Saturday, July 23, 2016

The Known World by Edward P. Jones

I had a hard time finding my way in this one. Throughout the first half, I was mostly frustrated.

The night that Belle Skiffington would die, that first maid, Annette, grown out of a cough that plagued her for years, would open a Bible in the study of her Massachusetts home, looking for some verses to calm her mind before sleep. Out of the Bible would fall a leaf from a North Carolina apple tree that she had, the night she escaped with five other slaves, secreted in her bosom for good luck. She would not have seen the leaf for many years and at first she would not remember where the browned and brittle thing came from. But as she remembered, as the leaf fell apart in her fingers, she would fall into a cry that would wake everyone in her house and she could not be calmed, not even when morning came. Belle’s second maid, the one who had never been sick a day in her life, would die the night after Belle did. Her name was Patty and she had had three children, one dead, two yet alive, Allie and Newby, a boy who liked to drink directly from a cow’s teat. Those two children would die the third night, the same night the last of Belle’s children died, the beautiful girl with freckles who played the piano so well.

This is 32 pages in, and there have been many paragraphs like this one in that span. A myriad of characters described, all of them revealed in the past, present and future. There’s so many I can’t keep track of them all, and the way Jones saturates his prose with their time-dilated details, I can’t tell which ones are worth remembering.

It was forty-one hours before Rita in the box got to New York. The box was opened with a crowbar by the merchant’s wife, a broad-shouldered Irish woman he had met on the HMS Thames’s twentieth trip to America.

This is on page 50, and he hasn’t let up yet. I know who Rita is, she appears at this point to be one of the story’s main characters. But who is this merchant’s wife? Is she important? Is she going to come to play a major role in the story being told? Ordinarily, if an author provided just the details about her found in this one sentence, I would chalk it up to Creative Writing 101. The merchant’s wife is not a major character (she doesn’t have a name, after all), and these few details told about her are a standard storyteller’s device to add realism and depth to his narrative.

But the details Jones gives don’t stop with this one sentence.

The Irish woman’s first husband had died only one day out of Cork Harbor, leaving her alone with five children. The captain had the husband’s body--coffined only in the clothes the man had died in and his head wrapped in a piece of family lace--tossed overboard after ten Lord’s Prayers and ten Hail Marys were spoken by the man’s oldest child, a boy of eight. The boy, Timothy,

So the boy gets a name, but the Irish woman doesn’t.

had struggled through ten of each when the captain, a German Protestant, thought one of each would have done. An Irish prayer was obviously worth only a tenth of what a German prayer was worth. The boy could not bear to see his father go and everyone assembled could tell that in all the words of the prayers. A month into the voyage the Irish woman’s youngest child died, a girl of some five months--twenty Lord’s Prayers and twenty Hail Marys from Timothy. A coffin of lace for baby Agnes, that lace being the last of the family fortune.

Mary O’Donnell

Wait, the Irish woman does have a name? Maybe she is an important character. I guess I should start paying attention.

had been nursing that baby, and the day after Agnes was committed to the sea, her milk stopped flowing. She thought it only a natural result of grieving for Agnes. She would go on to have three more children with her second husband, the seller of Augustus Townsend’s

Augustus Townsend. I know him. He’s the father of the novel’s supposed protagonist, Henry.

walking sticks, but with each child the milk did not return. “Where is my milk?” Mary asked God with each of the three children. “Where is my milk?” God did not give her an answer and he gave her not one drop of milk. With the second and third children, she asked Mary the mother of Jesus to intercede with God on her behalf. “Didn’t he give you milk for your child?” she asked Mary. “Wasn’t there milk aplenty for Jesus?”

Mary O’Donnell Conlon would never live comfortably in America, would never come to feel it was her own dear country.

Okay. I’m convinced. Fifty-one pages in and he’s introducing a new character in his complicated tale. I’ll widen my circle of awareness to include Mary O’Donnell Conlon.

Long before the HMS Thames had even seen the American shore, America, the land of promise and hope, had reached out across the sea and taken her husband, a man who had taken her heart and kept it, and America had taken her baby--two innocent beings in the vastness of a world with all kinds of things that could have been taken first. She held nothing against God. God was simply being God. But she could not forgive America and saw it as the cause of all her misery. Had America not called out to her first husband, not sung to him, they could have stayed home and managed somehow in that county in Ireland where children, even old children, had the pinkest cheeks.

