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Essay by Ted Gioia

I first came to the American slave narrative via a roundabout
path. Many years ago, my interest in black music, folklore and
culture spurred me to undertake a slow, thorough study of
primary documents that might broaden my grasp of those
subjects. Back in my student days, my teachers never told me
about Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography (first published in 1789)
or Solomon Northup’s
Twelve Years a Slave (1853) and other
similar accounts from the antebellum era, but I later stumbled
upon them as part of my self-assigned reading list in black
cultural history. Yet if I started reading these works because of
my research, I came to prize them for their inspiring
testimonials and thought-provoking accounts of quiet heroism.

I also read the more familiar memoirs
by Frederick Douglass and Booker T.
Washington, and later dug into the
massive collection of oral histories
from former slaves compiled by the
Federal Writers’ Project in the late
1930s. Eventually I sought out far
more obscure first-person source
documents, a process that confirmed
my view that the unfiltered
reminiscences of participants are
almost always a better starting-point
in any historical inquiry than the
current-day theories of academics.
(I still regret my inability to secure
a copy of Harry Middleton Hyatt’s
massive five-volume collection—
a total of 4,766 pages—
Hoodoo -
Conjuration - Witchcraft – Rootwork
, an out-of-print rarity that
draws on interviews with 1,600 African-Americans, most of them
conducted in the 1930s. The last time I checked, a copy of this
work cost $6,500. Maybe someone will give it to me as a
birthday present someday.)

I do not envy the novelist who tries to match the power or
intensity of these accounts in their works of fiction. Yet our
nation’s leading storytellers are drawn again and again to this
rich, almost inexhaustible subject.  The plot of the oppressed
seeking freedom is compelling and timeless…and also woven
into the fabric of  American experience. Even outsiders to
African-American culture can relate to it. When my Italian
grandfather came to America from Sicily at age 14, he was
tricked into signing on with a gang of railroad workers, whose
overseers kept him in chains and forced him to work against his
will. He had to overcome a guard late one night and make a
rapid pre-dawn escape from the chain gang camp before he
could launch his own pursuit of the American dream. Many
others had similarly troubled introductions to the opportunities
of the New World. For them the African-American slave narrative
might not be represent their identical story, but they can grasp
its emotional and psychological truths as symbolic of their own

I suspect that emotional connection explains why William
Styron, a white writer from the South who later moved North,
decided to write
The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967), a
searing literary work which won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction at a
time when the Civil Rights movement was stirring up debate in
America. But a backlash soon set in, and Styron was accused of
“whitened appropriation” of black history.  Like other books from
that period on racial issues by sympathetic white liberals—such
as Norman Mailer’s essay “The White Negro” or John Howard
Black Like MeThe Confessions of Nat Turner gradually
lost its progressive credentials and disappear from school
reading lists as an embarrassing example of white usurpation of
the black narrative.

That’s now a distant memory, and the next phase ushered in a
new generation of African-American writers who had their own
notions about the slave narrative. Their efforts were, in an odd
way, both progressive and unprecedented, yet also marked a
return to the roots of the genre. In its first manifestation, back
in the 19th century, these stories were told by black writers but
targeted at a broad general audience, and their purely literary
qualities coexisted with a desire to enlighten and influence.
That now happened again, with books such as Toni Morrison’s
Beloved and Edward P. Jones The Known World—both of which
won the Pulitzer Prize, just as Styron had done a generation
earlier. These novels broke new ground, but also harkened back
to the firsthand accounts by Northup, Equiano, Douglass and
others who created the genre.

Is it still possible to find a new angle on this old story in the
current day?  Colson Whitehead aims to do just that with his
2016 novel
The Underground Railroad. At first glance, the book
seems to follow the familiar path of the slave narrative, with all
the usual character types and incidents; but as the reader
proceeds more deeply into the story, unexpected elements
appear in the work. The plot begins to dance across genre
categories, and a phantasmagorical quality enters the tale.

