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The Known World by Edward P. Jones

Updated: Mar 31, 2023

2003, Amistad

The story starts in 1855, in Virginia, where former slave Henry Townsend is now the owner of 33 slaves. There were free black slaveholders in Virginia (I haven't researched other states), but while this facet of the book drew attention from the public, it's not the author's focus. As Jones said in an interview: I didn't give that any thought. I learned about blacks owning slaves when I was in college. And then years and years later I decided to write about it. My only thought was about writing characters, and it just so happens that some of those characters were black people who owned slaves.

Jones has also said that some book reviewers incorrectly assumed that he had done extensive research for the novel. (Interview with poet/writer E. Ethelbert Miller)

The novel centers around the lives of free and enslaved blacks, their everyday concerns and problems. Even though interactions with the novel's white people have consequences, the whites themselves remain on the periphery.

Reading this book, which I came upon by chance, I wondered why I hadn't heard of and read it before, as with all of Toni Morrison's books. I found The Known World more accessible than most of her work.

"Silent yet songful"


I can still picture vividly, from a scene near the end of the novel, an immense and almost magical piece of artwork by an escaped slave, representing two maps made from tapestry, clay, paint and other diverse materials, "hanging silent yet songful" (383) on the wall. One map depicts every structure (houses, buildings, cemeteries, wells) in the fictional County of Manchester where the novel takes place. The other map is even "more miraculous than the one of the County," (383) representing not only every cabin, barn, path, even blade of grass on Henry's plantation, but also every person. (383) "Each person's raised up as though to look in the very eyes of God....the slave cemetery is just plain ground now, grass and nothing else. It is empty, even of the tiniest infants, who rest alive and well in their mothers' arms." (385)

I would love to stand for awhile in front of such beauty. I wonder if any artist has ever tried to create such a "map" using the descriptions in the book?

The above fictional scene with the maps takes place in Washington DC, on April 12, 1861. Click to see what happened on that day in history.

Extra note:

In the story, Atlas Life, Casualty and Assurance in Hartford, Connecticut offers slave owners insurance on the lives of slaves, to cover losses from injury or running away (207). I wonder if this represents Aetna Life & Casualty in Hartford, where I worked for a year after college.
Edward P. Jones

Read (short story collections by Edward P. Jones):

All Aunt Hagar's Children, 2006

Lost in the City, 1992

Interview (same link, first paragraph above)

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