COLSON WHITEHEAD’S NEW NOVEL appears in the middle of what is starting to look like a vogue for African-American historical culture, marked in part by Hollywood films like 12 Years a Slave and Selma. African-American novelists have long been interested in the historical place of Black people in American life, and what Ashraf Rushdy calls the “neo-slave narrative” has been around since the 1960s, energized by Toni Morrison’s Beloved in the late 1980s. In its scope and ambition, The Underground Railroad makes a bid to synthesize that long tradition of novel writing about slavery. Its claims about history and the present, however, are much less straightforward than some of the hype around the novel would suggest.
The first 50 pages or so of The Underground Railroad are an extraordinary act of homage, a quiet pastiche of the novel of slavery in the wake of Morrison, focusing on three generations of enslaved women. The narrative picks up when the youngest, Cora, the protagonist, is in her mid-teens. Still, reeling from her mother’s escape from slavery a few years earlier and tending the provisional ground first set out by her grandmother, Cora is a “stray,” cut off from the slave community and forced to live in a place called Hob, where “they banished the wretched” from everyday life on the plantation. The risk of echoing Morrison too closely in these opening pages is a gambit for readers’ sympathies that has paid off in the book’s selection by Oprah Winfrey for her wildly popular book club. This novel differs, however, from the tradition of African-American fiction framed by Morrison — and in a different but related way by Winfrey — because of Whitehead’s fundamentally ironic perspective.
The novel’s core irony emerges when the handsome Caesar convinces Cora to run off with him to a station on the Underground Railroad, and Cora learns that the Underground Railroad is literal, a kind of subway running throughout the antebellum United States. Historically, the Underground Railroad was an organizational metaphor, a way of thinking about space and people in terms of stations, agents, and conductors, without the physical tracks and trains. Making the railroad literal in fiction is a daring act of speculative world-building — it takes a common mistake of American childhood historical ignorance and makes it over as a commitment to the suspension of disbelief.
Nevertheless, soon after it is revealed, the Railroad becomes an allegory of American history: “springing from some inconceivable source and shooting toward a miraculous terminus.” The prose is unusually economical around the Railroad’s construction: “The sheer industry that had made such a project possible,” reads one sentence fragment. In another moment, Cora asks an agent, “Who built it?” The agent responds, again laconically, “Who builds anything in this country?” We learn very little of the railroad’s history, except that it has fallen into disrepair. Once on board, the novel takes off from historical fiction in the direction of a satire; in fact, the jacket copy compares Cora’s escape to Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.
Other novels in the African-American literary tradition have also taken a satirical view of slavery — William Wells Brown’s Clotel (1853) and Ishmael Reed’s Flight to Canada (1976) both deserve mention for antics that rival Whitehead’s. David Bradley’s The Chaneysville Incident (1981) takes a wry view of the injunction to remember slavery that characterizes so much recent fiction on the subject. The Underground Railroad differs from these predecessors in the grandness of its design and in the subtlety with which it conceals the problem of historical memory in an otherwise action-packed narrative.
Whitehead says in a recent interview that he has been thinking about the novel for 15 years, but that he didn’t turn to its composition in earnest until spring 2014, which is to say, after the extrajudicial murder of Trayvon Martin, but before Eric Garner and Michael Brown, and after the release dates of Django Unchained (December 25, 2012) and 12 Years a Slave (October 18, 2013). Not for nothing, but Quentin Tarantino’s idiot-friendly blockbuster made apparent the sizable public appetite for non-melodramatic narratives of slavery. In a late moment of the Obama presidency, Django cynically brought back to life a convenient fantasy of the antebellum period: the handsome righteous Black male protagonist coolly dispensing retributive violence. Tarantino’s recent inclination to draw down on serious historical subjects via genre conventions has echoes in recent literary fiction by African-American men in particular, like Whitehead’s zombie novel Zone One (2011) and books by Victor LaValle and Mat Johnson. One can easily imagine Whitehead wondering why Tarantino should be the one to turn such experiments on the history of American slavery.
As its allusions to Swift indicate, The Underground Railroad has serious ambition, especially within the tradition of literary satire. In comparison, Tarantino’s comic scenes seem puerile, for instance the one in which a lynch mob fights about whose wife made their masks. Once the train leaves the station, Whitehead strikes a careful balance between his satirical designs and his historical vision — there is no such North and South Carolina, Indiana or Tennessee, as he depicts them, at least not exactly, but his fictive versions point to hard truths. When a station agent assures Cora, “South Carolina has a much more enlightened attitude toward colored advancement than the rest of the south,” the reader is left to wonder, which South Carolina? That episode, however, also forces reflection on ostensibly benevolent forms of racial liberalism that have sought to ameliorate the wrongs of slavery. What does it mean that Whitehead’s North Carolina, by contrast, seems to have embraced a kind of Final Solution? He writes tersely: “In North Carolina, the negro race did not exist except at the end of ropes.” This fictionalization of the states is enormously assertive, and yet no controversy has greeted the novel’s publication, surely not least because of its narrative elegance. Swift defined satire like so: “Satire is a sort of glass wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own; which is the chief reason for that kind reception it meets with in the world, and that so few are offended with it.” At the moment of this novel’s publication, the problem of recognition implicit in Whitehead’s satire feels especially urgent.
