The Known World: A Novel

The Known World: A Novel

by Edward P. Jones


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The Known World: A Novel by Edward P. Jones

Henry Townsend, a black farmer, bootmaker, and former slave, has a fondness for Paradise Lost and an unusual mentor -- William Robbins, perhaps the most powerful man in antebellum Virginia's Manchester County. Under Robbins's tutelage, Henry becomes proprietor of his own plantation -- as well as of his own slaves. When he dies, his widow, Caldonia, succumbs to profound grief, and things begin to fall apart at their plantation: slaves take to escaping under the cover of night, and families who had once found love beneath the weight of slavery begin to betray one another. Beyond the Townsend estate, the known world also unravels: low-paid white patrollers stand watch as slave "speculators" sell free black people into slavery, and rumors of slave rebellions set white families against slaves who have served them for years.

An ambitious, luminously written novel that ranges seamlessly between the past and future and back again to the present, The Known World weaves together the lives of freed and enslaved blacks, whites, and Indians -- and allows all of us a deeper understanding of the enduring multidimensional world created by the institution of slavery.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060557553
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 05/25/2004
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 116,553
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.97(d)

About the Author

Edward P. Jones, the New York Times bestselling author, has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize, for fiction, the National Book Critics Circle award, the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and the Lannan Literary Award for The Known World; he also received a MacArthur Fellowship in 2004. His first collection of stories, Lost in the City, won the PEN/Hemingway Award and was short listed for the National Book Award. His second collection, All Aunt Hagar’s Children, was a finalist for the Pen/Faulkner Award. He has been an instructor of fiction writing at a range of universities, including Princeton. He lives in Washington, D.C.


Washington, D.C.

Date of Birth:

October 5, 1950

Place of Birth:

Washington, D.C.


B.A., College of the Holy Cross, 1972; M.F.A., University of Virginia, 1981

Read an Excerpt

The Known World LP

Chapter One

Liaison. The Warmth of Family.

Stormy Weather.

The evening his master died he worked again well after he ended the day for the other adults, his own wife among them, and sent them back with hunger and tiredness to their cabins. The young ones, his son among them, had been sent out of the fields an hour or so before the adults, to prepare the late supper and, if there was time enough, to play in the few minutes of sun that were left. When he, Moses, finally freed himself of the ancient and brittle harness that connected him to the oldest mule his master owned, all that was left of the sun was a five-inch-long memory of red orange laid out in still waves across the horizon between two mountains on the left and one on the right. He had been in the fields for all of fourteen hours. He paused before leaving the fields as the evening quiet wrapped itself about him. The mule quivered, wanting home and rest. Moses closed his eyes and bent down and took a pinch of the soil and ate it with no more thought than if it were a spot of cornbread. He worked the dirt around in his mouth and swallowed, leaning his head back and opening his eyes in time to see the strip of sun fade to dark blue and then to nothing. He was the only man in the realm, slave or free, who ate dirt, but while the bondage women, particularly the pregnant ones, ate it for some incomprehensible need, for that something that ash cakes and apples and fatback did not give their bodies, he ate it not only to discover the strengths and weaknesses of the field, but because the eating of it tied him to the only thing in his small world that meant almost as much as his own life.

This was July, and July dirt tasted even more like sweetened metal than the dirt of June or May. Something in the growing crops unleashed a metallic life that only began to dissipate in mid-August, and by harvest time that life would be gone altogether, replaced by a sour moldiness he associated with the coming of fall and winter, the end of a relationship he had begun with the first taste of dirt back in March, before the first hard spring rain. Now, with the sun gone and no moon and the darkness having taken a nice hold of him, he walked to the end of the row, holding the mule by the tail. In the clearing he dropped the tail and moved around the mule toward the barn.

