The Known World is a 2003 historical novel by Edward P. Jones. Set in Virginia during the antebellum era, it examines the issues regarding the ownership of black slaves by both white and black Americans.
The book was published to widespread acclaim from literary critics, with much praise directed at its story and Jones’ prose. In particular, his ability to intertwine stories within stories received great praise from The New York Times.
The narration of The Known World is from the perspective of an omniscient figure who doesn’t voice judgment. This allows the reader to experience the story without bias.
Henry Townsend, a black farmer, bootmaker, and former slave, has a fondness for Paradise Lost and an unusual mentor — William Robbins, perhaps the most powerful man in antebellum Virginia’s Manchester County. Under Robbins’s tutelage, Henry 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.