For the past few years, I’ve been reading mostly genre fiction. Graduate school and a long string of deathly dull reads had convinced me that the new literary novel was of interest to nobody who didn’t live in New York City and/or worship John Updike (or at least Cormac McCarthy) as a god. But this year, I’ve decided to return to my roots and at least read all the novels that made this year’s long list for the National Book Award. I started with Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad because it’s the only one on the shelves at my local library—thanks, Oprah! And reading it has confirmed my faith in the experiment. All kidding and personal prejudice aside, good books are being published every week in every genre, but not so many great ones. The Underground Railroad is great.
I won’t spoil the experience of discovering this story for anybody else by describing any single incident of action—it’s too damned awful and too damned good. It’s an epic saga, a journey of discovery like The Odyssey or Ulysses or Lord of the Rings. The heroine is Cora, an escaped slave who is neither Eliza Harris nor William Styron’s version of Nat Turner but a well-rounded, specific, relatable human being as all great epic heroes are. She moves through the various hellscapes of the 19th-century American “slave states” of the South and Midwest via the Underground Railroad which in this allegorical fantasy is not a metaphor but a literal railway system under the earth and the story’s central symbol. Like all great epics, Cora’s story brims over with poetry; Whitehead uses a clean, caustic prose style and his heroine’s unflinching point of view to create some of the most horrific scenes and incidents I’ve ever read without ever once resorting to sentimentality or melodrama. Again unlike Stowe or Styron, he doesn’t try to tug our heartstrings or even inflame our rage; he’s not arguing a thesis. He’s just telling the horrible truth. The novel is more artful than historical in its structure and approach, but everything that happens to Cora happened to somebody; it’s the history of slavery distilled.
The book directly references Jonathan Swift’s great fantastical allegory, Gulliver’s Travels, and the comparison is apt. I also saw a lot of Dante in Cora’s journey through layers of darkness toward the light. But if I had followed my original career plan and become a lit professor, I’d be assigning my students to read this book alongside Mark Twain’s great contemporary novel of the slave states, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I’ve adored Twain’s book since I first read it as a child, and the recent backlash and charges of racism made against it make me sad. But most of those complaints are aimed directly at the character of Jim, an escaped slave who becomes a father figure to the scrappy, abused, white trash child hero, Huck. Twain has great respect for Jim (his word choice in his naming notwithstanding) and great affection, and Jim is a great character. But he’s not real. Like Eliza and Styron’s Nat, he’s a white man’s fantasy of blackness. With Cora, Whitehead (among other accomplishments entirely unconnected to any other work at all) fills in that gap. He gives us the view from the other side of the raft—or rather, not from a raft rolling down the open air above the mighty Mississippi but from a broken boxcar steaming through a dark hole in the earth. There are also interesting parallels to be drawn between Whitehead’s villain, the slave catcher Ridgeway, and Huck Finn himself, and even Jim’s legal owner, Miss Watson, has her own dark shadow in Whitehead’s tale, a dotty old dear who dies without a will and damns the slaves she leaves behind to hell. A comparison between the two books could make one hell of a paper.
But the point is, it’s a great book. Don’t miss it.