At the most basic level,
The Underground Railroad is a historical
novel dealing with the worst aspects of plantation life in
Georgia during the pre-Civil War period. But on top of this
chronicle, Whitehead mixes in elements of magical realism and
alternate history. Yet these never undercut the intense realism
of the unfolding story. The end result is a kind of slave narrative
as it might be imagined by Franz Kafka or Gabriel García
Márquez, but still retaining the plausibility of a non-fiction
memoir. In some ways, I am reminded of Toni Morrison, who
defied expectations by inserting a ghost into the fabric of
Beloved, yet without misleading anyone into thinking she
had written a horror genre story.

Whitehead's story follows the life and times of Cora, a young
woman who aims to escape the degradation of the Randall
Plantation and make her way North. She is approached by
Caesar, an ambitious fellow slave who has seen life outside of
Georgia and has come into contact with a representative of the
Underground Railroad. His friend can facilitate their secret
departure, and Casear proposes that Cora join him on this
journey to freedom. Years before, her mother had made a
similar escape, somehow managing to elude the slave catchers
who followed in her wake. Now the daughter agrees to take the
same dangerous course.

So far, these details will be familiar to readers who have read
other slave narratives. Yet Whitehead departs dramatically from
historical realism when he introduces the actual Underground
Railroad. In real life, this network of Abolitionists, former slaves
and sympathizers organized a series of safe houses and travel
itineraries that allowed the transit of slaves without the
detection of the white authorities. Yet in Whitehead’s novel he
turns this loose-knit group of paths and people into an actual
underground railroad, a kind of subway with railcars, stations
and conductors. It’s an alternative transit system for those who
can’t use the trains above ground.

“I had the idea for the book about 16 years ago,” Whitehead
told an interviewer “recalling how when I was a kid, I thought
the Underground Railroad was a literal railroad and when I found
out it wasn’t, I was disappointed. So I thought it was a cool
idea, and then I thought, ‘Well, what if it actually was a real
railroad? That seems like a cool premise for a book.’”

The Underground Railroad thus takes its place alongside a
series of high-profile new millennium novels that mix tiny
amounts of fantasy with large doses of realism, creating a new
hybrid form. Jonathan Lethem set the tone for this new
approach with his 2003 novel
The Fortress of Solitude, which is
a semi-autobiographical novel about the author’s childhood in
Brooklyn. The story proceeds with a gritty real-life urban
except for a few passages in which the leading protagonist
s find
a superhero’s cape which allows them to fly through the air.
Most other writers of ‘literary fiction’ would have feared that this
tiny addition—akin to something out of a comic book—might
invalidate the social realism of the rest of the book, but Lethem
grasped that the introduction of a wee bit of magic could
actually amplify the potency of his narrative. In his final novel,
The Pale King, David Foster Wallace did something similar: the
entire novel follows the rules of realism with scrupulosity,
except for one character who can float in the air a few inches
from his chair. The Oscar-winning film
Birdman starts out with
precisely that same notion—a hero who floats above ground—
yet once again the plot keeps magical elements mostly in
reserve in a story that not only avoids excessive fantasy
elements, but is actually a critique of their bloated importance
in popular culture.

This genre needs a name.  The basic formula can be described
succinctly: (1) the book cannot embrace escapism, but must
address actual social or personal issues, even dark and tragic
ones; (2) an element of magic is introduced into the story; but
(3) the realistic elements must account for 90% of the setting
and story.  Indeed, the fantastic ingredients are rarely allowed
to enter into the forefront of the tale.  When they do so, they
are treated as everyday and normal, hardly worthy of attention.
What shall we call these works, stories that represent a breed
of fiction similar to magical realism, but downsizing the magic
and supersizing the realism?  For want of a better label, I will
call them
hyper-realist fantasies.

The surprising subway isn’t the only odd ingredient here.
Whitehead also rewrites nineteenth century history, envisioning
a range of political initiatives and agendas that never existed—
for example a genocidal plan in North Carolina to kill everyone
of African descent and staff plantations with Irish, German and
other white immigrants. The ideas on display here are
provocative and the story proceeds with energy, although
teachers assigning this book in a classroom will need to spend
some time educating students on the difference between the
fantastic and historical aspects of the narrative.