The mule followed him, and after he had prepared the animal for the night and came out, Moses smelled the coming of rain. He breathed deeply, feeling it surge through him. Believing he was alone, he smiled. He knelt down to be closer to the earth and breathed deeply some more. Finally, when the effect began to dwindle, he stood and turned away, for the third time that week, from the path that led to the narrow lane of the quarters with its people and his own cabin, his woman and his boy. His wife knew enough now not to wait for him to come and eat with them. On a night with the moon he could see some of the smoke rising from the world that was the lane -- home and food and rest and what passed in many cabins for the life of family. He turned his head slightly to the right and made out what he thought was the sound of playing children, but when he turned his head back, he could hear far more clearly the last bird of the day as it evening-chirped in the small forest far off to the left.

He went straight ahead, to the farthest edge of the cornfields to a patch of woods that had yielded nothing of value since the day his master bought it from a white man who had gone broke and returned to Ireland. "I did well over there," that man lied to his people back in Ireland, his dying wife standing hunched over beside him, "but I longed for all of you and for the wealth of my homeland." The patch of woods of no more than three acres did yield some soft, blue grass that no animal would touch and many trees that no one could identify. Just before Moses stepped into the woods, the rain began, and as he walked on the rain became heavier. Well into the forest the rain came in torrents through the trees and the mighty summer leaves and after a bit Moses stopped and held out his hands and collected water that he washed over his face. Then he undressed down to his nakedness and lay down. To keep the rain out of his nose, he rolled up his shirt and placed it under his head so that it tilted just enough for the rain to flow down about his face. When he was an old man and rheumatism chained up his body, he would look back and blame the chains on evenings such as these, and on nights when he lost himself completely and fell asleep and didn't come to until morning, covered with dew.

The ground was almost soaked. The leaves seemed to soften the hard rain as it fell and it hit his body and face with no more power than the gentle tapping of fingers. He opened his mouth; it was rare for him and the rain to meet up like this. His eyes had remained open, and after taking in all that he could without turning his head, he took up his thing and did it. When he was done, after a few strokes, he closed his eyes, turned on his side and dozed. After a half hour or so the rain stopped abruptly ...

The Known World LP. Copyright © by Edward P. Jones. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

What People are Saying About This

Peter Matthiessen

A strong, intricate, daring book by a writer of deep compassion and uncommon gifts.

Reading Group Guide


Henry Townsend, a black farmer, bootmaker, and former slave, through the surprising twists and unforeseen turns of life in antebellum Virginia, becomes proprietor of his own plantation -- as well as his own slaves. Following his untimely death, Henry's widow Caldonia succumbs to profound grief, and their carefully-maintained plantation starts to come undone: slaves take to escaping under the cover of night, and families who had once found love and loyalty under the weight of slavery begin to betray one another. Beyond the Townsend household, the known world also unravels: low-paid white patrollers stand watch as slave "speculators" sell free black people into slavery, slaves and their masters chafe at the social confines of their relationships, and rumors of slave rebellions set white families against slaves who have served them for years.

The Known World seamlessly weaves the lives of the freed and the enslaved, whites, blacks, and Indians, and allows all of us a deeper understanding of the enduring multidimensional world created by the institution of slavery.

Questions for Discussion

  1. Why is the character of Moses significant to the novel? How would you characterize his relationship with Henry and Caldonia Townsend? What about with his wife and child?

  2. What is the significance of the title, The Known World? What "known world" is charted in John Skiffington's map in the jail? What world is charted in The Creation described by Calvin in his letter to his sister Caldonia? What role does the land and its borders play in this book?

  3. Who is William Robbins and how does he impact the lives of blacks on neighboring plantations? Did you find his relationships with Henry, Augustus, and Mildred Townsend, and Philomena, Dora, and Louis compelling?

  4. What is the significance of the Augustus Townsend character? In what ways is Augustus a victim of attitudes about slavery in the South? In what ways is he a victor? How did you respond to his captivity and its outcome?

  5. How would you characterize Jebediah Dickinson? What explains his sudden appearance at the Elston farm? When Fern says of Jebediah: "With him there ... I feel as if I belong to him, that I am his property," what does she mean?

