America's peculiar institution
Slavery has never seemed more strange than in Edward Jones's new novel
When Toni Morrison began her research for "Beloved," she discovered a trove of ghastly instruments. She knew, of course, that slaves were routinely whipped, starved, raped, and hanged, but the existence of specially forged tools was a surprise: metal bits forced down the throat, iron masks locked across the face, spiked collars clasped around the neck. Her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel reintroduced those horrors into the national memory and did much to demonstrate that the cruelties of slavery extended far beyond hard labor and physical deprivation.Skip to next paragraph
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"The Known World," by Edward Jones, reclaims another peculiarity of American slavery and in the process illustrates yet again that we can't under- estimate its perverse contortions of the human spirit. Bizarre as it sounds, in Louisiana, Virginia, and South Carolina, a small number of free blacks owned their own plantations - and their own slaves. It was a precarious arrangement, to be sure. Blacks who were freed or managed to buy their own freedom had little incentive to tarry in the South. The laws governing their status and their right to hold property were ambiguous and easy for any white person to shred.
Jones uses this fragile situation as the setting for a novel about a group of black and white Virginians who tried - sometimes nobly, often viciously - to maintain their world in the face of inevitable collapse. To the extent that Morrison spun a surreal tale of American slavery into mythic proportions, Jones has carved a companion series of stark anecdotes into national legends. In a measured voice that never rises to reflect the agonies and absurdities he describes, he moves back and forth through decades and across state lines, assembling an apparently random collection of brief scenes that gradually fuse into a stunning portrait of moral confusion.
The story revolves around Henry Townsend, a black man who, with the indulgence of his former owner, managed to buy his own farm and his own slaves - eventually 29 adults and a collection of children. Henry's parents, who labored tirelessly to free him as a child, are horrified by his participation in the flesh market, but Henry is ambitious, and, what's more, he learned from his master that "once you own even one, you will never be alone." As a protection against loneliness and a way to wealth, Henry can't imagine anything more successful, and he's convinced he can be "a better master than any white man he had ever known." Indeed, he attains that dubious goal, creating a plantation with forced labor that's largely free of physical beatings, but it's an insidious gentility that only camouflages the humiliations of Southern slavery.
Nevertheless, his untimely death frightens most of his slaves, who know just how delicate their relative comfort is. Only the brooding overseer, Moses, the first slave Henry ever bought, sees his master's demise as an opportunity - not for freedom, but for taking his place. Indeed, what interests Jones most in this complex novel is the way slavery distorts judgment, not just of those who oppress, but of those who are oppressed.