This book won the Pulitzer Prize in 2004, but I have only just read it. In many ways, I’m glad that I’ve read it six years after the hoopla, when the coodabeens and shouldabeens of other competing titles for that year has subsided and the book has to stand on its own two feet.
Edward P. Jones is an African-American writer, and as a recent Washington Post article explains, has written two books of short stories and The Known World is his only full-length novel. He hasn’t written a word of fiction in four years but he’s obviously a slow worker: he carried around The Known World in his head for ten years, then wrote it in a three-month rush. Once I saw this, I recognized what it was that I’d sensed while reading it: that we have been given a self-contained story world, complete and interwoven, unfolded to us by an all-knowing narrator. It was the voice of this book that really drew me in- it had a formal dignity in its own simplicity, mixed with sadness and wisdom. It felt like an old, old story.
It is entirely appropriate that the story be written by an African-American writer, and I really don’t know what the effect would have been had it been penned by a white author. For in this book, based on a footnote to the documented history of slavery in America, the slave-owner, Henry Townsend, is black and the owner of black slaves. Henry’s father saved the money to purchase his son’s freedom from William Robbins, the most powerful man in Manchester County, Virginia. But Henry in turn, purchased his own slaves. His ‘investment’ (and Jones does not let you forget that slaves are a commodity, with a dollar price) falls under the protective umbrella of the whole slave-owning economy and structure established by white slaveowners, and when Henry dies there is a restless anxiety amongst Henry’s slaves about whether they will be liberated, sold or whether the overseer Moses will emerge as a controlling force.
It is a fact of history that blacks did hold other blacks in slavery. But there are many things in this book that are not, despite appearances, historical fact. Manchester County itself is an invention; Jones cites studies that do not exist, invents historians and publications, and smudges reality and fiction. In what could have been, in cruder hands a “gotcha” white-triumphalist tract, characters (both white and black) are morally complex and the situation challenges our preconceptions of slave ownership.
The narrative is not easy to follow. There is a huge array of characters, and the omniscient narrator flings us around chronologically at a dizzying pace. We are introduced to a character and immediately told that “ninety years later, she will…”. In a reflection of the powerlessness and contingency of life, appalling things happen abruptly without warning. But there is no mistaking the author’s horror at slavery and its corrosive effect on all people it touches, and he passes it to us.
I was challenged by this book in its style and in its content. I know that it has been compared (generally unfavourably) with Toni Morrison’s work, but to me that seems a little unfair and too simplistic. The book is valuable in its own right and its real power is in the creation of this bounded, “known” world- Jones’ world- crafted by him alone.