The Known World

December 17th, 2021

In The Known World, Edward Jones explores the world of Manchester Country, a county in the South of the US that is built upon the ideals of slavery. Viewed through the characters’ eyes, the world depicted in the novel is perceived as a natural world that should not be changed. The existence and persistence of such a society evoke the questions of “what does knowledge prevent you from knowing?” and “what does action prevent you from doing?”

In the following passage from Chapter 3, Henry Townsend, a former slave who is now a Black slaveowner, discusses his desires about his future as a master.

"Henry had always said that he wanted to be a better master than any white man he had ever known. He did not understand that the kind of world he wanted to create was doomed before he had even spoken the first syllable of the word master" (64).

Henry’s words, at first, might sound virtuous. The reader is engrossed in a story of a former slave who understands the humiliation and degradation slaves experience as their master subjugates their agency. Hence, Henry wants to be a “better master,” someone who respects the slaves and, perhaps, allows for a better alternative. Would a slave rather work for a ruthless white master or Henry? If Henry can provide for a better quality of life for the slave, one could lean towards believing the latter. As Jones notes in the quote above, that world was doomed before Henry “had even spoken the first syllable of the word master.” Jone’s words seem to counter the possibility that one could be a “better master.”

Reflecting on that possibility, it seems ludicrous that one could be a “better master.” Sure, a “better master” could provide the slave with better living conditions, allow the slave to save a part of their salary to possibly buy their freedom later, endow the slave with more free time to think instead of overworking them for every single working day; those possibilities are better than the next best alternative of being controlled by a white slaveowner. However, being a master requires that master to choose to control another person’s life. The “better master” increases the demand for slaves, so the traders could potentially bring in more slaves from abroad, or master could force more slaves to procreate so they could sell their offsprings because of their high expected value in the future. That “better master” somehow increases economic output, pays taxes to the government, and thus supports the system of governance that entrenches the oppressors’ power.

Within the discussion of the quote, it is essential to note that Jones does not merely state that it is paradoxical that a master can be “good.” Instead, by saying “doomed before he had even spoken the first syllable of the word master,” Jones highlights that the phrases like “I want to be a better [blank]” are doomed before one gets to pronounce the last word. “A better” implies that one operates within a system where something “worse” is the default or at least a widespread reality. Expressed differently, one operates within an unjust system. This conclusion raises another question: should one blame Henry for his desire to be a “better master?” He attempted to make the most out of what was possible within his known world.

Henry only knew about the world in which a master exists, and he wanted to make the world a better place, to be a good master in a world filled with evil masters. Taking Jones’ thoughts a step further, the question Jones alludes to is whether when one sees an unjust system, should one attempt to change the system from within the system or from outside the system? Systems are resistant to change. When your government and the identities of most citizens are built on top of the idea of slavery, opposing slavery equates to opposing the building blocks of what makes everyone around you individuals, in that case, the idea that a certain group of people is inferior. As a superior human being with support from a friendly government, you should have complete control over that other group. A possibility of that perspective should pose some further reflection. When we attempt to look at our lives from a future perspective, is it better to have conformed to the values of our society or to have searched for truth regardless of how contrarian it was at that time? More important than the answer is self-awareness necessary for one to ask such a question in the first place. That possibility is predisposed on the ability to think of an alternative reality, a world based upon the unknown.

A conversation in Chapter 5 between Broussard, a French prison, and John Skiffington, the sheriff of Manchester Country, perfectly encapsulates the view of people in Manchester county towards the unknown. While talking to Skiffington, Broussard noticed how a map of the world that Skiffington bought from a Russian was inaccurate.

"Heading the legend were the words 'The Known World…' 'I get you better,' Broussard said. 'I get you better map, and more map of today. Map of today, how the world out together today, not yesterday, not long ago.' The Russian had told Skiffington that it was the first time the word America had ever been put on a map. The land of North America on the map was smaller than it was in actuality, and where Florida should have been, there was nothing. South American seemed the right size, but it alone of the continents was called 'America.' North America went nameless. 'I’m happy with what I got,' Skiffington said" (174).

