How Pyrotechnic Comic Novelist Colson Whitehead Found His Way to the Grim, Measured Underground Railroad

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Photo: Bobby Doherty/New York Magazine

About halfway through Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, Cora, the teenage fugitive slave who has escaped a plantation in Georgia and traveled to North Carolina by an actual subterranean rail line, is being told by Martin Wells, a white man hiding her in a cramped secret nook above his attic, about the state’s new race laws, which amount to a genocidal policy of ethnic cleansing: “In North Carolina the negro race did not exist except at the ends of ropes.” We have already seen a road with black corpses hanging from trees as far as the eye can see, the so-called Freedom Trail. There is also an inquisition afoot against whites harboring blacks or possessing abolitionist literature, with neighbors informing on each other for voicing “forbidden sympathies.” Martin is telling Cora “the story of a man in town who had been trying to rid himself of his wife for many years, to no avail. The details of her crime did not hold up under scrutiny, but she paid the ultimate price. The gentleman remarried three months later.”

“Is he happy?” Cora asked.

“What?”

Cora waved her hand. The severity of Martin’s account had sent her down an avenue of odd humor.

This isn’t a characteristic passage, and it’s hard not to sense that it’s really the author more than Cora who’s gone down the avenue of odd humor. That it sounds anachronistic here is a sign from Whitehead of how much of a departure for him The Underground Railroad is and the lengths to which one of our most brilliant comic novelists had to go to restrain a portion of his gifts.

This hasn’t been lost on critics, and Whitehead himself discussed the matter with my colleague Boris Kachka: “You know, a sentence that comes easily to me is, ‘The street was busier than a 7-Eleven parking lot on free meth day.’ I could make a weird modern joke, and that’s a long sentence. But when you try to make a simile or a metaphor out of the nouns of 1850s, simplicity and clarity make more sense.” In a satirical 2009 essay for the New York Times, “What to Write Next,” Whitehead poked fun at the genre of his new work: “Southern Novel of Black Misery: Africans in America, cut your teeth on this literary staple. Slip on your sepia-tinted goggles and investigate the legacy of slavery that still reverberates to this day, the legacy of Reconstruction that still reverberates to this day, and crackers.” The essay is largely self-satire, taking in styles Whitehead himself had worked in (Encyclopedic, Realism) and would later work in (Thriller). And the book Whitehead cut his teeth on in 1999 was anything but a literary staple but rather the extravagantly imagined and thoroughly idiosyncratic neo-noir novel The Intuitionist

In his 2014 study Understanding Colson Whitehead, Derek C. Maus, an English professor at SUNY Potsdam, argues that Whitehead’s previous novels can be understood as works of “post-soul historiographic metafiction.” As an academic formulation, this is sound, and Maus’s book is an excellent and enlightening guide to Whitehead’s work. “Post-soul” is a term coined by Nelson George in his 1992 book Buppies, B-Boys, Baps and Bohos: Notes on Post-Soul Black Culture to refer to the cultural output of the generations of African-Americans who had come of age after the 1960s — an output characterized by a new diversity (George cites the abandonment of a Soul chart at Billboard, where he worked, in 1982). As for “historiographic metafiction,” Whitehead’s books question received historical narratives and call attention to their own status as fictions. Until The Underground Railroad the narratives at the center of Whitehead’s books were about black life in America after slavery, about what happened when some barriers to black advancement began to erode, and especially about race and meritocracy.

The Intuitionist is about the generation of African-Americans who were the first to really break through white-collar professional barriers en masse. It’s set in an unnamed city that resembles a slightly fabulized New York, and its heroine, Lila Mae Watson, is the city’s first colored (in the novel’s phrasing) woman to work as an elevator inspector. Her occupation, played for not too little deadpan humor, stands in for the professional middle class writ large, and the question that governs the novel is whether she’s subject to a vast citywide conspiracy in being blamed for the crash of an elevator she’d just inspected. Lila Mae’s mode of elevator inspection, intuitionism, which depends on a quasi-extrasensory detection of mechanical failures, is contrasted with the reigning style of empiricism, suggesting that discernible, measurable facts might be part of a covertly oppressive system. But the book is ultimately hopeful.