  6. Were relationships between parents and children notably different during the era of slavery than in the present day? Consider Caldonia, Calvin, and Maude; William Robbins, Patience, and Dora; and Augustus, Mildred, and Henry in your evaluations.

About the Author

Edward P. Jones was born and raised in Washington, D.C. A recipient of the PEN/Hemingway Award, a Lannan Foundation Grant, and a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, Jones was educated at Holy Cross College and earned his MFA at the University of Virginia. He has taught fiction at Princeton University, George Mason University, and the University of Maryland. His first book, Lost in the City, was short-listed for the National Book Award. Jones's work has appeared in numerous journals and magazines, including The Paris Review, Essence, and Ploughshares. He lives in Arlington, Virginia.

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The Known World 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 176 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is about slavery and it is about freedom. There is a character, Alice, who we are told was 'kicked in the head by a mule' when she was younger. She chanted nonsense. She danced in the woods alone at night. People of the county thought she was crazy but, in the end, it turns out that Alice was not as crazy as people thought. The book tells of how people are sometimes able to escape the small worlds that hold them captive, a lesson for all of us as we all, at one time or another, have attempted to escape a small world of some kind, either a physical or mental prison that has confined us.
llovelylady More than 1 year ago
I found this book to be not only thought provoking but compelling. This book was not an easy read but very well written. I felt empathy for the characters but you are left wondering how did certain events change their lives for ever. I will definitely be reading other books by this author.
regina77004 More than 1 year ago
The Known World follows the family of a black slave owner and their associates. This subject has always fascinated me since briefly touching on this in college. Apparently there was a black slave owner in southeast Texas. I have heard mixed reviews on the writing style. Personally I enjoyed both the subject and story. Jones does seem to write in past, present, and future concurrently, which can be confusing. However, I found that it gave instant insight into the characters and motives without revealing the storyline too early. I felt the culture of the South and various races were well represented. I definitely recommend this book
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
V. Shipley It is said that you should never judge a book by its cover, but when just glancing at the cover of The Known World, a person can't help but be interested. From the cover, it is obvious the book is about slavery, but one could never guess how twisted the subject of slavery can get. The Known World is a story about slavery, not just the regular American slavery. The internal struggle of the book is really about the concept of free blacks owning slaves. Jones really plays with this theme through out the entire novel. He makes it seem as if he is unbiased on the subject throughout the book but his tone is otherwise. An atrocity occurs in everyone's life that owns a slave. The main theme of the book is anyone who participates in slavery is polluted by it and their concepts of justice and humanity become tainted. The strange but yet awesome thing about the novel is that all of the characters are connected through a single character, Henry Townsend. Henry is a freed black, who was once a slave, which owns slaves. We are introduced to him in the beginning by learning about his death. He is not the only one. In the beginning Jones states, "In 1855 in Manchester Country, Virginia, there were 34 free black families. and eight of those free families owned slaves." Henry was a boot maker and was a slave for William Robbins. Robbins develops a fatherly bond with Henry and is reluctant to let him go. However, he remains close with him through out the entire novel. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who enjoys reading. History buffs would be especially interested because Jones gives you another side to a long complicated story. I had never even thought about blacks owning other slaves prior to the Civil war. This book will broaden any reader's horizons, as long as they are friendly.
JHBNJ More than 1 year ago
but I had the hardest time following this one I just gave up. The names alone had my head spinning. I keep saying I am going to try again but I just cant. My sister in law finished it and liked it but she wrote all the names of the characters on a piece of paper to follow with. Too much work for me to read a book and do that.............
Guest More than 1 year ago
Okay I know this book is long. I also know there isn't much action in this book either. With that being said this book made me think about the atrocities of slavery and the evil side of the human being. What Mr.Jones has created would not be considered exciting but what this book lacks in action it makes up for and surpesses in depth of characters and setting. Unless you really allow yourself to believe in the story than the many characters in this book won't matter and you will than miss out on some beautiful story telling. Mr. Jones takes a little fragment of history and manages to create his own world and his own masterpeice.
