In her rectitude, and her dealings with runaways, Fern comes the closest in the novel to being a comic character, though her experiences mostly say that in the system of chattel slavery no one is really in charge of events, least of all those who think themselves the masters of others. Fern and other blacks of the slave-owning class can become just as agitated as whites over stories of freed slaves coming back to kill their former masters. She is afraid of abolitionists, but vows that were she in bondage she would slash her master’s throat. “I wonder why they all have not risen up and done that.”
Augustus Townsend, the father of Henry Townsend, was one of William Robbins’s 113 slaves when he bought his freedom at the age of twenty-two. As a slave, he worked as a carpenter who hired himself out for jobs and divided his fees with his master. He could make an oak four-poster bed in three weeks. After earning his freedom, he built a house on land at the edge of the county bought from a poor white. Three years after purchasing his own freedom, he made the last payment to Robbins for his wife, Mildred. Nine-year-old Henry, a slave cared for by Mildred’s cabinmate, Rita, tries to make sense of the word “home” as he is made to say his goodbyes to his mother on the road outside Robbins’s plantation, not understanding the reasons for the separation. For the next six years, from 1834 to 1840, Mildred prepares meat pies and cakes for their desolate Sunday visits in the road with their son, who doesn’t understand their anguish when he forgets to meet them.
It takes Augustus far longer to buy his son’s freedom than he thought it would.
Robbins would come to know what a smart boy Henry was. The cost of intelligence was not fixed and because it was fluid, it was whatever the market would bear and all of that burden would fall upon Mildred and Augustus.
Henry becomes Robbins’s groom, rising before the sun to tend to his duties and always waiting in the road for Robbins’s return from the town of Manchester, where he visits his slave mistress, Philomena. “The wife knew about the first child her husband had with Philomena, about Dora, but she would not know about the second, Louis, until the boy was three years old.” On his rides between his white family and his black family, Robbins routinely suffers from severely disorienting headaches, “thunder and lightning” in the brain, which makes Henry’s reassuring presence at the gates all the more necessary to him.
The census did not say…that he travelled into Manchester because he loved [his children’s] mother far more than anything he could name and that, in his quieter moments, after the storms in his head, he feared that he was losing his mind because of that love.
A man in his position was not supposed to lose himself to anything.
Robbins was surprised to realize that he loved Philomena, “a black human being.” He was also surprised by his feelings for Henry. Even after Henry went into freedom, Robbins had him come back often to make shoes and boots for his family. He found him customers in the county. Henry accumulated money and that, along with some real estate he would get from Robbins, “would be the foundation of what he was and what he had the evening he died.” It was Robbins who taught Henry the value of money, the value of his labors, and not to blink when he named his price. Robbins also persuaded Fern to take Henry on as a pupil and it was at her table that Henry met Caldonia.
Augustus would prefer his son had nothing to do with the slave past, “but Mildred made him see that the bigger Henry could make the world he lived in, the freer he would be.” The free papers they carry don’t carry enough freedom, she says. However, after Henry bought his first slave, Moses, he did not visit his parents for a long time. Most white men knew that to sell a slave to Robbins was really to sell to Henry, and some refused to do it, because, after all, Henry was “only a nigger who got big by making boots and shoes…. Who knew what a nig-ger really planned to do with other niggers?”
When Henry does tell his parents that he has bought his “own” man, they are shocked, they who thought they’d carefully instructed their son what he should and should not do. It never occurred to them that they would need to tell him that it was wrong to own another man. “You could not have hurt me more if you had cut off my arms and my legs.” Augustus has sworn to himself never to suffer a slave owner on his land. He asks his son to leave, hitting him hard with a stick to remind him how slaves feel. Henry gets to his feet and breaks the stick over his knee, telling his father that that is how a master feels.
