The Historical Context and Its Main Features in The Known World
The Known World
The Known World by Edward P. Jones is a fictional account of the history of Manchester County, Virginia. It is set in the Antebellum South, and focuses on a black slave owner, Henry Townsend, and the effects of his death on the Townsend plantation. It sheds light on a slice of history that is often ignored- black ownership of slaves. Although the writing style was slightly confusing, the book delivered an accurate, engaging description of the historical landscape of the era by using a wide array of characters and describing important events.
The book begins at the death of Henry Townsend. As the book goes on, the history of Henry’s life unfolds, and we learn that he was born a slave to Mr. William Robbins, the richest man in Manchester County. Henry develops a close relationship with his master, especially after his father, Augustus Townsend, buys himself and his wife out of slavery, leaving Henry alone on the plantation for several years. Robbins takes Henry under his wing and becomes his mentor when Henry’s parents finally pay for his freedom. Henry buys his first slave, Moses, and builds a house and a plantation. Robbins pays for Henry’s education– he is tutored by Fern Elston, a free black women who is highly respected in the community. Through Fern, Henry meets Caldonia, whom he marries.
After Henry’s death, Caldonia is overcome with grief and although she tries her best to keep the plantation in order, things begin to fall apart. She has an affair with Moses, the overseer. He, excited by the chance for power, convinces his wife and son to run away so that he can marry Caldonia and become the master of the plantation. He sends them away with Alice, a slave whom everyone assumes is crazy because she sings very loudly and wanders around at night aimlessly. The Sheriff, John Skiffington, is a god-fearing man who believes that slavery is morally wrong, but still enforces the laws surrounding the issue. When the three slaves escape, he is unable to find and bring them back. The town stirs, and folks begin to doubt the sheriff. Meanwhile, Augustus Townsend is captured by two of Skiffington’s patrol men and sold back into slavery unlawfully.
Moses, frustrated that Caldonia will not free him, runs away and hides with Mildred Townsend in Augustus’s house. Skiffington and his deputy find him hiding there and John accidentally shoots Mildred. The deputy, Counsel Skiffington, kills John, loots the house, and leaves to take Moses back to Caldonia’s plantation. More slaves have run away and the plantation has become disorganized. The author goes on to explain the respective futures of certain characters.
This book is significant to the study of U.S. history because it provides an in depth understanding of slavery and the social structure of the Antebellum South. It is easy to read about slavery in a textbook and automatically assume that all slave-owners were evil people and that all free blacks were abolitionists. Important details are left out, and so are all of the emotions connected with the issue. You get a very flat, distanced description of the way things were. The Known World is an excellent way to really step into the past and see how slavery affected all sorts of different people. Jones describes many different characters and their views on slavery during the story. For example, Fern Elston, educator to most of the free blacks in Manchester County, is interviewed by a Canadian pamphlet writer named Anderson Frazier. She tells Frazier of Henry’s relationship with Mr. Robbins and also gives some interesting insight on her beliefs about slavery. He shares with her that he finds black slave-owners to be an odd phenomenon, and compares it to owning one’s own family. She denies that it is comparable to that, and she states dryly that, “We owned slaves. It was what was done, and so that is what we did.” But during the conversation, Fern becomes slightly emotional and it is clear that it was not that simple to her. Back in that era, slavery was so normalized that even former slaves like Henry Townsend, had trouble reconciling their moral issue with the matter because it was “what was done.” Certain free negroes wanted to exercise all the freedom and power they could, because they had been oppressed to such a degree. Caldonia’s mother, Maude, portrays this trait. She believes that slaves and land are a “legacy” and she goes to great lengths to preserve her legacy. She poisons her husband when he threatens to free their slaves, and she relentlessly badgers Caldonia about buying slave insurance. The character of Maude shows that owning slaves is ingrained in the culture as a symbol of success or wealth.
The author does a fantastic job of creating an atmosphere that normalizes slavery by using small anecdotes about the history of the county, and little excerpts about one plantation or another. He provides information on the laws that were in place at the time, and how they were enforced. It helps the reader to understand that the way people thought back then was different from how we think now, which is valuable insight.
The Known World by Edward P. Jones provided me with rich information regarding slavery. I learned about the hardships that the slaves endured and how they lived on the plantation. Most slaves were not overworked, but on occasion, a master would be neglectful and work someone for too long. These brutal instances could take the life of a slave. In the story, a slave woman named Celeste works for too long in the field while she is pregnant and miscarries her baby. They had no protections against such long hours and hard labor. They mostly ate poor-quality food that could result in malnourishment and illness. Jones writes that Townsend always rationed the slaves enough food, but it was the type of food that was the problem, not the amount. Slaves were subject to many abuses because of their perceived inferiority to other human beings. He mentions that, “In many minds, raping a slave was not even a crime,” and describes that it was common practice to punish runaway slaves by cutting off an ear or slicing through their Achilles tendon.
The enslaved coped with their positions in a variety of different ways. Many settled down with a partner, had children, and focused on their families to find some happiness in their lives. Some attempted to run away. One particular character, Stamford, is convinced that all he needs to emotionally survive slavery is “young stuff”. He is constantly courting women half his age because someone once told him that younger women were the key to dealing with life as a slave. Moses, the overseer, is power-hungry and attempts to marry Caldonia in order to get his freedom. Alice spends the majority of her life enslaved pretending to be insane so that she can escape easily someday. All these different coping mechanisms were interesting to me because they taught me about how slavery affected the individual, not just society and the country as a whole.
Edward P. Jones is an American author who grew up in the sixties and seventies. He is a black man from a very low-class background. Although he did not experience slavery first hand, he is familiar with racism and discrimination. He became interested in the history of slavery in America through his love of reading, which also lead him to major in English for college. When he became inspired to write The Known World, he first wrote out his ideas without doing research. He says in an interview, “The creative part of the brain can’t be held back. So over ten years, while I kept avoiding doing research, the creative part of my brain worked away” (Edward P. Jones, The Art of Fiction No. 222). Then, he researched, edited, and published the book. The story is a work of fiction, but Jones did the appropriate research to ensure that it provided an accurate picture of the era. Although he did not live through this particular era, I believe he still has a connection to what he wrote about because he has experienced racism and oppression first hand and is able to depict the emotions that result from it quite well. Jones is a very intelligent, qualified writer, and has won many awards for the historical truthfulness and poignancy of his work.
Overall, I thought the book was thought-provoking, but it lacked a true plotline. I enjoyed learning about the fictional town of Manchester County and the events that occurred there, but I would have appreciated a more explicit story. I think there were too many characters in the book for the author to truly focus on the lives of one or two of them. Instead, the main character was essentially the Townsend plantation. The writing style was unbiased, which is difficult to pull off when writing about a subject as ugly and controversial as slavery. Jones merely described events and the way certain characters acted and felt about them. This allowed the reader to observe what was going on in the book subjectively.
However, Jones had a tendency to go off on tangents within the book. There were so many small anecdotes about the past or futures of certain characters that it became slightly confusing and irritating. I found that it distracted from the present that he was trying to describe in the book. I would not recommend this book to a friend unless they were studying U.S. history and wanted to find a more in-depth description of slavery. The book was interesting, but not engaging enough to be a recreational read for a teenager.
The Known World offered a pathway into understanding the minute details of life during slavery, effectively emerging the reader in the era. It provided information about the thoughts, perspectives, relationships, and struggles of life in the South during the nineteenth century. It was a useful tool in understanding the time period and the “peculiar institution” that was so normal for the people who lived through it. I thought it was an interesting read and would recommend it to adults who enjoy reading historical fiction or learning about the struggle for human rights.
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