“They Stay Broke”: Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad”

In a recent piece in the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik bemoans that the American Revolution ever happened.

What if all this was a terrible idea, and what if the injustices and madness of American life since then have occurred not in spite of the virtues of the Founding Fathers but because of them? The Revolution, this argument might run, was a needless and brutal bit of slaveholders’ panic mixed with Enlightenment argle-bargle, producing a country that was always marked for violence and disruption and demagogy. Look north to Canada, or south to Australia, and you will see different possibilities of peaceful evolution away from Britain, toward sane and whole, more equitable and less sanguinary countries. No revolution, and slavery might have ended, as it did elsewhere in the British Empire, more peacefully and sooner. No “peculiar institution,” no hideous Civil War and appalling aftermath.

As an alternative history this is interesting, if in need of more world-building. But as an examination of what ails the America we have, it is properly compelling:

Over the years, we have seen how hard it is to detach Americans from even the obviously fallacious parts of that elementary-school saga—the absurd rendering of Reconstruction, with its Northern carpetbaggers and local scalawags descending on a defenseless South, was still taught in the sixties. It was only in recent decades that schools cautiously began to relay the truth of the eighteen-seventies—of gradual and shameful Northern acquiescence in the terrorist imposition of apartheid on a post-slavery population.

Much ink, digital and actual, has been spilled in recent years over the question of why slave narratives have once again found themselves at the forefront of the contemporary popular consciousness. One reason must surely be that a new generation is finding that it must once again discover this past for itself. That some of these narratives – most notably Steve McQueen’s Twelve Years A Slave – come from outside America suggests even more strongly that the amnesiac republic is in need of a reminder of the missteps of its past (so, too, of course does the election of one Donald J. Trump, who lionises Andrew “Trail of Tears” Jackson). From the in some ways surprisingly successful remake of Roots to the delirious Django Unchained, America is being asked again to look itself in the eye.

Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad is an alternative history of its own – strictly speaking, given its structure and allegorical world-building (about which more shortly) it in fact has several alternative histories. Like those other narratives, it focuses on one particular individual – in Whitehead’s case Cora, a slave on a Georgia cotton plantation in a period we assume ultimately unnecessarily to be somewhere around the 1850s – and as in those other narratives the reader’s tender constitution is not spared. Cora sees and experiences rapes and executions, psychological torment and intimate betrayals. Her family is torn asunder, her friends taken away; her existence is unbearable at worst and terrifyingly precarious at best, dictated by the capricious whims of white supremacists who most often deny her very humanity. The first section of this book is terrifically good at painting the totalitarian untenability of the slave’s life: “Sometimes such an experience bound one person to another; just as often the shame of one’s powerlessness made all witnesses into enemies” [p. 15].

The trauma of slavery is writ large in the book: for example, Cora comes to hate even her own mother, who escaped the plantation when Cora was a child and never returned. “Here’s one delusion: that we can escape slavery,” intones one character late in the novel. “We can’t. Its scars will never fade” [p. 285]. The novel’s structure enables Whitehead to depict the multi-faceted indelibility of slavery: the underground railroad of the novel’s title is a literal subterranean railway which plunges its passengers into total darkness (and structural ellipses) before depositing them in a wholly new mise en scene. In this way, Whitehead carries Cora northwards  from a plantation of the kind we are familiar with from Roots – red-headed Irish overseers, amputated feet, bitter and brutal masters – to a South Carolina where, counter-historically, slave-owning has been abolished and the whole exponentially growing population of slaves purchased by a fearful state (“with strategic sterilization […] we could free them from bondage without fear that they’d butcher us in our sleep” [p. 122]); from there she proceeds to a North Carolina from which all “negroes” have been deported (“In effect, they abolished slavery … On the contrary, we abolished niggers” [p. 165]), and to a ruined Tennessee blighted by disease and famine (“They sat on what was once Cherokee land […] and if the Indians hadn’t learned by then that the white man’s treaties were entirely worthless […] they deserved what they got” [p. 204].

