The Known World

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The Known World: A Novel
“An Ironic Oddity in African American U.S. History”
The Known World: A Novel (2003) is the Pulitzer Prize-winning debut novel by Edward P. Jones. The book was praised by critics for its provocative depiction of the complexities of slavery in the United States and helped establish Jones's reputation as an author of note. Jones was inspired while attending College of the Holy Cross when he learned that a few free blacks owned slaves in pre-Civil War America. The author spent about ten years developing the story idea and reading books about slavery before writing the novel in late 2001 and early 2002. While The Known World includes the truth about black slave owners and captures the essence of the era, its people, and its tensions, Jones did not rely on any of his research in writing the novel. He created the whole fictional world of Manchester County, Virginia, including specific historical facts, academic studies mentioned in passing, and other "evidence." The novel weaves stories about interconnected whites, both rich and poor, free blacks, free black slave-owners, and enslaved blacks. The fact that free African Americans used to own other blacks as slaves is an ironic oddity of U.S. history that Edward P. Jones pondered for a long time. This perplexing detail about life before the Civil War eventually inspired him to write an eloquently crafted, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel entitled The Known World, published in 2003. An incisive analysis of a tense era in U.S. history and a critical and literary success, The Known World carries an feeling of historical accuracy and gravity even though it is entirely fictional. The novel’s frequent allusions to the twentieth-century descendants of its characters and its fabricated references to twentieth-century historical scholarship suggest that Jones is also interested in how slaveholding bears on contemporary life. While Jones emphasizes how destructive slavery is for both slave and owner, he also highlights the importance of inner strength and familial relationships. The Known World enters a fictional chapter of black history which is not necessarily so distant from the frequently desperate conditions that many blacks face in urban U.S. society. The plot revolves around the life and death of Henry Townsend, a free black man who was once a slave and became a slave owner in adulthood; Jones’s novel explores a fictional county in antebellum Virginia over several decades. With its community-narrative approach and its patchwork storytelling style, the work gets to the heart of the moral dilemma that surrounds the institution of slavery. Jones delves into fundamental questions of human ownership and power over others while exploring views on justice, religion, and morality in the antebellum South. Henry Townsend is born a slave, but dies as a prosperous slave owner, leaving his widow Caldonia a significant legacy to deal with. Like his father Augustus, Henry is extraordinarily talented and uses his gifts to buy his freedom. Unlike his father, Henry accepts that slavery is legal and purchases a number of slaves from his ex-master William Robbins, the first of whom, cruel Moses, he makes overseer. The revelation of this situation causes a break between father and son, healed only as Henry nears death. Robbins, the largest and most powerful landowner in Manchester County, Virginia, is unhappily married to a white woman and involved for the second time with a slave, whom he comes to love dearly. He dotes on his black children, providing for their education from a black female teacher, Fern Elston, which connects them with Henry and Caldonia during their student years. Robbins also provides ongoing advice to Henry on the obligations and demands of slave owning, and controls who will serve as sheriff in the county. John Skiffington becomes sheriff after his long-tenured predecessor disappoints Robbins. John, a fervent Bible reader, is personally determined not to...
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