A 1872 wood engraving depicting "fugitive" slaves. Library of Congress

The novelist Colson Whitehead talks about the truth behind his alternative history of the pre-Civil War South—and why he can’t stop writing about trains.

At 16 or maybe 17—she doesn’t remember her age—Cora runs away from the hellish cotton plantation in Georgia where she’s lived her entire life. After a close call, she and a fellow fugitive make it to the Underground Railroad: a clandestine network of subterranean railway lines that funnels slaves to freedom. Cora’s harrowing journey northward, pursued by notorious slave catcher Ridgeway, provides the focus of Colson Whitehead’s new novel Underground Railroad (Doubleday).

The real-life “railroad,” of course, had no tracks or locomotives: It was a very loosely organized network of resources—secret routes and safe houses—set up by former slaves, free blacks, and white abolitionists to help slaves in Antebellum South flee.

Whitehead isn’t the first writer to be fascinated by this system, but he is among the few who manage to avoid sanitizing the memory of what it really was. As  writes in The New Yorker, stories about the Railroad should “incite our curiosity and skepticism: about how the Underground Railroad really worked, why stories about it so consistently work on us, and what they teach us—or spare us from learning—about ourselves and our nation.”

Indeed, by manifesting a notion into a tangible thing—a train—he brings readers along with Cora on a Funhouse of Horrors-esque ride through the very real history of racism in America. The novelist talked to CityLab about the roots of his imaginary railroad and how he uses it to explore contemporary issues.

How did you decided to make the Underground Railroad a literal piece of infrastructure?

About 16 years ago, I was winding down a book called John Henry Days.  I remember sitting on my couch, and just thinking how funny it was that when you're a kid and you first hear the words "Underground Railroad," you picture a literal tunnel subway underground. Most people find out quickly that it's not a real subway. Some people keep up that delusion for years. I thought: What if it was actually true?

That's a premise, not really much of a story. The second part came pretty quickly: What if, as as our hero goes north through different states, each state represents a different aspect of America—a different face of an alternative America? Putting those two ideas together, I had a really good structure.

[But] I didn't feel I could do it justice. Every couple of years, I'd come back to my one page of notes and ask myself, "Am I ready? Am I ready?" And each time it didn't make sense. About two and a half years ago, I finally committed to the idea.

This isn’t the first time a conveyance has played a central role in your work. In John Henry Days, the protagonist was a “steel-driver”—a man with mythological strength who hammers steel drills to bore through rocks to make railway tunnels. In The Intuitionist, set in mid-20th century New York City, it’s elevators. Are you a fan of moving machinery in real life?

No...but they do allow for a lot of metaphorical play. [They have] provided a nice scaffolding for ideas for me in the past.

In the book, Cora’s journey starts in Georgia. From there, she goes to North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Indiana. Finally, we leave her in Missouri. How did you decide on this route?

It’s pretty random. I wanted to go from the Deep South to the North.  But could have started in Florida, and the Georgia chapter could have been South Carolina. Or, it could have started in North Carolina. Up until I wrote the Tennessee chapter, I didn't know what state it would be. It could have been anything in the anterior. I knew I wanted to start on the Eastern Seaboard. Since each state is pretty much divorced from reality, in the end, the state names end up being pretty random.

This book has been compared to Gulliver’s Travels. But to those of us who romanticize cities may recognize in it elements from Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino. In that novel, a traveler describes his different urban destinations, each with a woman’s name and a distinct personality. Each state Cora goes to is also a character with specific traits. Could you talk a little about their role?

There's a state that's a paternalistic, seemingly benevolent state. That allowed me to talk about programs of black uplift. In the book, Cora is freed, gets a job, gets housing and education. And then things start to go wrong. I wanted a seemingly white progressive state. There's a white supremacist state, analogous to towns in the Deep South and also to Nazi Germany. I was exploring the similarities in places where there's a deep hatred of “the other” and societal controls that go into enforcing that hatred.

Without spoiling the rest of the states: Each premise allowed me to play with history. Once I made the underground railroad literal, I was allowed to make other changes, to bring in different parts of American history and cram them into these different states.

Speaking of places as characters, a recurring one in your work is New York City. Tell me about your relationship to the city and the role it plays in your stories.

It's my hometown. It’s where I grew up; it’s where I live now. I go teach at other places for a month or two, or travel off for work. But it’s a place I love. It has informed my personality in different ways. The Colossus of New York provides one view of the city. Zone One ends up being a kind of idealized city, because everyone is dead and no one is around to bug you anymore.

For a long time, I didn't know what the slave catcher Ridgeway [in Underground Railroad]sounded like. I put it off and put it off. And then I read Eric Foner's Gateway to Freedom. It talks about New York as a hub of abolitionist activity, and a cold war between abolitionists and slavers. In making Ridgeway's story, I have him spend time in New York. There's about two pages about New York and that sort of satisfied my New York urge.

The pre-Civil War South you have created is imagined, and yet true to life. What elements of that world exist today?

Slavery doesn't end with the end of the Civil War; it reverberates through society to this day. So, in talking about slave patrollers, you can talk about today's law enforcement attitude towards black people. By talking about the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiments and other medical experiments, you talk about a different kind of attack on the black body. My philosophy is that I’m not sticking to the facts of American history, but I'm sticking to the truth.

While Cora and everyone else is walking around in the 1850s, there are things about Africans being displayed in museums and carnivals and world’s fairs that happen later that I can bring in. I can bring in the eugenics movement. Those are Americans truths.

I allowed myself to play with time in a way that allowed me to illuminate different parts of American history that some people know, some people don't know. but present them in concert in a new way, and hopefully trigger recognitions in the reader.

When they first come upon the railroad, Cora’s friend and fellow runaway asks the stationmaster,“Who built it?” The reply is: “Who builds anything in this country?”—the idea being that America was built on the backs of slaves. A corollary to that question is “Whom is it built for?” For your Underground Railroad, the answers to both those questions was the same.

I hadn't thought of it from that angle. That's actually pretty interesting. Yeah, I mean the question in the book calls up the second question, "Whom is it built for?" Whether it's the White House or the economic engine of the South, it's for white people to enjoy. The tunnel in Underground Railroad is for black people. So, yes, I hadn't thought about that, but yes, there's an inversion there.

Underground Railroad is an African-American narrative. But it’s also the story of America as a whole. As I was reading it, I was struck by parallels between Cora’s experiences and those of America’s refugees and immigrants. With each new place, Cora familiarizes herself with new customs, acclimates to the language, and changes her thought process. Except, of course, Cora is in her own country.

Ever since the beginning, people have come here for safety—that's the American dream of entering into the middle class and beyond. It's the story of Irish immigrants and Italian immigrants and Jewish immigrants and Chinese immigrants. Everyone is coming here with nothing except what you have on your back and entering into this mythological system.

When you're free from slavery on your way to the North, that's another version of the immigrant experience, when you're on the shores of a new land in the North and you have nothing, you try to play by the rules in order to achieve victory.

In the North Carolina chapter, you see the influx of Irish immigrants who have replaced poor black labor, soon to be replaced by poor Germans who have come in, and then poor Italians. That's the cycle of america—of rejuvenation and struggle. We can find linkages in the dehumanization of every new group in the past and in the present. Hopefully, some of that work is being done in the book.

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