Headline: The Known World Is Still Unknown Subhead: Book Review of The Known World by Edward P. Jones Author: Marcia L. McNair How many people realize that there were African American slaveholders in the American South? The idea seems incongruous, but it is a little-known fact that author Edward P. Jones examines in-depth in his 2004 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Known World. Yet, despite the painstaking detail in the book, which took close to ten years to complete, Jones leaves readers wondering how they can learn so much about a unfamiliar subject and still feel puzzled. Perhaps it is because Jones avoids answering the most obvious question: How did African American slaveholders reconcile within themselves the perpetuation of a system which was designed to exploit and dehumanize African Americans? If you are unfamiliar with the history of slavery in the world and/or America, it might seem improbable that African Americans would be allowed to own other African Americans. Most people think that slavery was purely a racist institution. However, in examining the reasons for slavery as it has existed in its various forms throughout history, one learns that its original rationale was economic, not racial. The form of slavery practiced in the American South, chattel slavery, evolved into a “peculiar institution” (the term popularized by historian John Hope Franklin in his landmark historical analysis From Slavery to Freedom) designed to subjugate African Americans. Thus, if you can think of slavery as having a primarily economic basis at one point, you can accept the notion that African Americans could be allowed to own slaves. What I find most chilling about Jones’ fictional community of African American slaveholders is that many of his characters were once slaves themselves. However, despite knowing intimately the brutality of slavery, once free, they choose to emulate the disgusting practice. Henry Townsend, the protagonist, is a slave until his father, Augustus, makes payments for over six years to buy his only child out of bondage. Therefore, it is obvious why Augustus is deeply disappointed when his son chooses to exploit the free labor of his brothers by becoming a slave owner. Readers are left as mystified as the father about how Henry could be so untouched by and detached from his former intolerable condition. In all fairness to Jones, I must note that he allows many of slave characters to express a similar confusion when they realize their fortunes will not change simply because their master is black. Perhaps these slaves are meant to represent the readers as well. Studies say the best indicator of a future abuser is having been abused. This theme is symbolized in most of Jones’ characters, most notably in Moses, who is Henry’s overseer. Moses eventually incorporates the same detached and opportunistic attitudes towards love, life, and family as his oppressors. Yet, even in accepting this cynical idea, readers are never quite sure why Moses fails to develop empathy towards his fellow slaves. Why doesn’t Henry follow his father’s model of integrity? Are people doomed to imitate the inhumanity of man to man if that is our only “known world”? Jones’ dispassionate message to readers seems to be that one cannot practice inhumanity without become less human, less humane, whether you are black or white. If this is Jones’ main idea, then he has done a skillful job of exemplifying its contemporary manifestation. Flash forward 700 years, and we find Jones, and African American author, writing about slavery in a tone (albeit third person omnipresent) as detached as any white slave master. How different from Toni Morrison’s passionate narrative Beloved, (1988 Pulitzer Prize) which also addresses the horrors of slavery, but manages to deconstruct the pathos which leads to the pathology, surpassing the limitations of third person voice by shifting point of view in concise yet lyrical lines that stop the heart with their poetry. The Unknown World would have been a better title for this book because for all we learn about it, the less we know of it. Yet, for readers who found Beloved’s seamless blend of living and dead characters with real and imaginary action a bit too complex, The Known World’s scholarly, straightforward (if epic) structure will be far easier to digest. Though the novel includes close to sixty different characters and subplots, in deference to somewhat absent-minded readers like me, the book includes a Dramatis Personae at the back of the book. The synchronicity of Jones’ plot is breath taking and masterful, a kaleidoscopic tapestry of humanity, so rare in literature that this alone makes the book worthy of the Pulitzer Prize. Readers cannot come away from this book without realizing the interrelatedness of human beings that reaches far beyond disparities in race, class, gender, or even time and place. In addition, they will gain a comprehensive overview of the daily lives of African American slave holders. And considering the repugnance inherent in the conundrum, perhaps the less we are left knowing about their interior world--the better.
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