Whether that can be said about his next two novels is deliberately ambiguous. Like The Intuitionist, both John Henry Days and Apex Hides the Hurt are about protagonists who’ve joined the professional class and become disillusioned with their vocations. Whereas Lila Mae remains earnestly devoted to her trade, J. Sutter the freelance hack or “junketeer” in John Henry Days and the unnamed nomenclature consultant in Apex have come to see themselves as sellouts who’ve succumbed to the temptations afforded them by their elite educations. J. is on a quest to break a record among his cohort of journalists for the most consecutive days freeloading at PR events, and this is conveyed in mock-heroic tones as he attends a festival in West Virginia celebrating a new postage stamp featuring John Henry, the semi-mythic Reconstruction steelworker, born into slavery, who could lay railroad tracks faster than the newly invented steam drill, but according to legend dropped dead after beating the drill in a race. This was Whitehead’s “encyclopedic” novel, and its formal debts to Don DeLillo’s Underworld were obvious and much pointed out. One of them was a resistance to narrative resolution, and so you can’t be sure at the end of John Henry Days whether in Whitehead’s retelling of the John Henry story the hero will die as he does in myth or whether J. Sutter will perish in a shooting that transpires at the end of the festival or remake himself as something other than a writer of puff.

Apex Hides the Hurt is a tighter, more brutally comic work, and, I think, Whitehead’s most underrated. The unnamed nomenclature consultant has a knack for renaming brands, as he did when he dubbed a stunted adhesive bandage Apex after it was redesigned in an array of shades to appeal to a multiracial market by mimicking a spectrum of skin tones. He uses the bandages himself and they conceal the fact that his stubbed toe became infected when he stepped in pig shit. He neglects the injury, his toe is amputated, and he sinks into depression and stops working just after he’s won an industry prize, at the Identity Awards. The main action of the novel concerns an assignment meant to spur his comeback: He travels to a small Western city, called Winthrop, to adjudicate over its potential renaming. The town was founded by settlers freed from slavery who then ceded its name to a rich white man who brought industry with him. Parsing the town’s early history, the consultant sees that each of the names on offer —sticking with Winthrop, reverting to the settlement’s original name, “Freedom,” or yielding to a tech entrepreneur’s preference “New Prospera” — is its own sort of lie, and he decides to rename it Struggle. Whether the town will toss this name out after a year, as his contract says they can, is an open question, but he’s made his perhaps futile stab at integrity in a sold-out world, and taken his first step out of depression. Capturing that state of depression is the novel’s greatest virtue.

These three novels form a thematic trilogy about African-American loners in a land of compromised opportunity. Maus groups another three of Whitehead’s books as his “New York Trilogy”: The Colossus of New York, a sequence of 13 essays, published in 2003, and the novels Sag Harbor (2009) and Zone One (2011). Of course, New York is the model for the setting of The Intuitionist and the hometown and professional base of both J. Sutter and Apex’s nomenclature consultant, but Whitehead’s treatment of the city and its outskirts is more direct in the books Maus groups in this trilogy. Springing from an essay written in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Colossus is an idiosyncratically universalizing portrait of the city, told largely in an open-ended second-person voice and imperative mood. It’s the sort of book many New York writers dream of attempting but few try because of the obvious risk of exposing your blinkers.

And Whitehead’s own class status here is crucial: In the autobiographical Sag Harbor he writes about a group of teenagers on summer vacation in the Hamptons. “According to the world, we were the definition of paradox: black boys with beach houses. A paradox to the outside, but it never occurred to us that there was anything strange about it. It was simply who we were. What kind of bourgie sell-out Negroes were we, with BMWs in the driveway (Black Man's Wagon, in case you didn't know) and private schools to teach us how to use a knife and fork, sort that from dat? What about keeping it real?” Elsewhere the narrator states it another way: “Let's just put it out there: I liked the Smiths.” The characters parse their own ways of being “hard” or not and the differences between their own and their parents’ experience of being black. Whitehead’s execution was direct and realistic; the book was accessible and a best seller.

So the obvious next move was to write a zombie-apocalypse extravaganza. Zone One is my favorite of Whitehead’s books — a masterpiece of gory excess, stylistic virtuosity, and unflagging hilarity. The pyrotechnic abilities on display in The Intuitionist and John Henry Days here reached another level: a maturation of Whitehead’s gifts inspired by indulgence of his adolescent love of horror flicks. In Zone One he takes his time addressing the question of race. The hero is named Mark Spitz, so-called because he hesitates at one point to swim, and his fellow zombie-resisters make a joke in line with “the black-people-can’t-swim thing.” We only learn about his race less than 50 pages from the book’s end because in the scheme of the novel the surviving Americans’ struggle against the undead has instilled bonds of solidarity across race and class. “There was a single Us now, reviling a single Them. Would the old bigotries be reborn as well, when they cleared out this Zone, and the next, and so on, and they were packed together again, tight and suffocating on top of each other?”

