The Known World

ISBN: 0061159174
ISBN 13: 9780061159176
By: Edward P. Jones

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About this book

One of the most acclaimed novels in recent memory, The Known World is a daring and ambitious work by Pulitzer Prize winner Edward P. Jones.The Known World tells the story of Henry Townsend, a black farmer and former slave who falls under the tutelage of William Robbins, the most powerful man in Manchester County, Virginia. Making certain he never circumvents the law, Townsend runs his affairs with unusual discipline. But when death takes him unexpectedly, his widow, Caldonia, can't uphold the estate's order, and chaos ensues. Jones has woven a footnote of history into an epic that takes an unflinching look at slavery in all its moral complexities.

Reader's Thoughts

Patrick

Books can be difficult for various reasons, and this one is difficult for some quite unusual reasons. It is not linguistically oblique, there is nothing much that is mysterious about the nature of the plot, and for the most part the action of the story takes place in a straightforward and realistic manner. On a word by word basis, the thing makes sense. What complicates matters is the author’s remarkable sense of the novel as a complete artistic vision. This is one of those rare and special works in which everything starts out in a kind of mess but which, as you read on, slowly resolves itself into a picture with depth, colour, light and shade, and with remarkable internal consistency. The novel is set in Manchester County, a fictional region in Virginia, sometime in the early-to-mid nineteenth century. More specifically, it is set in and around the world of Henry Townsend, a black farmer and ex-slave whose parents bought his freedom when he was a child. After learning a trade and making a little money, Townsend buys his own plantation and slaves; this might surprise modern readers, but we are given to understand that he was not unusual, and that he acted entirely according to the laws and culture of his times. However, Henry’s death comes quite early in the pages of this book, and so the main action comes in recalling the story of his youth and how he came to his position in life, then what happened after he died when his wife, Caldonia, came into possession of the farm and its property (human and otherwise).At first I found all this quite difficult to follow. Within the first fifty or so pages, the author introduces a large number of different characters, and is not only fastidious about charting their relationships to one another but also in introducing elements of both their past and future stories in asides which often seem to have little relevance to immediate events. I read somewhere that there is no present tense in this book, which seems to me like a perfect way of describing it: for much of the first two thirds of the text, the writing is unhinged in time, jumping from moment to moment across years in a way which frequently seems inscrutable.It’s not until relatively late in the book that the thing starts to cohere. Eventually, things settle down a little, and the true pattern of the author’s wizardry starts to form broad arcs across the pages. I can’t stop thinking of one particular moment, one really awful thing that happens in the story, that in any other book would perhaps seem like an unnecessary act of cruelty only perpetrated against an admirable character so that they have a chance to seem further ennobled. But such is the effort here on the part of the author to develop the history and motivations of both the victim and the perpetrator over the course of tens and hundreds of pages that when this horrible thing happens, it has the immediate, painful quality of lived experience: it somehow seems both inevitable (that such a person should do such a thing) and by chance (that it should happen to this person, at that moment, that night).Leaps across the immediate chronology of a character’s life in the course of a plot are perhaps not all that strange for a historical novel, but what makes this book more unusual still is that it frequently describes the final fates of even the most insignificant people within its pages. Some of these descriptions are the length of a throwaway sentence — a kidnapped slave girl is casually mentioned as later becoming the first black woman to achieve a Phd in America, for example — while others are spelled out in details dropped like breadcrumbs across the breadth of the book. It’s a postmodern touch which never lets the reader forget that this is a novel framed with the ultimate benefit of educated hindsight, a kind of tacit acknowledgement of the godlike power with which the author determines the fates of these characters. That doesn’t mean that anyone is due a happy ending more than anyone else, and the slaves who eventually achieve emancipation and some kind of extra chance at life are rare compared to those who are killed or who die suddenly or who quietly, simply disappear. But almost everyone gets an ending of some kind, and it’s usually one which recognises that, rich or poor, free or otherwise, these were just human beings who were hated and feared and loved and missed in varying degrees.One last thing that’s worth mentioning is the author’s own intrusions into the text in the form of historical references and citations. Often a detail regarding local law or a particularly intriguing set of statistics are presented as fact, and if it hadn’t been for the brief interview with Jones at the end of my edition, I would probably have accepted these as all being true. But they aren’t — as far as I know, they are all invented. Personally, I didn’t find this offensive, but I can understand how some might find it problematic given that we still live in times when people would still deny or underestimate the scale of the atrocity which formed the foundations of modern American society. Could a person read this and accept its account as entirely truthful; and if they did, what would they think if they found out it was fiction? What else might they come to doubt? I don’t know that I can answer that. My own perspective is one of admiration at the craft involved to create something so utterly convincing. I don’t personally believe in moral or immoral books; to paraphrase Wilde, they’re either written well or poorly, and in any medium there can be no accounting for the vagaries of taste and prejudice. Perhaps it would do better to simply assume the best from our readers and our writers, and leave the rest open to interpretation.

