The underground railroad was a real historical phenomenon given a metaphor for a name. In his novel The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead pulls the magical realist’s trick of literalising the metaphor. He repurposes the secret network of safehouses, waystations, and channels of conveyance for runaway slaves, and transforms it into an actual, physical network of subterranean trains that carry runaways from one station to the next. This is the novel’s central conceit, and no shortage of critics and judges of literary prizes have expressed their admiration for its cleverness.
It is clever, I think, but it’s nowhere near clever enough to sustain the entire novel and it is eventually upstaged by other, more minor conceits. More cleverly, for instance, Whitehead sweeps his heroine along a journey away from a cruel plantation in Georgia and through an alternate version of the United States, and en route he transforms the literal scenarios encountered by his African American characters into metaphors for aspects of the African American experience after emancipation. In South Carolina, the runaway Cora ends up working as a living exhibit in a museum depiction of a slavery plantation. She makes suggestions on how to improve the accuracy of the scene and essentially becomes condemned to “freely” perform the torments of her old life in bondage. Other set pieces in other states offer variations on this conceit — this sort of dialectical self-subversion of daily life in antebellum America — applying it to things like lynchings, bounty hunting, abolitionist proselytising, earned manumission, and so on and so forth.
The result is a perfectly well-written novel. It’s almost the ideal of the well-written novel. There’s hardly a single sentence in The Underground Railroad that doesn’t issue straight out of the broad contemporary sense of how a novel ought to be written and what it should aim to do. It’s been years since I’ve come across such a flawless embodiment of the concept of “literary fiction” as booksellers and the marketing departments of publishing houses understand that phrase. You don’t have to squint in the slightest to see why this novel landed the Pulitzer Prize. It was a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel before it even won.
I guess that’s all a roundabout way of saying I didn’t much like or admire The Underground Railroad, even as I could see what it was trying to do, and even as I could see that it was doing those things as well as many readers would hope for. On reflection, I think I have two reasons for this lukewarm response to such a celebrated book, two reasons that arise directly from my feelings towards Edward P. Jones’ masterpiece The Known World. That novel won the Pulitzer Prize, too, way back in 2003. It’s also set in antebellum America, it also tells its tale with a magical realist slant, and it’s so obviously a model for some huge chunks of The Underground Railroad that I was staggered to see Whitehead making no mention of it in his acknowledgements — even though he makes space to thank Franklin D. Roosevelt (!) and to express his gratitude for the music of David Bowie, Prince, and Sonic Youth.
Straight off the top of my head, here are some of the things in Whitehead’s novel that struck me as either blatantly derivative of The Known World, or else weak attempts at homage. The sketches of plantation politics in the opening chapters, which bring a number of slave “types” into conflict with one another. The names of key characters, like Moses and Alice, which are shared between the two novels. The open discussion of the legal and moral significance of free papers, which echoes Jones’ ruminations on the same topic in relation to the character of Augustus Townsend. The Indian bounty hunter, Ridgeway, who at first seems to be drawn from Jones’ slave patroller, Oden Peoples, but later appears alongside several servants in a way that unambiguously invokes Jones’ slave catcher Darcy.1 The pamphleteering and lecturing towards the end of the novel, which occasionally echo the words of a pamphleteer and lecturer in The Known World. The closest that Whitehead comes to tipping his hat in honour of Jones is when his protagonist, a young woman named Cora, discovers a library full of books and finds “[o]versize volumes contain[ing] maps of lands [she] had never heard of, the outlines of the unconquered world.” The imagery of those words conjures up the controlling metaphor of Jones’ novel — the Waldseemüller map of the known world — and then neatly inverts it, sketching out the contours of its shadow.
But the real problem with Whitehead’s evocation of The Known World is that his prose isn’t the equal of Jones’ prose because he doesn’t take pains to exploit the implications of his style. I’ve written about the effects of Jones’ prose at length before (1, 2) but the Cliff’s Notes version runs something like this. Throughout The Known World, Jones employs omniscient third-person narration. His narrator is genuinely and self-consciously omniscient, not only knowing much more than the characters and sharing his or her knowledge with the reader, but continually making the reader aware of what the characters do not and cannot possibly know. By favouring this sort of narration, Jones gives himself license to make remarks in his prose which are automatically attributable to “the knower” who narrates the text. These remarks are at various points insightful, flippant, wry, pitiful, shocking, baffling, and more besides. The point is that they come from someone who has both a reason to make them and the capacity to do so. Whitehead’s prose contains remarks that would be just as at home in Jones’ novel, but often they feel out of place in The Underground Railroad because Whitehead doesn’t use his mode of narration to make them consistently attributable to any particular consciousness.
