The Known World

The Known World

by Edward P. Jones


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One of the most acclaimed novels in recent memory, The Known World is a daring and ambitious work by Pulitzer Prize winner Edward P. Jones.

The Known World tells the story of Henry Townsend, a black farmer and former slave who falls under the tutelage of William Robbins, the most powerful man in Manchester County, Virginia. Making certain he never circumvents the law, Townsend runs his affairs with unusual discipline. But when death takes him unexpectedly, his widow, Caldonia, can't uphold the estate's order, and chaos ensues. Jones has woven a footnote of history into an epic that takes an unflinching look at slavery in all its moral complexities.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060557553
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 05/25/2004
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 71,780
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

By Edward P. Jones

Harper Collins Publishers

Copyright © 2003 Edward P. Jones All right reserved. ISBN: 0060557540

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, whoate 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 ...


Excerpted from The Known World by Edward P. Jones
Copyright © 2003 by Edward P. Jones
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

What People are Saying About This

Peter Matthiessen

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

Customer Reviews

The Known World 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 207 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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Nodosaurus on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The Known World is the story of a black in the American pre-Civil War south. He gains his freedom, then acquires slaves of his own. The book is about his relationship to his slaves, and his relationship to the rest of the community. The book is difficult to read. It struck me as a collection of short stories glued together by a few common characters. The stories jump around in time, making it difficult to follow and the characters difficult to keep separate. There is no discernible plot in the book and each story is left to stand on its own. Edward's sentences tend to run on, making the book difficult to read on another level. I found the characters a bit flat. There were none that I felt any ties to. Generally, the stories are fairly nonviolent, but a few break that trend, some can be difficult to read. Some of the short stories are interesting and informative. The author works in historical information to tie the story to events we are familiar with. In spite of its having won a Pulitzer, it isn't one I can recommend. I didn't even finish this book, although I have strong urges to finish it just for completeness. Some people seem to get a lot out of the book, but I did not.
gwendolyndawson on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is the story of a black farmer and former slave with slaves of his own. After his death, his widow, Caledonia, must continue managing the estate. This is a touching and unflinching look at slavery from a new angle--the black slave-owner.
CasualFriday on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
It's with trepidation that I write this, because I'm an intellectual weenie who is really intimidated by people who are smarter than me, but I didn't like this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about free blacks who owned slaves in the antebellum south. I can understand in some distant abstract way that it has great artistic merit, but boy, for me it was a slog. We start with the nonlinear narrative. No big deal by itself because anyone reading modern literary fiction had damned well better be used to fractured time. But in a work with what seemed like a thousand characters, the nonlinear narrative was more confusing than usual. A friend of mine said she couldn't always tell what decade she was in, and that's about right.And those thousand characters. Most of them felt like sketches, and I wasn't emotionally invested in any of them. I'm a sucker for realism. The characters in the Ian McEwan novels I've read, or in Never Let Me Go, they are real, they breathe, and I love them and hate them. Like oil paintings where you see every muscle and every drop of perspiration and every thread in the clothing. Not like some modernist painting where it's all a mishmosh. Yes, I'm a philistine.This just wasn't a conventional novel at all, and I'm in a conventional mood, I suppose. Rather than a coherent work, it felt episodic, with most of the episodes kind of fuzzy and impressionistic, and then a moment of stunning clarity which would give you hope for coherence that never came.Oh yeah, and if you're going to write a historical novel, it might be cheating just a tiny, tiny bit, to decide not to do a whit of research. I don't care if you're making up a fictional county. You've picked a hell of a provocative subject, and a bit of factual knowledge might have proved helpful.
paulajo2 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The stories told in this novel are compelling; the premise of African-Americans is unique. However, the author's use of flashbacks and flash forwards can be distracting and confusing. The characters are well drawn and become like neighbors down the lane.
sproutchild on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Brilliant for making black nor white (pun intended) the victor, but for deeply exploring gray areas.
msf59 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Incredible novel! A potent blend of Toni Morrison and Cormac McCarthy. A masterpiece and worthy of a Pulitzer!
pinkcrayon99 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I loved the how Mr. Jones developed the characters in this book...I really enjoyed it! It gave a sense of community to *slavery* that no other book I has.
patricia_poland on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Well-written and engrossing story of free blacks owning slaves. A quiet, plodding sort-of book examining each character's view with the undertones of violence and injustice always beneath the surface. Enlightening in its portrayal of a slave's life -- I particularly liked the character of Elias. But personally, I was glad to finish the book -- it was almost like eating too much fudge. I'm going to nitpik about the author's references to the U. S. Census. (page 7) I realize the town or county of Manchester, VA is made-up for the purposes of the novel however the reference to the census: "included who...according to the U. S. Census of 1860 legally owned his own wife...5 children...3 grandchildren". In 1860 no specific relationships to the head-of-household are stated in the enumeration (that doesn't begin until 1880) nor should the wife and others have been counted twice (both with the free man's household and with the slaves). If the wife and children were listed as servants (though the author doesn't say this) with the free man this would not in anyway indicate they were "owned" by the head-of-the-household. Also, being listed as servants would mean they were not slaves. In both the 1850 and 1860 censuses, slaves were listed separately on the slave schedules under the owner's name. They were identified as males or females and their ages were noted, nothing more (other than, of course, the county, post office district or township, and state they were in). It is one of the frustrating aspects of African-American genealogical research where one usually has to assume by the owner's last name and the age/sex of the slave that perhaps one is looking at one's ancestor. A worthy read but taxing.
bookworm12 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This Pulitzer-Prize winner is about black free people and slaves in the 19th century. It looks closely at the complicated relationships between free and enslaved people of that time period. Jones' writing is wonderful, but the stories jumps around a lot. It flits between dozens of characters' points of view and flies back and forth in time. I enjoyed it, but frequently had to stop to figure out where we it was at in the time line.
chmessing on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Given the subject matter, this is not an easy book to read. The large number of characters cover many complexities of slavery, from white owners having children with their slaves, to poor whites being looked down upon by all of society (including blacks) because they cannot afford to own slaves, to the really confusing situation of free blacks owning black slaves. The ability of some people to compartmentalize different aspects of their lives is fascinating and written about so eloquently in this author's first novel (impressive, to say the least). The only complaint I really have is that there is a fair bit of jumping around in time that can be confusing and jarring to the flow of the story.