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

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.

Nancy

Great characters; I knew them and got invested in them as people right from the start, even though there were so many of them, and the story was well crafted and compelling. Deserved the Pulitzer.

Catherine

There is probably an important and interesting story in here somewhere (for example, if it were actually about the widow of a black slave owner trying to run a plantation after her husband's death, as claimed on the book jacket). However, any plot that might exist was buried so deep beneath the convoluted chronology and extraneous characters and details that I decided I didn't care to keep digging for it, and quit on page 198. The author seemed determined to insert every existing anecdote about slavery into one novel. This might have worked better as a compilation of essays or short stories.

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

Sam

My well-read mother-in-law referred this one to me. Fascinating. Well written. A modern day Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Freed Blacks owning slaves turns many of the justifications for slavery on their head, from the inferior black man argument, to God’s disapproval of the race. Touching, depressing, exciting, I couldn’t put this one down. I have yet to reconcile my believe and patriotism in America with the despicable practice of slavery that endured for over 100 years. This is a topic that really intrigues me.

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.”

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)

Davita Westbrook

Exquisite prose. Fascinating, unique characters. And a unique storytelling style that deftly dances from past, to present to future and back again without losing the reader or sacrificing suspense. An exceptionally well written tale. From a writing perspective, a daunting achievement that may well have me set my pen down for a minute and contemplate my life goal.

Gwendolyn

This was a great book, very well written and an interesting read. Tackling the complex morale issues surrounding slavery from a new perspective, this book delves into the territory of black owners of slaves. Without preaching, the author successfully navigates barbaric treatments and offers a view into the mental justifications and rationalizations. Characters of great strength, courage and resilience are interspersed on both sides of the issue, as are truly terrible individuals.The author continuously introduces new, inter-related characters which means he constantly has to remind us of who someone is. While a bit extraneous, it didn't detract from the book. This isn't a traditional "story book" where you follow someone's life. The author jumps around from past, present and future glimpses to facilitate quick character development. The downside to this was there weren't "cliff hangers" at the end of chapters that kept me reading non-stop. I recommend this highly as a quality book. It definitely makes you think about how the human psyche can be manipulated, and how laws of the land and society can be used to justify behaviors.

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.

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.

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...

Chris McClinch

This is a book I wouldn't have gotten past page 50 of had I not been reading it for a book club. While the author clearly did his research and posed a fascinating premise--free blacks owning slaves in 1840s Virginia--there wasn't much of a story or a key character or set of characters for you to hang your hat on. As such, I found the book to be much more of a slog than I would have expected with such a fascinating premise. This is one of those books where I want to take the author--who is clearly talented--aside and remind him that the novel is primarily a storytelling medium, and that if you're not telling a story, you're breaking your basic contract with the reader.

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.

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.

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