Guest More than 1 year ago
If you want something with substance and beautifully written, this is the book. The author writes with great imagery and I found myself fully engulfed in it. Not for those who are looking for something 'light'. If you want to read something good, this is it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I really liked Edward P. Jones' The Known World. I really didn't have a favorite character because the novel goes back and forth in time--the point being i got to know each charaster, bit by heartbreaking bit. I loved the way the novel brought so many stories together under the stronghold of slavery. There is an old slave named Stamford who chases around young girls. Moses the overseer satisfies himself by self-gratification in his spare time. (Yes, a story like this can be hilarious.)But yet there are paradoxes: Henry Townsend ,who the novel revolves around, is a black slave owner: John Skiffington is a sheriff that won't own slaves--well his cousin gave him a slave but he treats her as a daughter--but he enforces the slavery laws. There are people who act like they're white but they are not: Oden, the indian patroller and Fern, the English teacher. But there were chracters i wanted to get to know further--Augustus and Mildred Townsend, Henry's parents. Well to be honest I wanted to get to know everybody even further and didn't want to leave them alone at that last sentence.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Much has already been said about the basic plot of this book, so I'd like to address the non-linear writing style...imagine yourself as a leaf tumbling down a stream, sometimes hurtling forward, yet frequently caught in little swirling eddies along the edges. If you relax and 'go with the flow' rather than expecting this book to read as you would wish, you will find it to be an astounding and seductive experience on several levels. The viewpoint of this book is equally fluid; through some magic, Jones has you seeing life through the eyes of whatever character he's currently focused upon. There are terrible, ugly, beautiful, sad, heartwarming things that happen constantly throughout this book and somehow, you are always identifying through the protagonist of the moment, whether this be a slave or a slave patroller, frightening as that might be. There is no melodrama here. Somehow, everything is just taken for granted, is, after all, their known world. And, for a brief time, ours as well. We eventually come to take it for granted. We can look back with the smugness of time and condemn slavery and its consequential perverse social structurings. Yet a book like this makes one question our own 'known world,' the social structures and cultural practices we take for granted and assume we are powerless to change. I wonder what our descendents will find equally perverse here...probably our oil addiction which forces us to attempt to control countries half-way around the world rather than simply learning to make do with less here at home.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Loved this book! The author goes into the lives of so many characters, you get to see so many perspectives. The author draws you into thier lives at different times and then brings it all together.
MaBrownWI More than 1 year ago
I feel this is an important book, though it is not, in my opinion, particularly enticing. I found the flow of the story impeded by numerous side anecdotes and a tendency to jump from present to past and back. The well-developed characters in the book, however, could provide the basis for much good discussion beyond the obvious topic of slavery and the phenomena of freed slaves becoming slave owners themselves. Hence, I feel it would be a great book club selection.
tchrreader More than 1 year ago
I thought this book had great potential. I liked it but didn't love it. Oprah said it was the best book she has ever read?! Hummm... I thought it was an okay book. This book is about slavery and a man named Henry Townsend, a black farmer and a former slave. This story was a look at slavery from many different perspectives. I thought the book was a bit hard to follow. I didn't know that there was a family tree in the back of the book until after I read it. The family tree would have been helpful early on. I was more interested in some characters a lot more than others.
Black-Orchid More than 1 year ago
This book is an EXCELLENT pick for a book club! It raises several points for discussion... From the various perspectives regarding BLACK OWNED SLAVES to the personalities and life history of the characters, this book depicts another painful aspect of slavery worth talking about. Edward P. Jones is a FASCINATING STORYTELLER. I came to LOVE the way he shares the character's back-story. His writing style provides incredible INSIGHT into the motivations of his characters and invokes the emotion to love and hate and understand why! I must admit it was a tough read to start, but once I understood his style I was ENGROSSED to the end. I would RECOMMEND THIS BOOK to anyone looking for a thought provoking and GRIPPING novel.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I did not like this book. I was surprised. The writing style was difficult to follow. It had important historical information, but I had trouble finishing it. It was a sad book.
