The Underground Railroad: A Problematic Prizewinner of a Novel

Author Colson Whitehead (Image via CBS/YouTube)
The author’s ‘Freedom Trail’ is a far cry from the real one

Editor’s Note: Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction on Monday. Below is Jay Nordlinger’s review of the book from the October 10, 2016, issue of National Review.

Colson Whitehead is an American novelist, born in 1969. He is one of the most praised and honored writers in the country. He has won a Guggenheim Fellowship, a MacArthur “genius grant,” etc. His latest novel has been hailed in the Boston Globe as a “fully realized masterpiece.” President Obama announced that it was on his reading list. Oprah Winfrey picked it for her book club — which can mean a bonanza.

(I never thought Al Franken was funny, before or after he was elected to the Senate, but I did smile on reading about the dedication of one of his books: “For Oprah.”)

The New York Times published a lengthy excerpt of Whitehead’s novel. And reviewers’ copies came with an extraordinary letter, serving as the very first page of the book. The letter was from the editor in chief of Doubleday, who spoke of the book in near-historic terms. “To bring novels like this into the world is the reason we all chose this maddening profession.”

Colson Whitehead is a beloved African-American writer who has now penned a sweeping novel of slavery. He is, in a sense, beyond criticism: a Morgan Freeman of letters. Yet he is a man, not a totem, and I bet he appreciates being treated as such.

This novel, The Underground Railroad, is touched with greatness. It is also touched with okayness. It is an uneven book, with marvelous passages and un-marvelous ones. There are home runs and whiffs. I think of musicians who are brilliant one night and off the next. Other musicians are neither brilliant nor off, ever.

Whitehead’s book is most successful when it tells its story. It is least successful, I think, when it teaches and preaches — like a social-studies teacher, being sure that you recognize America’s massive sins. Also, I think some of Whitehead’s moral and historical judgments are wrong. But I remember that it’s his book, not mine or yours.

The Underground Railroad is the story of a young woman, a slave named Cora, who runs away from a plantation in Georgia. The story begins with her grandmother, Ajarry, who has been snatched from Africa. “Two yellow-haired sailors rowed Ajarry out to the ship, humming. White skin like bone.” Before long, her captors rape her. She twice tries to kill herself, “once by denying herself food and then again by drowning.”

Telling his story of slavery, Whitehead uses the language of the time, and it can take some getting used to: “buck,” “pickaninny,” and, of course, the worst word of all, “nigger.” Children in slavery are relatively carefree, for a short time. Then they have the joy ground out of them, as Whitehead says. “One day a pickaninny was happy and the next the light was gone from them; in between they had been introduced to a new reality of bondage.” (Whitehead uses pronouns in a modern fashion.)

Let me give you one of the most beautiful, and striking, sentences in the whole book. It’s about a freedwoman who “was meticulous in her posture, a walking spear, in the manner of those who’d been made to bend and will bend no more.”

In slavery stories, I find, as in Holocaust and other stories, all you need to do is tell it — without gilding the lily. The subject matter, and the attendant events, are horrible enough. Whitehead has one matter-of-fact statement that is a real stunner: “Lucy and Titania never spoke, the former because she chose not to, and the latter because her tongue had been hacked out by a previous owner.”

I was stopped by another sentence too — one that explains that two dogs “had been beloved by all, man and nigger alike, even if they couldn’t keep away from the chickens.” In my ear, this echoes Twain (“We blowed out a cylinder-head.” “Good gracious! anybody hurt?” “No’m. Killed a nigger.” “Well, it’s lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt”).

On the plantation, there is non-stop sadism. One day, white people assemble for a picnic. The entertainment, to accompany their eating, is the sight of a black man being tortured to death. Ultimately, he is doused with oil and roasted. Whitehead writes, “The southern white man was spat from the loins of the devil and there was no way to forecast his next evil act.”

By the way, the Underground Railroad, in The Underground Railroad, is not a metaphor.

In due course, Cora makes a run for it, together with a fellow slave. For a while, the novel becomes a thriller. The runaways are chased by the evilest slave-catcher of all, Ridgeway, who, to add insult to injury, has a philosophy: “the American Imperative.” It is the American Imperative, he says, to kill, steal, enslave, and destroy.

