Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The long opening segment of Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad is carefully, almost studiously naturalistic.  In plain, but also irresistible and affecting language, he presents the life story of his heroine, Cora, starting first with the history of her grandmother, kidnapped from Africa and finally ending up, after much circumlocution (which is to say, being sold and re-sold), on a Georgia plantation, and moving on to detail the life of Cora's mother, who escaped when Cora was a child, and finally to Cora herself.  Whitehead's eye for the details of life on the plantation--and in particular, life in the insular, predatory community that arises among the slaves--is unflinching.  Many reviewers before me have noted the brutal quietness with which he reveals that "Not long after it became known that Cora's womanhood had come into flower, Edward, Pot, and two hands from the southern half dragged her behind the smokehouse.  If anyone heard or saw, they did not intervene.  The Hob women sewed her up."  But the entire segment is rife with moments like this, in which the sheer weight of what it means to live your entire life under the burden of being thought inhuman is presented without adornment, or even much signposting.  Taken on its own, this part of the book would still be a brilliant literary accomplishment.

But of course, if you've heard of The Underground Railroad, that's probably not what you've heard about it.  Leaving aside its selection for Oprah Winfrey's highly influential book club, what has made The Underground Railroad remarkable and notable is what happens at the end of this chapter.  Stunned out of a gloomy kind of complacency about her situation by a brutal beating, Cora accepts the invitation of another slave, Caesar, to escape with him.  Caesar has made contact with a local station agent for the Underground Railroad, and after a grueling, nail-biting escape--even the short distance between their plantation and the station is fraught with nearly impossible dangers for a pair of escaped slaves--what he and Cora find as their supposed path to freedom is a literalized metaphor.
The stairs led onto a small platform.  The black mouths of the gigantic tunnel opened at either end.  It must have been twenty feet tall, walls lined with dark and light colored stones in an alternating pattern.  The sheer industry that had made such a project possible.  Cora and Caesar noticed the rails.  Two steel rails ran the visible length of the tunnel, pinned into the dirt by wooden crossties.  The steel ran south and north presumably, springing from some inconceivable source and shooting towards a miraculous terminus.
So dry and matter of fact is Whitehead's tone as he describes this impossible feat of, among other things, engineering that it actually takes some time for that impossibility to register.  This is hardly a new approach for Whitehead--his first novel, The Intuitionist, took place in a world in which elevator inspectors were a prestigious and tradition-bound group, closely guarding the secrets of their profession and suspicious when a new member, who is not only a black woman but who espouses the newfangled philosophy of "intuitive" elevator inspection, joins their ranks.  It sounds like a joke, but Whitehead not only presents it seriously but manages to make something soulful and even elegiac out of his premise--the racism and resistance that his heroine meets are no less hurtful because the profession she's trying to break into is ridiculous (in fact, one might argue that this is precisely the point).  Something similar is happening in The Underground Railroad.  Whitehead isn't trying to make slavery ridiculous, but by having Cora and Caesar's escape from it take the form of what is essentially a trip on the subway--they go underground in one spot and emerge in another--he unmoors slavery, and its latter-day permutations into prejudice and oppression, from a specific time and place.

As Cora is told by her first conductor, the Underground Railroad of the novel has no fixed route, no promised path to freedom.  Trains arrive on a schedule that is erratic, and their destinations are often unclear.  "The problem is that one destination may be more to your liking than another.  Stations are discovered, lines discontinued.  You won't know what waits above until you pull in."  Whitehead thus sets himself up for a sort of dark picaresque, with Cora and Caesar sampling life for escaped slaves in different states, trying to make their way to safety and happiness.  (The structure put me in mind of The Odyssey, and Whitehead namechecks Gulliver's Travels.  Though, and as one of this characters points out, both of these stories are tales about men who are ultimately trying to get home, whereas for Cora and Caesar home is a hell they must escape.)  The first of these chapters, titled "South Carolina", sets up its normalized strangeness right from the start, when Cora emerges from under ground: "She looked up at the skyscraper and reeled, wondering how far she had traveled."  Once again, Whitehead plays it completely straight, and it takes a long time for the reader to be certain that the South Carolina that Cora and Caesar have arrived in--where they are housed in dormitories, educated, and given jobs, as part of a government program to "advance" former slaves--is not just counterfactual, but a place out of time.  When that confirmation comes, however, it brings the entire novel into focus.
His patients believed they were being treated for blood ailments.  The tonics the hospital administered, however, were merely sugar water.  In fact, the niggers were participants in a study of the latent and tertiary stages of syphilis.

