- Critique Has Its Uses
Is Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (2016) fake news? I haven’t been able to stop asking myself this question since the election of Donald Trump in November. Whitehead’s novel is, after all, constructed around an historical falsehood. As a kid, the author reports, he thought that the Underground Railroad was a literal subway slaves used to escape to the North. Many children who learn about the Railroad make the same mistake (as did Porsha Stewart in an episode of The Real Housewives of Atlanta). Taking his former confusion as a point of departure, Whitehead literalizes the metaphor. His protagonist Cora escapes from slavery in Georgia on an underground steam-powered locomotive. Fleeing the slave-catcher Ridgeway, she traverses a variety of states, each of which skews from the historical record in more or less dramatic ways. “Every state is different,” one character in the novel suggests. “Each one a state of possibility.” Historically informed readers will note that Whitehead’s novel incorporates anachronistic references to the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, Nazism, as well as twenty-first-century modes of oppression (such as stop and frisk and mass incarceration) into his vision of the 1850s.
My opening question is, of course, ridiculous. After all, everyone knows (or at least all literary critics know) that we don’t turn to fiction for a strictly factual report about the world. Philosophers and narrative theorists have long cautioned against asking whether fictional utterances are true or false. These are exactly the wrong questions to ask; the truth of fiction—whether in the mode of realism, magic realism, or science fiction—is in no case reducible to the truth status of its individual sentences. Meanwhile, almost everyone knows (and not just literary critics, this time) what fake news is. For the Macedonian teenagers in Veles who disseminated it, its purpose was to make them money. For those of us who consume it, fake news reinforces our political biases; it promises comfort, titillation, shock, delight. It helps us feel as if we’re reading the news—we are, after all, starved for real news—without having to confront the unwanted narratives of official media. The difference couldn’t be any clearer. On the one hand, Whitehead offers a fantastic world whose distance from our own is carefully staged as fiction, and which is meant to be interpreted as different from the historical record. On the other hand, disseminators of fake news offer an alternative world of ersatz facts designed to go viral on Facebook, which is meant to be mistaken, even if only briefly, for truth.
And yet this distinction doesn’t wholly satisfy me. As a novel about slavery, The Underground Railroad arguably has a special place in US literature and culture. In the absence of more significant memorials or reparations, the neo-slave narrative has for decades been a major political staging ground upon which we have reenacted and reconsidered the history and consequences of our nation’s founding sin. And for a long time, Whitehead has resisted stepping onto this staging ground. His previous novels have addressed race, as many critics have noted, more obliquely. Indeed, I would venture an even stronger claim. Whitehead didn’t only avoid writing about slavery; his early fiction sought to resist the literary equivalent of what in the realm of criticism has come to be called the historicist-contextualist paradigm. As Mitchum Huehls argues, Whitehead has long approached race in a way that resists “representational forms of meaning-making.” That is, the novelist has rejected the view that how we represent race determines (or is, in an uncomplicated way, equivalent to) how race is lived.
I read the author’s The Intuitionist (1999) as a satire of Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992). In her slim but influential book, Morrison argues that the American literary canon must be reread in light of what she terms a disavowed “Africanist presence.” Drawing on a powerful tradition of African American literary criticism, Morrison transforms the paint factory scene of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) into a critical credo. Playing in the Dark is...