The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead: a review by Jonathan McCalmont

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead: a review by Jonathan McCalmont

By Jonathan McCalmont

The Underground Railroad — Colson Whitehead (Fleet)

The Underground Railroad is about as significant a novel as American literary culture is capable of producing in the first quarter of the 21st century.

If you care enough about books to be reading this kind of essay then chances are that you have either purchased or taken an interest in this novel. Far from being organic and spontaneous, your decision to purchase Colson Whitehead’s latest novel is the result of almost every facet of American literary culture coming into alignment and choosing to imbue a single work with as much cultural significance as those institutions can conceivably muster. Already a winner of many prestigious literary awards and a beneficiary of both the Guggenheim and MacArthur fellowships, Colson Whitehead has now seen his sixth novel celebrated not only by Pulitzer and National Book Award judges but also by the – arguably more influential and economically important – face of Oprah’s Book Club.

I mention the carefully constructed significance of The Underground Railroad as the sheer unanimity of the American literary establishment has brought about one of those situations in which genre culture starts to feel a little bit sheepish about the exclusivity of its relationship with genre imprints. A feeling of sheepishness rendered more intense by the continuing failure to make the lower tiers of genre publishing more inclusive to black people in particular.

As with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, and any number of interesting books that have been picked up by the Clarke and ignored by other genre awards, genre culture has noted the presence of genre tropes in The Underground Railroad and begun wondering whether it would be appropriate to claim Colson’s novel as one of its own.

Right from the first page, it is clear why The Underground Railroad has been popping up on so many genre radars. Set in the plantation era, the book focuses on the kind of preternaturally bright, independent, and ruthless child protagonists that feature in books like Ender’s Game, The Hunger Games, and Nicola Griffith’s Hild. Left all alone when her mother escapes, ten-year old Cora soon finds herself being inexplicably marginalised by her fellow slaves. At first, Cora’s tormentors limit themselves to forcing the little girl to sleep in a hut inhabited only by social outcasts but when she refuses to die, they engineer a situation whereby she is forced into conflict with a grown man who decides to use her small sliver of cultivable land as a home for his dog. In the grand tradition of genre narratives with child protagonists, Cora uses her wits and ruthlessness to comprehensively defeat the grown man and so secures for herself a reputation for unflinching savagery that not only keeps people away from her vegetable patch but also allows Cora to serve as a somewhat detached observer of plantation life.

It is difficult to write about The Underground Railroad without subconsciously comparing it to Steve McQueen’s widely celebrated and equally significant 12 Years a Slave. As a work produced in a visual medium, McQueen’s adaptation of Solomon Northrup’s famous memoir chose to manifest the injustices of American chattel slavery as a serious of brutal punishments inflicted on black bodies by a succession of more-or-less sadistic white men. To think of 12 Years a Slave is to think of black flesh on a block and Chiwetel Ejiofor dancing from toe to toe in order to escape the bite of the noose. Whitehead’s depiction of the plantation is considerably more psychological and more concerned with the cruelties that moved between slaves than those that flowed downhill from master. This is not to say that the novel’s masters are either benign or absent, it’s just that Whitehead presents them as both savage and socially distant… prone to appearing unexpectedly and burning people alive rather than getting their hands dirty in the daily brutalisation of black bodies.

At first, this struck me as a rather odd choice as it presents life on a plantation as being very similar to that of a prison. Naturally, the guards are brutes but much of the horror seems to come from the lack of solidarity among slaves and the fact that slaves banish unprotected children while male slaves are free to commit rape almost at will. I am not a historian and have no idea how accurate this depiction is supposed to be but I will say that Whitehead’s ideas about life on the plantation owe more to Oz than to Roots but this is perhaps to be expected given that the narrative builds towards escape.

Whitehead’s suggestion that slave owners were absent from their slaves’ day-to-day lives exists largely to give Cora and excuse to escape. Having grown accustomed to being an outsider, Cora devotes herself solely to the mission of staying alive until a newly-arrived slave approaches her and suggests that they escape together. At first, Cora is reluctant but the presence of a secret shared with another person causes her to lower her defences and so work a little bit harder at integrating herself into the group. Unfortunately, this turns out to be a grave mistake as trying to protect a fellow slave from the arbitrary punishments of the master causes the master to take an active interest in Cora’s life. Having portrayed the masters as infinitely savage but socially distant, the master’s sudden interest in Cora is like having her fixed by the eye of Sauron: Faced with a choice between death and attempting escape, Cora decides to take her chances on the outside.

