Sunday, May 20, 2007

The Known World: A review

This, the 2004 winner of the Pulitzer and a finalist for the National Book Award, is a magnificent novel by any standard. As a first novel, it's truly astonishing, especially given its subject matter and the way it approaches that subject matter. For various reasons, it took me a long time to finish The Known World. In retrospect, though, I'm glad it did. This is a novel meant not so much to be read as to be lingered over, pondered.

Based on the lives of actual people in antebellum Manchester County, Virginia, the novel begins with the death of Henry Townsend, a respected slaveholder, and is overtly concerned with subsequent events on his plantation in the days and weeks after he dies. What makes this of more than passing interest is that Townsend is a free black whose own parents, we learn later on, had worked to buy him from his owner after they themselves had worked to earn their freedom. How does such a thing happen? Henry is as puzzled by his parents' reaction when they learn that he owns slaves as his parents are baffled by what they've learned about their son. And we, in turn, are baffled that Henry is puzzled. A free black, own slaves? This should not be . . . yet it is so.

You might expect a novel on such a topic to be rather wild-eyed or at least reach for the occasional scene of Faulknerian or Morrisonian high drama, but you would be disappointed. Horrific, brutal, dehumanizing things happen in this novel to be sure, but The Known World is the calmest novel about race and slavery that I have ever read. Having read more than my share of such novels for my dissertation, I know something whereof I speak. That in and of itself isn't a point in its favor, yet its quiet, controlled tone, working as it does against our expectations, doesn't weary the reader but, instead, keeps the reader reading in expectation of the usual fireworks.

So, rather than engage in appropriate but expected outrage, The Known World takes a different tack, somewhat as Uncle Tom's Cabin does: each novel shows how distorted, how perverted human behavior turns in a slave-holding culture. Stowe's novel shows how slave-holding infects and corrupts the behavior of even the most benign of slaveholders; Jones' novel shows how, in a world where slaveholders have power and status, it becomes perfectly acceptable, if not the norm, for free blacks to participate in that world. In the imaginative economy of this world, Henry Townsend's owning slaves is as much an acceptable--and achievable--possibility as his parents' working to free themselves and him is. Perversely, in fact, it is via owning slaves that Henry has gained the (grudging, at times puzzled) respect of the white community, constructed as it is around the single principle of protecting "property" and the interests of those who own it. The commodification of human beings is the a priori assumption giving shape to Henry's parents' decisions as well as to Henry's.

Perhaps even more impressively, the novel's narrative style, though its main thread has a forward motion to it, frequently though briefly flashes backward and forward in time. The flash-forwards, in fact, are somewhat reminiscent of the visual style of the 1999 film Run Lola, Run. Some of those flash-forwards, in fact, serve to link our world with that one, chiefly via references to various historians' examining census records from Manchester County: about the most dispassionate sort of text I can conceive of. Yet they link us to this unimaginable-yet-true world.

I want to quote and comment on a few passages now to give you a sense of this writer's quiet, controlled style and subtle, complex vision.

The first passage, coming not quite at the novel's middle, reveals the origins of the phrase "The Known World." Skiffington, the sheriff for the county, is in reluctant conversation with a slave-trader named Broussard, presently being held on suspicion of the murder of his partner:

[Broussard] pointed to the left wall where Skiffington had hung a map, a browned and yellowed woodcut of some eight feet by six feet. The map had been created by a German, Hans Waldseemuller, who lived in France three centuries before, according to a legend in the bottom right-hand corner. "I live where they make that beautiful map. I know who make them, Monsieur Sheriff, and I can get you better, bigger map. I can do it to show how I appreciate."

"That one will do fine," Skiffington said. A Russian who claimed to be a descendant of Waldseemuller had passed through the town and Skiffington had bought the map from him. He wanted it as a present for [his wife] Winifred but she thought it too hideous to be in her house. Heading the legend were the words "The Known World." Skiffington suspected the Russian, a man with a white beard down to his stomach, was a Jew but he could not tell a Jew from any other white man.

"I get you better," Broussard said. I get you better map, and more map of today. Map of today, how the world out together today, not yesterday, not long ago." The Russian had told Skiffington that it was the first time the word America had ever been put on a map. The land of North America on the map was smaller than it was in actuality, and where Florida should have been, there was nothing. South America seemed the right size, but it alone of the two continents was called "America." North America went nameless.

