Book Looks at Slavery’s Lesser-Known World

Posted September 8, 2003 at 3:39pm

In his debut novel, Washington-area resident Edward Jones’ work is being likened to the creativity of William Faulkner and the passion of Toni Morrison. “The Known World” has also received undisputed critical acclaim from The New York Times, Newsweek, Entertainment Weekly and The Washington Post.

But if you ask Edward Jones, a somewhat reserved but also blunt man, the book “is just Edward Jones trying to get the job done.”

The job Jones set out to do more than a decade ago was to give some perspective to a lesser-known facet of slave life in America, the fact that there were some free blacks who owned slaves in the years before the Civil War. It was a piece of information that Jones came across one day in his college studies, and it laid the groundwork for his entire story.

“The Known World” is not one but many stories of life in Manchester County, Va.

The novel begins with the death of Henry Townsend, a black farmer whose father, Augustus, had bought Henry and his mother’s freedom after he worked to buy his own way out of slavery. Upon receiving his freedom, Henry, a shrewd and practical man, chose to become a slave owner and run his own farm, an idea born from the guidance of his former master, William Robbins.

By the time of his death at age 31, Henry owned 33 slaves and more than 50 acres of land, which “sat him high above many others, white and black, in Manchester County, Virginia,” the book reads.

From Henry’s death, the novel moves backward and forward and back again through time, tracing the lives of dozens of characters that live in Jones’ fragile “Known World.” They include Moses, Henry’s overseer and first slave who sees opportunity in his master’s death; Caldonia, Henry’s free black wife who tries to hold her world together as the plantation begins to tear itself apart; the local sheriff John Skiffington, who personally has no love for slavery but who sees it as his duty to uphold the law; Augustus; his wife, Mildred; Robbins; and many more.

The relationships in the novel swirl around one another as the conflict crisscrosses back and forth, blurring color and family lines.

In one scene, when Henry tells his parents for the first time that he has bought a slave and intends to start running his own farm, the completely different views held by father and son become harshly evident.

“‘Why should anybody haveta teach you the wrong son,’ Augustus said. ‘Ain’t you got eyes to see it without me tellin you?’

‘Henry,’ Mildred said, ‘why do things the same old bad way?’

‘I ain’t, Mama, I ain’t.’”

Augustus said quietly, ‘I promised myself when I got this little bit of land that I would never suffer a slaveowner to set foot on it. Never … Of all the human beins on God’s earth I never once thought the first slaveowner I would tell to leave my place would be my own child. I never thought it would be you.’”

Jones meticulously describes the geographic dimensions and ethnic makeup of Manchester County by quoting census numbers and describing locations where government officials visited and stayed. Indeed, more than one reviewer has described “The Known World” as well researched in its historical study.

“I don’t know where they get that stuff from,” Jones said, laughing as he sipped his Diet Pepsi at a diner not far from his apartment in Arlington where he has lived for 20 years. “I made this stuff up, I just made it up.

“My intention was that I had two shelves of books, about 40 books, on slavery,” he said. Jones was going to read those books and then travel to Lynchburg County, Va., to research locations to use in his story. But he never got around to making the trip or to reading any of the books, and so Manchester County was born in his mind.

“Whatever I say about Manchester County is all from my imagination. If I say something about the larger society, Virginia, or the United States, then that’s true,” Jones said. “It’s all about telling a bunch of lies in order to tell the greater truth. And the richer the lie, the more detailed the lie, the more you are liable to believe it.”

And it seems that the story is being believed and embraced. Published Aug. 21, the book’s announced first printing is 75,000 — an “impressive” number, according to Jane Beirn, director of publicity for HarperCollins Publishers — and his two-month-long, 18-city book tour begins this week.

But Jones is not entirely new to literary success. Eleven years ago reviewers were singing his praises for his collection of short stories about life in Washington, D.C. The collection, “Lost in the City,” won the PEN/Hemingway writing award and was a finalist for the National Book Award.

“One of the reasons I set out to do those stories is because you get tired of going away and you talk to people and the only thing they know about Washington is politics,” Jones said. “So I wanted to write about the people that I knew, that’d I’d grown up among.”

Jones began creating “The Known World” not long after “Lost in the City.” Yet by Christmas 2001, Jones had written only the first six pages and the last six pages of the novel. After losing his job as a columnist for Tax Notes, a tax newsletter for the Arlington-based non-profit Tax Analysts, Jones sat down to finish “The Known World” in January 2002 “with a certain despair.”

Yet by mid-March of that year the story had poured out of Jones’ mind and, almost 400 pages later, the first draft of “The Known World” was finished.

But even now, Jones is hesitant to call himself a full-fledged author.

“I guess you could say I’m a writer, that’s what I put on my tax return, ’cause I have no other job, that’s it.”

The book tour, which kicks off at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Politics & Prose, will eventually take Jones across the country to cities including San Francisco, Seattle, Boston and Chicago. Indeed, Jones is quick to note that “The Known World” has served to expand his own world — the native Washingtonian said that until this year he had never been farther west than Indiana.

“The book is taking me places I’ve never been,” he said quietly, smiling as he prepared to leave the diner and walk back to his apartment. “I guess I won’t mind seeing the cities from the hotel rooms.”