Why Exaggerate History?

The Underground Railroad

By Colson Whitehead

Whitehead’s novel is timely, for certain, and necessary, for it is readily apparent whole swaths of society have not yet come to terms with the continuing effects of the dehumanizing brutality of slavery in the South, and absolutely not with the idea that past is present.

However, while the novel merits attention for what it tries to do, the effort proves at best imperfect, because, for one thing, you often find yourself wondering why the fact of the real underground railroad wasn’t sufficiently dramatic, why an actual tunneled rail line? Unfortunately, it’s more distracting than enlightening for obvious reasons, not the least of which the question of how the builders accomplished it given the oppression and watchfulness above ground. Forgive us literalists and respecters of real daring and conviction in this regard. After all, one can suspend their disbelief only so much, with steampunk the exception for some, though you do know what you’re in that sub-genre.

Then there’s the idea of making two states, South and North Carolina, fortresses of sorts in the slave South to feature what amounts to: what to do with the excess of people deprived of everything, not the least of which basic personal human dignity and history, not to mention that you have exploited and brutalized, when slavery ends?

(The opening chapter set on a plantation in Georgia serves to illustrate in graphic detail how brutally punishing slavery was and how extreme it could be under the novel’s Simon Legree, Terrance Randall.)

In South Carolina, the approach amounts to an apparently benign fatherliness involving education, with the kicker of eugenic sterilization and medical research transported back in time (again, distracting). North Carolina takes the more direct approach of ritualized murder and mass display of corpses. In other words, the KKK on steroids that would have left even D. W. Griffith slack-jawed.

These certainly do say something about whites’ hatred and fear, with the subterfuge of benignity being the scarier of the two (because of its devilish subtlety). And you certainly would be forgiven for viewing both as loose metaphors of the present polar opposites in modern American race relations. But enlightenment on the underground railroad and its inherent drama, maybe not so much.

The problem here is that you approach the novel with an expectation based on the title that it fails to satisfy. So, perhaps guidance is to enter with the knowledge you’re reading a novel about the horror of slavery and the ongoing horror of what followed. w/c


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