Cora leaves the plantation with her new friend Caesar and a more socially adept slave who eavesdrops upon their conversation and blackmails the pair into taking her with them. Unfit and unprepared for the journey, the interloper dies almost immediately as Cora and Caesar are forced to kill a white man in order to cover their escape. Now hunted as murderers as well as self-stolen property, the couple find their way to the underground railroad.

In our history, the underground railroad was a network of safe-houses and anti-slavery activists working to ferry escaped slaves from the south to the north where differing laws and attitudes to slavery would make it easier for them to pass themselves off as free-born. In Whitehead’s novel, the underground is an actual underground rail network dug by slaves, operated by volunteers, and accessed through a series of concealed entrances manned by local activists. Reading the passages set in the underground, it’s possible to imagine a more commercial spin-off novel in which anti-slavery activists try to stay one step ahead of the slave-catchers and so keep the railroad open. In reality, had such a thing existed, it would have been both a marvel of the Western world and immediately shut down even by abolitionist governments. It is one thing to turn a blind eye to anti-slavery activism but quite another to tolerate an industrialised process of emancipation that crosses state lines. Perhaps aware of quite how gloriously a-historical his conceit might seem on closer inspection, Whitehead is content to gloss over the details of the railroad’s operation and allow it to sit in the middle of the novel as a means of signalling both its counter-factual nature and the occasionally deluded character of the anti-slavery activists that feature in the book:

The vast fields burst with hundreds of thousands of white bolls, strung like stars in the sky on the clearest of clear nights. When the slaves finished, they had stripped the fields of their color. It was a magnificent operation, from seed to bale, but not one of them could be prideful of their labor. It had been stolen from them. Bled from them. The tunnel, the tracks, the desperate souls who found salvation in the coordination of its stations and timetables – this was a marvel to be proud of. She wondered if those who had built this thing had received their proper reward.

Having escaped from Georgia, Cora begins a journey from state to state. In each state, she confronts a different environment born of the white man’s attitude not just to black people but also to the sheer size of the slave population required to work the cotton fields.

The first stop is perhaps the most intellectually rewarding as South Carolina presents itself as a liberal place that takes in run-away slaves, educates them, and introduces them to society where they are paid for their work and allowed to make their own choices. At first, South Carolina seems like heaven as the white people operating the rail station and teaching the former slaves to read treat Cora with a good deal of respect. However, the pleasantness of this environment is almost entirely a product of its juxtaposition with the horrors of the plantation. Ever the sensitive outsider, Cora starts to get suspicious when a visit to the doctor leads to a conversation about her not only agreeing to have herself sterilised but also selling the idea of sterilisation to the other women in her dormitory. Oh… she is entirely free to make her own decision on the matter but it’s a terrible shame that she doesn’t seem interested and maybe that attitude will start to change after she is asked for the 50,000th time…

Still comparatively guileless when it comes to white people, Cora is nothing more than puzzled until she is suddenly shifted from a relatively comfortable job as a nanny to a considerably more demeaning job as an actor in a sinister museum devoted to slavery in which former slaves are paid to recreate sanitised scenes from Africa, the Middle Passage, and the plantation:

Typical day on the Plantation allowed her to sit at a spinning wheel and rest her feet, the seat as sure as her old block of sugar maple. Chickens stuffed with sawdust pecked at the ground; from time to time Cora tossed imaginary seed at them. She had numerous suspicions about the accuracy of the African and ship scenes but was an authority in this room. She shared her critique. Mr. Fields did concede that spinning wheels were not often used outdoors at the foot of the slave’s cabin, but countered that while authenticity was their watchword, the dimensions of the room forced certain concessions. Would that he fit an entire field of cotton in the display and had the budget for a dozen actors to work it. One day perhaps.