Mary Conlon’s hair stayed all black until her dying day. She would wake one morning as an old woman with a gray hair or two or three and the next morning those gray hairs would be black again. “Such strong black hair,” she would say to God when she was seventy-five, “such hair and all I wanted was a little milk.” Her children stayed devoted to her, but none was closer and more devoted than Timothy, who was affectionately known as his mother’s pet. He had worried himself sick on the ship to America, thinking his mother would be the next to die. Not even a million Lord’s Prayers and a million Hail Marys would have let him consign his mother to the sea.

It was Timothy, then twelve years old, who was at his mother’s side when she opened the box from Augustus Townsend. “Don’t send me back,” Rita said in the darkness as each nail was pried loose and the top of the box was gradually separated from the body of the box and the feeble light little by little began to seep in on her.

And so, we’re back with Rita (a fugitive slave, by the way, shipped North in a crate from 1850s Virginia), and despite a few more sentences of interaction between Rita, Mary, Timothy, and despite the elaborate O’Donnell/Conlon backstory Jones has provided the reader, and despite my prediction, based on that backstory, that Mary (or perhaps, Timothy) would play a major role in the novel yet-to-come … neither Mary nor Timothy will make another appearance anywhere in the novel’s remaining 330+ pages.

Why? What is Jones doing here? And whatever it is, is it worth pressing the patience of his readers? Honestly, I almost bailed on this one. My acquisition of The Known World was instigated by one of my impulsive decisions--this one to read all the works of fiction that have won the Pulitzer Prize. But I have also just recently instituted a new 50-page rule to better govern my experimental reading habits. In other words, Pulitzer or not, convince me in the first 50 pages that I should keep reading you or I am justified in putting you down.

I went to the Internet to see what other people had to say about Jones’s narrative device. There, I found an excerpt from a book by Cindy Weinstein called Time, Tense and American Literature: When Is Now?, that says:

In expending such care on even the most minor of characters, Jones grants a degree of importance to everyone who enters his narrative. Everyone, black or white, Irish or French (the criminal Broussard), straight or gay (Calvin), has a story and a history that demands attention. And in the context of a novel about slavery, where Southern states legally defined humans as non-humans, this authorial commitment to the full humanity of all is especially significant.

Point taken. This is a novel about slavery--a Pulitzer-prize winning novel about slavery, to boot--so I suppose I can forgive Jones in retrospect for frustrating me some much with all the miscellaneous; er, I mean important, details.

But it’s not just the copious details about every character, large and small, that got to me. It’s also the omniscient way in which those details are told. Past, present and future congealing in the narrative flow until you don’t know, to borrow a phrase, when now is. Look at the excerpt on Mary O’Donnell Conlon I included above. In the past, she’s sailing from Ireland to America, in the present, she’s opening the box Rita has been shipped in, and in the future she’s losing her milk and counting her single gray hairs. That happens constantly, and not just for characters who turn out to have minor roles to play. Jones is continually giving us information on the past, present and future actions of major characters.

Stamford had a plan to make Cassandra like him, the third plan that summer. That day weeks later when Stamford would see the crows fall dead from the tree, before he himself walked out toward death, he would say good-bye to Gloria and he would say good-bye to Cassandra, to all that good young stuff that the man had once advised him would allow him to survive slavery.

There’s nothing especially significant about this particular peek into the future (weeks later when Stamford would see the crows fall dead from the tree). It occurs on page 72, and by then I had encountered so many of them that I scribbled a frustrated note in the margin, “Will this even happen in this novel?” My thinking: If everything Jones says is going to happen actually does happen in this novel, then at some point he’s going to need to stop writing about what’s going to happen and start writing about it actually happening. Otherwise it’s going to be an unsatisfying or very crowded finish (or both).

Now, only because I flagged this one, I know that it actually does happen. On page 203.

He didn’t pay much attention to the first crack of thunder, but the second one pulled his head around. He was in time to see the nearest tree in the woods shudder, stop, then shudder again. An oak tree. Moments later, he could see the first crow flying as if upside down, heading toward the ground, two or three feathers fluttering after the body. The second crow flying upside down told him it wasn’t flying but death that had hold of them both. It took less time for him to blink the rain out of his eyes before the second crow joined the first on the ground, followed by more feathers. If they made a sound as they fell, the rain was too loud for him to hear it.