KevinJoseph on LibraryThing 7 days ago
It's difficult for me to understand the critical acclaim, and resulting commercial success, that this story has received. Sure, it's built around an interesting premise (black slave owners) and obviously involved substantial research, but there are serious stylistic flaws that made it a difficult and distracting read for me. While some authors are able to employ shifting points of view and out-of-sequence plotting to enhance the thematic and emotional appeal of a story (The Hours by Cunningham being a fine recent example) these techniques are employed so sloppily here that it becomes a huge distraction. The lengthy recitations of family trees, population statistics and other historical fodder further interrupt the flow. As if sensing the reader's difficulty in keeping track of the characters, the author (or more likely his editor) feels compelled to affix silly tags to characters like "the Night Walker" and "the seeker of young stuff" when they pop up again after some unwelcomed detour or another. Mr. Jones's dialogue and descriptive passages are at times quite satisfying, and one can only hope that he'll find a more coherent narrative structure to showcase his talents in future endeavors.-Kevin Joseph, author of "The Champion Maker"
nbmars on LibraryThing 7 days ago
In an exeptionally good novel that is exceptionally painful to read, Jones tells the story of black slave-owners in fictional Manchester County in antebellum Virginia. [ Jonathan Yardley of The Washington Post (8/24/2003) aptly compares Manchester County to "Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County, with its own elaborate history and mythology."]The story begins with the death of Henry Townsend, a 31-yr-old black man who owned 33 slaves and over fifty acres of land, and whose unspecified ailment was not treated by "the white people's doctor" since "the ailments of white people and black people were different, and a man who specialized in one was not expected to know much about the other..." Henry's freedom had been purchased from the town's richest man, William Robbins, by Augustus, Henry's father, a locally renown woodworker who purchased his own freedom, then his wife Mildred's, and then Henry's. Henry was closer to his master than his parents, however, and listened to Robbins when he told him, "Don't settle for just a house and some land, boy. Take hold of it all. There are white men out there, Henry, who ain't got nothin. You might as well step in and take what they ain't takin. Why not? God is in his heaven and he don't care most of the time. The trick of life is to know when God does care and do all you need to do behind his back." Henry's first slave, Moses, becomes the overseer of all his subsequent slaves, many of whom we come to know. Moses too speculates on the role of God in this world: "Moses had thought that it was already a strange world that made him a slave to a white man, but God had indeed set it twirling and twisting every which way when he put black people to owning their own kind. Was God even up there attending to business anymore?" Despite God's apparent lack of interest in the world, the characters are quite interested in God, from the preacher who comes on Sundays and funerals to tell the slaves "they should obey their masters and mistresses, for heaven would not be theirs if they disobeyed," to the earnest Christian sheriff who prays constantly, but who will not hesitate to kill if "denied by a nigger."Henry's widow, Caldonia, had thought about freeing the slaves on Henry's death, but decided they and the plantation were her and Henry's "legacy." While she could never imagine being a slave herself, nor could she imagine that her own slaves might want to be free. In fact, just what slavery means to both master and slave is a dominant theme in the novel. Ownership of people is not the only kind explored: sex, love, loneliness, greed, are all taken into account as "enslaving" the characters. Yet it is the all-encompassing exploitation of human slavery that receives the most attention as well as the least explanation. The casual cruelty displayed to slaves throughout the book gives appalling evidence of the evil of man and the exacerbation of that evil by the institution of slavery. No factual account could evoke the same horror as when the characters, now a part of the reader's known world, suffer these appalling fates. Although the book moves backwards and forwards in time all the way to the current day, the main action ends with a letter to Caldonia from her brother Calvin, dated April 12, 1861. A similar device to that used by Isaac Bashevis Singer in "The Family Moskat" (likewise a portrait of a known world about to be extinct), no mention is made that this day brought the beginning of The Civil War. Calvin tells Caldonia about the story quilt he saw hanging in an exhibit in D.C. by one of Caldonia and Henry's escaped slaves. (Moses led the slaves to freedom, but could not go there himself.) The quilt depicts the entire known world of the slave Alice from a God's-eye-view. Once again, the characters see God as central, looking down, but just looking.This book won the Pulitzer Prize and a number of other awards. (JAF)