Even so, the emotional force of
The Underground Railroad won’t
need explaining.  The heroes and villains are presented in stark
relief—alas, sometimes in an almost o
utlandish degree. But this
isn’t a novel about nuance and the moral judgments here could
hardly be more stark. Indeed, the story proceeds with the
clarity, verve and sense of righteousness we have come to
expect from Hollywood big-budget films. So much so, that I’d be
surprised if this Whitehead’s story doesn’t show up on theater
screens in the not-so-distant future.

Ted Gioia's latest book is How to Listen to Jazz (Basic Books)

Publication date: Novemeber 4, 2016
Colson Whitehead & the Evolution of
the American Slave Narrative

In The Underground Railroad, antebellum history
joins hands with hyper-realist fantasy
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Selected Reviews

Colson Whitehead [click here]
Michel Houellebecq [
click here]
Jonathan Franzen [
click here]
Emily St. John Mandel [
click here]
Daniel Kehlmann [
click here]
David Mitchell [
click here]
Richard Powers [
click here]
Donna Tartt [
click here]
Eleanor Catton [
click here]
Marisha Pessl [
click here]
Michael Chabon [
click here]
Zadie Smith [
click here]
Martin Amis [
click here]
Karen Walker [
click here]
Kurt Vonnegut [
click here]
Hari Kunzru [
click here]
Chad Harbach [
click here]
Chuck Palahniuk [
click here]
Ernest Cline [
click here]
Mark Haddon [
click here]
Bonnie Jo Campbell [
click here]
China Miéville [
click here]
V.S. Naipaul [
click here]
David Foster Wallace [
click here]
T.C. Boyle [
click here]
Colm Tóibín [
click here]
Bruce Machart [
click here]
Jonathan Franzen [
click here]
Per Petterson [
click here]
David Mitchell [
click here]
Joseph Epstein [
click here]
Frederick Turner [
click here]
Tom Rachman [
click here]
Martin Amis [
click here]
Ian McEwan [
click here]
Robert Stone [
click here]
Don DeLillo [
click here]
Joshua Ferris [
click here]
Paul Auster [
click here]
Philip Roth [
click here]
Jonathan Lethem [
click here]
Richard Powers [
click here]
Jedediah Berry [
click here]
Richard Russo [
click here]
Thomas Pynchon [
click here]
Reif Larsen [
click here]
Arthur Phillips [
click here]
Colm Tóibín [
click here]
Jayne Anne Phillips [
click here]
Geoff Dyer [
click here]
T.C. Boyle [
click here]
Jonathan Littell [
click here]
Daniel Suarez [
click here]
Jim Harrison [
click here]
José Saramago [
click here]
Toni Morrison [
click here]
Roberto Bolaño [
click here]
Elizabeth Strout [
click here]
Chuck Klosterman [
click here]
Paul Auster [
click here]
Philip Roth [
click here]
Julian Barnes [
click here]
Marilynne Robinson
[click here]
Tim Winton [
click here]
Jonathan Miles [
click here]
Jhumpa Lahiri [
click here]
Joseph O'Neill [
click here]
Richard Price [
click here]
Tobias Wolff [
click here]
Donald Ray Pollock
[click here]
Charles Bock [
click here]
Geraldine Brooks [
click here]
Alan Bennett [
click here]
Mario Vargas Llosa [
click here]
Denis Johnson [
click here]
Philip Roth [
click here]
Ann Patchett [
click here]
Junot Diaz [
click here]
Matt Ruff [
click here]
Ryszard Kapuściński [
click here]
Roberto Bolaño [
click here]
Jack Kerouac [
click here]
John Leland [
click here]
Ian McEwan [
click here]
Khaled Hosseini [
click here]
Don DeLillo [
click here]
Michael Chabon [
click here]
Haruki Murakami [click here]
Jonathan Lethem [
click here]
Michael Ondaatje [
click here]
Steven Hall [
click here]
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