"They think you're helping them?" Sam asked the doctor.  He kept his voice neutral, even as his face got hot.

"It's important research," Bertram informed him.  "Discover how a disease spreads, the trajectory of the infection, and we approach a cure."
What Cora is traveling through, as she gets on and off the Underground Railroad, is not space, exactly, but history.  She experiences the different guises of American racism, the different faces it has worn and continues to wear, in a continuous physical space.  In South Carolina, Cora encounters what originally seems like kindness and liberal-mindedness, but which eventually reveals itself as self-serving paternalism.  The terms in which the authorities, who claim to be trying to help black people, actually end up restricting their choices and freedoms are taken not from the 19th century, however, but from the early 20th--forced sterilization, and proposed eugenics programs: "What if we performed adjustments to the niggers' breeding patterns and removed those of melancholic tendency?  Managed other attitudes, such as sexual aggression and violent natures? We could protect our women and daughters from their jungle urges, which Dr. Bertram understood to be a particular fear of southern white men."

This is not to say that The Underground Railroad's scheme is as straightforward as having Cora jump from one period to another.  Even within the South Carolina chapter there are elements that clearly come from different settings and time periods.  Later in the chapter, Cora is hired to appear in a display room at a recently opened museum of American history.  She plays roles in romanticized, sanitized recreations of a ship carrying slaves across the Atlantic, a slave auction, and a plantation.  Her predicament--glad for the easy work but aggravated by how it whitewashes the brutal, backbreaking labor she used to perform--echoes a modern complaint by reenactors in actual historical sites, as well as the broader discussion of how American history teaching tends to downplay the brutality of slavery and perpetuate the myth of happy, well-treated slaves.  A later chapter in which Cora, now in the hands of a slave catcher, makes a quasi-hallucinatory crossing of a desolate, burned-out Tennessee landscape lends itself less easily to historical reference, but is clearly designed to open a discussion of America's mistreatment and dispossession of Native Americans.

If there's a criticism to be made here--and to be clear, I'm not sure it rises to that level--it is that this device can have the effect of making The Underground Railroad feel programmatic.  At times it almost feels as if the novel is ticking talking points off a list--the introduction to the slave catcher Ridgeway, for example, includes a short history of the institution of slave patrols and their operation, whose language ("They stopped any niggers they saw and demanded their passes") seems designed to recall discussions I'd read recently about present-day police brutality, and how the history of policing in America has its roots in these slave patrols.  And though the fact that Whitehead has a character whom Cora meets muse that "Black hands built the White House, the seat of our nation's government" a mere month after Michelle Obama made the same observation in a speech to the Democratic convention is surely a coincidence, it also speaks to the book's need to be topical.  At points, The Underground Railroad feels like a fictionalization of the conversation that we've been having for several years, about the place of African Americans in American society, the legacy of slavery, and the way that racism continues to manifest itself, even in a society that claims to have overcome it.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing, of course, especially given Whitehead's prodigious gifts as a writer, and the assuredness with which he manages his fantastic device.  But one effect that this approach has is that Cora seems to get lost in the shuffle.  This shouldn't happen--Cora is a wonderful creation, plucky but also deeply damaged, remarkable but also susceptible to the same pressures and traumas as anyone else.  One of the points Whitehead makes with her is to observe how the same courage and determination that make it possible for her to run, can also curdle into cruelty when subjected to enough mistreatment.  One of Cora's defining traumas is having been left behind by her mother when she escaped, and she is never able to forgive this betrayal.  She fantasizes about one day meeting her mother, "Begging in the gutter, a broken old woman bent into the sum of her mistakes.  Mabel looked up but did not recognize her daughter.  Cora kicked her beggar's cup, the few coins flew into the hubbub, and she continued on her afternoon errand".

