Peripatetic, itinerant, eclectic musings about books, politics, history, language, culture, and anything else that interests me.
Before I read this book, I did not know that there were free blacks in the antebellum South who themselves owned slaves. The number was not large, but they did exist.
This little-known aspect of American slavery is the context for Edward P. Jones’s superb 2003 novel about the intertwined lives and fates of the white and black residents of fictional Manchester County, Virginia.
The easy way to think about slavery (and probably the way most Americans have grown up thinking about it) is that it was an evil institution under which black men and women were bought and sold as human property, that it existed in this country for about 250 years, and that it ended in 1865 as a result of the Civil War.
That’s obviously true, as far as it goes, but it does not convey the full reality of how slavery corrupted everyone who lived under it — not just wealthy white landowners, but all whites, whether they owned slaves or not, and blacks, both enslaved and free; as well as American society as a whole, Northern as well as Southern. Far more than an historical institution that had a beginning and an end, slavery was an organic, living system that implicated and tied together everyone in its orbit. Slavery was the abyss, and everyone who lived inside that abyss — whether by choice or by force — was tainted by it. Even the noblest human emotion — love; a kind or generous impulse — could not withstand the corrupting power of slavery. Like an octopus with dozens of tentacles, slavery poisoned everything it touched.
The book’s central figure is Henry Townsend, a free black man (and owner of slaves) whose complicated relationship with his former master — wealthy plantation owner William Robbins — becomes a metaphor for the moral complexities of slavery itself. Henry’s father, Augustus Townsend, buys his freedom with money he saves from years of being “hired out” by Robbins to other plantation owners — then works for years more to earn enough to buy his wife, Mildred’s, freedom. Finally, Augustus and Mildred put together enough money to buy their son’s freedom as well. But in the meantime, Henry has become attached to Robbins, who takes a liking to him, gives him a job as his personal horse groomer — a favored status that keeps him out of the field — and begins to treat him as a sort of surrogate son.
But the “love” Robbins feels for Henry — like the love he feels for the two mixed-race children he has with the slave he takes to bed — is morally compromised by the evil of slavery and the white supremacist culture that exists to support that evil. Henry’s bond with Robbins, and with his own mother and father, are equally tainted by the twisted inversions and perversions of family relationships the slave system relied on to control its human property.
Henry’s untimely death, which occurs at the beginning of the book, leaves his wife, Caldonia, with the responsibility of taking over her husband’s role as master and slave-owner. She can’t do it, and anarchy follows — a maelstrom of escalating chaos and violence that feels almost like a metaphor for the controlled, organized, institutionalized violence of slavery itself.
The Known World, which is Edward P. Jones’ first novel, won a Pulitzer in 2004.