“The Underground Railroad”
Author: Colson Whitehead
Price: $26.95 (Cloth)
Colson Whitehead has already won a Guggenheim Grant, the MacArthur Prize, and is the author of six previous novels and a volume of essays. He has been a finalist for the Pulitzer, and “The Underground Railroad” won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
This novel is a masterpiece, an action/adventure story, a historical novel, and a highly imagined fiction, peopled with unforgettable characters.
BUT it is a difficult novel, both emotionally and "technically.”
The first long section takes place on Randall Island, Georgia, an antebellum cotton plantation, surely the cruelest, most sadistic plantation in the world. An amazing number of tortures, whippings, beatings, hangings, burnings, mutilations, humiliations and rapes all happen in a very short space of time.
Even if factually correct, I thought the intensity was an aesthetic error, with violence so relentless and off-putting one wants to stop reading. Many readers surely do.
(This novel, like most novels depicting slavery, follow, quite naturally, in the tradition of Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin." A novel which shows slavery as relatively benign is Madison Jones' "Nashville 1864: The Dying of the Light" (1997). In Jones’ presentation, most small farmers and their few slaves got along very well. This was controversial, but the novel won the Michael Shaara Prize for Excellence in Civil War Fiction.)
Life on Randall Island is so wretched, that, despite the risks, Cora, the heroine—in the truest sense of the word—runs away one night through the swamp and is taken aboard the underground railroad, which in this novel is an actual tunnel, with tracks and a steam engine, taking passengers north: not a metaphor (although it is reported from various book clubs around the country that some readers thought the railroad to be real).
Now, I thought, we are in the realm not of gross exaggeration, but magical realism, where the impossible is presented as actual. (In perhaps the best-known example of magical realism, Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "One Hundred Years of Solitude," the villagers of Macondo, Colombia chip in to buy a flying carpet—for recreational use, not transportation.)
This changes again, however, when Cora alights in South Carolina, where the government has been buying slaves at auction and freeing them. They are, it seems, treated decently: clothed, fed, housed in dormitories, employed with modest pay.
But then we learn, along with Cora, that South Carolina has concocted an alternate solution to its "Negro Problem." The freed workers sink irretrievably into debt to the company store, and most sinister of all, the women are urged, strongly encouraged, to accept sterilization, using techniques that "had been perfected on the colored inmates of a Boston asylum.” The white population, Cora realizes, having robbed Africans of their past, means to rob blacks of their very future as well.
New laws decree that for black women with more than two children, criminals, imbeciles, and the otherwise mentally defective, sterilization is mandatory.
South Carolina, like the deeper South, fears a majority Negro population both in terms of violent rebellion and future voting power, and is determined to prevent that.
Of course, most readers will know that tubal ligation was not yet invented. Cora's friend Caesar works on a factory assembly line, also not yet invented, but these are not simply anachronisms, nor has Whitehead committed errors. He knows when Henry Ford developed the assembly line.
Nor is Whitehead writing fiction as alternative history, history as an infinite series of forks in the road, as in Philip Roth's "The Plot Against America " (2004) in which FDR loses the 1940 presidential race to Charles Lindbergh, and therefore America fails to enter the Second World War in a timely way, and virulent anti-Semitism breaks out here.
Whitehead is doing something, I believe, quite different and bold. With apologies to those who may actually know something about string theory, it seems he has created parallel universes, parallel dimensions of reality, which, especially in the case of Randall Island, may be nearly identical to the one which we inhabit but not necessarily. In other parallel universes, society will have evolved with significant differences.
Cora, realizing the threats against her in S.C., flees again, but discovers North Carolina has taken yet another grotesque course. Declaring itself an independent country, the government there has forbidden, by law, the presence of blacks. This is not merely a "Sundown" law; any Africans discovered are killed.
Being black is literally a capital offense.
For miles along a road called the Freedom Trail, the corpses of Negroes and anyone who harbored or aided them are hanging from gallows.
Cora, the admirable protagonist, is pursued relentlessly by Arnold Ridgeway, a brute for whom slave catching, in the free states as well as Dixie, is a passion, a calling. He thrills to the challenges of the hunt. Ridgeway is a monster of cruelty and violence and an articulate expounder of heartfelt theories on the sanctity of private property, which he calls "The American Imperative."
He hunts escaped slaves even in New York City, seizing them and returning them to their "masters" and unspeakable punishment, the whole despicable process legalized by the Dred Scott Decision.
Ridgeway is also a stout believer in "Manifest Destiny," the theory, as he sees it, that justifies taking what you can take, forcing others into their "assigned places," subjugating other races, "red men or Africans. . .,” "And if not subjugate, exterminate."
Cora, in her search for a free life, will also travel through Tennessee, a burned-over land, and will try to make her home in Indiana, but racism and prejudice are everywhere, Whitehead shows us, in slave states and free.
Finally, like Huck Finn, she must light out for the Territory.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.