"I'm happy with what I got," Skiffington said. The map had come from the Russian in twelve parts, each weighing about three pounds, and Skiffington had had a hard time putting it together. He did it while Winifred and Minerva [their black servant] were away at Clara's, and when Winifred returned and told him she did not want it in her house, he had to dismantle it and reassemble it again in the jail.

"You see, Monsieur Sheriff," Broussard said. "I get you better. I get you more better map." (174-175)

The strong suggestion here is that Skiffington wants to keep the map more because of the trouble he had gone through, not just in assembling it, twice, but with Winifred as well, than because he actually likes it. The map, three centuries old, its depictions of landforms hopelessly inaccurate, becomes a metonymy of the novel's world, itself to be replaced in the not-too distant future.

The second passage may be the grandest moment in the entire novel, not just for what it expresses but, given the times and culture, the way in which the speaker has no choice but to say it. Like reading an especially-challenging Dickinson poem, its difficult expression is part of the point of that being expressed.

A man named Barnum, a patroller (civilians deputized to ride the roads at night, looking for slaves), has just confessed to Skiffington that Augustus Townsend, Henry's father and a free man, had been kidnapped and taken south to be sold. Barnum is distraught that he had not been brave enough to have confessed this before, for the reason he will try to make clear to Skiffington:

"Now I don't want you to take me tellin you all this as my becomin a nigger kisser or somethin like that. It ain't that. You know me, John. But they sold that Augustus and they sold his mule." It was twilight and the stars were quite evident in the sky. The moon, still low, was behind Skiffington and only Barnum could see it.

"I know you, Barnum."

"But he was a free and clear man, and the law said so. Augustus never hurt me, never said bad to me. What Harvey done was wrong. But tellin you don't put me on the nigger side. I'm still on the white man side, John. I'm still standin with the white. God help me if you believe somethin else about me." He shifted in the saddle once more. The moon was just above the horizon now, a large, dusty orange point, but barnum did not raise his head high enough to see it. "It's just that there should be a way for a body to say what is without somebody sayin he standin on the nigger side. A body should be able to stand under some . . . some kinda light and declare what he knows without retribution. There should be some kinda lantern, john, that we can stand under and say, 'I know what I know and what i know is God's truth,' and then come from under the light and nobody make any big commotion bout what he said. He could say it and just get on about his business, and nobody would say, 'He be stickin up for the nigger, he be stickin up for them indians.' The lantern of truth wouldn't low then to say that. There should be that kinda light, John. I regret what happened to Augustus."

"Yes, Barnum, I know." The merchant came out of the store and tipped his hat to Skiffington and Skiffington nodded and the merchant went home.

"A man could stand under that light and talk the truth. You could hold the lantern with the light right from where you standin, John. Hold it so I could stand under it. And when nobody was talkin, was tellin the truth bout what they know, you could keep the lantern in the jail, John. Keep it safe in the jail, John." Barnum closed his eyes, took off his hat, opened his eyes and studied the brim. "But don't keep the lantern too near the bars, John, cause you don't want the criminals touchin it and what not. You should write the president, you should write the delegate, and have em pass a law to have that lantern in every jail in the United States of America. I would back that law. God knows I would. I really would, John."

"I would, too, Barnum," Skiffington said. (303-304)

It's difficult to convey not just how powerful this scene is but how skillful it is. Barnum, like Huckleberry Finn, is a basically decent person whose thought is shaped by the world he lives in, a world in which race trumps all. He cannot imagine a color-blind world, hence his palpable anxiety that Skiffington understand him and continue to see him not as a man but as a white man. Huck's fear is similar, though he chooses to embrace his world's rejection: "All right, then--I'll go to hell!" What Twain had to remember for Huck and what Jones has to remember for Barnum is not to turn their respective characters into Freedom Riders. Twain succeeded so well that Huckleberry Finn continues to run afoul of people more content to count N-words than actually read it. Jones succeeds equally, I would say, as he turns Barnum's fear and anguish into something very close to poetry.

Read this novel. Jones is a master writer writing novels and stories about race with a subtlety that I haven't seen since Beloved. Especially in these times, we need writers of this ability and complexity who don't browbeat or proselytize but who make their readers think and want to tell others about what they have to say. Jones is indeed that kind of writer, and The Known World is that kind of novel.

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