THE KNOWN WORLD by Edward P. Jones (first published 2003)

It was in Paul Verhoeven’s 1983 suspense film The Fourth Man that I first heard an author speak of the art of fiction as the ability to “lie the truth”. This principle is something Edward P. Jones follows very effectively with this Pulitzer Prize-winning debut novel.

It would be logical to assume that his accounts of 19th century slave owners, both black and white, were based on extensive research. There are, after all, quotes from 1806 act of the Virginia House of Delegates and extracts from the 1840 U.S. census. However, Jones admits all these ‘facts’ came out of his head. Although he bought a lot of books on the subject but ended up not reading any of them and made things up instead.

In one interview he justified this unorthodox approach by saying “slavery comes with its own emotions”, implying that writing from the gut is better than getting bogged down by details. It certainly makes for a novel full of incident and mini-fables that tells you far more than a straight historical account ever could.

The title refers to a map that a Russian man sells to sheriff John Skiffington that he claims is unique in that “it was the first time the word ‘America’ had been put on a map”.

Maps can show your location in relation to other places but tell you nothing about the inhabitants. To truly be a ‘known world’ you need to understand the people.  Certainly, you can search in vain to find the place where the novel is set since Manchester County, Virginia is another invention of the author.

In Subterranean Homesick Blues, Bob Dylan wrote that “you don’t need a weatherman to tell which way the wind blows” and perhaps, by the same token, you don’t need a map writer to show black people the way to freedom.

Edward P. Jones

You would expect a novel about slavery written by a black man to be full of rage but, for the most part, he lets the injustice speak for itself . The moral arguments become complicated by virtue of the fact that many of the slave owners in the story are themselves black. Jones describes one group of slave owners: “They were all members of a free Negro class that, while not having the power of some whites, had been brought up to believe that they were rulers waiting in the wings”

The omniscient narrator  has an all-seeing eye and Jones often tells us what will happen to his characters many years later as when he informs us:  “Minerva and her sister would not see each other again for 70 years” or that “Tessie would live to be 90 years old and the doll her father was making would be with her until her last hour”.

These shifts in time and point of view make for a complicated structure and, in the mid section, I found it hard to put all the pieces together and understand where the story was taking me.

The tale of the slave overseer Moses is crucial in tying the big themes together. The novel begins with him alone in the fields eating dirt to test whether the soil is fertile or not and then stripping naked in the woods and masturbating. These striking images bring a new meaning the notion of being at one with the land!

I found it a little frustrating to have to wait until much later in the novel to know more about this character but ultimately my patience was rewarded as the events reach a powerful climax with Moses at the centre.

However, it is the death of Henry Townsend,one of these black slave owners that is the fulcrum of the novel and exposes a fragile social system on the verge of falling apart.

Jones knows better than to portray all the whites as the enemy. William Robbins, for instance, is described as “one of the few white men who would not suffer from sitting across from a black man”. At the same time the racism towards the “freed niggers” is a fact of life. Without the papers to show their status they were at the mercy of unscrupulous traders. One of the most memorable scenes is where a ‘free’ black man Augustus has his documents eaten by a tyrant named Darcy who then declares “A nigger’s for sale if I say he’s for sale”. 

The novel is dedicated to the author’s brother and their illiterate mother Jeanette S.M. Jones “who could have done much more in a better world”. While, inevitably, women have less power, there is a real sense in which Jones wants us to see how the female characters are crucial to the formation of a more civilised society. Fern Elston for example is a strong-minded teacher who maintains that while man stops learning at the age of 14 a woman never stops learning. It is significant too that the epilogue centres on Henry Townsend’s steadfast widow Caldonia, the blossoming artist Alice and the maternal Celeste.

This, Jones seems to be saying, is the basis for this ‘better world’ free of the obscenity in which human beings are treated merely as property.