In 1841, after one of the storms in his brain, Robbins finds a white man on the road with him. He takes him back to his plantation and sells the stranger two of his young slaves, a gesture of hospitality that Robbins regrets four days later. He thinks, irrationally, that the stranger is an abolitionist who has tricked him and intends to take the slaves north. It was after “that bitter sale” that he decided the slave patrols needed to be more strict. The novel then goes back a year, to 1840, the year the deputy sheriff of Manchester County, John Skiffington, marries. His bride is distant kin to William Robbins’s wife, though herself a product of the Philadelphia School for Girls. Skiffington’s North Carolina cousins, Counsel and Belle, bring his new wife, Winifred, a slave girl festooned with blue ribbons. Skiffington and his Bible-toting father “had sworn off slavery” years before, but he and Winifred decide that Minerva, “the wedding present,” would be better off with them in the South, “the world of human property,” than with anyone else. Selling her was out of the question, even if they could know what was to become of her.
Minerva, who has an older sister back in North Carolina, is disappointed she can’t see the farm she left from the window where she stood the morning after John and Winifred’s wedding. “Winifred lightly touched Minerva’s cheek, the first and last black human being she would ever touch.” The narration jumps ahead to the Civil War time to tell us that “Minerva and her sister would not see each other again for more than twenty years. It would be in Philadelphia, nine blocks from the Philadelphia School for Girls.” We are also told that by then Winifred would be in Philadelphia, looking for Minerva, whom she desperately wants to call her daughter.
Some of Jones’s minor characters have an importance conferred on them by their absence. Rita, the cabinmate of Henry’s mother when Mildred was still a slave, has a mole on her left cheek that Robbins records shortly after her birth in “his large book of births and deaths, the comings and goings of slaves.” He notes the fact of Rita’s mole on a wanted poster, not knowing that she has escaped to freedom, and that she has had Augustus’s and Mildred’s help the day they have completed payment for their son. Rita can’t bear to be left behind on the plantation. They take her home, where Augustus fashions a wooden crate and then hides her inside with a shipment of carved walking sticks bound for New York. Jones follows Rita’s box to New York, where a merchant’s Irish wife pries the nails from the lid under which Rita waits to greet freedom. In the wagon on their way home after the train carrying Rita has departed, Augustus tells his son to think about freedom any way he wants to and that will be fine. But of course nothing will be “fine.”
The “Rita thing,” irritating to Robbins, also leads to Skiffington’s becoming the sheriff of Manchester County. Twelve years later, in 1855, on the day of Henry’s funeral, Skiffington is in charge of the patrols. After the funeral at the plantation, a masterful scene in which Jones brings together his cast of slaves, whites, and free blacks, The Known World becomes a tale of things falling apart. The forces that have been waiting to pull down Henry’s estate start with the slave patrollers, poor whites whom Skiffington, as sheriff, must work with. Harvey Travis, “a cheat and a brute,” is insecure because of his Cherokee wife, an ex-slave, and their mixed-race children; his brother-in-law, Oden Peoples, is himself Cherokee, the owner of four slaves; and Barnum Kinsey is a resentful drunk. Peoples and Kinsey are the only patrollers who own slaves.
Five weeks after Henry’s funeral, when Skiffington isn’t with them, the patrollers stop Augustus Townsend, whom they know. In a fit of exasperation that a black man is legally beyond his power, Travis takes Augustus’s free papers and eats them. “Best meal I’ve had in many Sundays.” Travis then sells Augustus cheaply to traders wearing beaver pelts in the September heat.
