- With Names, No Coincidence:Colson Whitehead’s Postracial Puritan Allegory
So, we’ve got to teach history based not on what’s in fashion, but what’s important—why the Pilgrims came here.—Ronald Reagan, “Farewell Address to the Nation” (1989)
Apex Hides the Hurt is, in a very broad sense, about rebranding Winthrop. At the diegetic level, Colson Whitehead’s 2006 novel is about—as in, it concerns—a nondescript Midwestern town gripped by an identity crisis. Winthrop’s legislators cannot decide whether it needs a new name, and if so, what that name should be. The town’s three councilmembers hire a consultant, the suggestively unnamed character to whom the legislators actively lobby for their own causes.1 Floundering scion Albie Winthrop wants the Winthrop family legacy unaltered since their barbed-wire factory laid the town’s early economic base. Tech-sector CEO Lucky Aberdeen advocates “New Prospera,” championing its upbeat tone. Lucky’s company has recently replaced Winthrop Barbed Wire as the town’s most potent economic force, and he wants to attract Internet-age employees to his company’s somewhat remote setting. Finally, mayor Regina Goode seeks to restore the name initially given by Winthrop’s first Goode: Abraham Goode was a progenitor of her family line and an optimistic coleader of the freed slaves who established the settlement as “Freedom.” In a pragmatic move, however, Abe Goode conceded pride of title to Sterling Winthrop when a promised new factory brought jobs and key infrastructure to Goode’s nascent freedman community.
It so happens that the “nomenclature consultant” is an elite black intellectual whose investigation into Winthrop’s history yields the discovery that Goode’s darkly realistic counterpart and cofounder of Freedom, William Field, presented a fourth alternative with no one to champion its cause: “Struggle.” The consultant alone is given the power to rename the town. In his seminal explication of Signifyin(g) in African American literature, Henry Louis Gates explains that “to name [a] tradition is to rename each of its antecedents, no matter how pale they might seem. To rename is to revise, and to revise is to Signify” (xxiii). Apex’s conceit permits just this: to rename and thus revise what the Winthrop legacy connotes in America’s contemporary context. Within the novel, this takes the form of recovering a lost voice from history. Such recoveries are often figured in historical fiction as the correction of injustices, an effort to give voice to persons forgotten by history. At the formal level, the tones of this recovered voice inflect commonplace terms with otherwise latent meanings. After listening to the Dark, Apex’s narrator Signifies on the legacy of the Puritan lawyer John Winthrop in a manner contrary to recent political appropriations of his image. Rather than citing Winthrop as the progenitor of the “Protestant Ethic,” Whitehead argues that America’s economic Elect are simply Lucky.
Although it does not explicitly name John Winthrop, Apex makes a number of arcane jokes that repeatedly evoke colonial Massachusetts. One that appeals most humorously to Puritan literary history comes as the urbane protagonist begins to process the unfamiliar, largely white, middle-America town. A number of New Yorker-style cartoons hang framed in the hotel bar, [End Page 285]
but the punch lines were over his head. Portly Englishmen with round, curved bellies huddled in taverns and drawing rooms referring to minor scandals of their day. He didn’t know what they were talking about: I HAD A MINOR WIGGLESWORTH. What the hell did that mean?(14)
Given too few clues as to the content of the cartoon, readers also cannot determine what it means. We can, however, recognize that Michael Wigglesworth was the most prominent colonial American poet of his day, and that his The Day of Doom (1662) commanded New England readers’ attention well into the nineteenth century; at present, his work on Judgment Day (and the damning to hell it purportedly means for so many) is widely anthologized. For the consultant, then, the Wigglesworth name does only half the work of a sign: it gives form to an evidently prominent, knowable Signified, although the history that makes “Wigglesworth” meaningful has been...