests to his father after telling him that he bought Moses. “I ain’t done nothin no white man wouldn’t do.”
Sex and power are more complicated, too. Robbins loves his black mistress more than his white wife, but he is still a severe master to her. In contrast, the elderly white woman Clara Martin wastes away in her Manchester County home, apparently attracted to her black servant but terrified that he will murder her. (She has been treated to too many stories of Nat Turner and slave rebellions both large and small.) When she dies in bed one night, neighbors find that she has nailed shut the door to her room.
Critics loved The Known World when it was released in August 2003. Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post called it “fiction on a grand scale, a Victorian novel transplanted to Ol’ Dixie.” He praised Jones for “cut[ting] through the blood and horror of slavery to disclose the warped, stunted humanity at its heart.” John Vernon, in the New York Times, noted Jones’s “raw and lyrical bluntness.” “His own narrative style is doggedly declarative, slow, persistent, imperturbable and patient, but it gets the job done,” Vernon wrote. “To call this novel mule-paced is not to be captious. Mules are noble animals in the world of the novel, and smarter than horses—they won’t work until they drop.”
Janet Maslin, also writing in the New York Times, commended Jones’s moral complexity. “Racial lines here are intriguingly tangled and not easily drawn,” she wrote.
When a black woman takes her black slave as a lover, she worries that this might be miscegenation. Might she be punished as severely as a white woman would for the same offense? If a powerful white slaveholder like William Robbins has children with a slave, children who are also his slaves by definition, what do government records make of such a circumstance? Despite its being about the evils of slavery, Maslin concluded, “in no way is Mr. Jones’s work morally black and white.”
When The Known World first appeared, it was considered something of a novelty because of its unusual subject matter. Scholars, however, have since affirmed its general accuracy. In 1924 and 1925, the African American historian Carter G. Woodson published two groundbreaking papers on black slave owners. Using Woodson’s data as his starting point, Thomas J. Pressly, a professor emeritus of history at the University of Washington, has concluded that “Edward P. Jones’s historical novel successfully meets major tests of statistical plausibility for its historical period.”
The 1830 U.S. census shows 3,776 free black slaveholders—or about 7.5 percent of all free blacks—owning a total of 12,907 slaves. In Virginia, 12 percent of all free blacks owned slaves, which translates into 950 heads of black families owning 2,235 slaves. In Jones’s fictional Manchester County, there are “thirty-four free black families … and eight of those free families owned slaves.” That’s nearly a quarter of all free African American families owning slaves, but Pressly argues that this is not inaccurate. Although for the entire state the rate is 12 percent, if “that state statistic is broken down further, it turns out that in several Virginia counties, free black slaveowners reached 25 percent or more of the free black heads of families. Thus Jones’s Manchester County is well within general range.”
Meanwhile, the vast majority of black and white slave owners, in Virginia and in the United States, owned just a few slaves. Henry Townsend owns thirty-three when he dies and, according to Pressly, “would have been among the top one percent of free black slaveholders, each of whom owned from 20 to 84 slaves.”