The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead.
The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead. Doubleday (2016), Edition: 1St Edition, 320 pages
A widely praised, recent novel about slavery and black oppression that blends sharp realism about slavery with surrealistic accounts of alternative ways in which African Americans experienced oppression.
Colson Whitehead is a talented and experienced writer. The African American New Yorker graduated from Harvard before embarking on a variety of journalistic and creative writing projects to great acclaim. The Underground Railroad was published in 2016 and was awarded the National Book Award and other prizes. Reviewers call it a masterpiece. None the less, I found it a troubling and disturbing book.
No one could argue that the book is not impressive in its language and conception. The writing is impressive and intense. Characters are well-developed, complex, and unique. The plot is full of suspense yet central enough to keep the almost sprawling action held in a unified whole. The overall mood of the book is very intense, at times distressingly so when depicting atrocities against slaves.
My problems with The Underground Railroad are less with the book itself than with the fact it was published in a “post-factual” time. Whitehead writes about the experience of slavery with factual accuracy. The specifics of the characters and experiences are imaginary, but totally within what can be known. Not all plantations were as bad the one featured in the book, but Randal was within the range of what was possible, depicting what slaves with more kindly owners always knew could happen to them given the uncertainty of slave life. Mixed in with these basically factual accounts, Whitehead introduces other social groups that are highly imaginative. Whitehead writes that South Carolina sought to educate “freed” slaves while controlling them with sterilization. He describes how North Carolina killed and exiled any blacks they found in the state and replaced them with European immigrants. Sadly, there never was a large, vibrant community of ex-slaves in Indiana like the one he imagines. And, of course, the “underground railroad” never had real tracks and engines crisscrossing the nation. Yet in Whitehead’s book all these actual and surrealistic accounts are treated as if they are exactly the same.
Many readers of The Underground Railroad obviously are not bothered by blending of fact and fiction. We live in societies where the distinction between the two is often obliterated. That works only if readers have a grounded knowledge of the nineteenth-century America. I no longer believe they do. Look, for example, at the recent election here in the United States. Accepting that everything is affected by personal perspective should not lead to the assumption that nothing is true, and yet that is what seems to have happened for significant numbers of people. In this climate, I see Whitehead as normalizing the destruction of the concepts of fact and fiction. Understanding the reality of the slave experience in the United States is an important piece of understanding racial tension here in the present. For slavery to be treated as only as real as the other settings in the book is to devalue its importance. Given the level of historical knowledge in my country, it is easy to assume that readers, both black and white, will do just that. While I regularly enjoy speculative fiction that includes both realistic and imaginary writing, I believe this book goes too far.
This is a book of obvious literary merit, but I cannot honestly recommend for others to read it. If you do, at least consider the underlying problem of obliterating all distinction between fact and fiction, no matter how blurry that line becomes.