The question of post-raciality post zombie plague is left unanswered because the novel ends with the undead unvanquished. His next book, The Noble Hustle, was an expansion of a magazine assignment of the sort that J. Sutter is at the end of John Henry Days aiming to leave behind, a trip to the World Series of Poker. But it’s notable that Whitehead’s approach would have fit both J. Sutter and Apex’s nomenclature consultant: “I would represent my country, the Republic of Anhedonia. We have no borders, but the population teems. No one has deigned to write down our history, but we are an ancient land, founded during the original disappointments, when the first person met another person. I would do it for my countrymen, the shut-ins, the doom-struck, the morbid of temperament, for all those who walk through life with poker faces 24/7 because they never learned any other way.” Depression: an affliction that knows no sociological bounds.

These books form the unlikely path to The Underground Railroad. It is a path that has taken him through history and alternate histories, into the minds of personas both prickly and inviting, into deep immersions in American race (as well as more universalizing narratives). Whitehead hasn’t only put a check on his comic talent but also placed an almost impossible challenge to his ability to detect moral ambiguities: nothing ambiguous about the institution of slavery not quite two centuries since its abolition. Yet without resembling any of Whitehead’s previous books as a whole, it partakes of aspects of them all.

The Underground Railroad opens in a real past America, a plantation in Georgia, where Cora is born, abandoned by her mother, and experiences daily assaults. Her escape from the plantation is also an escape from strict historical reality and into several possible Americas, some offering the illusion of a better America, but all in the end compressions of the national legacy of oppression. This is at once a subtler trick than the phantom Manhattan of The Intuitionist and one announced in spectacular deadpan with Cora’s arrival at the first of several actual subterranean rail stations: “The stairs led onto a small platform. The black mouths of the gigantic tunnel opened at either end. It must have been twenty feet tall, walls lined with dark and light colored stones in an alternating pattern.” Here history is punctured, opening new conceptual vistas. 

The states through which Cora journeys are parallel Americas, each with their own horrors, some of them displaced from later eras of American history. In South Carolina the first thing she sees is a “skyscraper,” and the urban setting is at first more a more welcoming place — she begins learning to read. But she’s soon put to work reenacting the work of a plantation slave, captivity on a slave ship, and a fantasy of “Scenes from Darkest Africa” in a museum behind a glass enclosure amid wax dummies of white people and subject to the “dumb, open-jawed stares of the patrons” — a metaphor for the fate of artists bound to rehearse history’s humiliations. There are also mass sterilizations and human experiments with syphilis infection being conducted on blacks at the local hospital: a version of the Tuskegee trials of the 20th century. The creeping oppressions of urban life give way to outright acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing when Cora escapes to North Carolina, where she witnesses a “Freedom Trail” of black corpses hanging from trees. “In North Carolina the negro race did not exist except at the end of ropes.” This was a dream of some Southern whites during Reconstruction. After the white couple hiding Cora is betrayed by their servant, she is given over to the slave catcher Ridgeway — essentially a racist white cop, a figure familiar to this day.

That’s only some of the history Whitehead telescopes into The Underground Railroad with a brutal grace both refined and simplified in comparison to his earlier novels: For all its necessarily ghastly moments the narrative is as smooth as Sag Harbor’s and, as in Zone One, much of it is a suspenseful chase. Cora, too, is an evolved incarnation of a recognizable Whitehead character. Like Lila Mae, she undergoes an education, learning to read and then immersing herself in abolitionist literature and almanacs over months in her cramped attic nook. Like J. Sutter, Apex’s nomenclature consultant, and Whitehead at the poker table, she is a person of “morbid temperament.” (How could she not be?) Like Mark Spitz, she undergoes a journey of constant physical torment. Whitehead has followed his masterpiece of excess with a masterpiece of restraint, and though the novel never sets foot in New York City, there’s even a glimpse of his hometown: The Underground Railroad looks a lot like the subway.