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The Known World

“Universalis Cosmographia” by Martin Waldseemüller.


The Known World of Edward P. Jones’ Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is set in mythical Manchester County, Virginia before the Civil War and centers on the surprising and  little-known practice of free blacks who themselves owned slaves.  Jones’ depiction of life in that rural community is so detailed and nuanced, it brings to mind another fictional county, Yoknapatawpha, made famous by William Faulkner.  The title of the book comes from the Waldseemüller map of 1507, a woodcut of which the local sheriff has hanging in the jail, and although mention of this map is fleeting, it seems to resonate with the book’s emphasis on place.  Some of the characters, such as the slave Moses, know every inch of Henry Townsend’s plantation but nothing beyond.  Alice, another slave whose eccentric behavior sets her apart, must be able to fly on her nightly sojourns; after her escape to Washington, D.C., she recreates with pinpoint accuracy aerial renderings of the county and Townsend’s plantation.

One reviewer on Amazon noted that “Like jazz, The Known World carries you along in strange and unexpected ways.”  Slaves—really, anyone of color– led such tenuous lives that one can feel their constant fear and uncertainty.  In one instance, Moses pleads not to be separated from his companion, Bessie.  The whites pay no attention to him, and Bessie is gone from his life, an event that will scar him forever.

Jones composed his novel primarily in his head over the course of a decade.  So real does it all seem, one can imagine walking along in the dust next to William Robbins’ magnificent horse or listen as Moses keeps company with Henry’s widow, Caldonia, by telling her stories each evening.  While reading, I had to remind myself that Manchester County never existed as the author seamlessly weaves in records from the courthouse and reminisces from a local schoolteacher, jumping back and forth in time effortlessly.  Mr. Edward P. Jones is in no hurry to relate his story, but it is a fascinating journey for the reader.

For an engrossing interview with the author, please read this Washington Post article.

For a visual record of slavery in the U.S. before the Civil War, check out “The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas.”