Tuesday, June 25, 2019
June 25, 2019: 21st Century Lit: The Underground Railroad
[In honor of my about-to-conclude grad class on Analyzing 21st Century America, a series on great recent literary works, with the same Af Am lit through-line that I brought to the class!]
On when anachronisms don’t work, when they do, and how to parse the difference.
As I wrote in this post a few years back, my unhappy reading of Charles Johnson’s National Book Award-winning historical novel Middle Passage (1990) was one of my more surprising literary experiences, given how many elements of the novel seemed geared to my particular interests and passions. That unhappiness stemmed almost entirely from Johnson’s use of anachronisms, purposefully a-historical words and details (focused especially on his narrator Rutherford Calhoun’s voice, perspective, and identity) that thoroughly pushed me out of the novel’s historical setting and themes (despite Johnson’s stated goal of “clos[ing] the distance between the past and the present” with those anachronisms). While of course much of that response has to do with my own personal perspective and preferences, I argued in that post—and would reiterate here—that such anachronisms risk damaging the project and potential power of historical fiction; or, at the very least, place the emphasis so fully on the “fiction” side of that generic category as to render their novels not at all “historical” in the more meaningful senses of that term.
Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (2016), the historical novel that was awarded the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (among its many honors to date), has more than its share of such anachronisms. The literal railroad on which slave runaways like our protagonists Cora and Caesar travel in the novel’s antebellum world isn’t quite an anachronism, although of course it’s a metaphorical twist on the Underground Railroad’s historical details. But each stop and setting along that journey does explicitly and drastically shift those characters, and thus the novel’s readers, in time—beginning with a Charleston, South Carolina that features skyscrapers and medical experiments on African Americans, and continuing through a number of other such time period shifts that I won’t spoil here (but that eventually include 21st century elements). I had found out about those elements of Whitehead’s novel prior to reading it, and was thus prepared for a similar experience to that of reading Johnson’s book (although I likely would have minded Johnson’s anachronisms a bit less had I been aware of them going in). But that wasn’t at all the case—I found The Underground Railroad to be not only moving and shattering, beautiful and awful, but also one of the most evocative and effective historical novels or cultural works about slavery I’ve ever encountered.
You could make the case that my very distinct experience here had to do, again, with my preparation for these elements; or with the undeniable fact that I’m a different reader at 41 than I was at 13 (meaning I should likely give Johnson’s novel another chance). Both of those are fair points to be sure, but I would also argue that Whitehead uses these shifts in time in a more comprehensive and even genre-related way than did Johnson. Indeed, I would argue that Whitehead’s novel has more in common with Octavia Butler’s Kindred (1979), as both could be described as works that use science fiction tropes and storytelling both to immerse their audiences in histories of slavery and to link those histories to broader themes of race, identity, memory, and nation. While Kindred’s science fiction story takes a contemporary woman back in time to the antebellum South, and Whitehead’s brings historical characters from that setting across and forward in time to many other moments (including his and our own), both works employ their genres in service of a deep and potent examination of the specific and overarching histories. The question of whether and how any 21st century American can truly understand the world of slavery remains an open one; but both Butler’s and Whitehead’s books offer groundbreaking, genre-bending, impressive contributions to that ongoing challenge.
Next 21C text tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other recent literary works you’d highlight?