Bonnie

A disquieting book about slaves owning slaves. All kinds of stories woven together make this novel a joy to read. I especially love the changes that Jones' characters make in their lives from the fact that they live everyday. Just as people make adjustments to their lives, especially after severe disappointments, so do Jones' characters -- the ones that don't move, die, either physically or spiritually. Fascinating concept.

Beth

Just briefly, this is a beautiful novel. It's poignant, wise, and taught me a great deal about a phenomenon I knew nothing about: black slave owners in the South before the Civil War. The issues of social relations between whites, free blacks (with and without slaves), and slaves, and the issues of identity for the free blacks who had to figure out where and how they fit in this dangerously fluid social fabric, were beautifully explored as the novel wove back and forth in time in the lives of the characters. I am putting the other works of Edward P. Jones on my "to be read" shelf immediately.

Heather

I felt that this book was important to read because it deals with a piece of American history that, like Europe's Holocaust, can never be comprehended, but should never be forgotten, either. The story is told from the less common third person omniscient point of view, which made it read more like a history book than a novel in some parts. It's hard to say which, if any, of the characters was the protagonist. This book sets itself apart from other books set in the antebellum South because the slave-owning family at the center of the tale are themselves Black. In an interview at the end of the book, the author says that he got the idea from reading a pamphlet about a Jew who joined the American Nazi party. He said it was hard to envision a member of a group that had such a strong history of oppression actually joining with the oppressors. He was further fascinated to discover that some members of his race had owned slaves and helped to oppress other Blacks in the South. There were definitely some parts of the book that were extremely uncomfortable to read about. The message was not a pretty one, and you could tell that, unlike the fairy-tale characters in Uncle Tom's Cabin, most of Jones's characters were unlikely to see a happy ending in their lifetimes. But there were redeeming stories, and occasional glimpses into a positive future, if not for the characters themselves, for their posterity. Though not an easy read by any means, I highly recommend it to those who take an interest in this particular historical period.

Garth

"In its first 200 or so pages, Edward P. Jones’ The Known World resembles nothing so much as a story cycle. The impatient reader may begin to wonder where these vignettes of slave life. However, Jones’ leisurely pace and measured prose eventually reveal a unity of purpose, a cumulative power that overwhelms in two ways: gradually, then all of a sudden. Frankly, The Known World is the best new American novel I’ve read since Jeffrey Eugenides'Middlesex. A broad range of influences are visible in Jones’ portrait of antebellum life in Virginia—Faulkner in its conception, Hemingway in its restraint, Garcia Marquez in its use of foreshadowing, Toni Morrison in its supernatural power, Cormac McCarthy in its hallucinatory violence. However, one senses that Jones is his own man, an iconoclast. Notice, for example, the way Jones’ prose and acute historical sense tap into a canon overlooked by other American novelists: the slave narrative. Far more than Beloved, a book to which this one will doubtless be compared, The Known World draws on and continues the work of Olaudah Equiano, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, and other early African American writers. From these authors’ narrative, Jones has learned to write about slavery from the inside, so that it does not seem the sole determinant of his characters’ lives. Amid the oppressive climate of the fictional Manchester County, the slaves and former slaves depicted in The Known World find and lose love, fight, experience spiritual awakenings and spiritual deaths, venture out into the unknown world, and lead interior lives as rich as any Henry James heroine’s. Paradoxically, Jones’ matter-of-fact view of slavery—and his naturalistic-bordering-on-deadpan depictions of torture, slave commerce, slave insurance, and so on—make the peculiar institution seem all the more terrible—as though, undercutting against the moral outrage of Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Beloved is an inclination to melodrama that suggests that something as outrageous as slavery can’t be real. It is, Jones’ book reminds us, and readers will emerge from it grateful for its author’s wisdom. "from hace.blogspot.com

Monica

Gorgeously woven and incredibly interesting historical fiction about black slave owners, slaves, and the people who surround them in antebellum Virginia. At first I thought the shifting timeline might annoy me as being too postmodern, but the storytelling is epic and the characters are richly textured and sympathetic.Jones doesn't let anyone get away without blame in this book, but he manages to infuse even the most vile characters with enough motivation and rationalization for their actions. He understands that mostly good people do terrible things - it forces the reader to get out of the paradigm of evil that they've been comfortable falling in to. We are all capable of evil, and its best to know it so you can recognize the signs. Seriously, this book is marvelous. My favorite book I've read this year and I can't recommend it enough.

