Fugitives and Followers

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.


Writing Seeing: The Known World (2)

Continued from the previous post.

The knower of The Known World displays the extent of its omniscience by glazing the narratives of various characters with extraordinary disclosures that are temporally and causally severed from the events unfolding on the page. As these sorts of disclosures accumulate, they open a disjuncture between sentences that are necessary for narrative cohesion and those whose lack of necessity casts them as indulgences — indulgences which ultimately offer little more than an announcement of the knower’s presence and an aggrandisement of its abilities. Here, for instance, is a paragraph on the activities of Anderson Frazier, a Canadian muckracker who visits antebellum Virginia and writes “a new series of pamphlets he called Curiosities and Oddities about Our Southern Neighbors.” The knower takes a short step forward in time, beyond the Civil War, to reveal that “[t]his series [proved to be] Anderson’s most successful,” and then leaps headlong into the future to reveal that

nothing was more successful within that series than the 1883 pamphlet on free Negroes who had owned other Negroes before the War between the States. The pamphlet on slaveowning Negroes went through ten printings. Only seven of those particular pamphlets survived until the late twentieth century. Five of them were in the Library of Congress in 1994 when the remaining two pamphlets were sold as part of a collection of black memorabilia owned by a black man in Cleveland, Ohio. That collection, upon the man’s death in 1994, sold for $1.7 million to an automobile manufacturer in Germany.

The information gleaned from this temporal leap, presented as only an aside in a much more straightforward narrative, serves no discernible purpose other than to demonstrate the knower’s ability to leap into the future and so disclose knowledge unobtainable by others.

Elsewhere, the knower furthers its self-aggrandisement when it makes certain disclosures for the purpose of amending the inferior knowledge of others. Sometimes, for instance, the knower rectifies knowledge preserved for posterity but wrongly recorded. After noting that “[t]he census of 1860 said there were 2,670 slaves in Manchester County,” it reveals that “the census taker, a U.S. marshal who feared God, had argued with his wife the day he sent his report to Washington, D.C., and all his arithmetic was wrong because he had failed to carry a one.” At other times, the knower not only rectifies knowledge that has been wrongly recorded but also restores the knowledge lost when records are destroyed. After detailing the arrest of a man named Jean Broussard, a thief who attempted to sell another man’s slave in 1855, the knower notes that the records of the Broussard trial “were destroyed in a 1912 fire [which] killed ten people, including the Negro caretaker of the building where the records were kept, and five dogs and two horses.” Despite their destruction, however, knowledge of the trial survives through the knower: after noting that the trial lasted less than one full day — “the trial itself [ran through the] morning and the jury deliberations a portion of the summer afternoon” — the knower goes on to tell the story of one of the men who took part in the deliberations. Unsatisfied with simply disclosing its knowledge of its world, the knower gravitates towards lapses and losses of knowledge which require amendment and clarification. With this gravitation, the knower construes its own knowledge as comparatively precise and therefore superior in ways that call attention to its presence and its capabilities.

More than that, the knower also shows an attraction towards attempts at recording knowledge which omit crucial details insofar as they are made by those who lack the omniscience of the knower itself. In the early sixteenth century, for instance, the German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller sketched out a great map, entitled ‘The Known World,’ which was the first of its kind to feature the word ‘America.’ Finding a copy of the map adorning a wall in the office of John Skiffington, Sheriff of Manchester County, the knower notes that “[t]he land of North America… was smaller than it was in actuality, and where Florida should have been, there was nothing.” Calvin Newman, the brother of Henry Townsend’s widow, is similarly drawn towards a world whose totality will forever elude him. Harbouring a secret and forbidden love for Louis Robbins, the adult son of Henry Townsend’s former master, Calvin plans to start anew in the north after having long been captivated by “one of the first photographs ever taken of life in New York City,” a photograph of “a white family sitting all along their porch… [with] a dog looking off to the right.” The dog is what most captivates him because, a moment before the shutter snapped, the dog appears to have been “transfixed” by “a whole world off to the right that the photograph had not captured.” Yet instead of allowing that world to remain as unknowable to readers as it must be to Calvin, the knower goes on to reveal the backgrounds of those people and the name of the dog beside them. Time and again the knower follows characters who fumble through their world as if through shadowed corridors, but then it forces them to recede from view as it illuminates the world so that what escapes them does not escape readers as well. While the omniscience of the knower might otherwise allow for a clear observation of the lives of these characters, that omniscience insinuates itself, like a pane of clouded glass, into the space between them and those who read about them.