Cora’s criticism did not extend to Typical Day’s wardrobe, which was made of coarse, authentic Negro cloth. She burned with shame twice a day when she stripped and got into her costume.

I’ve quoted this passage at some length as I think it shows The Underground Railroad playing to its political strengths. Coming so soon after a film as powerful as 12 Years a Slave, it would have been easy for The Underground Railroad to limit itself to the effect of slavery on black bodies but it’s the psychological aspects of the novel that carry most power, particularly when the psychologies in question happen to be white.

The people of South Carolina are extremely proud of their ‘humane’ attitude to black people in general and former slaves in particular. Never less than theatrical in their displays of anger at the savagery meted out by the brutes of Georgia, their displays of virtue serve only to conceal a racism that is just as deep and arguably just as horrid as that of their neighbours to the south.

Like many white people today, the South Carolinian support for progressive racial politics only goes far enough to support the fantasy that they are not themselves racists. Thus, they pay black people for their work and allow them to dress and act like white people but the freedoms extended to the former slaves never quite seem to extend to questions such as where they are allowed to live, where they are allowed to work, what they are allowed to do, or – most unsettlingly – whether they get to have children.

What makes the museum so sinister is that it is literally getting run-away slaves to perform in fantasies designed to convince white people that they are less racist than they actually are. The museum’s Middle-Passage has black people strolling above decks like passengers on a cruise liner and its vision of the plantation is that of a bucolic idyll complete with decorative chickens and comfortable seating. There is no mention of the rapes, the beatings, the murders, or the torture that keeps the system afloat but the presence of black people in the exhibition serves as a signifier of authenticity: This is how we treat them and it ain’t so bad.

As the book progresses, it transports us from state to state. While each state showcases a different model for the managing the cohabitation of black and white people, every state is run by white people and all white people assume that a large black population is a ‘problem’ created by the slave trade. In Georgia, the white plantation owners respond to their fear of a black uprising by becoming ever-more cruel and cunning but while the people of South Carolina congratulate themselves for their more ‘humane’ approach to the ‘problem’, their solution is just to be nice enough to avoid insurrection while a rolling programme of eugenics and mass sterilisation brings about the racial purification of the American continent within a couple of generations.

Every time Cora moves, she finds another attempt to provide a final solution to the existence of black people and while some of these solutions are unspeakably brutal and others seem relatively benign, they are all tainted by the assumption of white supremacy and the fact that black people are viewed as unwanted interlopers in the white man’s world. While the book’s fictional railroad and preternaturally smart child protagonist enable us to read The Underground Railroad as a work of science fiction, I would argue that it is the book’s use of political counterfactuals that make it truly science-fictional.

People unsympathetic to genre fiction and other forms of popular culture often dismiss them as nothing more than a series of power fantasies, offering cathartic escapism to those who might otherwise try to change the world. While identification with super-powered and/or super-intelligent individuals is certainly part of the appeal of comic books, action movies, and commercial genre novels, I believe the fantasy lays not so much in the vicarious possession of power but in the moral fantasy of being able to use said power in a manner entirely free from unwanted consequence. Sure… it’s nice to read about Superman bringing wife-beaters to justice and Batman bringing down mobsters but does the thrill come from the forced submission or from the assumption that unlimited cleverness and brute force can make the world a better place? The reality of unlimited force brought to bear on a political problem is the nightmarish and ever-expanding consequences of the Iraq war. Like a lot of popular culture, genre fiction is in the business of selling moral fantasies that indulge our cravings for cathartic violence whilst creating fictional spaces in which the true consequences of unchecked force are conspicuously absent.

Stepping away from the more commercial side of genre fiction, moral fantasies have also been central to genre fiction cultivating a reputation for political thoughtfulness and moral seriousness. Indeed, while more commercial genre fiction sells us cathartic moral fantasies, more high-minded genre fiction presents us with moral fantasies designed to either give us something to aim for (as in the case of the utopias of B.F. Skinner’s Waldren Two, Robert A. Heinlein’s For Us The Living, or Kim Stanley Robinson’s Pacific Edge) or something to flee (as in the case of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Nancy Farmer’s The House of Scorpion, or Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange).

