The Known World | Study Guide

Edward P. Jones

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The Known World | Chapter 6 : A Frozen Cow and a Frozen Dog. A Cabin in the Sky. The Taste of Freedom. | Summary

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Summary

The first part of the chapter, A Frozen Cow and a Frozen Dog, opens two days after Henry's death. Caldonia's mother, Maude Newman, begins to worry that Caldonia will have second thoughts about selling or freeing her slaves. She reminds her daughter that they are her "legacy," which must not be wasted. Maude firmly believes that slaves and land are the foundation of wealth, and it's far too easy to slide into destitution. Caldonia assures her mother that Henry has taught her well and she knows her duty toward what he has left her.

That same day Moses sends the slaves back to work, even though it is Sunday. Caldonia's brother, Calvin, disapproves and directs them to return to their cabins for the rest of the day.

A Cabin in the Sky begins a few days later when the slave Stamford goes looking for Gloria, his former love interest, hoping she might take him back. He finds her with another male slave and a brawl ensues; Stamford is badly hurt and unable to work for a week and a half.

After the beating Stamford grows despondent and mean-spirited, even toward children. He takes up drinking a concoction made from fermented potatoes that leaves him blurry-eyed and confused. In this state he visits Delphie and tries to seduce her. Though she pities him, she rejects his advances and turns him out in a rainstorm. Wandering down the lane, hoping to get hit by lightning, he sees a little girl of seven named Delores traipsing out in the rain to pick blueberries. Stamford is struck by the notion that he should help her. His kind impulse ends with a supernatural experience that convinces him his mission is to similarly care for all the plantation's children. Stamford will go on to found the Richmond Home for Colored Orphans.

During this time Caldonia begins turning to Moses for help in running the plantation. He reports to her daily on the slaves' activities and, to prolong their meetings, begins telling her fanciful stories about Henry and the slaves.

The chapter's last section, The Taste of Freedom, begins five weeks after Henry's death. Augustus encounters slave patrollers Harvey Travis, Oden Peoples, and Barnum Kinsey while traveling home from a distant county. Travis harbors a jealous hatred of Augustus and resents the black man's freedom. He demands Augustus's free papers—his only proof of free status—and then eats them. Afterward Travis sells Augustus to a white kidnapper named Darcy who happens to come along the road. When Kinsey protests, Travis puts a gun to his head, ending all discussion. Darcy and his slave Stennis drive off with Augustus, and the patrollers split up for the night. Travis burns Augustus's wagon before heading home.

Analysis

The three major story lines threading this chapter concern Calvin, Stamford, and Augustus Townsend. The title A Frozen Cow and a Frozen Dog relates to Calvin, Caldonia's twin brother. Though he has been raised in a slave-owning family, he dislikes slavery and would encourage Caldonia to sell the plantation and free her slaves if he did not fear his mother, Maude. Despite being free born she is a fierce advocate of land and slave ownership as a sure means of guaranteeing financial security. In contrast, her late husband, Tilmon Newman, was a slave who purchased his freedom. Maude poisons him with arsenic when he decides God wants him to free their human property and destroy her financial legacy. She has accepted the system of slavery and does not question its righteousness. Her only requirement is that the system keeps her safe in the known world.

The "frozen cow" is a reference to a tragedy from Tilmon's youth, when his younger brother was sent out in a snowstorm to hunt for the master's cow. Four days later the boy and cow are found huddled together, frozen. This is a picture of slavery—merciless, cold, and life robbing. In contrast is Calvin's treasured photograph of life in New York City. In it a photographically "frozen dog" stands perfectly still, all attention focused on something to the right of the frame and out of view. It untethers Calvin's imagination, and he envisions another "whole world off to the right that the photograph had not captured"—a world he would like to explore. This reflects Calvin's certainty that there is more to the "known world" than what exists within the boundaries of Manchester County.

An incidental story about Calvin highlights slavery's corrupting influence on an essentially kind, fair-minded nature. Calvin disapproves of slavery, but—forced to live with it—he cannot avoid being infected by it in subtle ways. Once while drunk, he knocks the hat off a slave's head for no good reason—just because he knows he can without repercussions. To his credit, Calvin feels ashamed afterward and never drinks again.

In the segment A Cabin in the Sky, readers see the origin of Stamford's transformation. Like everyone caught in the system of slavery, Stamford searches for a way to survive it. Now his sexual adventuring with "young stuff" has failed him—as the fight over Gloria confirms. Just when it's needed, a new path to surviving slavery arrives in his vision of a cabin flying down from the sky. The blueberry-stained slave children and the dead crows that he soothes with his fingers show Stamford he can become fulfilled by helping others. These events are transformative. Stamford chooses a new and better life path caring for children. It is still a way to survive slavery, but it will allow him to leave a life-affirming family legacy.

A side story woven into the Stamford incident concerns a salesman from the Atlas Life, Casualty and Assurance Company who visits Caldonia. His attempt to sell her insurance on her slaves serves to underscore their definition and value as "property," not people.

Finally, The Taste of Freedom episode exposes the fragile nature of freedom. In a slave-based society, it can be transitory and bitter. Augustus is free, and he knows what freedom tastes like. Yet he has only a flimsy, easily destroyed piece of paper standing between him and renewed bondage. Believing in its power to protect, he knows every word on that paper—has them memorized. Interestingly, Mildred knows better than he the weakness of their position as free blacks. In Chapter 4 when Augustus worries about Henry's continued closeness to Robbins once he is free, Mildred asserts that the alliance will expand Henry's world and his freedom. As she explains, "Them free papers he carry with him all over the place don't carry anough freedom."

The "taste of freedom" for Harvey Travis is literally the taste of that paper as he devours Augustus's only protection. This arbitrary and violent act is made possible by the system of slavery. Once the written proof is gone, Augustus's freedom no longer exists—a cruel, unjust fact in a world where one man may own another.

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