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The Known World

We all belong to many groups, almost unconsciously but not without quietly drawing reassurance that we are not alone. Membership in one group has nothing to do with membership in the others: inconsistencies don't hobble our little minds. For example, I'm a liberal blogger and a registered Republican (fat lot of good our vote for John McCain in the rare New York primary did). You can be a priest and a child molester! We prefer to keep the more egregious conflicts secret, of course, lest they open us to the charge of hypocrisy. But we go on our merry way regardless, robustly capable of overlooking the likelihood that the members of one group might throw us out of their group if they knew about our membership in another. My point is that our hazy and elastic sense of membership in groups is more of a feeling than a determination.

There are, however, important either/or groups that so zealously police their frontiers that hypocrisy is almost impossible. You cannot profess Orthodox Judaism and Roman Catholicism at the same time; both confessions will disown you. And so long as the color of your skin signifies anything more meaningful than a propensity to certain diseases, you cannot claim to be black and white at the same time. Many people are black and white, of course; most African-Americans are also African-Europeans, but this fact is pressed only by the relative handful of children of formal and recognized interracial marriages, and even writers as acute as James McBride - son of such a union and author of The Color of Water - seems to suggest that to be half black and half white is to be neither one nor the other. White Americans have grimly simplified the matter by insisting that anybody part black is all black, and they've concocted loads of pseudoscientific rubbish, most of it happily junked, to back themselves up. Having excluded African-Americans from their milieux, these same Americans have then had the temerity to suppose that if their outcast fellows can't conduct themselves with white decorum, then there must be something defective about them - Cubic Zirconium Prize-winner of the Circular Reasoning Olympics.

These thoughts were generated by an insight that came to me after I read The Known World (2003, Amistad, 2004), the novel by Pulitzer Prize- and MacArthur Foundation Grant-winner Edward P. Jones. What came to me was the hunch that you don't belong to an either/or, exclusionary group unless one of two things is the case: there's something in it for you, or somebody else is forcing you to join. The toxic patriotism that sprouts up in wartime is a potent blend of the two: jingoistic grandiosity and mortal terror. Left to our own devices, we prefer to believe that we can belong to any group that we might want to join. Americans are particularly fond of this notion.

The Known World is usually said to be 'a novel about black slave-holders in the antebellum South.' That's a useful handle for pitching the book to people who haven't read it, but readers will agree, I expect, that its center lies elsewhere. Consider that the action begins as a black slave-holder, Henry Townsend, is dying. Mr Jones's incredible command of narrative shifts will take us to a wide range of moments in time, jumping with feline agility now back, now forward in decades. But Henry Townsend will never emerge as a principal character, much less as the book's central figure. He is, rather, the principal ghost, the main vacancy. I don't mean to derogate the novel at all, but I do suspect that Mr Jones flinched at the prospect of making a black slave-holder fully sympathetic.

Henry is not the only black slave-holder in The Known World. There is Fern Elston, who could, if she wanted to, pass for white, but who instead has remained in rural Virginia, running a small school for free black children, something, it is implicitly clear, that she has done because it puts her at the top of a heap. There is also the family of Henry's wife, Caldonia. There will be a climactic moment when the action turns upon Caldonia's relationship to slavery (once she has inherited Henry's estate), but Caldonia is a far more elusive character than either her mother, Maude, or her twin brother, Calvin, polar opposites on the slavery question. Maude, one of the novel's wicked people, refers to slaves as 'legacy,' and is believed to have murdered her husband with arsenic because of his intention to free his slaves. Interestingly, she is rarely mentioned by name. Calvin not only shares his late father's views but carries the additional burden of homosexuality. At the time of Henry's death, Calvin has recently realized that he harbors hopeless longings for Louis, a former classmate at Fern's school. Standing on Caldonia's verandah, Calvin reminisces:

