Why do many historical novels, especially the zealous and ambitious ones, strike me as being so clumsy? I would suggest that the problem arises from an almost intrinsic inflexibility of the novel—which has always been a narrative form built around the exploits and perspectives of individuals—when it tries to addresses causes and results of a social and collective nature. For better or worse, storytelling coexists comfortably with heroes and villains, and gets lost when it tries to portray a Zeitgeist or even what demographers quaintly call a “cohort group.”
This is why the battle scenes in Homer always get reduced to a series of conflicts between two people. Even the great epic poet nods, or rather gives up when faced with the challenge of describing the reality of the battlefield. Much rarer is the daring of War in Peace, in which Tolstoy comes close to capturing the essence of large scale conflict—yet even in this masterpiece, the novelist succeeds mostly because he openly embraces the chaos of the confrontation, a confusion so pervasive that even a Napoleon is incapable of grasping its true particulars. Yes, it is all too revealing that the greatest war novel of all time succeeds by admitting its inability to make sense of its subject matter.
A novel such as Edward P. Jones’s The Known World faces a different, if related challenge. In focusing on the situation of masters and slaves in the antebellum South, Jones is addressing a subject that immediately forces us to grapple with issues of good and evil. In other words, a historical novel of this sort is inevitably a vehicle for reflection on moral values. Yet, given the individualist tilt of this narrative form noted above, such a tale must take on the guise of a tale of heroes and villains. Such novels generally proceed by identifying the “good guys” and “bad guys” in the opening chapters, and then moving them towards either a happy or tragic ending.
Yet Jones refuses to play this game. Much of The Known World deals with the situation of blacks compromised by their social setting, and becoming slave owners themselves, or serving as overseers—essentially slave drivers who enforce and preserve the same system of exploitation in which they themselves are victims. Here the hero can turn out to be the villain, and Darth Vader doesn’t always wear a scary mask to help you sort out the underlying allegiances.