After Edward P. Jones lost his job as a business writer, he took his office computer home and wrote The Known World, a novel about black slave owners in 19th-century Virginia. Jones ran through his severance pay and unemployment, but he isn’t looking for work: this year, his book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Jones learned in college that American slavery wasn’t just a black-and-white affair. His book begins with the story of Henry Townsend, a freedman who rises from cobbler to planter, accumulating his own land and slaves along the way. Townsend is as stern and brutal as any Simon Legree: when he catches a runaway slave, he hires a Cherokee Indian to slice away half the man’s ear. Still, among blacks, the line between master and servant could be breached: after Townsend dies, his widow takes a slave as her lover. Reminiscent of William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner, The Known World lacks a protagonist as strong as the revolutionary Turner but it paints a more complete picture of Virginia slavery, with a cast of white-trash slave hunters, an upright sheriff, a free black schoolteacher, and a Philadelphia woman who is horrified to receive a servant after her marriage to a local man. In that world, slavery affected everyone’s life, bonded or free. Jones appears Sunday, September 12, at 11:45 AM as part of Writers on the Record With Victoria Lautman at Lookingglass Theatre, 821 N. Michigan. The talk is sold-out, but it’ll be broadcast live on WFMT, 98.7 FM.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jerry Bauer.