They had gone swimming at a creek, the way they had so often as children after lessons at Fern Elston's. They had tired before long and come out of the water, Louis following Calvin, and they lay down on the bank, not five inches between them. Louis was talking about some woman he was interested in, describing what all had first caught his eye. That had long been his way with Calvin, to tell of this and that he had an eye for. They were stretched out, and Calvin, on his side, was looking at Louis, who was sitting up slightly on his elbows. Calvin had noticed a tiny pool of water and sweat that had collected in a small depression at the base of Louis's neck. The pool of water stayed there for the longest, through all the talk about the woman, with slight vibrations on the surface of the water as his friend's words came up and out his mouth. Long before Louis was done, Calvin had wanted to lean over and drink with his tongue from the pool. He would have, just then with the final word, but Louis turned his head slightly and all the water flowed down his chest. Calvin stood up and said he wanted to go home. One day, he said to himself, I will call New York my hoome and all of this will be a long ways away. Even after the many years as Maude's nurse, he would never see New York.
Calvin went up the stairs of Caldonia's house and lingered on the verandah, standing at the post on the right. If he had reached over to drink, he knew Louis would have tried to kill him right there.

This passage lingered in my mind for several reasons, one of which was its reflection of the sophistication achieved by free African-Americans before the Civil War. But perhaps such an extended quotation gives a mistaken idea of Calvin's role in The Known World. From a novel bursting with characters seen at every conceivable level of detail, it is hard to draw even a handful of major figures, and the attempt to capture the richness of the novel is all too likely to produce nothing more than a glorified book report, such as Darryl Pinckney's review in the current New York Review of Books. (Dated October 21, 2004. As often, the NYR takes its time getting round to fiction.) The desire to do justice to the book ends up making Mr Pinckney follow it around, as it were. But I have begun with the Henrys and the Caldonias in order to clear them aside. Denied a standout character, we can locate a major tension, and by the end of the novel we know that the tension is between the local sheriff, John Skiffington, and Moses, Henry Townsend's overseer, also a slave. As men of complex, solitary disposition, these men have more trouble with the similarly-situated people around them than they have with those on the other 'side.' Theirs is the story that slowly predominates over all the others, so that when Mr Jones begins to speak of either one of them, we begin to expect something to happen. Which is another way of saying that, amidst all this novel's happenings, this is the action with dramatic impact.

The Known World is set in Manchester, Virginia, the fictional center of fictional Manchester County. John Skiffington is a pious and just man who believes in the law. As it happens, the law that Skiffington has to enforce is generally less an oppressor of the enslaved than a restraint of the powerful. 'Powerful' is an especially relative term in his world, where the poor but dishonest and mean-spirited Harvey Travis can exercise dominion over a free African-American. Travis is one of Skiffington's patrollers, deputies charged with nocturnal searches for runaway slaves. Skiffington is one of the few men who will stand up to Travis, although it must be said that in the incident in which he does so, Travis is trying to cheat another white man. But even more fateful than Travis is John's cousin, Counsel, who has a good claim to be the foremost member of the supporting cast. At one time, when Counsel was the proprietor of a vast plantation in North Carolina, his uncle, John's father, worked as his overseer. Then John's mother died, and John's father had a dream in which "God told him that he did not want him and his son having dominion over slaves." The next day, the father and son left Counsel's plantation for Manchester, a town which the father had seen once and dreamed of twice. When John, having become deputy sheriff, marries his boss's niece, Winifred, Counsel and his wife give the couple a slave girl as a wedding present. The offensiveness of their condescension has a Jamesian clout, and we see that Counsel, outwardly rich and attractive, is inwardly puny and borderline. Our foreboding turns out to be warranted. But Counsel's almost surprising importance as the novel reaches its showdown is always shaded by his counsin's patient, wistful character. All John Skiffington wants to do is to retire to Pennsylvania and teach the son that Providence has so far denied him how to fish. Such dreams of retirement from violent duty often foreshadow other outcomes.

As it happens, John Skiffington was very nearly the first person in Manchester to encounter Moses, about ten years before Henry Townsend's death. The tale of Moses' arrival in Manchester has all the complexity of a good Faulkner yarn, and can't be summarized. But his master of the moment is behind bars, and the question of paying for his upkeep presents a puzzle. The puzzle is solved by William Robbins, the county's pre-eminent personage, who happens to be in the sheriff's office on other business when Moses and Bessie, the jailed man's other slave and a woman whom Moses has come to love, are brought in. Robbins takes an interest in Moses and orders him to strip for the customary inspection. Moses passes, but Bessie has a limp, and is given to crying - qualities that Skiffington knows won't appeal to Robbins.