Qiana

Whether we call this a neo-slave narrative, historical novel, or historiographic metafiction, Edwards's novel is rich and expansive storytelling. It gives me great hope to see how imaginative an author can be in representing the wrenching legacy of slavery and American life. We need more of this kind of innovation in black writing today! I love teaching this novel, too.

Meredith

This book is so great b/c of its ability to express all of the moral complexities of slavery pre-civil war. Duty, religion, morality, justice, law, success, conformity, experience……all contribute to the intricacies of slavery. The main characters revolve around Henry, who is a former slave that upholds an estate of slaves. Other characters are a God-fearing slave owner, a slave owner who falls in love with a black woman and has a child, and an educated black woman. Although rare, I had never known that blacks had owned slaves. It is masterfully written and draws you in, making you imagine what you would think and do during that time…and what you could convince yourself to believe lessening your negative reaction to the idea of slavery (or maybe just not allowing yourself to see slavery’s impact on the individual life as what it really was….crippling). While at the same time, you get a glimpse of what it must have been like to be a slave, from being a woman who is stripped down so that a white man can look at her to see if he wants to buy her and take her away from her family to being physically abused. There are contradictions and “well-meant” things that did not turn out well. This is a great book to digest and discuss. I love a historical, relational book that makes you think!! The author also writes about historical documents and events that allow you to believe it actually happened. “Despite vowing never to own a slave, Skiffington had no trouble doing his job to keep the institution of slavery going, an institution even God himself had sanctioned throughout the Bible. Skiffington had learned from his father how much solace there was in separation God’s law from Caesar’s law. ‘Render your body unto them,’ his father had taught, ‘but know your soul belongs to God.’ As long as Skiffington and Winifred lived within the light that came from God’s law, from the Bible, nothing on earth, not even his duty as a sheriff to the Caesars, could deny them the kingdom of God. ‘We will not own slaves,’ Skiffington promised God, and he promised each morning he went to his knees to pray. Though everyone in the country saw Minerva the wedding present as their property, the Skiffingtons did not feel they owned her, not in the way whites and few blacks owned slaves” (this was written about a young girl taken by her parents that they came to own)“Henry, the law will protect you as a master to your slave, and it will not flinch when it protects you. That protection lasts from here all the way to the death of that property. But the law expects you to know what is master and what is slave. And it does not matter if you are not much darker than your slave. The law is blind to that. You are the master and that is all the law wants to know. The law will come to you and stand behind you. But if you roll around and be a playmate to your property, and your property turns round and bites you, the law will come to you still, will but it not come with the full heart and all the deliberate speed you need. You will have pointed to the line that separates you from your property and told your property that the line does not matter.” (Henry goes on to slap his slave right after and say “why don’t you never do what I tell you? N--, you never do. You just do what I tell you from now on.”)“How could anyone, white or not white, think that he could hold on to his land and servants and his future if he thought himself no higher than what he owned.”

Pamela_b_lawrencemsn.com

Great great book. One of the characters early on says, as strange as a world that makes him slave to a white man, "God had indeed set it twirling and twisting every which way when he put black people owning their own kind." Not much I can say that hasn't been said by many other reviewers, and probably the Pulitzer Prize committee, but this is a clear-eyed book about slavery in the 1850s about the moral bankruptcy that allowed it to happen and that it engendered. This novel is not a page turner and you would do yourself a disservice if you did not take the time to savor every sentence, every bit of dialogue. The novel is also an architectural wonder, apparently seamlessly flowing from story to story, the result of meticulous crafting. Even though the setting is slavery, the novel is also about the things that divide us and unite us, constrained by artficiality - slavery - or not. The themes are epic - tragedy within the larger tragedy, betrayal, ambition, unwarranted brutality, striving for a better life or to be a better person, grace arising from adapting to circumstances, disappointment in children, true love, and forgiveness. Each character is fully inhabited. I only have to look at the cover of the book, one I do not want to part with, and they and their fates - because the author has created one for each one - immediately come rushing back to me. Read this book!