By the way, the Underground Railroad, in The Underground Railroad, is not a metaphor. It is literal: a network of subterranean tracks, complete with choo-choos, engineers, and so forth. There is such fancy in this novel (a novel being a good place for fancy).

In South Carolina, the runaways have a respite, doing honorable work among decent white people — or decent-seeming. Actually, the whites are subjecting blacks to eugenics — well before Margaret Sanger. They are also injecting them with syphilis — well before the Tuskegee Experiment.

It is in South Carolina, I think, that the narrative grinds to a halt, or at least slows considerably. The author takes to teaching and preaching. He is the social-studies teacher, with one didactic paragraph after another. The evil that Americans did to the Red Man, for example. (In point of fact, some evil ran both ways.) Can’t Whitehead assume that people know this? I was reminded of the sitcoms I grew up on in the 1970s and ’80s, not all of them produced by Norman Lear: always making sure that social points were driven home, in purse-lipped ways.

As a rule, teaching in a novel should be accidental, I think, not bluntly striven for.

Whitehead depicts black people strung up in trees, for miles and miles, as far as the eye can see. He dubs this “the Freedom Trail” — thus pouring irony and scorn on the real Freedom Trail, that path in Boston which leads a traveler past hallowed Revolutionary sites.

In North Carolina, an Irish maid rats out her employers, Martin and Ethel, who have been harboring a fugitive slave (Cora). In explanation, she tells her friends, “A girl’s got to look after her interests if she’s going to get ahead in this country.” Is that the maid talking or Whitehead? I think Whitehead, really, more than his character.

Earlier, I spoke of moral judgments — and my disagreement with the author. He mocks Ethel for her girlhood desire to serve as a missionary in Africa. Fair enough. Whitehead uses religion as a foil in this book. Again, fair enough. But he mocks the woman after she has been lynched — stoned to death — by a white mob. Is the mocking really necessary, at this point? In the margin of the page, I wrote, “Heartless.”

Worse, Whitehead equates the white man who wants to rape the slave with the white man who wants to help her — because they both act from selfish purposes, wanting satisfaction.

To Whitehead’s style, or modus operandi, I had this objection: Momentous events happen too abruptly, even nonchalantly.

This book has a point of view, maybe even an agenda: America the misbegotten and irredeemable. The country was built by slaves, with no one else contributing a lick. A hero of the book — probably a spokesman for the author — says, “This nation shouldn’t exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft, and cruelty. Yet here we are.”

In the closing two pages, there is a suggestion of the parable of the Good Samaritan. Cora is by the side of the road, badly in need of help. A white couple passes her by (like the priest in the parable). Then comes a young man with red hair and blue eyes. He asks (unlike the Levite) whether the stranger needs help. She shakes her head no, and he moves on. Finally comes the Samaritan, so to speak: “an older negro man,” whose eyes are kind.

I think back to the opening chapters on slavery — the capture of Ajarry, Cora’s grandmother; Cora’s life on the Georgia plantation. One effect they had on me was to make me wonder, What would I do, if I were enslaved? How much would I comply? How much would I rebel? How much would I risk? Would I run? No one can know the answers, I think. We are lucky enough not to be slaves.

To Whitehead’s style, or modus operandi, I had this objection: Momentous events happen too abruptly, even nonchalantly. The discovery of a long-hidden fugitive, for example. It’s wham, bam, thank you, ma’am. We need a little . . . space, somehow.

Also, you know how, in horror movies and other movies, the good guys leave the bad guy alive, instead of killing him off when they have the chance? And you’re screaming, “Don’t leave him alive, he’ll come back!”? The same kind of thing is liable to happen in novels. The calamitous return of the un-killed-off bad guy is a cliché.

I have spoken of one dragging part of The Underground Railroad, and there are others. But, on the whole, the book kept me turning pages. I wanted to find out what happened next. I turned fast, straight through to the end. This may seem like faint praise, especially in light of the treatment that this novel has been accorded. But it is not. Not in my book.


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