Who knows the world of The Known World? Who else could ever be able to know it? With every disclosure made of the world, the world itself slips out of sight. While the knower unleashes a torrent of words with which to cast fresh light on the world, those very words only smother the world like tireless motes descending upon a steady accretion of dust.
From the deathbed of Henry Townsend, a slaveowner in antebellum Virginia, the breadth of the world extends by degrees to encompass a territory of spectacular scale. As the tensions of both the enslaved and their masters pulse through the Townsend estate, the novel pursues the roots of those tensions to places far from where they arise. The daily dramas of plantation life are driven by the envies, outrages, heartaches, and fears stirred up in Townsend’s men and women by those whose dwell beyond their view. They worry over reports of life on plantations in distant parts. They feel the force of faraway powers doomed to collapse into war with each other. They meditate on the deeds of their ancestors, the tribesmen and the wretched peasants compelled to cross the Atlantic and to settle on foreign shores, and the memories of those ancestors speak to the more recent displacements of others who never set foot on Townsend’s soil but somehow touch the lives of the people who surround him. Populating its pages with countless characters ensnared in a complex web of connections, The Known World traverses the threads of the web to observe those connections in intricate detail. When the turmoils of one man convulse the threads that bind him to another, the next man’s responses ripple the threads that reach out to others at several removes. In calm, melodic, and generous prose, the novel drifts from thread to thread with all the grace of the omniscient consciousness that weaves a path through the world to watch the convulsions flare up and fade.
Flay the prose on the surface to expose the narrative substance and what emerges seems catered to satisfy a particularly humanist hunger. The humanist ideal is the sympathy for strangers that emerges from the diminishing of otherness. The humanist assumption is that otherness is best diminished by the careful and diligent detailing of a stranger’s life. The humanist contention is that literary fiction is uniquely able to diminish otherness because it boasts a capacity for the omniscient observation of the life to be detailed. With the human experience of slavery positioned as narrative premise, The Known World invokes a prima facie affront to the humanist ideal and then intensifies its appeal to humanism by exposing the private torments of those who yearn for a better life than the one that slavery forces them to live. Townsend’s mentor, the slaveowner William Robbins, is desperately in love with his slave Philomena but cannot admit it to a world whose prejudices he works to reinforce. Townsend’s deputy overseer, Moses, will never escape from slavery and yet aspires to become a slaveowner himself. Townsend’s father, Augustus, has undertaken extra work to purchase his own freedom and the freedom of his family, but a white policeman destroys his free papers in order to deliberately return him to bondage. And, as Augustus’ story suggests, Henry Townsend is himself as black as the men and women he owns, a black man freed from slavery and now the master of those who were once his equals. Everyone here is confined to his or her own little hell. When each one of those little hells is carefully and diligently detailed, the detailing diminishes the otherness of the suffering strangers confined to them.
But the greater substance of the novel is the very prose that must be flayed to reach the narratives with the humanist hearts. The prose of The Known World upsets the complacency with which literary fiction typically uses its capacity for omniscience to serve the humanist ideal. The consciousness of the novel, the knower of The Known World, possesses a type of omniscience that serves less to diminish otherness than to underscore and extend it and to forestall any diminishing. This omniscience warps and distorts the knower’s sense of the value of knowledge itself. As it moves through the world unhindered, drawing close to the action and then retreating and rushing back and forth in time, its endless disclosures are dazzling to those of us who know nothing of the world beyond that which passes before our own eyes. When the knower shifts its focus to this man or that woman or the child over there, it knows, at a glance, every last one of their past, present, and future interactions with every other person in their world. When this otherwise chaotic world is filtered through the knower’s eyes, meaningful connections are forged between events that appear unrelated and narrative shape is given to lives whose day-to-day tedium would seem to discourage any cause for narration.
The result, for readers, is not merely a growing knowledge of a world of overwhelming complexity, but a knowledge that grows under the guidance of a knower for whom the complexity of the world is unproblematic and the ability to transcend it is utterly unremarkable. Unguessable revelations about the lives of certain characters are put down in print with the same sense of calm as descriptions of the weather on a placid summer’s day, and the emphasis that the knower places on its awesome ability to make those revelations is no greater than the emphasis placed on everyone else’s drawing of breath. Even while its omniscience allows it to detail various lives and so to diminish the otherness of the strangers who live them, the knower of The Known World shows so little sympathy for those strangers that its every disclosure pushes them and their world further out of view, attracts attention to the knower itself, and finally presents readers with an obstacle to the humanist ideal in the form of a consciousness that becomes increasingly inhuman with each and every word.