- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 6, 2003

The title of Edward P. Jones stunning new novel is derived from a map that hangs on the wall at a jail where one of the book’s controversial protagonists, Sheriff John Skiffington, holds forth. It was “a browned and yellowed woodcut of some eight feet by six feet… . A Russian had passed through the town and Skiffington had bought the map from him. He wanted it as a present for Winifred but she thought it too hideous to be in her house. Heading the legend were the words ‘The Known World.’ … The Russian said it was the first time the word America had ever been put on a map.”

Certainly the world as Skiffington knows it is one that most modern readers will find alien and uncomfortable. Forswearing moral judgments, his work was to ensure that the slave trade was conducted according to the law. In pre-Civil War America, slavery was legal and this sheriff — often hovering near to the parameters of villainy in the book — made it his business to monitor how slaves and their masters lived their lives. It mattered little that his wife did not approve of slavery. The only thing that concerned him was that everyone behave.

At the book’s opening Henry Townsend, “a black man of thirty-one years with thirty-three slaves and more than fifty acres of land that sat him high above many others white and black” has died. In the course of the narrative details of Henry’s life will be revealed as readers learn more about his widow, Caldonia; his slaves (13 women, 11 men and 9 children); William Robbins, the white man who first owned him and then set him free; and various members of the Skiffington family who show forth as the best and worst of white society. The story of each of their lives is revealed not so much in the progress of a discernible plot but as vignettes introduced then broadened throughout in a widening tapestry of crossed promises, subverted dreams and triumphant escapes.

Characters fall in love, marry, dupe each other, and sometimes cause each other grave harm, but always freedom, or lack of it, lurks to bait, inspire or frustrate them. In some ways, this storytelling by pieces bears strong resemblance to the serially rendered lives and circumstances covered in Mr. Jones’ prizewinning short story collection “Lost in the City.” But here characters — some tender, some not — are united by their singular ties to Henry and the haunting universe of fictitious Manchester County.

“In 1855 in Manchester County, Virginia, there were thirty-four free black families, with a mother and father and one child or more, and eight of these free families owned slaves, and all eight knew each other’s business. When the War Between the States came, the number of slave-owning blacks in Manchester would be down to five, and one of those included an extremely morose man who, according to the U.S. census of 1860, legally owned his own wife and five children and three grandchildren. The census of 1860 said there were 2,670 slaves in Manchester County, but the census taker, a U.S. marshall who feared God, had argued with his wife the day he sent his report to Washington, D.C., and all his arithmetic was wrong because he had failed to carry a one.”

Mr. Jones sprinkles his narrative with passages such as these to create a sense of authentic history, but readers implicitly understand that this census is no more trustworthy than the Russian itinerant salesman’s assertion. But the introduction at intervals of so-called facts serves to underscore the potency of a dream landscape where everyone is baffled by the powerful misery at the center of their lives.

Henry Townsend came to be a free man when his mother and father Augustus and Mildred, made one entreaty after another to his master William Robbins, “the county’s wealthiest man.” Robbins, a somewhat sympathetic character who allows Augustus and Mildred to buy their son’s freedom, is also portrayed as someone capable of a chilling lack of humanity. Readers learn that “In his big book about the comings and goings of slaves, Robbins put a line through [a slaves name], something he always did with people who died before old age or who were sold for no profit.”

Nevertheless, Robbins grew to have a particular fondness for Henry. He gave the young, man an education, sold him land and sold him Moses, a man his own age who would be his own slave. Henry’s evolution into a slave owner comes as a crushing blow to his parents. Augustus barely contains his fury, saying when he learns of it, “You could not have hurt me more if you had cut off my arms and legs.”

Though Henry’s relationship with his parents remained strained, he took comfort in his marriage to Caldonia, a woman said to “have too much melancholy in her blood for [her] own good.” But after Henry dies, Caldonia gets sexually entangled with Moses, who had grown to become a slave overseer, and the result leads to one of the novel’s central dilemmas.

But it is Augustus’ sad plight that steals the show. He is a free black in an area where unscrupulous speculators steal slaves and free men alike in order to sell them and pocket the profit, and soon he finds himself sold back from freedom into slavery. This turn of events casts the book’s most potent spell, rendering Augustus as perhaps the most powerful and sympathetic of all the characters in the book.

Too much cannot be said about Mr. Jones gifts as a storyteller and a stylist. Though the narrative moves at a sometimes glacial pace, words flow quietly and build toward frequent crescendoes that are breathtaking. Dialogue is pitch perfect, landscapes seem authentic and personal squabbles are always adjudicated with wisdom. When one of Caldonia’s young brothers hits another child, the teacher hits him. When he protests, she reminds him that “The hitter can never be the judge. Only the receiver of the blow can tell you how hard it was, whether it would kill a man or make a baby just yawn.”

But always the law hovers. After Robbins sees Henry roughhousing with Moses, he instructs him: “But 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 …But if you roll around and be a playmate to your property, and your property turns around and bites you, the law will come to you still, but it will not come with the full heart and all the deliberate speed you will need.”

In this powerful book, the inhabitants of Manchester County take little comfort from the law. The overwhelming burden of slavery is barely mitigated when even the worst offenders are brought to justice. The imagined universe of Mr. Jones’ “The Known World,” with its own complex moral landscape turns out to be barely knowable at all, and in its darkest corners deeply disturbing. Though the end is bloody and violent for some of the protagonists and filled with good fortune for others, what one remembers about this extraordinary book is Mr. Jones quiet, insistently graceful prose that eases readers into his imagined word and then delivers its punches.

THE KNOWN WORLD

By Edward P. Jones

HarperCollins, $24.95, 388 pages

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide