what i'm reading: the underground railroad by colson whitehead

Colson Whitehead is a literary genius. In The Underground Railroad, he has found a way to tell the story of 400-plus years of African-American oppression without delivering an awkward march through history, and without using characters as billboards for ideas.

Instead of linear time, Whitehead employs a geography of time: different eras, different historical moments, occur simultaneously but in different places, all the locations connected by an underground railroad.

At one stop is something very like the Tuskegee Experiment and the "Mississippi appendectomy". At another stop, minstrel shows, the mania of genocidal lynching, and the realities of Fugitive Slave Act. At another, the vision of Greenwood, Oklahoma and other all-black triumphs like it, and the spectre of its demise.

These simultaneous realities are linked, not by the Underground Railroad of myth and metaphor, but an underground railroad. As every reviewer of this book has pointed out, Whitehead imagines an actual railroad, at once a clandestine mode of transport, and a symbol of the subterranean struggle for freedom and justice.

Through his invented geography, Whitehead comes as close to the heart of the horror of slavery and its many legacies as anything I've ever read. The physical truth, the emotional truth, the psychological truth -- all are laid bare, revealing the United States' foundation of stolen land, human chattel, and brutal subjugation, and how that has played out over decades and centuries.

Whitehead doesn't sanitize slavery, but neither is this book a catalogue of grotesque violence. There's violence enough -- Whitehead doesn't flinch from it -- but he doesn't force the reader into torture porn, as graphically violent books often do.

To call The Underground Railroad historical fiction would be to diminish it. Whitehead is the consummate genre-shifter, never writing the same type of book twice; actually never writing a "type" at all. The Underground Railroad comprises elements of historical fiction, slave narratives, immigration stories, westerns, alternative histories, and magical realism. There's bits of Gulliver's Travels, of The Odyssey, of The Inferno. This review in The New York Times references one I hadn't thought of.
Throughout my reading, I was repeatedly reminded of a particular chapter from García Márquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” to whose handling of time Whitehead seems to owe quite a bit. In that chapter, the infamous massacre of the banana plantation workers is denied by the official versions of history and soon forgotten. But one character knows what he saw — thousands of dead traveling toward the sea on a train — and goes around trying to find someone who will remember the story. He doesn’t: People always get things wrong. In a sense, “The Underground Railroad” is Whitehead’s own attempt at getting things right, not by telling us what we already know but by vindicating the powers of fiction to interpret the world. In its exploration of the foundational sins of America, it is a brave and necessary book.
In reviews and interviews, much has been made of Whitehead's imaginative invention of an actual underground railroad, but what sets this book apart is not fantasy. Whitehead uses this magical element to confront the reality of American slavery, inviting us to consider it anew. In The Globe and Mail, Andray Domise writes:
But other misunderstandings, stubborn and pernicious, have managed to warp much of white America’s perception of slavery – that it was a matter of wage theft, that slaves were mostly treated and fed well by benevolent masters, that the Irish were treated in a similar fashion to black people. Whitehead’s novel is both speculative fiction and an inversion of these comforting fables. One in which the United States’ crimes against the Black body are revealed and compressed into the narrative of a young woman’s escape from bondage.
The Underground Railroad is a powerful and beautifully written book. Of course it's deeply disturbing, but I hope that doesn't dissuade readers from picking it up. In this age when blatantly false histories spread virally, this is a book that needs to be read.

Also, it's Colson Whitehead. Here I am again, raving about another book by Colson Whitehead. Here are my posts on: Sag Harbor, Zone One, Apex Hides the Hurt, and John Henry Days. Turns out I didn't review Colossus of New York, I only quoted from it: here and here (this blog was two days old at the time). And I read his first novel, The Intuitionist before this blog existed.


Amy said...

This is the most insightful and helpful review I've read of the book, and I've read a few as I've tried to understand why Whitehead chose to use the metaphor of a real railroad (though the stations seemed more like NYC subway stations than railroad stations). Your explanation makes the most sense of those I've read---that this was a trip through time as much as geography. I was not really sensitive to that, but your listing of the "real" occurrences of things like the South Carolina museum (one of the most horrifying chapters in the book for me, even though it was not violent) and the experimental farm where the escaped slaves settled helped me see better what Whitehead was doing.

Even without that understanding, I found this book the best book I've read in its ability to convey what it felt like to be a slave---the fear, the violence, the pain, and most powerfully of all, the dehumanization of it. It is also beautifully written and structured. The images will stay with me for a long, long time.

As I'd mentioned to you before, I read this book slowly---not as I usually read books. I could only read so much at a time. I did not want to rush through and pay inadequate attention. I wanted to feel the impact and think about it.

Thanks again for such a helpful review.

laura k said...

Amy, thanks so much. I'm so pleased.

I agree that it's the best thing I've ever read that conveys the horror. I think it will be read and studied for a long, long time.

I actually read this book very quickly because I was riveted. I can understand how you felt, too.

Re subway stations, the author is a native New Yorker, after all. :)

laura k said...

I also found the museum very painful, almost unbearable, because of its truth.

When Allan and I were on our Mississippi and Louisiana blues pilgrimage, we visited a former plantation. The tour guide said, "This is where the workers lived..." Another man on the tour got there before we did, saying, "You mean the slaves, right?" The tour guide said, "We don't like to use that word, because of, you know, the way things are today." We talked about that for the rest of the tour, off and on for the rest of the trip. It was so mind-blowing.

I am working on a post about lies about slavery. It's super difficult to write, because I get so angry.

RossK said...

Most definitely on my list now laura...thanks!

And, just in case you haven't seen it alreay, I thought I'd pass the following 'Librarian as True Hero' link along.


Amy said...

When we visited Santa Fe and Taos last spring, one friend told us not to go to Taos Pueblo because she felt sick after visiting. It made her feel like she was intruding on the real lives of people as if they were a museum display. We didn't go. When I read that segment of Whitehead's book, I couldn't get that image out of my head. I also kept thinking of the displays at the Museum of Natural History, imagining if they put real people or animals behind those glass cases.

Yes, I guess that's a NYC image also!

laura k said...

There were exhibits like that -- exactly like the ones described in TUR. In Victorian times and through the 1910s and 20s, the world fairs and national expositions included displays of people -- Africans, Native Americans, people with unusual disabilities, conjoined twins. I interpreted those scenes in the book literally. I also feel those scenes stand in for all the lies that are told about American history.

We visited the Acoma Pueblo, on top of a huge butte. The tour was about the history of the people and the amazing location. We felt that the Acoma people must want visitors, to help their tiny local economy, or there wouldn't be tours and a gift shop. They're running that themselves -- an important distinction.

laura k said...

Thanks, Ross! I had seen the original with the "badass librarian" headline. Thanks for thinking of me. :)