Here, for instance, is a remark on interracial relations in South Carolina: “On Main Street, in stores, in factories and offices, in every sector, black and white mixed all day as a matter of course. Human commerce withered without it. In liberty or bondage, the African could not be separated from the American.” In context, through free indirect style, these observations become attributable to Cora, but the language of that last sentence can’t possibly be hers. For one thing, it contradicts what Whitehead specifically tells his readers about Cora’s literacy skills. She is a clever young woman, but it’s improbable that she’d use lofty words like “liberty” and “bondage,” or use a word like “withered” in a figurative sense, because elsewhere in the novel she doesn’t know the literal meanings of words like “optimistic,” “gainsay,” “ravening,” and “hoar.” For another thing, though, the language in that final sentence is blatantly anachronistic. The term “African American,” which the sentence pulls apart syntactically, didn’t really begin to circulate in American public discourse until the second half of the twentieth century. Who, then, is the mediating consciousness here? Who is able to access Cora’s thoughts and impressions and then translate them into more contemporary language?
You could say, for argument’s sake, that Whitehead isn’t interested in writing sentences that pose these sorts of questions. Even if the sentences themselves do pose them, it’s possible that, unlike Jones, Whitehead doesn’t necessarily want his readers to focus on such abstractions. Fair enough, I suppose. But elsewhere, in a variation on the same problem, remarks are explicitly attributed to Cora even though, language aside, the thoughts that animate them can’t belong to her either. “Cora figured that a new wave of immigrants would replace the Irish,” Whitehead writes, “fleeing a different but no less abject country, the process starting anew.” Granting that the insight may belong to Cora even if the words do not, whose consciousness lies behind the metaphor in the next two sentences? “The engine [of the exploitation of migrant labour] huffed and groaned and kept running,” Whitehead writes. “[White Americans] had merely switched the fuel that moved the pistons.” These thoughts are cloaked both in words and in terms that are utterly foreign to the character who is supposed to think them. Whose consciousness do they really belong to? Or — to pose the question in the terms I prefer when thinking about Jones’ novel — what sort of consciousness is brought into being, created on the page, when a writer phrases these thoughts in prose of this particular kind?
The Underground Railroad is shot through with such prosaic misattributions, each one composed with impossible lucidity and comprised of unlikely imagery and insights. Here’s one of my favourites, which I adore on its own, as a fragment of lyrical prose, even though, when read in its rightful place in the novel, it’s the textual equivalent of a burr in the grain of a plank of wood:
What a world it is, Cora thought, that makes a living prison into your only haven. Was she out of bondage or in its web: how to describe the status of a runaway? Freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from outside, from the empty meadow, you see its true limits. Being free had nothing to do with chains or how much space you had. On the plantation, she was not free, but she moved unrestricted on its acres, tasting the air and tracing the summer stars. The place was big in its smallness. Here, she was free of her master but slunk around in a warren so tiny she couldn’t stand.
Of such beauties has Whitehead made The Underground Railroad. It’s a novel that fairly bursts with gorgeous, prize-worthy, prize-winning writing, even though it neither thinks through the implications of its style nor explores the nexus between its style and the characters who populate its narrative. It could have been so much more than what it is, but it doesn’t try to be, and so it ends up stumbling into a better novel’s shadow.
1. That’s to say nothing of Ridgeway’s evocation of Judge Holden from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. The Judge, you’ll remember, makes the following statements:
This is my claim… [a]nd yet everywhere upon it are pockets of autonomous life. Autonomous. In order for it to be mine nothing must be permitted to occur upon it save by my dispensation.
The man who believes that the secrets of this world are forever hidden lives in mystery and fear. Superstition will drag him down. The rain will erode the deeds of his life. But that man who sets himself the task of singling out the thread of order from the tapestry will by the decision alone have taken charge of the world and it is only by such taking charge that he will effect a way to dictate the terms of his own fate.
Now take a look at the speech that Ridgeway delivers in order to justify his profession, hunting down and apprehending runaway slaves, and try — just try — not to think of Holden beside the campfire:
“We do our part,” Ridgeway said, “slave and slave catcher. Master and colored boss. The new arrivals streaming into the harbors and the politicians and sheriffs and newspapermen and the mothers raising strong sons. People like you and your mother are the best of your race. The weak of your tribe have been weeded out, they die in the slave ships, die of our European pox, in the fields working our cotton and indigo. You need to be strong to survive the labor and to make us greater. We fatten hogs, not because it pleases us but because we need hogs to survive. But we can’t have you too clever. We can’t have you so fit you outrun us.”
“You heard my name when you were a pickaninny,” he said. “The name of punishment, dogging every fugitive step and every thought of running away. For every slave I bring home, twenty others abandon their full-moon schemes. I’m a notion of order. The slave that disappears — it’s a notion, too. Of hope. Undoing what I do so that a slave the next plantation over gets an idea that it can run, too. If we allow that, we accept the flaw in the imperative. And I refuse.