‘The Known World’ by Edward P. Jones – A Great Novel from Early in This Century

‘The Known World’ by Edward P. Jones (2003) –  388 pages

the-known-world

Of all the novels that were published in the early 2000s, the one I have most regretted not having read was ‘The Known World’.  I have read both of his two spectacular collections of stories, ‘Lost in the City’ and ‘Aunt Hagar’s Children’, so I knew how profound and moving a writer Jones is.  ‘The Known World’ won both the Pulitzer Prize and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, so it was way past time that I read this novel.

‘The Known World’ recreates the rural world that included slavery in the state of Virginia in the 1850s.  Slaves – humans – were the property of slave owners and were bought and sold.  In Virginia a few of the slave owners were black, and that is a situation that is dealt with in this novel.  By this time Great Britain had already outlawed slavery throughout the entire British Empire.  The nearby state of Pennsylvania passed a law in 1780 that gradually abolished slavery so that by 1860 there were no slaves in the state.  The American South was one of the few last places in the world that still allowed slavery.  The Civil War was still a few years away.

There were the slave owners, the slaves, and those people who neither owned slaves nor were slaves.  Up to three quarters of the white people did not own slaves.  As opposed to the slaves who had a specific property value, these white people had no recognizable value to the slave owners.

The slaves were either field slaves or house slaves.  The house slaves sometimes grew quite close to the owner and the owner’s family due to proximity.

Since the slaves had a property value to the owners, most owners would take care of their property.  There were some vicious owners who did not and would usually wind up with their farms foreclosed.  This only caused more devastation for the slaves as they would be auctioned off, their families split up.

Slaves who attempted to run away and were caught were often hobbled by having their Achilles tendon cut.  Then they could never run away again and would walk with a hobble for the rest of their lives.

By focusing on a black slave owner, Edward P. Jones avoids turning this re-creation of the days of slavery into a morality play of good and evil.   There is no one preaching in this novel.  The matter-of-fact tone of this narrative only intensifies the reader’s reaction to the events in the story.

edward jonesJones’ strong story-telling skills are on full display here.  We care what happens to all of these characters.

I’m happy that I went back and caught one of the big novels from the early part of this century.  Now that I’m caught up with the work of Edward P. Jones, all I can do is wait for his next novel or collection of stories.

 

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7 responses to this post.

  1. Thank you for posting this:)
    As a book-blogger myself, I sometimes wonder about posting reviews of books published a long time ago, especially when I think everyone’s read them (though of course not everyone has).
    But then I think about how much pleasure I get out of revisiting books through the reviews of others… I read The Known World some years ago (though not when it first came out) and thought it was a stunning book. Your review brought back powerful memories of reading it, and a reminder of the important message it had to share.
    Thanks again, Lisa

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    • Hi Lisa,
      Yes, it is hard to excite readers on books that are from the near-recent past as opposed to from the far-past or new. I suppose I used the old John Self (Asylum) technique of somehow making the reading of this book an occasion for me.
      I’m happy your reaction to the book was similar to mine as it definitely is a stunning book. They were going to make a movie out of ‘The Known World’ but somehow it got hung up in Hollywood negotiations.

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  2. I LOVED this book!! Thanks for this post – it reminded me how much I enjoy Edward P. Jones. Have you read his short stories? They’re wonderful.

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    • Hi Jeanie,
      Yes, I’ve read both ‘Lost in the City’ and ‘Aunt Hagar’s Children’. He is a wonderful short story writer as you say. I’m eagerly awaiting his next work although apparently nothing has been announced.

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  3. I think what’s important is whether books are new or interesting to us as readers, not whether they’re new or interesting per se. Chasing the latest release is I think an error, that can lead to ignoring a lot of great books and a lot of unfairly overlooked ones.

    Your point on property value is an interesting one. One of the things that comes out in Tobacco Road, a 1930s novel, is that the poor farmers in it have no value – not even as property. Of course, one wants to be careful not to suggest that people are therefore better off as slaves, which I don’t believe, but there is a meaningful critique to be made of a system that only gives people value when they’re reduced to being chattels.

    Have you read other Edward Jones?

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    • Hi Max,
      I try to balance the new and the old. I believe literature is still alive, so I don’t limit myself to just the classics. I try to determine which new books might potentially become classics, and Edward P. Jones fits that category.

      Poor whites probably never had it very good in the South especially compared to the slave owners, but that doesn’t mean they should take it out on the people who were much less fortunate than they were, the blacks. Politics today in the South shows that the evil of slavery still pervades the United States.

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