The Underground Railroad is, in general, unflinching and unsentimental in depicting the psychic toll of participating, even unwillingly, in the system of slavery, whether it's Cora's myriad lingering traumas, over the things that were done to her and the things she's done, or the breakdown of even those slaves who seem inured to the hardships of slavery ("They joked and they picked fast when the bosses' eyes were on them and they acted big, but at night in the cabin after midnight they wept, they screamed from nightmares and wretched memories"), or the reluctance and terror of many of the white people who manage stations, most of whom come to terrible ends when they are inevitably discovered.  But though these points are typically well made, they also never feel like the point of the story, and this is particularly true of Cora.  By its very nature, Cora's journey can't have a destination.  If the point of The Underground Railroad is to take her (and us) through a guided tour of American racism, then the very fact that that racism is still at work--that books like The Underground Railroad are still necessary--means that she can't arrive in any sort of promised land.  Whitehead manages, with an elegance that is, by that point, unsurprising, to give the novel an ending that is satisfying without betraying his scheme, but the result is that Cora's journey loses much of its urgency.  She becomes, despite her vivid and deeply-felt humanity, more a viewpoint than a person.

What I think Whitehead is struggling with in The Underground Railroad is a problem that I've become more aware of, in recent years, in the context of fiction about the Holocaust.  At some point, you have to ask: what is the value of art about atrocity?  Can art exist merely for its own sake when it's discussing a real evil that blighted and claimed the lives of millions, or does it have to serve a purpose, be it educational or political?  Is it even right to impose a narrative--especially one that tends towards a happy ending--on an evil that by its very nature defies narrative, and which swallowed up the lives of so many?  Whitehead's choice--using the fantastic to detach his story from the conventions of narrative, and with it making the point that while slavery is over, it is also still with us--is not just brilliant, but inspiring.  But it also leaves The Underground Railroad feeling a little chilly.  It's a remarkable work, one that I am still, despite this review, struggling to describe and sum up.  But it's also one that I can't entirely love.


Aonghus Fallon said...

Totally agree. Nine times out of ten, you've got an author preaching a familiar sermon to the converted, whereas a good (and I think, thought-provoking) book needs to present a point of view that is atypical - but, with issues like slavery and the holocaust, the alternative point of view (racism is OK) is problematic, to put it mildly. Even the middle-ground - a more nuanced portrait of concentration camp guards and plantation overseers, for example - can be tricky.

That said, maybe it's a matter of context? And by context, I mean readership - ie, who is this book intended for? White Americans? Or African-Americans? It's going to have a very different resonance for different readers.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I hope I've said nothing in this review to suggest that I think Whitehead should have written a novel about whether slavery and racism are OK, or even one that explores the psyche of a slaveowner, surely an overexplored topic that tends towards justification and special pleading.

To be very clear, I don't see anything wrong with how blatantly political The Underground Railroad is, nor with how clearly it chooses a side. When I talk about the problems of writing art about atrocity, the problem I'm thinking of is the risk of reducing something indescribably awful to a pat narrative.

Aonghus Fallon said...

No, not at all. I guess we hold differing views in this respect? Telling me that neither slavery nor racism are OK is a bit like telling me that the sun is hot - ie, you're not telling me anything I don't already know, and one function of good literature is to surprise the reader.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

As I think I've made very clear in the review, there is a great deal in The Underground Railroad that is surprising. Most obviously its trenchant argument that slavery is not over, and that forms of racist abuse that exist today have their roots in the attitudes and institutions created in order to keep slavery going. Unfortunately, there are still very many people who do not see this as the equivalent of saying that the sun is hot.

Aonghus Fallon said...

In which case, I guess it has a readership? In Ireland (and in the UK as well, I think) most people assume that America is a deeply racist country, especially when it comes to African-Americans (largely due to the number of African-Americans being shot by police for the most trivial reasons) and would see this as a natural evolution of the treatment of African-Americans earlier in American history - ie, as not surprising at all.

amcorrea said...