JoLee

Edward P. Jones's book, The Known World tells of the lives of characters living in the fictional county of Manchester, Virginia in 1855. At the center of the story is the plantation of Henry Townsend, a freed slave now with slaves of his own, and the conflicts and moral dilemmas facing the small group of slave-owning free blacks in the county. Other characters in the story also face conflicting emotions (whether they know it or not) about slavery. For example, William Robbins, the most powerful man in the county with one of the largest plantations, is in love with a black woman and dotes on their two children. Also, Sheriff John Skiffington pledges to never own a slave, yet his job depends on maintaining the status-quo. This is an interesting, poignant, and somewhat disturbing story. One of the best things about it is Jones's language and not-quite-linear story-telling. I felt like I was reading pieces of a puzzle that only slowly and methodically came together.

Shannon

I still cannot fathom why this book won awards. I wil grant that it is built around an interesting premise but for me there were just too many flaws. There are a lot of characters that are hard to keep track and not one did I care about and want to know what happened and in fact could not toil my way to the end of the book. When asked at my bookclub if I wanted to know what happened to various characters I actually found that I still didn't care and couldn't even remember them (and I had gone over 3/4 of the way through the book). The writing was choppy with differeng POVs that change too frequently. The lengthy recitations of family trees, population statistics and other historical fodder further interrupt the flow and did not add anything to the narrative and took me out of the story to think about the author and why he felt he needed to cram that in. Perhaps to show off his research?I think there are much better books out there that deal with American slavery.There was the odd pearl of a sentence that was well written and poignant but for me there was too much work to be done to harvest the pearls.

Lamia

رواية العالم المعروف تبحر بك في القرن السابع عشر في ولاية فرجينا الإمريكية وما يجاورها من مدن في زمن العبودية والتاريخ الأسود الذي رافق تلك الفترة قبل الحرب الأهلية الإمريكية .لا الرغم من عدم شهرة الرواية إلا إنها حققت ربحا في المبيعات على الرغم من بعدها عن الإثارة وفوز كاتبها "بوليترز" وكذلك تم تصنيفها على إنها رواية تاريخية حيث أمضى الكاتب 10 سنوات في كتابة مادة الرواية وهي واقعية لدرجة كبيرة وتميل للإنسانية ولا ريب في ذلك إذا علمنا بإن جونز هو الابن الوحيد لعامل مطبخ وخادمة في فندق وعملت أمه في شتى الأعمال من أجل إبنها واختفاء والده في صغره. بالرغم من أن امه لا تعرف القراءة أو الكتابة إلا إنها غرست في ابنها حب العلم. وسلوك إبنها في مجال الأدب بشكل عام وانضم في 2010 إلى الهيئة التدريسية في قسم اللغة الإنكليزية للكتابة الإبداعية في جامعة جورج واشنطون الغنية عن التعريف.تبدأ الرواية بمقولة أدوارد بي. جزنز " طالما تساءلت روحي كيف تجاوزت كل شيء"في الصفحات الأولى من الرواية يذكر إحصاءات مانشستر والتي هي أوسع مقاطعة في جينيا لعام 1840 حُر:2191عبد حُر:142هندي أحمر: 136عبد:2191كثرة العبيد لأنهم كانوا إما خدما أو مزاعين في الحقول . الرواية بشكل عام تتطرق إلى السود الأحرار الذين يملكون عبيدًا وكيف قام أغسطس تاونسند بشراء حريته وبعدها عمل بجد من أجل شراء حرية كل من زوجتة وولده الذي إختطف ليعمل ويكون عبدا وفيما بعد يكون هو العبد الحر ( هنري ) الذي يشتري أرضا من سيده السابق ويصلحها وتكون هي الأرض التي نشاهد فيها أغلب المشاهد والأحداث. الشخصيات التي حاول الكاتب وصفها وطريقة معيشتها وطرق التعذيب والعقوبة التي مروا بها والتي تكون أقرب للوحشية والحراسة الليلية التي إستحدثت في عهد المأمور الجديد (جون سكفينغتن) مع مجموعة من الرجال، الذي يلاقي مصرعه على يد ابن عمه في مشهد دموي. والدين الذي يدينون به الذي يتعمد فيه الكهنة على البساطة بعيدا عن العمق. وهذه أحد المشاهد الفضيعة حيث هرب ( إلياس) وعندما وجدوه قطعت أذنه من قبل أحد رجال الدورية الليلية (الهندي الأحمر- أودن) الذي سيصبح فيما بعد مراقب العمال بعد أن يهرب (موسى) الذي كان مراقبا للعمال وساعد عائلته وأليس التي إدعت الجنون على الهرب.يذكر جونز الكندي ( اندرسن فريزر) الذي أجرى حوار بـ(فيرن) المعلمة التي درست السود الأحرار وكانت المادة التب كتب عنها عن "عجائب وغرائب الجنوبيين ، اقتصاد القطن، وحققت نجحا فيما بعد والتي كانت أقرب للسلسلة. تتسارع الأحداث فيما بعد إلى أن نصل الفصل الأخير رسالة الأخ (كالفن) إلى أخته (كالدونيا) والتي يذكر فيها ما الذي حدث له شخصيا في 12 أبريل 1861 وهو نفس اليوم الذي حدثت فيه الحرب الأهلية الإمريكية ولا يذكر فيها أحداث الحرب إنما أمور شخصية وحياته.فيلم وثائقي عن تاريخ العبودية في أمريكاhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pDukq...