But I know that only because I was determined to look for it. What about the hundred other things Jones said was going to happen? Did they? At least the ones that were predicted to take place in the time span covered by the novel? Don’t ask me. There were just too many to keep track of. Maybe someone has already written one of those PhD dissertations I keep talking about on this?

So these devices don’t work--at least for me. But, in the end, I’m glad I didn’t bail on The Known World after 50 pages. Because I think Jones is doing something interesting and important here.

I mentioned Henry Townsend before. He’s a freed former slave in 1850s Virginia, who, under the tutelage of William Robbins, a white man with many hundreds of slaves, is able to buy some property and gain some respectability in their antebellum society. After acquiring his property, Henry buys his very first slave from Robbins, a former overseer named Moses. As a former slave himself, Henry decides he wants to be a different kind of master.

With those words she could see him, in her mother’s garden saturated with the smell of honeysuckle, still wearing clothes too heavy for the season, talking about how he would be a master different from any other, the kind of shepherd master God had intended. He had been vague, talking of good food for his slaves, no whippings, short and happy days in the fields. A master looking down on them all like God on his throne looked down on him.

But one day Robbins sees Henry and Moses playing together like children in the dirt.

“Henry,” Robbins said, looking not at him but out to the other side of the road, “the law will protect you as a master to your slave, and it will not flinch when it protects you. That protection lasts from here”--and he pointed to an imaginary place in the road--“all the way to the death of that property”--and he pointed to a place a few feet from the first place. “But the law expects you to know what is master and what is slave. And it does not matter if you are not much more darker than your slave. The law is blind to that. You are the master and that is all the law wants to know. The law will come to you and stand behind you. But if you roll around and be a playmate to your property, and your property turns round and bites you, the law will come to you still, but it will not come with the full heart and all the deliberate speed that you will need. You will have failed in your part of the bargain. You will have pointed to the line that separates you from your property and told your property that the line does not matter.” Henry pulled his hand down from the horse’s forehead. “You are rollin round now, today, with property you have a slip of paper on. How will you act, Henry, when you have a hundred slips of paper? Will you still be rollin the in the dirt with them?”

It’s a bitter lesson for Henry to learn, that as gentle as he may want to be as a slavemaster, the law that makes him a slavemaster will not defend him unless he is harsh. But learn it he does, for after Robbins leaves, Henry returns to Moses and the house they were attempting to build when they fell to playing.

“We can get in a good bit fore dark,” Moses said and he lifted the saw high above his head.

“We ain’t workin no more today.”

“What? But why not?”

“I said no more, Moses.”

“But we got good light here. We got good day here, Massa.”

Henry stepped to him, took the saw and slapped him once, and when the pain begin to set in on Moses’s face, he slapped him again. “Why don’t you never do what I tell you to do? Why is that, Moses?”

“I do. I always do what you tell me to do, Massa.”

“Nigger, you don’t. You never do.”

Moses felt himself beginning to sink in the dirt. He lifted one foot and placed it elsewhere, hoping that would be better, but it wasn’t. He wanted to move the other foot, but that would have been too much--as it was, moving the first foot was done without permission.

“You just do what I tell you from now on,” Henry said. He dropped the saw on the ground. He bent down and picked it up and looked for a long time at the tool, at the teeth all in a row, at the way they marched finely up to the wooden handle. He dropped the saw again and looked down at it. “Go get my horse with the saddle on top of it,” Henry said, still looking at the saw. “Go get my horse.”

“Yessir, I will.”

Jones sets up multiple scenarios like this--most of them even more complicated than the relatively simple example of a black man owning another black man. In doing so, he is testing the moral limits of slavery as an institution, and the societal law that sustained it. And the most intriguing moral conundrums Jones poses come from situations where family members end up owning other family members.

She, Minerva, was not a servant in the way the slaves all about her were, for they did not believe they owned her. She did serve, charged with cleaning the house, sharing the job of cooking the meals with Winifred. But they would not have called her a servant. Had she been able to walk away from them, knew north from south and east from west, Skiffington and Winifred would have gone after her, but it would not have been the way he and his patrollers would pursue an escaped slave. A child would have been lost and so parents do what must be done.

