Early American Life, and Slavery: Toni Morrison’s A Mercy and Edward P. Jones’s The Known World

By Daniel Garrett

A Mercy by Toni Morrison
Knopf, 2008
176 pages
ISBN-10: 0307264238 
ISBN-13: 978-0307264237

The Known World by Edward P. Jones
Amistad/HarperCollins, 2003
400 pages
ISBN-10: 0060557540

I spent much of last Thanksgiving Day reading Toni Morrison’s novel A Mercy, an advanced reader’s edition that I had since September and which I’d attempted twice without completion. Morrison’s strengths are language, imagination, and wisdom; and her ambition is to deliver the truth, whether it hurts or heals, but there is solace to be found in her words, in her vision. Fundamental to Toni Morrison’s novel A Mercy is an act of sacrifice and imaginative sympathy that looks like cruelty: and in that misunderstanding is a sabotage of character and an inclination toward submission. A Mercy is, like many books, about perception and interpretation, about language, but it is also, very much, about the split roots of the American past—of Europeans rich and poor, of native Americans befriended, exploited, and maligned, and of Africans who are touched with brutal hands, whether they are desired or despised. It is a book about civility and savagery, intelligence and stupidity, love and hatred: life and death. It also concerns a theme that may be as timeless: what children do not understand about parents, especially their acts, as well as feelings, within the treacherous churnings of history (thoughtful concern can look like indifference).

In A Mercy is a European immigrant farmer who assembles a homestead that seems remarkably free for all, in the age of slavery and indentured servitude, but which is based too much on will and whim to survive his illness or death. Weaknesses are exposed—and religion steps in to offer morality in the place of intimate knowledge, mutual respect, or even practical sense; and it is a pious and wicked religion which begins to make both love and work very difficult.

It may be a footnote, but this is one of the few instances in Toni Morrison’s work when homosexuality is recognized as impulse and relationship, in presenting two male farm workers who work well with others and have a sexual relationship between themselves. It is as if Morrison is attempting every reconciliation in this book; and offering hope for the present by showing the shared tasks of the past.

The book contains a lot of details, emotional, sensuous and historical; and there were a few times when I felt too much the presence of research, or thought Morrison’s summaries were too overt, but, on the whole, I found the book one of mastery, an important and interesting interpretation. Toni Morrison has enlarged her own literary authority again, and added something that may be essential to our understanding of the past.

I had heard very good things about Edward P. Jones’s novel The Known World and I had thought of reading it at different times, though I had a reservation to believing that a novel depicting slavery would be as original or as satisfying as I wanted any novel to be. Jones’s book is, in fact, as near perfect a novel as I have read in quite a while, a book that allows the reader to confront a complex, difficult history (a time of slavery, in which some of the slave-owners are black), and a book in which the writer adds enough beauty and wisdom that one can bear it.

Wisdom cannot exist without the acceptance of the facts of human life, and The Known World seems a wise book. Edward P. Jones makes American history his, illuminating public practices of power and private deceptions of the psyche. Edward P. Jones’s The Known World presents an appreciation of nature, unique economic and social relations, and subtle movements among people: a freshly imagined world. It is a book of small, brilliant enchantments but also horrific reversals of fortune that read like justice delivered. Jones possesses an easy mastery of difficult matters of craft and of human relationships, of style and of content. Jones suggests the diversity of black life even during slavery. He presents a world in which an unexpected African-American refinement is achieved and sustained, though achieved with some moral contradictions (these are people whose refinement does not preclude owning other people); and it is a world in which the decencies of people of European descent include ignorance and prejudices that can seem infinite. The Virginia writer, Jones, captures the cruelty of families broken and separated as property.

Edward Jones tells stories within stories within stories, and has the interesting (and yet gratifying) oddity of naming the destinies of his characters long before the novel’s end. There is extraordinary foreshadowing: a father shakes his young son in angry disappointment, and later when that son is a man the father, again in angry disappointment, hits him and hurts him (the father cannot believe his son would accept and perpetuate slavery). It is a bitter irony that the father, a man who bought his own freedom and that of his family is sold again into slavery by a hateful (white) man who resents the father’s pride. (That is historical fact and also allegory: as with much else in the novel, such things did occur.) The violations of the social order—when “races” mix—can be so unnerving to some that they themselves feel crazy. This is a book full of history, imagination, and life.

Even the incidental characters are interesting: a boy who rules his country family with honesty and rudeness; an exploited woman who becomes a prostitute and who inadvertently brings disease to a great land-owning family. In Moses, a slave separated from a woman he loved, and made an overseer, there is suffering and pride—and a frustrated hope when he becomes involved with someone who could free him if she chooses.

Yet, despite the writer’s significant talent, the book’s ending—which involves nearly cataclysm as well as deliverance and revelation—is a stretch of the imagination that may be a little too much. I am not sure about that ending, and it is worth thinking about, as is so much of this great novel, Edward P. Jones’s The Known World.

Daniel Garrett is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, AllAboutJazz.com, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, Film International, Hyphen, IdentityTheory.com, Muse-Apprentice-Guild.com, Offscreen.com, Option, PopMatters.com, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, WaxPoetics.com, and World Literature Today. He has written fiction, poetry, drama, journalism, and criticism; and his commentary on the work of Toni Morrison and Edward P. Jones previously appeared on his web log at Blogger.com, focused on culture and society, “City and Country, Boy and Man.” Contact: D.Garrett.Writer@gmail.com and dgarrett31@hotmail.com