The Sanity of Madness in Edward P.

Jones' The “Known World”
Anjuelle D. Floyd

“In those first days after Henry bought Alice, the patrollers would haul her back to Henry’s plantation, waking him and Caldonia …Come down here and find out about your property’...Henry would come down [and help] …Alice up…[then] sprawled …in the dirt after [the patrollers] had run her back…The patrollers would…ride away [decrying] among themselves…This is what happens when you give niggers the same right as a white man….” (pp. 12-13)

What is it that happened with Henry Townsend in owning Alice that so bothered the white patrollers who owned no slaves…?

Was it compassion or his display of care toward Alice?

As and enslaved person—a woman with “…half a mind…” She has more freedoms with both Henry Townsend the black man that owns her and also with the white patrollers?

Is Alice truly mad? Or is the at least veneer of her madness a reflection of the sickly and poisonous emotional conditions of her surroundings?

We are told the story of a woman on the last plantation Alice had lived. The woman yearning freedom, had thrown herself into a well with the intention of swimming her way home.
9/21/2007 (all excerpts taken from Edward P. Jones’ The Known World ISBN-0007195303))

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The Sanity of Madness in Edward P. Jones' The “Known World”
Anjuelle D. Floyd

“No one ever drank out of that well again. It had been the well whites had drunk from. Even after they dug a new one, they would not allow the Negroes to use the well [into which to the] slave woman [had jumped and] swam home in. Every slave on the plantation wanted to drink of the water that gave a woman the power of a fish…the white people bricked over the well…said they had poisoned it.” (pp. 294- 296)

Madness or the appearance of insanity possesses great power over the inhabitants of Manchester, Virginia.

But Moses, the overseer on the deceased Henry Townsend’s plantation knows more. With intentions of making love to Henry’s widow, Caldonia, Moses sends his wife and child into freedom. He sets them on the course to escape Virginia and the South by placing them in the charge of Alice—the woman possessing “…half a mind…”

“I got a job for you…and if you do it right, you won’t be have to be nobody’s slave no more.” (p. 293)

Alice at first resists, feigning her insanity. “I met a dead man layin in Massa lane...[s]he wanted to chant…[then considered] Maybe if she lifted her arms now, they would reward her for all that singing in the pas and raise her up to freedom…”

Moses pierces the veil of Alice’s machinations “…‘You, go on, cause I got my eye on
9/21/2007 (all excerpts taken from Edward P. Jones’ The Known World ISBN-0007195303))

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The Sanity of Madness in Edward P. Jones' The “Known World”
Anjuelle D. Floyd

you…both my eyes.’ He watched her go…[adding] That mule be waiting for you in the morning…” (pp. 293-294)

The story closes with Caldonia’s brother, Calvin, having escaped the virulent system of slavery and reached Washington, D.C. having written a letter to Caldonia. His words describe two paintings he has seen, “…a grand piece of art that is part tapestry, part painting, and part clay structure—all in one exquisite Creation…It is a…kind of map of the life of the County of Manchester, Virginia…a map of life…no people on this ‘map,’ just all the houses and barns and roads and cemeteries and wells in our Manchester...” (p. 384)

He describes the second as: “….another Creation...that may well be even more miraculous than the one of the County. [It] is about your home, Caldonia…your plantation…what God sees when he looks down…nothing [is] missing, not a cabin, not a barn, not a chicken, not a horse. No single person…And again the words at the bottom right hand corner are the stitched words, ‘Alice Night.’” (p. 385)

Clearly Alice held some wits about her, was not completely mad. She had “…half a mind…”

But what of the other half?

9/21/2007 (all excerpts taken from Edward P. Jones’ The Known World ISBN-0007195303))

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The Sanity of Madness in Edward P. Jones' The “Known World”
Anjuelle D. Floyd

In the life of …Alice Night… whose last name we do not learn until the end of the story, a time in the wake of Lee’s surrender to Grant at the Appomattox Court House, Jones portrays the two faces of slavery, that of acceptance of what is, the status quo of slavery of which so many like Alice, a slave, and also Calvin, the brother of the mistress who owns Alice, can do nothing about.

And it is in Alice’s paintings that Jones gives us glimpses of “…the world [previously] known [to them]…” the life with which Alice had become as familiar as that of her skin. And that once in freedom she renders in all its splendor and glory. And also it pain in that she had come to know it as the property of two others—Henry, a former slave himself, and his wife, Caldonia Townsend, Negro woman who had never known enslavement— persons of Alice’s own race, but also citizens of America working to making a living as so many around them had done, as those before them had taught.

9/21/2007 (all excerpts taken from Edward P. Jones’ The Known World ISBN-0007195303))

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