Eventually sold off to a poor white in Georgia, Augustus is shot after telling the man that he has already done all the work he intends to do in this life. Jones’s omniscient narrator can go anywhere, even escorting Augustus through the sensation of his dying, an honor that the story itself wants to pay Augustus and later Mildred for their nobility lost to foolishness, vagueness, and human meanness:
When Augustus Townsend died in Georgia near the Florida line, he rose up above the barn where he had died, up above the trees and the crumbling smokehouse and the little family house nearby, and he walked away quick-like, toward Virginia. He discovered that when people were above it all they walked faster, as much as a hundred times faster than when they were confined to the earth. And so he reached Virginia in little or no time. He came to the house he had built for his family, for Mildred his wife and Henry his son, and he opened and went through the door. He thought she might be at the kitchen table, unable to sleep and drinking something to ease her mind. But he did not find his wife there. Augustus went upstairs and found Mildred sleeping in their bed. He looked at her for a long time, certainly as long as it would have taken him, walking up above it all, to walk to Canada and beyond. Then he went to the bed, leaned over and kissed her left breast.
At about the same time, the slaves on the North Carolina plantation of Counsel and Belle Skiffington begin to fall ill and a doctor puts the place under quarantine. Belle and her children die, as smallpox kills all the slaves and the entire Skiffington family, except for Counsel. In his grief, he burns down everything, even the mansion with its piano in the parlor and three hundred books in the library. Counsel then wanders into Georgia and on to Texas, where in a haunting scene Jones has him meet a migrating horde of white, Mexican, black, and Oriental-looking people: “There was something wrong here and the government of Texas should be doing something about it.” He goes back to his cousin John Skiffington in Virginia, where he will become a murderer.
After Henry’s funeral, Calvin, Caldonia Townsend’s brother, in love with Robbins’s half-black son, Louis, returns to his mother’s “ever-decreasing fields” because he can think of nothing better to do. He blames slavery for his depression. “A pain generated by the very air around him seeped into his bones and settled right next to the pain of silently caring for Louis.” Meanwhile, Moses has been trying to fill his master’s place, advising Caldonia, giving reports on the workday, washing and putting on a new shirt beforehand. “She was still but her bosom rose and fell and he watched her for so long that he fell into the pattern of her bosom rising and falling.” As their familiarity grows, Caldonia has her maid, Loretta, bring him cake and coffee in the parlor. She likes to hear his stories about her late husband, even untrue ones, and one evening, when the heat has subsided, they kiss “and still the world did not end.”
The morning after Caldonia and Moses make love for the first time, she visits Henry’s grave to ask forgiveness, though she suffers no guilt:
That evening was the first time Moses would think that his wife and child could not live in the same world with him and Caldonia.
Moses tells Alice that he is setting her free, lying that he has the power to do so, but she must take his family with her. He pretends to his wife that he will follow them soon. One Saturday night they disappear into the woods. The patrols are usually drunk on paydays, and Alice, who has only been feigning madness, as many slaves did, is in command of the escape. When Sheriff John Skiffington learns of their defection, he becomes suspicious of Moses. To add to Skiffington’s troubles, drunken Barnum Kinsey confesses that he and other patrollers have sold Augustus Townsend to speculators.
Moses demands free papers from his mistress and lover, but Caldonia thinks only of the white woman who was whipped “for lying with her slave.” In his rage at her refusal, Moses ignores the pleas of the pregnant Celeste, the crippled wife of the slave Elias, that she is unwell. Overworked in the fields, she miscarries. Caldonia blames Moses, and Loretta pulls a knife on him to protect her mistress. “Moses could feel that the world had changed even before he came to his feet the next morning.” The slaves go to the fields without him, mocking his name and his overseer’s pretensions. Only Celeste, grieving for her lost child, takes pity on him.
Almost absent-mindedly, Moses goes out into the road and heads in the direction he had seen Alice go. The next morning Celeste’s husband, Elias, discovers that Moses has run away. Celeste begs Elias not to help the authorities and not to take up Moses’s work, to let Caldonia do it herself if she wants it done:
She was thinking that such a lovely day could only mean that they would kill poor Moses when they found him. The God of that Bible, being who he was, never gave a slave a good day without wanting something big in return.
Mildred senses that Augustus is dead and Skiffington has guessed, correctly, that she is hiding Moses. She greets him and Counsel Skiffington, his cousin and deputy, with a rifle. “No more. No more men from here. No more men from anywhere. Not one more,” she says. In pulling his rifle from the sheaf at his saddle, Skiffington unintentionally shoots Mildred. Celeste’s feeling has been prophetic.