After being told that a map Skiffington looked at on the wall was inaccurate, instead of asking for a more accurate description of the world, Skiffington dismissed the objection and was happy with what he got. Said more plainly, Skiffington, a government office with considerable power, was not interested in exploring the possibility that his worldview was inaccurate. The phrase “I’m happy with what I got” can be applied to an arbitrary human being. One can feel immense happiness from believing that what they know is the truth, that their perspectives are correct, and others cannot disprove them (or, to be more accurate, given the opportunity to disprove them). It is always easy to believe what everyone around you believes, to believe in the status quo that is the Known World.

In a letter Calvin wrote to his sister from the City of Washington in 1861, he mentions the map he saw in Washington.

"It is, my Dear Caldonia, a kind of map of life of the County of Manchester, Virginia. But a 'map' is such a poor word for such a wondrous thing. It is a map of life made with every kind of art man has ever thought to represent himself. Yes, clay. Yes, cloth. There are no people on this “map,” just all the houses and barns and roads and cemeteries and wells in our Manchester. It is what  God sees when he looks down on Manchester. At the bottom right-hand corner of this Creation there were but two stitched words. Alice Night.

It was then that I noticed over her shoulder another Creation of the same materials, paint, clay and cloth. I had been so captivated by the living map of the County that I had not turned to see the other Wonder on the opposite wall… This Creation may well be even more miraculous than the one of the County. This is one about your home, Caldonia. It is your plantation, and again, it is what God sees when he looks down. There is nothing missing, not a cabin, not a barn, not a chicken, not a horse. Not a single person is missing. I suspect that if I were to count the blades of grass, the number would be correct as it was once when the creator of this work knew that world. And, again, in the bottom of the right-hand corner are the stitched words 'Alice Night'" (384-385).

In the scene, one side of the wall contains the map of Manchester County, while the other side contains the map of the Townsend plantation. The choice of the adjective “living” to describe a map signifies what a map represents. A map, in this case, is a representation of the world known to its author, but the map is not merely a static representation of what the map captures. Instead, the map is alive. When one thinks of someone (or something) being alive, we think about it in the present. Alive in the present tense is not an adjective used for someone already dead. In essence, being alive is being in the present. Something “living” grows and changes, but it is not part of the past. More importantly, by being in the present, that something does not have to face the perspective of history or deal with the possibility that what it represents might not be accurate. A map can only be created for what is known; nobody takes maps of imaginary places seriously. This reality becomes an issue when one constrains themselves to what is available on the map and does not believe in the possibility that something else can emerge on the location depicted on the map or imagine what is possible outside of that location. Just as Calvin was captivated by the living map of the County, humans have a natural propensity to be captivated by what is front of them, by what is known to them. Calvin’s story in the letter clarifies the importance of venturing beyond what is known. One should not let current knowledge prevent one from exploring a different possibility.

Our knowledge gets codified into laws. By exploring the laws of a society, one can learn what that society values. In the following conversation, William Robbins, Manchester County’s wealthiest slaveholder, tells Henry how he is not supposed to be lenient with his slaves.

"But the law expects you to know what is master and what is slave. And it does not matter if you are not much more darker than your slave. The law is blind to that. You are the master and that is all the law wants to know. The law will come to you and stand behind you. But if you roll around and be a playmate to your property, and your property turns round and bites you, the law will come to you still, but it will not come with the full heart and all the deliberate speed that you will need. You will have failed in your part of the bargain. You will have pointed to the line that separates you from your property and told your property that the line does not matter” (123).