Fictionalised dystopias and utopias have been around for so long that they can be understood as having pre-figured and influenced the development of science fiction as a literary form. However, while Plato’s Republic and Thomas More’s Utopia were kicking about the place long before anyone came up with the idea of ‘science fiction’, I would argue that it was the Feminist science fiction of writers like Ursula K. LeGuin (The Dispossessed, The Lathe of Heaven) and Joanna Russ (The Female Man) that made best use of those tropes by choosing to recognise the fact that utopias and dystopias are invariably born of political judgements and that political judgements are necessarily complex things that are tied not only to our limited human conceptions of morality but also to the fact that different groups in society have different sets of interests that are naturally opposed to each other thereby making the very concept of a monolithic utopia or dystopia fundamentally unstable and subject to legitimate critique.

Russ’ The Female Man remains a towering achievement in the history of science fiction because of the way that it uses dystopian and utopian modes of writing to create a particular political effect. The book opens with a vision of a world very similar to our own before moving to a somewhat darker world before transporting us to the world known as Whileaway where the death of men has allowed women to build a technologically advanced utopian society. The juxtaposition of our world with first a worse place and then a much better place gives the impression that the book is arguing either for a form of lesbian isolationism or a male genocide but the final transition takes us to a world where the sexes are literally at war and where the cultural remnants of conventional gender norms have produced two profoundly sick societies. Had The Female Man ended on the planet of Whileaway then I suspect it would have a) sold considerably better and b) felt a lot more satisfying. However, the final transition to a dystopia far worse than anything else contained in the book makes a powerful case not only against violence but also for the idea that men and women share an interest in dismantling the patriarchy.

The Underground Railroad reminded me quite a bit of The Female Man as the different states recall Russ’s different worlds and their juxtaposition is clearly intended to lead us to a particular set of political insights. The Underground Railroad is not just a work of science fiction but a work of science fiction that is part of a tradition of political writing that stretches beyond the birth of genre all the way back to antiquity.  Unfortunately, while I think that The Underground Railroad shares a lot of common ground with works of Feminist SF like The Female Man, I also think that the book suffers from a lack of moral clarity that would perhaps not be present in a more conventional piece of genre writing.

The Underground Railroad has at least a couple of endings: Having escaped the Carolinas and outwitted the people sent to re-capture her, Cora winds up on a farm that functions a lot like the halfway houses of South Carolina but without the covert racism. Despite being painfully aware of her limited education, Cora throws herself into lessons provided by the land-owners and begins to settle down into what can only be called a bourgeois conception of the good life. However, this fantasy starts to come apart when people who were presumed dead come back to life and Cora is faced with a choice between remaining at the farm and heading out in search of something better. Unlike the section of the novel set in South Carolina, these final chapters are a complete mess as the critique of an idyll accessed through bourgeois conformity is poorly articulated and Whitehead seems genuinely unsure as to how to conclude the novel.

Having finished the novel, I went in search of interviews that might help me to gain some sort of insight into the nature of Whitehead’s politics as the question of what Cora should do next cannot be disentangled from the broader and still-pressing question of how African Americans should respond to racial inequality and the fact that – according to the French sociologist Loic Wacquant among others – the American justice system is really little more than a set of institutions designed to perpetuate white supremacy by recreating the politics of the plantation in ever more cruel and subtle forms. Indeed, I can easily imagine an expanded version of The Underground Railroad where Cora travels to somewhere like California only to find that former slaves are set free but starved of jobs and resources and stuck in a revolving door that leads either to the prison or the ghetto.