Robbins said to Bessie about her rags, "Take them things out." Henry moved a half step back until the doorknob was in his back. "Please, Master Sir," Moses said," we together, her and me. Don't pull us apart. We together." It was true that he and Bessie had come from Alexandria, where they first met in a holding pen. And now, after two months, he could not stand the thought of being away from her. "Please, master sir, she and me be family." Robbins ignored him. Bessie began crying again, and she went on crying as she disrobed. Robbins touched her the same as he had touched Moses. "Please..." Moses said. "If you say one more word to me," Robbins said to Moses, I will buy you just to take you out in the street and shoot you. Just one more word."

This is monstrous, but it is not quite as monstrous as it sounds, for Robbins is as punctilious about the law as Skiffington is, and the law prohibits the gratuitous murder of slaves. Henry Townsend, born to slaves of Robbins who have bought their freedom, has been freed himself, and Robbins, who takes a liking to him, has set him up on adjacent acreage. Moses becomes Henry's first slave - much his parents' dismay. Moses helps Henry to build his house, and becomes his overseer when Henry acquires other slaves. After Henry's death, Moses makes his daily reports to Caldonia, and it is not long before he is beguiling her with stories, not always factual, about his early days with her late husband. One thing leads to another, and soon Moses believes that his mistress is going to free him and then marry him. This leads him to take actions that rule out any such future. Because Moses is a doer, not a thinker, his lack of education exposes him to the consequences of all sorts of misjudgments, and it is in Moses that we can measure the degradation of the slave.

He went the way he had seen Alice go one of those times he had followed her. And when he reached crossroads, he took the way he thought she would go. It was a clear way, that road, one that would allow him to see the patrollers long before they would see him. He thought that was one of the most important things. He did not know enough about the world to know he was going south. He could have found his way around Caldonia's plantation with no eyes and even no hands to touch familiar trees, but where he was walking now was not that place. The other three roads had bends and turns in them and he didn't think Alice would ever have taken them.

Moses' disappearance, quickly followed by that of two other Townsend slaves, requires Skiffington to take unprecedented action. Knowing that he has already lost the confidence of Robbins, he goes out to the house of Henry Townsend's mother, Mildred, which we have visited before but without knowing that it is a station on the Underground Railroad. The ensuing climax, much like an earlier scene in which Augustus Townsend, Henry's father, is sold back into slavery by the corrupt Travis, has much of the tightly-recoiled power of Cormac McCarthy's fiction, and every little word counts. It is both dreadful and severely understated. Having killed and about to be killed, Skiffington raises an

Skiffington and Counsel were silent for a very long time and Skiffington prayed, but once again, the words failed him. Counsel looked at Skiffington, who dropped his rifle, and in the time it took for the rifle to reach the ground, Skiffington's horse took a few steps away from Counsel and his horse. "What have I asked except civility and righteousness?" Skiffington said. "John?" Counsel said. "John?" "I rise in the morning," Skiffington continued without hearing counsel, "and I asked nothing of that nigger, except what is proper and right. No more than that do I ask of any nigger. No more. Who can say that I asked for more, Counsel? Name that person this moment who says I asked for more than civility and righteousness for righteousness' sake. That person has no name because that person does not live. Are civility and righteousness so dear that I cannot have them?" Counsel said, "John? Do you hear me, John?"

The Known World is a novel that begins with thoughtful interest and, without ever losing that interest, becomes steadily more harrowing. In the same way, Mr Jones's recursive narrative style, which is forever spilling off little accounts of the minor characters' futures, opens the novel onto many dimensions. There is the enormity of slavery of course. But there is also the demonstration, over and over again, that it is money and education, not skin color, that divides people. It is a scale-free network of tales: some of them very brief, having only one slight connection to any of the others; some of them broad enough to provide the substance for a good short story; several of them all but all-encompassing. There is a generosity in the telling that dismisses the notions of economy and concision, but at the same time the writing is never self-important or wearisome: this is, after all, a picture of a known world. (October 2004)

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