With deadpan virtuosity and muted audacity, Whitehead integrates the historical details of slavery with the present. Anyone who rides public transportation today will chuckle uneasily at jokes about the Railroad’s abandonment. Early readers have noticed how the slave patrols function quite like contemporary police (“They stopped any niggers they saw and demanded their passes”). Other moments from the book rely on the effect of historical echo, but with much subtler and more complex results. The episode that takes place at South Carolina’s Disneyfied museum of slavery, for instance, has attracted the most attention from reviewers, and rightly so. This richly imagined and ambivalent set piece deserves more attention than I can give it here, but suffice it to say that it reflects the production of cultural memory about slavery, in which Whitehead, his reviewers, and his readers are all implicated.
This episode is also crucial for the ways that it draws Cora’s character into deeper relief. When she grows frustrated with labor conditions in the “Living History” exhibit, whose depiction of slavery is so realistic, she begins to stare down individual museum visitors:
She picked the weak links out from the crowd, the ones who broke under her gaze. The weak link — she liked the ring of it. To seek the imperfection in the chain that keeps you in bondage. Taken individually, the link was not much. But in concert with its fellows, a mighty iron that subjugated millions despite its weakness. The people she chose, young and old, from the rich part of town or the more modest streets, did not individually persecute Cora. As a community, they were shackles. If she kept at it, chipping away at weak links wherever she found them, it might add up to something.
The irony in the novel’s premise suffuses Cora’s worldview. As the narrative follows Cora through a series of escapes, her rebukes to white people become more pointed. Whitehead’s choice of a female protagonist means he can write around the macho drama that has too long dominated accounts of the struggle for freedom. He also uses passages like the above, with their vernacular political theory, to frame the emphasis on historical trauma that has preoccupied novels about slavery in the age of Oprah. Like Lila Mae Watson in Whitehead’s The Intuitionist, Cora is characterized by her cool-tempered rationality, and thus Whitehead makes a turn away from the investigations of Black female psychological depth found in other recent “neo-slave narratives.” In Cora, Whitehead’s dry humor becomes the dented armor of a fugitive from slavery as knight errant, and she jousts with the topsy-turvy rhetoric of exploitation in an ostensibly free country.
The most well-known citation of Swift in African-American literature before Oprah picked this novel for the book club a few weeks ago is in an essay by Ralph Ellison, who writes, “I propose we view the whole of American life as a drama acted out upon the body of a Negro giant, who, lying trussed up like Gulliver, forms the stage and the scene upon which the action unfolds.” Ellison makes this proposition as a way of generalizing the exploitation of Black bodies and the concomitant use of Black people as a test case for American national belonging. The Underground Railroad takes this proposal as a creative prompt, interpolating the historical brutalities of slavery into a dystopic vision of the United States bleeding from the antebellum period into the present. Whitehead poses a question about whether the underground (which figures prominently in Ellison’s classic Invisible Man as well) actually can offer respite from the physical and symbolic burdens of Black life. Maybe more urgently, he seems to wonder whether the United States is not itself an imaginative projection, “a delusion, the grandest one of all.” In the moments when Whitehead’s characters weary from acting in the propulsive plot, they wonder at the country’s claims to validity, “Now that she had run away and seen a bit of the country, Cora wasn’t sure the document described anything real at all. America was a ghost in the darkness, like her.”
The condensed and cynical wit of lines like these had me in the mind of Whitehead’s justly celebrated Twitter feed — I wonder if the novel’s slanted view of the United States reflects the weird rhythms of irony and sincerity on social media. Likewise, I have been trying to figure out what music I hear in the novel — partly because another one of Whitehead’s forays into historical fiction, John Henry Days, took interest in the connection between the railroad and American popular music. The question felt increasingly urgent in light of the comparison to Tarantino, with his pointless anachronistic fetish for 1970s soul and funk. Whitehead’s depiction of the antebellum United States has some of the dank ambience and weird moods of Organized Noize and OutKast. But the propulsion that follows from the novel’s central conceit had me looking for something more up-tempo, more metal machine music, and now I think this is the first Afro-punk novel of slavery. Whitehead cites Bowie, Prince, Sonic Youth, and Misfits in his acknowledgments, but it’s worth drawing more contemporary connections, between Death Grips or TV on the Radio, for instance, and the book’s clanking DIY subway rides to an uncertain freedom. What if Cora’s feminism resonates likewise with Janelle Monáe or Santigold? I find these possibilities reassuring in the moments when I wonder (Franzen-like, I guess) if the book getting picked up by Oprah might dull some of its sting. That the novel can accommodate these speculations is testimony to Whitehead’s keen perception of his moment and his absolute control of his instrument.