The Known World by Edward P. Jones
Published: 2003, Amistad
Genre: Adult Historical Fiction
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“We are all worthy of one another.”
The Known World starts with the death of Henry Townsend, a well-known and well-respected black man who worked his way to freedom and now owns his own plantation. With his death comes grief, of course, but also questions as to what’s in store for the many people, free and slave alike, who lived under his care. This is not merely the story of Henry’s successful rise in status, however. This story reveals the harsh realities of life in antebellum Virginia as told through the experiences of all those who call it home: blacks and whites, freed and enslaved, rich and poor.
As one of my coworkers mentioned during our October book club discussion, The Known World reads like an oral history. A transcribed work of oral history is perhaps the best, most accurate way that I could describe this book. There’s not really one central plot. In fact, the story doesn’t follow a linear timeline, instead meandering through a series of vignettes featuring a very large cast of characters.The unifying characteristic between characters is either their relationship to Henry Townsend or else to the town in which he lives.
If ever a book needed to include a cast of characters as part of its paratext, it would be this one. Jones focused on at least ten characters to a fairly substantial degree, and dozens of others are mentioned as well. I was fortunate enough to find an extensive character list online, which enabled me to have a better understanding of the convoluted relationships between the characters. Jones does not necessarily throw readers headfirst into this story, but neither does he spend much time helping to refresh readers’ memories on who each character is, even if a hundred pages stand between the next mention of that character. By focusing on such a large group of characters, readers are afforded a much more extensive view of life during this time; readers just must be willing to suffer through some initial information overload and confusion.
Ambitious is probably the best single word to describe Jones’ herculean effort to provide a snapshot of this era of American history. He touches on so many different aspects of life: enslaved blacks, enslaved blacks who worked their way up to freedom, blacks born free, poorer whites whose situations are not much better than slaves, slave-owning whites, middle-class whites, tensions between races, tensions between genders, concepts of freedom and servitude, and so much more. There’s a lot to unpack in this book, which I think can be best understood through discussion with others. I was grateful to have the opportunity to talk about this book with my coworkers.
The downfall of Jones’ work is ultimately in how widespread the novel is. By not really focusing on one issue or one family, the story spreads itself too thin. There are simply too many characters that I struggled to figure out who really mattered, and who I was supposed to empathize with. The third-person omniscient narrator also contributed to this problem. It simply provided far too much distance between the readers and the characters and made some of the truly awful experiences they endured a little more difficult to conceptualize. For a book dealing with things such as the retrieval and punishment of runaway slaves, of the horrible practice surrounding the sale of freed men, and of the grey area involved in being a former slave who now owns slaves of his own, I wasn’t able to experience nearly as much emotion as I wanted to. I wanted to be swept away with strong feelings for what I read about, but that just did not happen.
As little more than a series of vignettes about the lives of people living within this southern town, The Known World also lacked any sort of linear structure. Many times I had to pause at the start of each new vignette and think about who this person is, how they related to the previous section I’d read (if at all), and figure out this new character’s place within the story as a whole. Transitions between sections were virtually nonexistent. Each long chapter detailed three or four events, but I could never grasp the relation between the events chosen in each chapter. And, much like informally told stories themselves, the narrator had a frequent habit of interrupting the current vignette at hand to describe random tidbits about the later life of newly-introduced characters. In a way, this did help make the story more circular and establish a certain tone and mood. It was also distracting, however.
I think Jones makes some powerful messages about America’s history within this work and I can understand why it has received critical acclaim. Readers considering this one should be forewarned that it does require a bit more focus and dedication to read this one than many other works of fiction. Is it worth it? That’s something for each reader to decide. For me, I found the experience reading it to be frustrating, but the following discussion was still rewarding.
Rating: 2 stars