Known Knowns

American Dreams, 2003: The Known World by Edward P. Jones

One of the most intriguing and provocative novels about slavery came out ten years ago. Nathaniel Rich on how it was misunderstood on publication but its real message haunts us even more today.

Universal History Archive/Getty

The reviews greeting The Known World upon its publication in 2003 were uniformly rapturous, and, for Edward P. Jones, uniformly maddening. Critics singled out for praise the novel’s depiction of black slave owners in the antebellum South, a largely overlooked and toxic fungus in the cellar of American history. So little was known about the subject of black slave owners, and so little had been written about it, that Jones’s novel about Henry Townsend’s plantation and its slaves was taken as a feat of historiographic revelation. “Jones has clearly done a tremendous amount of research to bring this time and place to life,” wrote John Freeman in the Boston Globe; the USA Today critic expressed gratitude that his “historical novel” didn’t “become a tedious showcase for the author’s research.” As Jones irritably pointed out in later interviews, including one appended to the novel’s paperback edition, there was one problem with this interpretation: he had done almost no research whatsoever. “I started out thinking I would read a whole bunch of books about slavery,” said Jones. “But I never got around to doing that.”

In fairness to his critics, Jones works hard to camouflage his lack of research by including gratuitous details that, though invented, give the novel a patina of verisimilitude. He notes exact dollar amounts for each slave purchase; census information for Manchester, the fictional Virginian county where the novel takes place; references to (invented) contemporary works of scholarship; and historical anecdotes about the intricacies of slave law. Jones is not trying to be duplicitous; detail is the essential clothing of all good fiction, historical or not. But the apparent superfluity of some of these details can be unsteadying. Like the premise of black slave owners, the torrent of pseudo-factual information forces readers to question what they know about slavery and race, and to wonder which stories are too horrible to have been made up.

Time functions in an even more unsettling way in The Known World. The novel has no present tense. Though much of the action takes place on Henry Townsend’s plantation in 1855—where slaves fall in and out of love, try to escape or don’t, and suffer the indignities of working for a master several shades darker than themselves—Jones frequently takes wild bounds into the future or the past. The ground beneath our feet is always shifting. A scene about Townsend will slip into a reminiscence about his childhood, or a forecasting of his death. (Jones has a compulsion for telling us when each character will die; it is often one of the first things we learn about a character.) There are enough flashbacks, and flashforwards, to make the reader question when exactly the novel takes place. Is it 1855? Or 1881, when another black slave owner, Fern Elston tells stories to a Canadian journalist—the very stories that comprise The Known World? Does the novel take place in the present day, narrated by a Jones-like writer with access to historical scholarship? Or have we entered some supernatural realm? For Jones’s narrator is able not only to move freely through time, but beyond time—into the afterlife, where he follows his characters’ souls after they leave their bodies. We are dealing here with an unusually omniscient omniscient narrator. A slippery one, too. Dissolving the line between past and present, and between fact and myth, Jones forces the reader to question where the novel ends and life begins.

Historical fiction—like its mirror opposite, fiction set in the future—tends to carry the implication that its themes are not confined to its own period, but speak to our own. This implication is especially vexed when it comes to novels about slavery, a period that most Americans—at least white Americans—prefer to see as a malignant tumor long ago excised and disposed in a biohazard waste bin. But The Known World, like Beloved, Roots, and James McBride’s recent The Good Lord Bird, forces its audience to confront a more uncomfortable truth.

During the year that The Known World was published, in Virginia, where the novel takes place, one hundred members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans made national headlines for protesting the erection of an Abraham Lincoln statue in Richmond. “As a southerner, I’m offended,” said Bragdon Bowling, the group’s Virginia division commander. The Supreme Court, meanwhile, considered the legality of cross-burning in Virginia v. Black, a case involving the arrest of Ku Klux Klan member named Barry Black for burning a cross at a KKK rally in Carroll County. “[A cross burning] tells your adversaries that you are coming,” Black told a Virginia newspaper at the time of his arrest. (Black’s conviction was vacated by the court.) And an American Civil Liberties Union study found that capital punishment in Virginia was being administered disproportionately to black prisoners. “In Virginia, whether or not you are sentenced to death has little to do with the crime,” said one person involved in the report, “and everything to do with your race.” None of these developments inspired significant soul-searching about slavery’s persistent legacy, in Virginia or nationally. But The Known World did. Fiction has a power denied to news stories or opinion essays. Novels are empathy machines. They force readers to reconsider their most strongly held convictions, to imagine themselves in the lives of others.

The Known World does these things, and accomplishes something else besides: it exposes the false comforts of moral certainty. There are no obvious villains in The Known World, other than a couple of abusive white men who take it upon themselves to patrol for runaway slaves. Townsend, for all his hypocrisy (he was born a slave), is largely a sympathetic character; even his former master, a white slave owner who maintains a second family with his black mistress, is revealed to be more enlightened that he originally appears.

Nor are the slaves without moral complication. Early in the novel a slave named Priscilla, imagining life outside the Townsend plantation, rejects the idea of ever escaping: “I would hate all that not knowin again where in the world I was.” There is a danger, Jones suggests, in assuming that the known world is preferable to any alternative. Moral certainty is itself a form of slavery.

Other notable novels published in 2003:

Oracle Night by Paul Auster

Shipwreck by Louis Begley

A Box of Matches by Nicholson Baker

Drop City by T.C. Boyle

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

American Woman by Susan Choi

Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo

The Master Butchers Singing Club by Louise Erdrich

Pattern Recognition by William Gibson

The Commissariat of Enlightenment by Ken Kalfus

The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem

Love by Toni Morrison

All Over Creation by Ruth Ozeki

My Cold War by Tom Piazza

The Time of Our Singing by Richard Powers

Samaritan by Richard Price

Mortals by Norman Rush

She is Me by Cathleen Schine

Good Faith by Jane Smiley

Bay of Souls by Robert Stone

Pulitzer Prize:

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

National Book Award:

The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard

Bestselling novel of the year:

The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown

About this series:

This monthly series will chronicle the history of the American century as seen through the eyes of its novelists. The goal is to create a literary anatomy of the last century—or, to be precise, from 1900 to 2013. In each column I’ll write about a single novel and the year it was published. The novel may not be the bestselling book of the year, the most praised, or the most highly awarded—though awards do have a way of fixing an age’s conventional wisdom in aspic. The idea is to choose a novel that, looking back from a safe distance, seems most accurately, and eloquently, to speak for the time in which it was written. Other than that there are few rules. I won’t pick any stinkers.

Previous Selections:

1902—Brewster’s Millions by George Barr McCutcheon

1912—The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man by James Weldon Johnson

1922—Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis

1932—Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell

1942—A Time to Be Born by Dawn Powell

1952—Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

1962—One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

1972—The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin

1982—The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux

1992—Clockers by Richard Price

2002—Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

2012—Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

1903—The Call of the Wild by Jack London

1913—O Pioneers! By Willa Cather

1923—Black Oxen by Gertrude Atherton

1933—Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West

1943—Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles

1953—Junky by William S. Burroughs

1963—The Group by Mary McCarthy

1973—The Princess Bride by William Goldman

1983--Meditations in Green by Stephen Wright

1993—The Road to Wellville by T.C. Boyle