The law is the supposed arbiter of justice. The law is meant to reproduce moral code. Such statements convey the intentionality behind the law. In the above passage, similar to the description of the “living map,” a reader feels that law is alive, such as “the law will come to you and stand behind you.” However, similar to the discussion of the map, living, in this case, signifies stagnation. The law is a written record of stagnant knowledge that does not regularly get reevaluated. The law entrenches the values of its writers, such as slavery in the case of Manchester County. Law expects one to take certain action and gives the push necessary to begin that action. Newton’s First Law of Motion states that an object at rest remains at rest, and an object in motion will continue to move. Law is the power that differentiates the initial rest and subsequent motion. Law provokes action that conforms to the law but prevents action that might challenge the law.

After Sheriff Patterson, the enforcer of laws in Manchester County, resigned from his position in 1843 and moved to England. He took issue with the legal system he was a part of.

"Whenever people in that part of the world asked Patterson about the wonders of America, the possibilities and the hope of America, Patterson would say that it was a good and fine place but all the Americans were running it into the ground and that it would be a far better place if it had no Americans" (41).

At first, it might seem that Patterson believes the issue with America is the people running it. Upon further examination, the true nature of the issue is that the people running the country codified their beliefs into stagnant principles immune to adjustments over time. Patterson did not see a way for him to be a part of that system and, instead of attempting to change it from within, chose to leave the system and move abroad. His actions as Sheriff prevented him from expressing his belief that the American system is flawed. The moment Patterson showed a degree of doubt in the system, the system actively tried to prevent him from expressing his opinion; instead, the system wanted Patterson to continue living in the direction of the system’s initial push without worrying about alternative possibilities. In essence, the system works to engage one in action to decrease the possibility of venturing into the unknown.

The unknown is scary. What does it mean to have your identity attacked? To realize that your whole life, you have lived a life built on lies? In Chapter 7, Counsel Skiffington, John Skiffington’s cousin, rode on a horse into Texas and encountered a pack of wild dogs and a wagon train with people of many races. Suddenly, Counsel encountered a patch of thick vegetation and had to move his feet, walking the horse alongside him.

"The horse began pulling him back. Counsel stopped, sweating, head full of thunder, chest heaving, and he looked the horse in the eyes. ‘Come,' he said in as calm a voice as he could manage. ‘Come.’ He pulled out his pistol. ‘When I tell you to come, don’t you think I mean it?’ The horse did not move. ‘Come,’ he said, again calmly. He raised the pistol and shot the horse between the eyes. The horse sank on two knees and moaned and Counsel fired once more and the horse collapsed. Its breathing was heavy and he prepared to fire again but soon the breathing stopped. ‘Why is coming so hard?’ he said to the horse" (242).

While alone in Texas, far from home, stuck in this patch of vegetation, Counsel decided to shoot his horse because it did not respond to his commands. This scenario is a paradox; any rational human being would make sure to get the horse out of that patch alive to ensure safe travels in the future. Instead, Counsel shot the horse because he could not control it. Throughout his life, Counsel could control someone else without objections and feel “above” that person. In Texas, Counsel is not afforded such an opportunity. After building an identity based on controlling another living being, Counsel has difficulty letting it go. Thus, Counsel attempts to control the only living creature who subjugates to his control, his horse. When the horse refuses, Counsel feels that his whole identity is shattered. Instead of accepting that his worldview might not be correct, he kills all potentially refuting evidence. Counsel’s desire to control someone else was so fundamentally destructive that it led to him making a decision that got him stuck in an unknown state that lives within a reality Counsell believes is incompatible with his principles.

Jones makes it clear that knowledge gives one a map of the world that is partial. To explore the unknown, we need to accept the possibility that an unknown exists. Even better, one should accept that an unknown is something that is waiting to be discovered, and one’s mission is to go on an exploration of the unknown. To go beyond what is known, one needs to do something. But if one is acting on the back of a known schema, there is only a limited number of things one can do. The current system intentionally delays respect for what one does not yet know.

To go beyond what current knowledge and action reveal requires a degree of intentionality one does not achieve without being open to the unknown. Regardless of whether one is open to the unknown or not, the unknown is real. One should seek truth over convenience regardless of outside factors.