Repeatedly, of course, the knower turns its omniscience to more traditional purposes by laying bare the innermost torments of characters involved in some dilemma or disaster. Calvin’s urge to outrun his love for Louis is only one among many. Oden Peoples, one of Sheriff Skiffington’s nightwatchmen, privately worries that his Cherokee blood leads his colleagues to look down on him. William Robbins, Louis’ father, works hard to maintain the secrecy of his longstanding love for his slave Philomena, but he loves her so deeply that the secrecy of the relationship produces in him a sense of shame which he feels he must also keep secret. As the knower uses its omniscience to disclose the details of these characters’ lives, it engenders sympathy for them and thereby serves the humanist ideal. Often, however, it has hardly begun to engender sympathy for them before it veers away from them to treat their fates as playthings and as excuses for further displaying the extent of its omniscience. Moses, the deputy overseer of the Townsend plantation, is subjected to an especially heartless disregard. Having spent a lifetime hoping to someday rise to the station of master, Townsend’s death impels him to comfort his old master’s widow, Caldonia, by telling her stories about her husband’s youth and about how, years ago, Townsend and Moses worked together to build the plantation from nothing. Moving back and forth in time to find Moses at various moments in his life, the knower details a personal history of disturbing contradictions and complexities. It poisons Moses with a devastating concoction of unassailable loyalty to Townsend, burgeoning love for Caldonia, aspirations of advancement and grandeur entirely unfit for a slave, and nostalgia for the youthful vigour that slavery has stolen from him. But then, after drifting away from Moses’ conversations with Caldonia to sound the depths of his memory, the knower uses an image of the young slave to leap ahead to the end of his life and close down his entire story with a single sentence — quiet, simple, direct, and blunt — which casts a chill over the heartbreaking passages preceding it. When the young Moses pauses in his efforts to help create the Townsend plantation, taking a moment to gather his thoughts and perhaps to recover his breath, we are told that “[h]e was standing less than ten feet from the spot where he would die one morning.”

Although the knower knows the details of its world in all their abundance, it cannot resist the discussion of details whose disclosure is not required by the causal connections between events that advance the narratives of The Known World. The result of this lack of resistance is the disclosure of details with an implied sense of urgency that is not equal to the momentum of the narratives they interrupt and with an attitude that implicitly reduces the importance of those narratives to mere occasions for the very disclosures that interrupt them. By virtue of its own omniscience, then, the knower is crippled with a sort of indifference. It cannot sustain a focus on the details that are most integral to engendering sympathy for the characters it follows, and so it cannot give itself over to them in a way that honours the essential demand of humanism. It discloses a great deal about all of them but appears to care nothing for any of them. Rather than simply the humanism of the myriad narratives it contains, what makes The Known World remarkable is the tension it strikes between that humanism and the inhuman deism of its knower. When the knower’s calm, disconsolate disclosures give the novel a form that countervails the humanist substance of its narratives, the prose that must be flayed in order to reach those narratives emerges as a quality of greater substance.

The novel knows all this about itself, as is made evident in its final pages when Calvin arrives in Washington, D.C., and by chance encounters Alice Night, one of the slaves on the Townsend plantation who has long since run away. Alice is “a woman people said had lost her mind” after “[a] mule kicked her in the head and sent all common sense flying out of her,” and she was known for her habit of leaving the plantation after sunset to wander aimlessly through the surrounding forests, “mapp[ing] her way again and again through the night.” Now Calvin beholds the outcome of Alice’s endless “mapp[ing]” of Manchester County. In a Washington saloon, he beholds two walls on which are hung two enormous, three-dimensional, bricolage maps that serve as implicit correctives to the incomplete cartography of Martin Waldseemüller. The first is a map of Manchester County rendered in awesome detail, “a grand piece of art that is part tapestry, part painting, and part clay structure,” which marks “all the [county’s] houses and barns and roads and cemeteries and wells.” “It is what God sees when He looks down on Manchester,” Calvin says, although he notes that “[t]here are no people on this ‘map’.” On another wall nearby is a map of the Townsend plantation that appears similar to the county map but shows one important difference. “There is nothing missing, not a cabin, not a bar, not a chicken, not a horse, [and n]ot a single person is missing. … [E]very single person is there, standing and waiting as if for a painter and his easel to come along and capture them in the glory of the day. Each person’s face… is raised up as though to look in the very eyes of God.” So, for all the breadth and accuracy of her vision, Alice is crippled in a way that echoes the crippling of the knower and, as such, the knower is drawn to disclose the details of her visions. Panoramic perception diminishes human scale. The broader one’s view of a world and the more expansive one’s knowledge of it, the less distinct are the individuals who experience it and the less important their experiences appear to external observers. As goes the madwoman, then, so goes the knower, so freely drifting through its world that it vacates the world and rises above it, distances itself from those who live in it, and then details their lives with an aloofness that stands at odds with the warmth its omniscience might otherwise afford them.