Oh, you'd be surprised... As a case in point, the recent Supreme Court ruling to uphold affirmative action at the University of Texas. The lawyer, Edward Blum, who brought the suit in order to abolish the program, stated, "The founding principles of the Civil Rights movement have been embraced by the vast majority of Americans in this country. And those founding principles, *those founding principles*, guide these lawsuits". As in, the Civil Rights movement did the job--racisim is not longer a problem, affirmative action is not necessary. (He is currently building cases against the admissions policies of Harvard and the University of South Carolina. Give a listen to http://www.wnyc.org/story/imperfect-plaintiff/--the story starts at the 30:40 mark). There is a *huge* disconnect between the perspectives of some well-meaning people in the United States and the reality of the context in which many African Americans actually live.

amcorrea said...

Abigail, your last paragraph (as well as the idea that slavery is still with us) reminded me of Imre Kertész and how he wrestled with this issue in his Nobel Lecture: "I realized soon enough that I was not the least bit interested in whom I was writing for and why. One question interested me: What have I still got to do with literature? For it was clear to me that an uncrossable line separated me from literature and the ideals, the spirit associated with the concept of literature. The name of this demarcation line, as of many other things, is Auschwitz. When we write about Auschwitz, we must know that Auschwitz, in a certain sense at least, suspended literature. One can only write a black novel about Auschwitz, or - you should excuse the expression - a cheap serial, which begins in Auschwitz and is still not over. By which I mean that nothing has happened since Auschwitz that could reverse or refute Auschwitz. In my writings the Holocaust could never be present in the past tense."

Of course, I think your question deals more with fiction written after the fact and not the writing of survivors (such as Kertész) themselves. But at least it's a way to attempt to think about it.

Incidentally, I went back to your August Tumblr post regarding this issue (in the context of that controversial Holocaust romance novel) as I was reading a collection of Kertész's essays for the first time. It helped enrich conversations I had afterwards...so thank you for writing and posting and tweeting. You articulate the complexities of these issues beautifully.

Abigail Nussbaum said...


I wasn't familiar with that Kertész quote, but he's certainly not the only one to discuss that issue. In Israeli literary circles, the most famous expression of the idea that Auschwitz, and the Holocaust in general, exist outside the realm of literature, comes from the author K. Tzetnik, who in his abortive testimony in the trial of Adolph Eichman talked of Auschwitz as being "another planet", outside the capacity of literature to encompass it. (I may have even mentioned that phrase in the tumblr post you cite.)

As you say, there's an obvious distinction between the narratives of survivors of atrocity and literature written after the fact. Which is not to say that there aren't contemporary accounts of slavery - in fact I think Whitehead has said that he drew on the witness accounts of former slaves, collected by the WPA, when writing the book. And I think that the timelessness I see in the novel, the way that Whitehead ties slavery into the forms that American racism took over the course of the 20th and 21st centuries, is specifically designed to counter the fact that the novel is a novel and not a witness account. Whitehead is surely a witness to the forms that American racism takes today, after all.

Brenda Roberts said...

I'm curious why a discussion about Coulson Whitehead's book,The Underground Railroad, developed into a discussion about Auschwitz. It bothers me to see this happen over and over. People can't seem to stay on topic and feel the need to compare suffering with suffering. I see this as a way to minimize the horrors of slavery and turn the discussion to a more favorable one for America. I believe that most Americans can easily digest the horrors of the Hitler regime especially because they don't own that horror. They own the horrors of slavery and have sanitized the history books to represent themselves as a great democracy. By changing the discussion, you also dismiss the horror. America would prefer to compare Hitler (the bad guy) to America (the good guy) but there is a need to not allow America to change the topic to avoid the discussion. America needs to acknowledge their true history as a brutal, hate filled country that was no better than a Hitler. When they do that, maybe the country can begin to heal but for this discussion and others, please don't change the topic. The effects of slavery needs to be discussed more broadly.

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