Looking through interviews, Whitehead mostly avoids political questions except to predict the implosion of Trump’s presidential campaign and to express scepticism at the politics of respectability explored on the farm and (reluctantly) attributed in the interview to the people who claim that black men need to pull up their trousers in order to overcome centuries of systemic racism. Charitably viewed, the book’s lack of a proper ending reflects Whitehead’s own lack of political certainty; He realises that working hard, being a good citizen, and hoping that the racist sword of Damocles never falls on your own neck is not a solution. He also recognises that Cora cannot keep disappearing down tunnels in the hope of finding somewhere better as, sooner or later, you’re either going to have to make do with what you have or start digging tunnels of your own. He even expresses some sympathy for the character that follows the Black Panther Party in choosing to take up arms as a means of radically protecting both himself and his community. Uncharitably viewed, the book’s indecision reflects the material reality of being a black novelist in a country where even liberal white people get uncomfortable about calls for reparations let alone support for the kind of radical anti-racism that brought the FBI down on the Black Panther Party. Either way, The Underground Railroad is host to a train of thought that conspicuously lacks a final destination but the journey is intriguing enough that it scarcely matters as this book contains an absolutely scathing critique of white America and it has the full force of the American literary establishment behind it. That makes it not just a ‘significant’ book but an important book too as it proves that, both inside and outside of genre, audiences are willing to entertain radical solutions to the enduring problem of racism in a context that has only the slightest of counterfactuals attached to it. Genre novels that do touch on questions of social justice have a tendency to do so in a manner so abstract and disconnected from the real world that it often takes several leaps of the imagination to re-attach them to the problems of the day. The Underground Railroad is a book about racism in America, written by a black man, and it appears to be an enormous critical and commercial success thereby begging the question of whether genre fiction actually needs all of those layers of abstraction to begin with? Maybe genre audiences and publishers really are more racist than those of the literary mainstream. Hugo voters missed a trick by not considering this book for a major genre award, I hope that Clarke judges do not make the same mistake.

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Jonathan McCalmont is a film critic, fan writer, and columnist for Interzone magazine. One-time Londoner and low-level academic drone, he has now surrendered to the forces of entropy and taken up residence in a wood.

>> Read Jonathan’s introduction and shortlist

 

8 Comments

  1. Niall 4 months ago

    I think you make an excellent argument for the inclusion of The Underground Railroad on the World Fantasy Award ballot (or the Kitschies, if we were getting Kitschies this year), and a weak argument for its inclusion on the Clarke Award ballot. Political counterfactuals can be either fantastical or science-fictional, and for me Whitehead’s states– which must be read as a single ambiguous shared reality, because of the way not just people but information move between states — are much more productively read as the former. If I try to read the book as science fiction, I get hung up on questions of extrapolation and of the co-existence (rather than historical succession) of the different states; if I read it as fantasy, the co-existence of the states becomes much more of a strength for all the reasons you discuss.

  2. Abigail Nussbaum 4 months ago

    There’s an interesting conversation to be had about how genre awards and criticism respond to ambivalently genre-ish novels like The Underground Railroad, but I’m not sure that either The Road or The Yiddish Policemen’s Union are good starting points for that conversation. Neither one was nominated for the Clarke (in the case of The Road, the book was requested by the judges, but the publisher declined to submit it), and the Chabon was nominated for, and won, both the Hugo and Nebula awards.

  3. Tom Hunter 4 months ago

    More admin heavy than Niall’s comment above, sorry, but the following is, um, counterfactual in its own right.

    “As with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, and any number of interesting books that have been picked up by the Clarke and ignored by other genre awards, genre culture has noted the presence of genre tropes in The Underground Railroad and begun wondering whether it would be appropriate to claim Colson’s novel as one of its own.”

    The Road was (sadly) not submitted to the Clarke Award and, while it won or was nominated for lots of other genre awards, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union was not shortlisted by the Clarke Award.

    On the other hand, very pleased to see lots of praise here for The Underground Railroad.

    However you choose to read it, I’d definitely recommend reading it!

  4. Paul Kincaid 4 months ago

    Surely the obvious comparison here is with The Handmaid’s Tale, since that novel received a serious response outside the field but no recognition within sf except for the Clarke Award. I think comparisons between the two novels are valid and instructive in other ways also. Not least, I remember at the time, a vocal section of the sf community insisting that The Handmaid’s Tale was not science fiction and therefore not eligible for the award.
    And Niall, that’s a rather prescriptive view of what is or is not science fiction, isn’t it? If we follow this prescription it is clear that The City and the City was not eligible for the Clarke Award; and, it could be argued, neither was Nova Swing, which won the year you were on the jury.

