History versus Historical Fiction

I mentioned in class my interest in the way that Jones does not represent the Civil War as a turning point in the chronology of The Known World. Even though he constantly shifts in historical perspective, he seems to purposefully avoid foreshadowing the war; it’s just not vital the lives of the characters. The war might have brought to an end the institution of slavery, but not the ideologies that drove it; capitalism and its accompanying racism lived on, alive and well, to produce the Jim Crow laws and eventually the “new” JC laws (mass incarceration, etc.) of today.

When discussing why Jones chooses this tactic, Taylor mentioned in our group discussion that historical fiction could be seen as inherently a teaching genre. I’m dubious about this definition in regards to certain texts (like Winterson’s Passion). For the sake of The Known World, though, I agree. Historical fiction of this sort is very self-conscious of what it’s doing that a straightforward historical account never could. If the perspective of pop history is “don’t repeat the past,” historical fiction can be said to argue “look where we’re at right now.” Both categories toe the line of moral porn, though I do think that historical fiction has more potential to move past it, focusing as it does moreso on the present as a means to the past than the past as a means to the present.

If we view chronological time, or your typical timeline, as a sort of map, with as many problems as the map of the “known world” presented here in the text, we find just as many problems at stake. The timeline gestures to more, but can’t encompass events in their totality. Jones critiques this mode of historical mapping in his fiction. Viewing events as causal, while truthful in its own way, obscures many of the omnipresent, institutional problems that pervade a given society, regardless of epoch. Even in historical studies outside of the conceptual humanities, we can see a shift toward studying a particular idea or material throughout time, rather than a focus on a given period as a self-contained entity. Thus, we see Jones’ deliberate avoidance of writing about the “period” of slavery as compared to the “period” of emancipation. 

This is a bit jumbled because I have a lot to say about historical fiction and its myriad potentials. I enjoyed this novel, though, in the same jumbled sort of way (did anyone else have trouble keeping up with all the character names? It was as bad as a high fantasy novel in that way). 

1 thought on “History versus Historical Fiction

  1. I’d agree with you that Jones does a lot of work to complicate the causal relationships between events in conventional history, particularly the notion of abolition as a landmark event. I think the way that Jones gives before-and-after depictions of the slave-master relationships, like the loyalty of Zeus to Fern and Ralph to Clara, were very artful in muddling the way I thought of abolition.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s