Writing Seeing: The Known World (1)

Who knows the world of The Known World? Who else could ever be able to know it? With every disclosure made of the world, the world itself slips out of sight. While the knower unleashes a torrent of words with which to cast fresh light on the world, those very words only smother the world like tireless motes descending upon a steady accretion of dust.

From the deathbed of Henry Townsend, a slaveowner in antebellum Virginia, the breadth of the world extends by degrees to encompass a territory of spectacular scale. As the tensions of both the enslaved and their masters pulse through the Townsend estate, the novel pursues the roots of those tensions to places far from where they arise. The daily dramas of plantation life are driven by the envies, outrages, heartaches, and fears stirred up in Townsend’s men and women by those whose dwell beyond their view. They worry over reports of life on plantations in distant parts. They feel the force of faraway powers doomed to collapse into war with each other. They meditate on the deeds of their ancestors, the tribesmen and the wretched peasants compelled to cross the Atlantic and to settle on foreign shores, and the memories of those ancestors speak to the more recent displacements of others who never set foot on Townsend’s soil but somehow touch the lives of the people who surround him. Populating its pages with countless characters ensnared in a complex web of connections, The Known World traverses the threads of the web to observe those connections in intricate detail. When the turmoils of one man convulse the threads that bind him to another, the next man’s responses ripple the threads that reach out to others at several removes. In calm, melodic, and generous prose, the novel drifts from thread to thread with all the grace of the omniscient consciousness that weaves a path through the world to watch the convulsions flare up and fade.

Flay the prose on the surface to expose the narrative substance and what emerges seems catered to satisfy a particularly humanist hunger. The humanist ideal is the sympathy for strangers that emerges from the diminishing of otherness. The humanist assumption is that otherness is best diminished by the careful and diligent detailing of a stranger’s life. The humanist contention is that literary fiction is uniquely able to diminish otherness because it boasts a capacity for the omniscient observation of the life to be detailed. With the human experience of slavery positioned as narrative premise, The Known World invokes a prima facie affront to the humanist ideal and then intensifies its appeal to humanism by exposing the private torments of those who yearn for a better life than the one that slavery forces them to live. Townsend’s mentor, the slaveowner William Robbins, is desperately in love with his slave Philomena but cannot admit it to a world whose prejudices he works to reinforce. Townsend’s deputy overseer, Moses, will never escape from slavery and yet aspires to become a slaveowner himself. Townsend’s father, Augustus, has undertaken extra work to purchase his own freedom and the freedom of his family, but a white policeman destroys his free papers in order to deliberately return him to bondage. And, as Augustus’ story suggests, Henry Townsend is himself as black as the men and women he owns, a black man freed from slavery and now the master of those who were once his equals. Everyone here is confined to his or her own little hell. When each one of those little hells is carefully and diligently detailed, the detailing diminishes the otherness of the suffering strangers confined to them.

But the greater substance of the novel is the very prose that must be flayed to reach the narratives with the humanist hearts. The prose of The Known World upsets the complacency with which literary fiction typically uses its capacity for omniscience to serve the humanist ideal. The consciousness of the novel, the knower of The Known World, possesses a type of omniscience that serves less to diminish otherness than to underscore and extend it and to forestall any diminishing. This omniscience warps and distorts the knower’s sense of the value of knowledge itself. As it moves through the world unhindered, drawing close to the action and then retreating and rushing back and forth in time, its endless disclosures are dazzling to those of us who know nothing of the world beyond that which passes before our own eyes. When the knower shifts its focus to this man or that woman or the child over there, it knows, at a glance, every last one of their past, present, and future interactions with every other person in their world. When this otherwise chaotic world is filtered through the knower’s eyes, meaningful connections are forged between events that appear unrelated and narrative shape is given to lives whose day-to-day tedium would seem to discourage any cause for narration.

The result, for readers, is not merely a growing knowledge of a world of overwhelming complexity, but a knowledge that grows under the guidance of a knower for whom the complexity of the world is unproblematic and the ability to transcend it is utterly unremarkable. Unguessable revelations about the lives of certain characters are put down in print with the same sense of calm as descriptions of the weather on a placid summer’s day, and the emphasis that the knower places on its awesome ability to make those revelations is no greater than the emphasis placed on everyone else’s drawing of breath. Even while its omniscience allows it to detail various lives and so to diminish the otherness of the strangers who live them, the knower of The Known World shows so little sympathy for those strangers that its every disclosure pushes them and their world further out of view, attracts attention to the knower itself, and finally presents readers with an obstacle to the humanist ideal in the form of a consciousness that becomes increasingly inhuman with each and every word.

Continued in the following post.