    • Niall 4 months ago

      Well, at least I’m consistent: I think The City & The City is also more interesting as fantasy than as science fiction, and I wouldn’t have given it the award (or shortlisted it). The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t seen an obvious comparison at all: the dispute there (insofar as I have ever come across it) is about the publishing origins of the novel and/or the attitude of the author, whereas my dispute in the case of this novel and TC&TC is about their content.

  5. Paul Kincaid 4 months ago

    We clearly have very different perceptions of science fiction. I have no problem in identifying The City and The City as science fiction, just as I have no problem so identifying The Underground Railroad. Or The Calcutta Chromosome, come to that. And I’m not at all sure that I get the distinction you are trying to make over The Handmaid’s Tale. The best summary of the views at the time amounts to: the book is not published as sf, she is not an sf writer, therefore the contents must be a highbrow way of slumming it in genre in order to use sf devices for the purpose of satire. (I remember, at the time, people still using exactly the same argument to prove that 1984 was not science fiction.) I’m not sure that arguments against The Underground Railroad are that different: it’s not science fiction because it is using the tools of the fantastic for a different purpose.

  6. Nina Allan 4 months ago

    Paul might have added that Zoo City – the very book Tom cites as one of the most influential Clarke winners from his tenure in an earlier comment – would have been equally ineligible under Niall’s definition. One could also – and very easily – argue for ‘core genre’ books like Ancillary Justice and Children of Time as science fantasy. I really do think these kind of distinctions – i.e between far-future space opera/mil=SF and Game of Thrones-type politico-dynastic fantasy – are becoming increasingly meaningless. Is anyone seriously going to waste time arguing the toss over the relative scientific plausibility of super-sentient spiders versus large winged reptiles, or indeed Beukes’s shadow-animals versus Pullman’s Daemons? I do hope not.

    Niall is right though to draw attention to the difference in the nature of the disputes over the eligibility of The Handmaid’s Tale and The Underground Railroad. There are no ‘real’ arguments against The Handmaid’s Tale as SF, which could indeed be cited as a science fictional archetype and certainly (now) a classic of the genre. Those who argued against this novel as Clarke-eligible were concerned with one thing only: whether Atwood was a member of the club or not, an argument which seems as meaningless as any argument over giant spiders (see above).

    The ongoing discussion over the eligibility of The Underground Railroad is different, and has directly to do with Whitehead’s use (or not) of speculative materials. It would therefore seem to be a valid discussion, at least in terms of the novel’s eligibility for a science fiction award.

    (As a side-note to the above, I have come to understand that my own objections, such as they are, to The Underground Railroad as a Clarke shortlistee have nothing to do with the novel’s use or non-use of science fictional tropes, which I don’t particularly care about or consider important when it comes to evaluating the merits of a text overall. I’ve enjoyed my fellow Sharkes’ arguments in this arena, and have found myself won over by at least some of them. My feelings about the novel as a novel though – that it is a very average book on an important subject – remain unchanged.)

  7. Niall 4 months ago

    I am (obviously?) interested in the breadth of fantastic literature as a reader, but within that I think science fiction and fantasy, broadly speaking, do different things in different ways: some having to do with tradition, some having to do with content, some simply having to do with affect. When an award does not limit itself to one or the other, I will not limit myself either, but if an award sets out to identify excellence within one subset of fantastika, I will measure potential contenders against my expectations and ambitions for that subset.

    And to be clear, I don’t think that science fiction stops being science fiction when it contains a fantasy element: at that point, it becomes both. So I’m very sympathetic to Zoo City as a contender, because I think it can be read both as science fiction and as fantasy; similarly with such books as The Fifth Season, All the Birds in the Sky, The Bone Clocks, God’s War, and, as I’m sure someone will point out since it was on one of my shortlists, Oh Pure and Radiant Heart. All of those books engage my brain in both science fictional ways and fantastical ways. But The Underground Railroad and The City & The City engage my fantastical reading brain much more strongly than the science-fictional one. I can’t see anything in the way that Paul and Jonathan have described TUR’s achievements that requires the conclusion that it is science fiction. Paul even speaks of it in his previous comment as “using the tools of the fantastic” — which I agree with! But not so much the tools of science fiction, specifically.

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