The Known World | Study Guide

Edward P. Jones

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The Known World | Chapter 11 : A Mule Stands Up. Of Cadavers and Kisses and Keys. An American Poet Speaks of Poland and Mortality. | Summary



Morris Calhenny is a wealthy, well-liked man in Georgia. One rainy day, he goes out riding to rid himself of "a crushing melancholy." From the top of a ridge he spies Hope Martin, a young white woman, coaxing a stubborn mule to get up and get moving along the muddy road. Calhenny likes what he observes and thinks she will make a fine match for his son, Wilson. However, the young woman refuses to even discuss the matter with Calhenny and ends up marrying Hillard Uster, a poor farmer. Outraged, Calhenny uses all his power and influence to keep the couple and their growing family in poverty. It is Uster who buys Augustus from Darcy for 53 dollars in 1855. After Darcy departs, Augustus tells Uster, "You can't raise your family on my back," and starts to walk away. Uster shoots him and, as Augustus dies, he finds himself home in Virginia where Mildred is sleeping in their bed. His kiss reaches her heart and she awakens—knowing he has died.

Sheriff Skiffington is still hunting for Moses. The day Augustus dies, he and Counsel search again, but to no avail. The next day Fern, Dora, and Louis come to visit Caldonia. After supper Caldonia goes to visit the slave quarters, a routine she has initiated hoping to prevent more slaves from running away. On this evening she is accompanied by her guests. They meet Elias, who has been acting as overseer in Moses's absence. Other slaves gather in the lane, including Stamford. A changed man, he gently plays with Ellwood, Elias's baby boy, who will later work for Stamford and Delphie at their Richmond Home for Colored Orphans.

The next day Ray Topps, the insurance salesman from Atlas Life, Casualty and Assurance Company, returns to see Caldonia. He succeeds at last in selling her a policy covering her slaves in the event of loss, injury, or death other than an "ordinary act of God."


Chapter 10 ends with the statement, "That was Tuesday." Chapter 11 tracks events until the following climactic Sunday and, most importantly, depicts Augustus's fate.

The Chapter 11 segment A Mule Stands Up refers to the incident observed by Georgia plantation owner Morris Calhenny—a perfect illustration of the characteristic Moses notes about mules in the previous chapter. Despite the rain and mud, a mule sits down in the road, most likely because it is tired. The mule's owner, Hope Martin, recognizes she has pushed the animal as far as it will go, so she feeds it apples and patiently waits until the mule is ready to move on. When it stands to resume its duties, she directs it without anger, and the two move off down the road. Hope's talent for dealing with a different type of intelligence convinces Calhenny that Hope would be an ideal match for his only son, Wilson, whose mind is "wonderfully complicated."

The first two words of the section Of Cadavers and Kisses and Keys concerns the cadavers that Wilson Calhenny believes talk to him while at medical school. Despite this, his father considers Wilson a proper husband for Hope, though Wilson's professors would likely disagree. Wilson's dismissal from school does not alter Morris Calhenny's plan, and he finds it unforgivable when Hope marries Hillard Uster instead. As a wealthy land and slave owner, Calhenny occupies the top rung of slavery's social hierarchy. He is used to getting what he wants. He determines to ruin Uster and puts behind it all his influence in the community. When kidnapper Darcy sells Augustus to Uster, the man can barely scrape together the money to buy him. Here again, the abuse of power—one human over another—that is inherent in the system of slavery is demonstrated. Calhenny exerts power over Uster, and Uster exerts power over Augustus. When Augustus will not obey but tries to reason with him, man to man, Uster shoots him, then regrets it when he realizes Augustus is dying. "All I wanted was for you to stop," he laments. Nevertheless, there are no legal consequences for Uster destroying his human property.

The "kisses and keys" of the title refers to the flight of Augustus's spirit to reach Mildred when he dies. His kiss cannot find the key to the cage around her heart, so it squeezes through the bars and kisses her heart. There is a sense of final, true freedom in his flight from Georgia to Manchester County.

In the description of Caldonia's visit to the slave quarters, the startling transformation of Stamford becomes clear. Since he saw the cabin in the sky, he has become gentle and welcoming to the children. Already he has bonded with Ellwood, Elias and Celeste's baby boy. By some grace, Stamford has found a way to cope with and transcend the conditions of slavery. The love between Elias and Celeste likewise is keeping them strong. Though Celeste fears for Elias in his hatred of Moses, anything negative that comes their way will "have to do battle with her love for him." For his part, Elias asks only that Celeste trust he will get her and their family out of bondage somehow. The narrative confirms this will come to pass, and "the generations of Celeste and Elias Freemen would be legion in Virginia."

The third segment, An American Poet Speaks of Poland and Mortality, points to the Friday visit of Ray Topps from the Atlas Life, Casualty and Assurance Company. The American poet is an immigrant from Poland who works in the company's main Hartford office. He fancies himself a poet. The word perishment is his poetic invention, used in the phrase "the perishment of your human property." It is meant to describe the natural death of a slave. The man intends the word perishment to convey the fragility of human life, especially lives of slaves, but for a cynical reason—he thinks it will sell more life insurance policies. Since perishable items are usually fruits and vegetables, the Polish poet succeeds in reducing slaves to something lower than human property—to perishable produce. This provides another example of the dehumanizing effects of slavery. Jones is liking making a sly reference to the famous 20th-century American poet Wallace Stevens, who was an insurance company executive in Hartford, Connecticut. His poem "Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery" demonstrates his racism.

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