The Pequod Review:
Edward Jones's The Known World begins with the death of Henry Townsend, an African-American former slave whose freedom was purchased by his father. Townsend would go on to become a wealthy farmer in antebellum Virginia, and the owner himself of 33 slaves. Even though Townsend dies at the novel’s outset, much of the story centers around life on his plantation as told through a series of flashbacks.
Throughout the book, Jones avoids the easy moralizing common to most slavery narratives. Despite his ownership of slaves, Henry is in many ways a gentleman; he “wanted to be a better master than any white man he had ever known… the kind of shepherd master God had intended,” and someone who would provide ''good food for his slaves, no whippings, short and happy days in the fields.” He viewed the ownership of slaves as a path to wealth and status, and one that appeared to be sanctioned by God and the government. Meanwhile, many of the black slaves themselves behave dishonorably, using their positions of relative seniority to inflict harm on lower-ranking slaves.
The causes of slavery were primarily institutional, not the failings of individual humans, and Jones has crafted an entirely unique novel that considers the morally ambiguous areas between black and white, and owner and owned. The result is more realistic too, as the characters are shown to be real human beings — flawed and self-interested, but also decent and caring. We as readers come to realize that in a different historical moment we may not have behaved as honorably as we imagine. The book’s plot twists are sometimes melodramatic, and Jones’s writing style is a bit too conventional for my taste, but this is nonetheless a thoughtful work of historical fiction. Winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.