The Known World – a Book Review
By Mahbubul Karim (Sohel)
October 9, 2004
Does color of one’s skin matter in determining whether someone can be cruel? Does religion matter in one’s fallibility from the apex of compassions? What is it that makes us blind facing the oppressions committed by “our people”? What is it that provokes us castigating “others” from our benevolence that we solely reserve for the powerful and economic might or perhaps for our immediate family or friends?
In the time of slavery, possibly the most revolting part of American history, selling and buying the colored men, women and children in the broad daylight was just like any other exchanges of properties that had monetary value. Religious scriptures were interpreted such a literal way that these scriptures supposedly ordained a societal system where the slaves followed their masters to heaven or to hell. In the matter of all practicality for earthlings, it was the earthly hell that the slaves went living their lives in where the masters roaming around their heavenly world riding elegant horses, whipping and denigrating human beings to the standard of other tortured animals.
The history of slave has deep root, it did not begin in American shore. From the earliest human history that man can fathom to date, slavery was there with its entire brutish décor in more or less every culture, under the umbrellas of most known religions. Perhaps in some religions there were no direct references to slaves, but there were hierarchical societies working their own subjugation of people that they termed as “lower caste” or the “untouchables”, or in the form of harem extravaganza tucked away from windy desert.
Edward P. Jones’ The Known World is a masterfully written story, weaved like a long poem, with its elegance and pathos filled plots and subplots, twisting characters, the dilemmas that both the slaves and the slave-owners went through, especially, the lives of freed black families who owned slaves, a bizarre part of that undiluted history of American past was presented in uncompromising artistry.
Unlike most other contemporary writers, Edward P. Jones did not shut the door of truth. He did not craft masquerading pretensions that black men and women were incapable of adopting equal inhumanity displayed by their counterparts the white men and women of that time of slavery. With his magnetic prose he illustrated a shocking picture of reality where existed freed black families who had owned slaves. This was not Mr. Jones’ pure imagination. There were indeed black slave owners lived in the same counties with the white slave owners, proud of their plantations, proud of their precious “properties”.
Is this anything different than the Africans enslaving their fellow Africans centuries ago?
Still, it invokes a strange feeling. A known world where slavery’s all oppressions and cruelties were seen springing from the differences of races and ignorance, how could the freed blacks who were themselves slaves at some point of time of their lives, who and whose parents struggled hard to buy the freedom from their earthly white masters, who had witnessed and suffered all the agonies and humiliations of slavery, now turned around and enslaved the fellow black brethrens? That known world crumbles, and a world of strangeness with equal shame and pain of slavery raises its serpent like head in Edward P. Jones’ riveting novel.
The Known World does not have any central protagonist. Though the story circled around Henry Townsend, a freed black slave owner’s death and funeral in 1855, going back and forth in time and through various places in and around Virginia, even as far away as New York and Texas, it is a story told by multiple voices, their own stories branching out from the main story, but eventually pulled back to the central stage that a great writer knows how to do with precision. The literary technique that Edward P. Jones employed was simply brilliant. It was like reading someone’s mind in real time bioscope. In reality, even during the grim moment of a person’s life, mind strays to various other issues from the current moment’s vicinity. Most writers ignore it. But Mr. Jones sprinkled it from time to time. It made the story more momentous to read.
When Henry Townsend bought his first slave, he was hesitant to inform his father, Augustus, and mother, Mildred. And when he did, he was confronted by his parents who had suffered so much from an abysmal system of slavery; who had never thought that their only son, who had witnessed their sufferings, could ever take that fateful step of becoming a slave-owner himself.
Here is a memorable scene:
“No, Papa. I got my own man. I bought my own man. Bought him cheap from Master Robbins. Moses.” The pie had made him drowsy and he was thinking how good it would be to go upstairs and fall asleep. “He a good worker. Lotta years in him. And Mr. Robbins lend me the rest of the men for the work.”
Mildred and Augustus looked at each other and Mildred lowered her head.
Augustus stood up so quickly his chair tilted back and he reached around to catch it without taking his eyes from Henry. “You mean tell me you bought a man and he yours now? You done bought him and you didn’t free that man? You own a man, Henry?”
“Yes. Well, yes, Papa,” Henry looked from his father to his mother.
Mildred stood up, too. “Henry, why?” she said. “Why would you do that?” She went through her memory for the time, for the day, she and her husband told him all about what he should and should not do. No goin out into them woods without Papa or me knowin about it. No stepping foot out this house without them free papers, not even to go to the well or the privy. Say your prayers every night.
“Do what, Mama? What is it?”
Pick the blueberries close to the ground, son. Them the sweetest, I find. If a white man say the trees can talk, can dance, you just say yes right along, that you done seen em do it plenty of times. Don’t look them people in the eye. You see a white woman ridin toward you, get way off the road and go stand behind a tree. The uglier the white woman, the farther you go and the broader the tree. But where, in all she taught her son, was it about thou shall own no one, havin been owned once your own self. Don’t go back to Egypt after God done took you outta there.
