The first chapter of Edward P. Jones’ novel The Known World opens with Moses, the overseer slave for a black slaveowner, tasting the soil he has just worked for 15 hours and then walking out into the small patch of forest beyond his cabin but still on his master’s land. In these first few beautifully written pages Jones create the rich and paradoxal world of Henry Townsend’s plantation. From Alice, a brain-injured night-wanderer to Caldonia, Henry’s wife, to Elias, another slave and many more, the personalities on this both unique and typical southern plantation come alive, setting out the threads of a perplexing and haunting story that once woven together will extend far beyond the boundaries of the fields and the house.
While reading the novel, I was reminded of an interview I once listened to on NPR with Romeo Dallaire, who was commander of the United Nations peacekeeping forces during the Rwandan genocide and who wrote the book: Shake Hands with the Devil. In the interview, Dallaire spoke of the time he saw a woman, carrying a baby and wielding a machete, chasing another woman who was also carrying an infant. More than the horror of this image, Dallaire couldn’t get over the symbolic nature of the moment and what it spoke about the process of dehumanization. In The Known World, Jones takes on this same appalling idea by telling the story of one of slavery’s lesser known legacies – free black persons owning their own slaves.
I call it a legacy because its very possibility stems from the moral corrosion created by the institution of slavery. Jones eloquently investigates the soul-destroying ethical compromise of granting yourself the right of power over another human being, allowing life and liberty to be considered property. Accepting slavery as ‘correct’ and ‘right’ relies upon an incredibly powerful process of dehumanization. Jones shows exactly how powerful this process was and how easily it was accepted by the white community but, more importantly, how it filtered down into the black community as well.
Although the book tells a myriad of stories, about each of the slaves and what happens to them, the novel is mainly concerned with tracing the development of Henry’s plantation and his relationship with his parents and his former master as well as the chaos, confusion and disappointment that ensues upon his unexpected death. With the care of a historian and the prowess of an incredible writer, Jones dissects this tiny universe and exposes the essential fact of its tragedy.