DoraBadollet on LibraryThing 7 days ago
A great view into the world of slavery, how humans were viewed as property, and how that view transcended, at times, the color boundary. A very good read, especially for those interested in that time period of American history.(Candice)
1morechapter on LibraryThing 7 days ago
The Known World by Edward P. Jones has not only won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, but also the NBCC Award and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.Jones really knows how to write his characters. Each one was very clearly defined. I won¿t give away too much of the story here but will write a brief overview.Henry and Caldonia Townsend are slave owners who are black themselves. Henry¿s father had freed himself and his wife, and then later Henry. While Henry was still a slave under William Robbins, he became somewhat of a favorite, and was later instructed by Robbins on how to be a proper slave owner. Henry builds up quite a plantation but then dies unexpectedly. How Caldonia, along with her overseer Moses, runs the plantation afterward forms the rest of the novel.Several issues are presented in the book. Whites¿ attitudes towards blacks, both slave and free; the function of ¿the law;¿ men¿s attitudes towards women (and vice versa); and the question of how and why blacks could own slaves themselves.This is a very well-written book, and I struggled on whether to rate it a 4 or 4.5. There is some content in the book that downgrades it slightly for me. Consider it a very high 4.
bpyron on LibraryThing 7 days ago
Thought provoking story on slavery from an interesting angle: black slave owners. Beautifully written, although hard to follow at times.
divawaldo on LibraryThing 7 days ago
It may be that I am not well read in this style of writing but I can honestly say that I never finished this book and the 1/2 I did read I had to read over many times until it started to make sense. I have no idea why this work won a Pulitzer it is complex for no reason and it leaves readers like me waiting for it to finally come to a point, which (for as far as I got) it never did.
brarian on LibraryThing 7 days ago
A book worth reading. Jones will seem to wander off topic, but even if it seems tangential, you'll probably hear tell of it again. Each character, whether a brief cameo or a protagonist, is vividly sketched. Jones has a voice worth paying attention to. If you liked this book, try Lost in the City, his first short story collection, or All Aunt Hagar's Children, his second, both concerning black life in Washington, D.C., among other things.
cataylor on LibraryThing 7 days ago
Southwest Virginia (before the Civil War) comes alive through the family of Henry Townsend, a freed slave who comes to own slaves of his own. A complicated story of relationships between blacks and whites in a time of unrest.
Cygnus555 on LibraryThing 7 days ago
When I read in the critiques of this book that the Boston Globe said that I would have "difficulty leaving [the book] on the last page", I was hopeful. I was indeed. One of the best books I have read in a long time. This book is so masterfully written... the authors ability to convey all sides of the characters blew me away. You see the bad behavior of some... then gain perspective when their character takes center stage later on. I came to know the characters and, as promised, I was loathe to leave the story behind. very, very highly recommended.
joeltallman on LibraryThing 7 days ago
This is one of those Oprah-book-club "literary" novels I don't usually read, and it grew on me and grew on me. I ended up loving every intricately-woven character and incident.
whitewavedarling on LibraryThing 7 days ago
First, let me say that it took a long while to finish [The Known World]. I started it some time ago for a class, and it just never took me. It's well-written, and the plot is interesting enough, but alone that's fairly damning praise for me. I found the structure of the book jarring and it often seemed to be trying-too-hard to be artistic and new. The rambling nature of th story felt forced, and it never seemed to come together. There were also so many characters that I never felt as if I really got to know any of them, and many of them I simply didn't like--by extension, I couldn't make myself care about them. If I hadn't recently read [Uncle Tom's Cabin], I could hypothesize that it was the subject or the times that didn't connect, but it wasn't. Stowe's work was engaging, and her characters felt real, where as this book just didn't measure up to any of the other contemporary lit. or slavery related lit. that I've read. It attempted a great deal, but I cannot say that it came through on any level for me. I wouldn't recommend this one.