“Don’t you know the wrong of that, Henry?” Augustus said.
“Nobody never told me the wrong of that.”
“Why should anybody haveta teach you the wrong, son?” Augustus said. “Ain’t you got eyes to see it without me telling you?”
“Henry,” Mildred said, “why do things the same old bad way?”
“I ain’t, Mama. I ain’t.”
Augustus said quietly, “I promised myself when I got this little bit of land that I would never suffer a slaveowner to set foot on it. Never.” He put his hand momentarily to his mouth and then tugged at his beard. “Of all the human beins on God’s earth I never once thought the first slaveowner I would tell to leave my place would be my own child. I never thought it would be you. Why did we ever buy you offa Robbins if you gon do this? Why trouble ourselves with you bein free, Henry? You could not have hurt me more if you had cut off my arms and my legs.” Augustus walked out the room to the front door, meaning for Henry to follow. Mildred sat back down but soon stood up again.
Mildred went to her son and put her hand to the back of his neck and rubbed it. “Augustus …. ?” Henry followed his father and Mildred followed her son. “Papa. Papa, now wait now.” In the front room, Augustus turned to Henry. “You best leave, and you best leave now,” Augustus said. He opened the door.
“I ain’t done nothing that any white man wouldn’t do. I ain’t broke no law. I ain’t. You listen here.” Beside the door, Augustus had several racks of walking sticks, one under the other, about ten in all. “Papa, just cause you didn’t, that don’t mean …” Augustus took down a stick, one with an array of squirrels chasing one another, head to tail, tail to head, a line of sleek creatures going around and around the stick all the way to the top where a perfect acorn was waiting, stem and all. Augustus slammed the stick down across Henry’s shoulder and Henry crumpled to the floor. “Augustus, stop now!” Mildred shouted and knelt to her son. “Thas how a slave feel!” Augustus called down to him. “Thas just how every slave every day be feelin.”
Henry squirmed out of his mother’s arms and managed to get to his feet. He took the stick from his father. “Henry, no!” Mildred said. Henry, with two tries, broke the stick over his knee. “Thas how a master feels,” he said and went out the door.
To Henry Townsend’s mind, he did not do anything wrong. He thought that he was just a law-abiding citizen like the rest of them slave-owners, white and black. It was this established system of those gory days and nights, that made a sordid system like slavery to go on for years and years, protected by “laws”, lawmakers and law enforcers. There were sympathizers amid the white folks, especially those who had had exposure to free north. John and Winifred Skiffington were two of them. John was the chief law enforcer in the Manchester County where this story is mostly based. A thoughtful man who did feel anguished in witnessing the rawness of slavery everywhere where eyes could meet, but still he was steadfast in upholding the “law”, even witnessing severing parts of ear from an apprehended “slave” who had dared to escape for freedom.
There was William Robbins, the richest slave owner in that Manchester County. He was a strange character. He had fallen in love with his own slave, had two children from her, wanted so dearly that his white wife’s daughter and his black mistress’ daughter and son should meet each other and live in a harmonious life. He was the one who had inspired Henry Townsend becoming a slave owner like him.
Here is one extract where Robbins was teaching Henry about the “law”:
“Henry,” Robbins said, looking not at him but out to the other side of the road, “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” --- and he pointed to an imaginary place in the road --- “all the way to the death of that property” --- and he pointed to a place a few feet from the first place. “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. 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, but it will not come with the full heart and all the deliberate speed that you will need. You will have failed in your part of the bargain. You will have pointed to the line that separates you from your property and told your property that the line does not matter.” Henry pulled his hand down from the horse’s forehead. “You are rollin round now, today, with property you have a slip of paper on. How will you act when you have ten slips of paper, fifty slips of paper? How will you act, Henry, when you have a hundred slips of paper? Will you still be rollin in the dirt with them?”
Henry took his former master Robbins’ advice to his heart. He went back to his first slave that he had ever bought, Moses, and slapped him twice.
“Why don’t you never do what I tell you to do? Why is that, Moses?”
“I do. I always do what you tell me to do, Massa.”
“Nigger, you don’t. You never do.”
Thus begins master Henry’s triumphant slave-owner life. He bought more slaves, dozens of them, had built cabins for them, wanted to be a different kind of master who cared for his slaves. But is it possible to become a caring master? Edward P. Jones observed the following, “He did not understand that the kind of world he wanted to create was doomed before he had even spoken the first syllable of the word master." Whatever good intentions Henry possibly had, it was not materialized, slaves had their lives in gloomy cabins, malnourished from lack of enough food whereas the master was having his life of luxury, entertaining guests with expensive food, buying more land, etc., the typical story of exploitations, told and retold so many times from time immemorial.
When Henry died in 1855 at a young age, living his widowed wife Caldonia, and parents Augustus and Mildred to grief, slowly but surely a process of degradation started in his plantation, starting with Moses, the very first slave that Henry bought. Moses was the overseer, and he wanted to be free and respected like his “massa” Henry. He worked hard in the field, and was unpitying in his treatments of subordinate slaves that he supposed to oversee. When Henry bought Moses, he thought perhaps somebody was “fiddling” with him.