In other words, Whitehead’s novel takes the reader on a tour of the various iterations of American racism. As this becomes clear – as Cora is asked to be a living exhibit in a museum which renders slavery as Gone With The Wind did, or as she comes to realise she is not welcome in a segregated town – the reader might begin to search for real-world analogues. In Indiana, Cora falls in with a community of free blacks and runaways, whose leadership seems divided between a character called Mingo and another called Lander, whose philosophies more or less map with those of Booker T Washington and Frederick Douglass respectively; another character poses as a slave hunter under the name “James Olney”, who in our reality was an academic noted for his work on slave oral histories. In one of the mini-chapters that separate Cora’s various episodes, we are told of an elderly white woman that, “Slavery as a moral issue never interested Ethel. If God had not meant for Africans to be enslaved, they wouldn’t be in chains” [p. 195]. The maddening circularity of this logic fuels each of these picaresque vignettes of which Cora becomes; but there comes a point toward this stop-start novel’s end where the reader begins to wonder if it matters that there is a skyscraper in South Carolina, or that Valentine Farm, an all-black community where Cora finds brief respite, seems in turn to have no real-world analogue. In other words, the novel’s episodes never quite cohere.

Fortunately, Whitehead gives us a lens through which to view all this. I’m writing about The Underground Railroad as part of my project to review all six novels on the shortlist for this year’s Arthur C Clarke Award, a gong doled out to “the best science fiction novel published in the UK during the previous year”. There has been more than the usual controversy surrounding the award this year – and I may come to that in future posts – but at least some of it has been attached to a debate over whether The Underground Railroad is even science fiction. One way you may wish to decide that question is in how you feel about one of Whitehead’s clear influences, one so strong that he has Cora read it in the course of his novel: Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Adam Roberts argues in his The History of Science Fiction for Swift’s work to be included in a very long lineage of SF which he drags back to Lucian (Roberts, p. 92); on the basis of this influence, The Underground Railroad should indeed be seen as part of the science fictional tradition. But I have sympathy for Brian Aldiss’s rather hoarier position in Billion-Year Spree (which Roberts dismisses a tad airily by not pointing out that the two are not mutually exclusive) that the intention of Gulliver’s Travels is satirical rather than speculative (Aldiss, p. 81). Bear with me here, for below I quote the section of the novel that most fully explains its central novum, that deeply-dug track:

Caesar could scarcely speak. “How far does the the tunnel extend?”

Lumbly shrugged. “Far enough for you.”

“It must have taken years.”

“More than you know. Solving the problem of ventilation, that took a bit of time.”

“Who built it?”

“Who builds anything in this country?”

Cora saw that Lumbly relished their astonishment. This was not his first performance.

Caesar said, “But how?”

“With their hands, how else?” [p. 67]

This, dear reader, is fantasy, not science fiction. Swift’s satirical motivation is also Whitehead’s, and consequently so is not just his genre but his form: to judge The Underground Railroad as a novel, and to criticise it for its lack of coherence, is to misunderstand its purpose. Gulliver’s Travels, too, is episodic and improbable (and critics therefore argue that it is and is not a novel, just as they debate whether it is or is not SF); the worlds Gulliver describes could not possibly exist together within the same reality, just as those to which Cora travels could not. That kind of coherence is not Swift’s point, and nor is it Whitehead’s. The Underground Railroad is rather a dark picaresque, a satirical epic. Its real-world analogues exist as hooks or hints rather than as keys to be slotted into thematic locks; it is a story of moral purpose more concerned with ethics than aesthetics.

Last year, Paul Beatty – whose own slave narrative, The Sellout, in which a contemporary African-American reinstituted slavery in a suburb of Los Angeles, won the Booker Prize – rejected the idea of being a satirist. “I mean, what is satire?” he asked in the Paris Review. “Do you remember that New Yorker cover that everyone was saying was satire? Barack and Michelle fist-bumping? That’s not satire to me. It was just a commentary. Just poking fun at somebody doesn’t make something satire.” On this basis, The Sellout is certainly not a satire, but The Underground Railroad and Gulliver’s Travels may well be: that is, they both know their target and their own countervailing virtues. The Sellout, on the other hand, is less confident in the concept of virtue, and in so doing becomes what I called an “absurdist parable”, broader and more conflicted and comprehensive – it becomes a novel. The Underground Railroad takes a different track.

In part precisely because it shrugs off these formal chains just as Cora escapes her literal ones, Whitehead’s narrative is compelling and essential. It is written beautifully, unshowily but tremendously skilfully; it is pungent and sometimes cruel, whilst also being extremely accessible and queasily entertaining. Ultimately, it is even hopeful: “The underground railroad is bigger than its operators […] It goes everywhere, to places we know and those we don’t. We got this tunnel right here, running beneath us, and no one knows where it leads. If we keep the railroad running, and none of us can figure it out, maybe you can” [p. 267].  In the context of the Clarke, it may be neither a novel or science fiction (or it may be both); but in the more important context of posterity, it is hard to see The Underground Railroad as anything but a text which generations hence, perhaps embarked on their own quest of education and rediscovery, will return to. Read it.