Aberjhani

Edward P. Jones' Bold Vision of "The Known World"This story would have been exciting enough based only on the fact that Edward P. Jones so boldly took the antebellum novel to a place it has never gone before; namely, to black slave-owner Henry Townsend's plantation in Manchester, Virginia. There, the "Known World" is wholly different from what one might expect. But this seemingly obviously absurd anomaly of U.S. history, wherein black masters owned black slaves, doesn’t stop with that rarely discussed fact. It is further illuminated by Jones' flights into the fantastic with observations of sentient lightning, children with the personalities of bitter grandparents, and, comically enough, freak chickens. Mixed within this potent literary brew are some of the most original and dynamic characters, male and female, ever to step into the pages of American fiction. In fact, one of more remarkable features of Jones’ amazing novel is his portrayal of how specific individuals sometimes managed to exploit the institution of slavery in order to indulge their own private needs, quirks, or agendas.It's true that the alternating biblical density and epic expansiveness of details and events with which Jones builds his narrative can at times prove challenging. However, this same aesthetic ultimately delivers a triumphant satisfaction. Jones' Pulitzer--and any other awards received for this novel--was well earned and deserved. by Author-Poet Aberjhani author of "Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance" (Facts on File Library of American History) and "The Wisdom Of W.E.B. Du Bois" (Wisdom Library)

Jason

Manchester County, Virginia doesn't exist. Never has. After reading The Known World, however, you'd be forgiven if you thought you could take a tour of it's plantations and slave cemetaries on your vacation to colonial Williamsburg. The complicated pre-civil war Southern society that Edward P. Jones creates feels as real and surreal as any factual history of slavery you've read. It was not so much the story of Henry Townsend, a black slave owner, and all the people that his death allows us to meet that engaged me. It was the world, a world where I could taste the soil I might till and the women I might marry and the terrible choices I might be faced with, that put it's claws in me and refused to let go.It took me nearly 2 months to finish the book's 388 pages. It should've been a quick read. It is a fascinating place with peculiar problems and characters I cried for on more than one occasion. It should've been a quick read but I kept asking myself this question: who would I have been? The slave, toiling away in the field? The overseer, unable to see the world for what it truly was? The freed man, working desperately to free the rest of his family? The smart child, taken under the wing of the rich white slave owner and convinced that there was nothing wrong with owning another human being? The broken black man tortured by his family's wealth built on the backs of men and women that look just like me? The slave too proud, too strong, too powerful to let another take his freedom? Who would I have been?Who am I now?In matters of race, there is always that fool's point, usually made by a white person (though not always) that asks,"why aren't you over it, already? Can't we just let it go?" It is a way to end an uncomfortable conversation. The reasons don't matter. I know many a person for which the sticky tar baby of race in America is simply a discussion they can't stick their hands in. It is too difficult. Too raw. Too cloudy to be sure that people will remain friends after an honest chat. The way I feel when I read books like The Known World is my answer. No matter how well-adjusted, how integrated, how loving of my fellow man, how multiculti kumbayah I am, I'm not over it. I can't let it go.This fictional world was very real not all that long ago. It's effects still ripple through our every day. The world I know doesn't exist without it.Highly highly recommended.

Kelly

The Known World might be a little dry for those less experianced with the so called "droning" novels, but for those of us who like to really suck on the marrow of a tome, this one is to keep close to the heart. At first I wondered why it had been given the Pulitzer Prize. The first few parts of the book were rather dry and lacking in salt and sustenance to me. But the farther I got in, the harder it was to get out. I moved with the characters, and somehow, they moved in me. A well thought out work, one to read to an attentive child that wishes to learn more about the hardships in this world.

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