Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Known World

The Known World (2003) by Edward P. Jones is the best historical novel I have read in a long time, at least since I started this blog with 2666, although that novel is itself so different that I would need to go back farther to find something more comparable. After the first 10 pages or so, I was not expecting to enjoy it so much: in fact, at first I was a little bit bored and worried that it was going to turn into an example of the driest historical realism. But Jones turns that around quickly, first with a sharp satirical undercurrent that carries the first part of the novel, and increasingly by a depth of character accomplished by jumping back and forth to scenes across space and time.

The novel opens with the death of Henry Townsend, a black slave-owner in Virginia whose father bought himself and his family out of slavery only to see his son return as an oppressor in the same institution. Ultimately, the novel follows what happens in the wake of his death, but to get there it has to take long detours into history: to understand the events that unfold, you need not only Henry’s story, or the story of his wife Caldonia, who must take over the operation of the plantation, or Moses, the overseer who wants to take Henry’s place. Instead, you have to understand a whole population—other owners and their families, other free blacks, other slaves, the local sheriff and his deputies. In order to understand the changes in the present, you have to understand all the transformations, and failures to transform, that these people have endured.

A typical kind transformation in Jones’s novel is not for the good but rather shows how easily well-intentioned people can justify away their contributions to the harm of others—in the novel we have slavery, but the idea speaks just as well to the present. Henry’s turn to owning slaves against his parents’ wishes is only an obvious case—more disturbing and wrenching are the cases of Moses (the overseer) and Elias, a slave with an understandable resentment of Moses that, as his wife sees, could turn into something much worse. Another case is John Skiffington, a sheriff raised to believe slavery is wrong but who has no problem enforcing it and ultimately reasons away his ownership of a slave. His cousin, a slave owner who resents John’s rejection of slavery, gives John and his Pennsylvania wife Winifred (herself very much against slavery, but also easily compromised) a young slave girl as a wedding present: they justify to themselves that they can’t free the young Minerva because that would be rude and because they will just think of her as a daughter. In describing this situation, the novel offers one example of its occasional stinging satire:
Though everyone in the county saw Minerva the wedding present as their property, the Skiffingtons did not feel that they owned her, not in the way whites and a few blacks owned slaves. Minerva was not free, but only in the way a child in a family is not free. In fact, in Philadelphia years later, as she paid for all those posters with Minerva’s picture of them, Winifred Skiffington was to think only one thing—“I must get my daughter back. I must get my daughter back.”

Henry and later Moses both later, of course, think of themselves as slave owners “not in the way” of other, more harsh owners, but the novel constantly exposes the fraud in the idea that we are not contributing to a problem just because we are not as bad as others, and in the quote above the mockery of Winifred’s idea that feeling substitutes for reality is potent. A grim humor also comes in at times as Jones suggests how the kinds of historical documents we rely upon to know history (such as census roles) can be very deceptive and compromised: “facts” are always produced by people with a particular point of view, particular weaknesses, or particular limitations to their capacities.

In this milieu, real transformations for the better are rare and cherished, and Jones brings the good and bad together to create a complicated and beautiful portrait of a world short on redemption.

No comments:

Post a Comment