The world did not allow them to think “daughter,” though Winifred was to say years later in Philadelphia that she was her daughter. “I must have my daughter back,” she said to the printer making up the posters with Minerva’s picture on them. “I must have my daughter back.”

So she was a daughter and yet not a daughter. She was Minerva. Simply their Minerva. “Minerva, come her.” “Minerva, how does this taste?” “Minerva, I’ll get the cloth for your dress when I come home from the jail.” “Minerva, what would I do without you?” To the white people in Manchester County, she was a kind of pet. “That’s the sheriff’s Minerva.” “That’s Mrs. Skiffington’s Minerva.” And everyone was happy with all of it. As for Minerva, she had known nothing else.

This is one relatively straightforward, as Minerva is not actually Sheriff John and Winifred Skiffington’s biological daughter. She is a slave, given to them as a wedding present, that their Christian opposition to slavery compelled them not to sell but rather to raise as if she was their daughter. Minerva’s uncertain status--neither a slave nor a daughter, while being both a slave and a daughter--creates a fair amount of confusion for everyone who interacts with her, including her own “father,” who struggles with his own sexual attraction to her as she grows older. The law that Robbins lectured Henry on protects none of these deeper relationships, as it can only recognize Minerva’s status as a slave, and cannot accommodate the emotional bonds that grow and break within this family.

And even outside the bounds of family, there is always sexual desire and intimacy to flaunt the structures the law has put in place.

“Do you know,” Maude had said the first time she and Clarke had lain together, “that if I was a white woman, they would come in here and tear you limb from limb?” “And what they gon do with you being colored?” he asked. Maude, delighted that she had taken such a step in her life, lay back, the sweat over her body still drying. “I suspect that since I own you, since I have the papers on you, they might do the same thing if I up and screamed. They wouldn’t be as fast, I suppose, but they would come, Clarke.” He said nothing.

Maude is a bit of a villain in the novel, reveling in the power she has over others, but her interpretation of the law is clearly one that calmer heads like Robbins would agree with. But there are others who are more morally troubled by these implications.

She did not allow him to make love to her that evening, but when he came back the next evening, she did. “It has been hard without you,” she said to him. “It was hard for me, Missus,” he said. When he said that, they were done and partially clothed on the floor, and his words caused her to wonder if Virginia had a law forbidding such things between a colored woman and a colored man who was her slave. Was this a kind of miscegenation? she wondered. A white woman in Bristol had been whipped for such an offense, and her slave was hanged from a tree in what passed for the town square. Three hundred people had come to see it, the whipping and the hanging, the former in the morning and the latter in the afternoon. People brought their children, their infants, who slept through most of the activities. It had happened a year ago but the news had only recently arrived in Manchester.

“Are you going to come back tomorrow?” she asked after she had risen from the floor.

“Yes, ma’am. Yes, ma’am, I will.”

He left and she said to herself in the moment before Loretta entered, “I love Moses. I love Moses with his one name.” But when she saw Loretta, the words did not make much sense. “I am ready for bed,” she said, and that made the greatest of sense. Before going to bed, she washed her insides with vinegar and the soap her slaves made for everyone. Hers, however, was made with a dash of perfume that Loretta supplied to the soap makers. In Bristol, the authorities claimed the white woman had been with child. No word of mouth or the newspaper account said what had become of the child.

“She” is Caldonia, the widow of Henry Townsend, who inherits all his slaves upon his death, including Moses (the very first slave Henry purchased and with whom he wrestled in the dirt and thereby received his initial castigation by Robbins). Moses is now Caldonia’s lover, and Caldonia feels very differently about him and her relationship with him than Maude does regarding Clarke. Caldonia fears the power the law gives her over him, fears it to such an extent that she attempts to cleanse any remnant of the relationship from her body.

There are many more examples like these, Jones putting his enormous character list to good use in exploring all the moral complexities. In the end, they add up to the point that the laws of Southern slave society and the laws of human hearts and emotions were in desperate conflict with one another. It’s as though Jones is saying, if you’ll forgive the usage, the “black and white” perspective of the law was always, and inevitably so, at odds with the “mulatto” reality of human relationships.

And it is in embracing that complexity--human, moral, and narrative--that the novel ultimately shines.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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