Hannibal Free Public Library

The Known World

by
Edward P. Jones

November 24, 2008

 The Known World by Edward P. Jones won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award.  The novel is set in antebellum Virginia.  Central to the novel is Henry Townsend, a black farmer, bootmaker, and former slave.  He becomes proprietor of his own plantation as well as of his own slaves. When he dies, his widow, Caldonia, succumbs to profound grief, and things begin to fall apart at their plantation: slaves take to escaping under the cover of night, and families who had once found love beneath the weight of slavery begin to betray one another. Beyond the Townsend estate, the known world also unravels: low-paid white patrollers stand watch as slave "speculators" sell free black people into slavery, and rumors of slave rebellions set white families against slaves who have served them for years.

Edward P. Jones was born and raised in Washington, D.C. A recipient of the PEN/Hemingway Award, a Lannan Foundation Grant, and a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, Jones was educated at Holy Cross College and earned his MFA at the University of Virginia. He has taught fiction at Princeton University, George Mason University, and the University of Maryland. His first book, Lost in the City, was short-listed for the National Book Award. Jones's work has appeared in numerous journals and magazines, including The Paris Review, Essence, and Ploughshares. He lives in Arlington, Virginia.

For an interview with the author, please consult http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/entertainment/july-dec03/jones_9-19.html#
 

  1. What is the significance of the title, The Known World? 
  1. What role does the land and its borders play in this book?
  1. Why is Moses, the first slave bought by Henry, significant to the novel?
  1. Compare William Robbins treatment of his slaves with his love for his mistress. 
  1. How does William Robbins impact the lives of blacks on neighboring plantations?  How does Henry Townsend?  Compare the two men.
  1. Did you find his relationships with Henry, Augustus, and Mildred Townsend, and Philomena, Dora, and Louis compelling?
  1. In what ways is Augustus a victim of attitudes about slavery in the South? In what ways is he a victor? How did you respond to his captivity and its outcome?
  1. How would you characterize Jebediah Dickinson? What explains his sudden appearance at the Elston farm? When Fern says of Jebediah: "With him there ... I feel as if I belong to him, that I am his property," what does she mean?
  1. Were relationships between parents and children notably different during the era of slavery than in the present day? Consider Caldonia, Calvin, and Maude; William Robbins, Patience, and Dora; and Augustus, Mildred, and Henry in your evaluation.
  1. Discuss the following quote by Stephen M. Deusner concerning the authorís literary style:

In The Known World, Jones' technique, which attempts to reinvent the novel form, is just as subversive as the side of slavery he presents. On one level his prose is direct and plainspoken, with a colloquial, decidedly nonliterary cadence, but it is no less evocative or powerful for being so modest. On another level, The Known World is about community and context, and Jones tailors the novel's structure to play up these themes. He writes from a number of points of view, not just Henry, his wife Caldonia, and each of their slaves, but also Sheriff John Skiffington, his untrustworthy cousin and deputy Counsel, and his three rowdy patrollers, among many others. As one character states, "We are all worthy of one another," and Jones captures this sense of potential equality through the congregation of voices. Every story is worthy of being told.
 

  1. Several critics have compared the novel to Toni Morrison's Beloved and William Faulkner's Absalom! Absalom!  Do you think it is a significant novel of the antebellum South?

 

Adapted from information found at http://www.readinggroupguides.com/guides3/known_world1.asp; http://www.harpercollins.com/author/authorExtra.aspx?isbn13=9780060557546&displayType=readingGuide; http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/the-known-world-by-edward-p-jones-554117.html; and http://www.popmatters.com/books/reviews/k/known-world.shtml