Counsel then steals five twenty-dollar gold pieces from the house, enough to establish himself again if he didn’t have to share the treasure. He kills John Skiffington with Mildred’s rifle. Moses appears on the stairs, and Counsel easily apprehends him, warning him to keep quiet about what he’s witnessed. Counsel and his prisoner run into the patrollers. Oden Peoples, one of the patrollers, puts a knife through Moses’s Achilles tendon and has to ride a long way, with Moses mounted behind him, with the sound of his moaning in his ears.
The Known World ends in 1861. Calvin writes to his sister, Caldonia, now married to Louis, from Washington, D.C. The hotel where he works, open to congressmen and colored people alike, is a business owned by the people who work there, many of them runaways, including Alice and Priscilla. What Calvin most fears is that his past as a black man who had been a slave owner will be discovered, but Henry’s former slaves, Alice and Priscilla, are so changed they are merely polite to him. In the hotel’s saloon are two enormous wall hangings that he describes in his letter to Caldonia as “part tapestry, part painting, and part clay structure.”
One is a map of Manchester County, its houses, barns, wells, roads. “It is what God sees when He looks down on Manchester.” The other is a map of what God sees when he looks down on Caldonia’s plantation, every chicken and horse. Depicted before the cabins, with upturned faces, is everyone who lived there before Alice, Priscilla, and Jamie disappeared. “The dead in the cemetery have risen…and they, too, stand at the cabins where they once lived.” Both wall hangings have a name stitched on them: “Alice Night.” When Caldonia finishes rereading Calvin’s letter, she will see Moses hobbling down the lane.
Calvin’s letter is the only moment of overinvention, though Alice’s map is no doubt intended as a revision of a map described earlier, just as the entire novel is a black revision of a white-made landscape, so to speak. Earlier we have learned that Sheriff Skiffington had purchased a map called “The Known World” from a Russian with a white beard down to his stomach. He suspected that the man was “a Jew but he could not tell a Jew from any other white man.” The map, a “browned and yellowed woodcut of some eight feet by six feet,” hung in the jail, because Winifred did not want it in the house. The map was made by a German, “Hans Waldseemuller, who lived in France three centuries before, according to a legend in the bottom right-hand corner.” “It was the first time the word America had ever been put on a map,” the Russian claimed.
But “The Known World” is also a metaphor for the problem Jones’s characters face: no one knows any other way of life, very few of his white people have been anywhere far, and slave runaways can’t read the stars to discover which direction leads north. When Moses disappears, Elias predicts that he will be caught, because Moses is “world-stupid.” The Known World is also about the white losers in the slave economy as well as the slaves, the failed crops and creditors, the white planters who go under, and the poor whites who try to find places for themselves in the system. Henry “did not understand that the kind of world he wanted to create was doomed before he had even spoken the first syllable of the word master.”
Abolitionism is referred to, as are certain pieces of Virginia legislation, but it is remarkable how little of the politics of the outside world matters to the people of The Known World, white or black, and how little it matters to the story that no one, white or black, is following the distant debate in Congress about slavery. Calvin’s letter to Caldoniaâ€”Fort Sumter has already been fired onâ€”makes no mention of troops or Secession:
It mattered not how long [Calvin] had wandered in the wilderness, how long they had kept him in chains, how long he had helped them and kept himself in his own chains; none of that mattered now.
There are no crowd, church, or holiday scenes in this novel, and no music comes from the slave quarters ever. This is not a fiction about plantation life that wants to show slave culture in operation. Slavery in fiction has never been made into a metaphor for anything else, not in the way that an abandoned crew of a ship or any group has been. The Known World isn’t about anything other than Americans and slavery. For now, it is the oddest, most sorrowful summing up of the subject.