“It took Moses more than two weeks to come to understand that someone wasn't fiddling with him and that indeed a black man, two shades darker than himself, owned him and any shadow he made. Sleeping in a cabin beside Henry in the first weeks after the sale, Moses had thought that it was already a strange world that made him a slave to a white man, but God had indeed set it twirling and twisting every which way when he put black people to owning their own kind. Was God even up there attending to business anymore?"
After Henry’s funeral, fights broke out among the slaves, lust and power struggles crept in, and undeniably “Missus” Caldonia though grimacing for being the new “master” of her “legacies”, began a physical affair with her “legacy” Moses that eventually led to “disappearances” of slaves, a process of disintegration that went on further in antebellum South, creating more tensions among the slave owners, white and black, who regarded the escapes of slaves a sign of more bad things to come from those “damn abolitionists” of the North. Perhaps they feared another rebellion like Nat Turner’s episode in making.
John Skiffington felt more pressure, he felt sure that William Robbins would put blame on his inability in enforcing “law” in the county. But this law was to be selective. When one of his patrollers, Barnum informed him that Augustus was sold, though he was a “free” black man, he did not take any punitive steps on the culprits, Harvey and Oden Peoples, even after confronting them on this issue. He just gave them a mere warning. But his treatment of Mildred was inconsistent, slicing her heart with bullet, in his fervent pursuance of escaped slave Moses.
When Mildred refused to give up the escaped slave, John said, “I have not come all this way to be denied by a … by a nigger. Do you hear me, Mildred? No nigger will stand between me and my duty…. I have a right to do what is right, and no nigger can stand and oppose that right….I have a duty to uphold…That’s all there is to it.” Like many other well-intentioned white folks of that time of antebellum in South, John had contradictory feelings regarding slavery. He did not wish to live in that desolate place where his adopted daughter, Minerva, was not permitted to live a free life; he wanted to move to Philadelphia with his wife and family where “Benjamin Franklin had lived. He should have been on the bank of a nice river, showing his son how to make a living just from God’s bounty. And Minerva should have been out, out with some Pennsylvania Negro.”
John Skiffington did put efforts finding Augustus, knowing fully well that he was working against a system that did not treat the selling of a free black man as a high crime. When he was sending “urgent” telegram to various states regarding Augustus, he pondered the following: “When he started writing, there had been certainty that selling Augustus Townsend was a crime, but he became less certain not long before he had to sign his name under all the answers. Had Virginia, in fact, declared such a sale a crime? Could the cord of a man born into slavery ever be cut forever and completely, even if he had been free for some years? Was he not doomed by virtue of the color of his skin?”
Barnum, a drunken patroller, a poor white man, disclosed the unlawful selling of Augustus by Harvey and Oden Peoples, but he was struggling in his mind, he was struggling to make sure that he was not perceived as taking a “nigger side”. Here is his response to one of John Skiffington’s question:
“Now I don’t want you to take me telling you all this as my becoming a nigger kisser or something like that. It ain’t that. You know me, John. But they sold that Augustus and they sold his mule……But he was a free and clear man, and the law said so. Augustus never hurt me, never said bad to me. What Harvey done was wrong. But telling you don’t put me on the nigger side. I’m still on the white man side, John. I’m still standin with the white. God help me if you believe something else about me……It’s just that there should be a way for a body to say what is without somebody sayin he standin on the nigger side. A body should be able to stand under some … some kinda light and declare what he knows without retribution. There should be some kinda lantern, John, that we can stand under and say, ‘I know what I know and what I know is God’s truth,’ and then come from under the light and nobody make any big commotion bout what he said. He could say it and just get on about his business, and nobody would say, ‘He be stickin up for the nigger, he be stickin up for them Indians.’ The lantern of truth wouldn’t low them to say that. There should be that kinda light, John. I regret what happened to Augustus.”
The Known World has uncovered paradoxical characters of men and women, masters and slaves, not through simple black and white lenses. There were contradictory feelings. There were love and anger, loyalties and betrayals. Through its resolute portrayal of oddities in free black owning black slaves, and the overall putrid surrounding of a system of slavery, it is successful in revealing the contradictions and hypocrisy filled world that we all live and breathe in, in a state of stupendous self-denial. It was same before, centuries and millenniums ago.
A few more reviews on "The Known World" that the readers may wish to read are the following::
- 1. Gone with the Wind. By Darryl Pinckney. The New York Review of Books. Volume 51, Number 16.
(This is a very well written and comprehensive review available in the web to this date.)
- 2. The Known World by Edward P Jones. By Jonathan Yardley. The Washington Post.
- 3. Books of the Times; His Brother's Keeper in Antebellum Virginia. By Janet Maslin. The New York Times.
Mahbubul Karim (Sohel) is a freelance writer. His email address is: email@example.com.