A Literary Cavalcade

Literary comments by Robert A. Parker on a wide range of serious 20th and 21st century novels

Tag: slave experience

The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead

This is an interesting and imaginative novel from 2016. It draws the reader in by portraying the horrifying world of its heroine, Cora, who begins as a teenager enduring the violence of slave life on a Georgia cotton plantation run by the cruel Randall family. She then evolves into a mature young woman after escaping from the plantation—inspired by the escape of her mother a decade earlier—after which she endures a variety of contrasting adventures that form the remainder of the novel.

Cora escapes from Georgia via the title’s underground railroad, which turns a metaphor into reality. For the railroad of this novel literally burrows underground through the Southern states in order to carry slaves north to freedom. It is a marvelous example of what an imaginative author can do. In this case, a verbal metaphor becomes a vividly described actual railroad. Its various stations have steel rails, tile walls, often-decrepit furnishings, an irregular schedule, and a variety of station masters, both black and white. Indeed, Cora’s final journey on this underground railroad closes out the novel in a beautifully crafted ending.

But once Cora has escaped the cruel Georgia plantation, with Caesar, a plantation colleague, the remaining portion of the novel becomes less dramatic. Cora’s first landing spot is a town in South Caroline that seems to be exploring how to integrate Negroes into their society. It is in stark contrast to her experience on the Georgia plantation, and she and Caesar, are tempted to stay there. But then she learns that the town is using their Negroes for a medical experiment, and on top of that a slave catcher named Ridgeway is in town, the same Ridgeway who had sought Ruby’s mother, and failed, after that woman’s earlier escape. So Cora has no choice but to flee what had seemed to be an hospitable town.

The next railroad stop brings Cora to the home of a station master, Martin, in North Carolina, where he hides Cora in his attic. For the slave catcher Ridgeway is still after her. Meanwhile, from this attic she can see the anti-Negro attitude of the town being dramatized below her on Fridays in public performances. And in doing so, Whitehead captures the anger and violence that marks the white society. This is in contrast to the South Carolina town she has just left, as well as later in Indiana, in which the slaves create their own self-governing community on a farm, and are accepted as human beings.

However, the contrasting attitudes found at these and future sites begin to seem arbitrary. They concentrate more on the different treatment of the Negroes than on what is happening inside Cora herself. Once Cora is betrayed in North Carolina, for example, and Ridgeway tracks her down, her subsequent adventures become far less dramatic. It is as if the author wishes to cover certain ground, certain life experiences of the slaves, and takes his eye off Cora herself. Indeed, he admits he did extensive research into the lives of the slaves of the 19th century, and it as if he felt the need to include much of that information in this work. Which results in the reader being less involved over the second half of the novel in the life and fate of Cora herself.

Whitehead also reveals a lack of structural discipline as he inserts short chapters or scenes in his account that have nothing to do with Cora, but merely provide a fuller history for certain other characters. In two occasions, he offers such short sections to tidy up loose ends regarding the fate of Cora’s mother Mabel, and that of Caesar, Cora’s companion in escape.

As suggested, there is a sameness to Cora’s adventures in the various locales she flees to. For while each locale reflects a different attitude, positive or negative, toward Negroes, as well as the different types of cruelty toward them, it is those difference that are the point of each of those locations, not how those differences change Cora’s attitude or her own future decision-making. Which, one suspects, is what appealed to the Pulitzer judges who honored this novel with their prize. That is, the message of the novel, the exposure of slave life in horrific detail, is what impressed them, rather than the story of Cora herself and any psychological impact these adventures might have had on her. Plus, these judges were also surely impressed with the imaginative travel the author uses, as well as the potential contributions that Negroes might bring to the country if truly integrated into American society.

In other words, for much of this book, after Cora escapes with Caesar, she is a victim of circumstance. She makes no real decisions herself, as she is moved from one location to another. She simply reacts to what is happening around her. She is, as I implied, more a symbol than a real person, more a typical black slave than an interesting individual. We do not get inside her to feel her hopes and fears, her sorrows or her happiness, or what various frustrations and successes do to change her.

I also do wish that Whitehead had made greater use of his concept of an actual underground railroad. For he does nothing with it in terms of his story. It moves Cora about, yes. But it has no influence on her actions or her fate. It merely enables her to move from Georgia to South Carolina to North Caroline, to Tennessee to Indiana, where she encounters different attitudes toward slavery in each location. What I wanted was for the railroad to affect her safety, such as having her take the wrong route, or for it to have brought her to people different from what she expected, good or bad, after she has perhaps misreads its schedule. That is, I would have much preferred to have the railroad directly influence her adventures or even determine her fate.

This appears to be more of a traditional novel than are other works of Whitehead. And the traditional usually appeals to me. But I sense that the author became too involved here in his message, and too committed to the considerable research he conducted about the life of 19th century Negroes, both the enslaved and the free. So after the first half of this novel, I stopped being caught up in the fate of Cora. I read more to discover what fate the author was going to devise for her. Which turned out to be unsatisfying, but nevertheless beautifully written. (April, 2019)

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Beloved, by Toni Morrison

I have put off reading Morrison for many years, simply not drawn to her portrait of black society. But this is supposed to be one of her best, I thought, so let’s give it a try.

Once I started this 1987 book, however, I was immediately lost. Who is Baby Suggs? What is the relationship among these people? What is going on? Fortunately, there is a Foreword, and in it Morrison explains that she has deliberately dumped the reader into the middle of a complex situation. Because this is what life is, especially for black people, who must react to the world around them, often without help.

However, the relationships among these people remain unclear for some time. Especially when Beloved arrives on their doorstep, a young woman whom Denver, daughter of Sethe, relates to. Who is she? Is she a ghost? Because another baby has died earlier. And this new arrival not only has the same name but is the title character. So we know she is important.

There is also a white woman named Amy, who helps Sethe on the day she bears a child. Sethe is grateful, and learns her last name is Denver, which she likes. That baby appears to be Denver, now a teenager. What is clear is that this episode takes us back in time, that we are dealing here with events on different time levels. Which adds complexity to the relationships.

For a long while we have no reference point for the memories and interaction among Sethe, Beloved, Paul D, a former slave, and others. But with more detail, the relationships begin to come together. This is Faulkner territory to a degree, as we bounce around in time. Thus, Paul D escapes from a Georgia chain gang, moves in with Sethe, boots out a baby ghost, and then runs into the opposition of the newly-arrived Beloved, who suggests both that banished baby and a past returned to haunt the present.

Confusion is amplified as the story continues to move about in time, even introducing a new character, Stamp Paid, a ferryman who brought Sethe to freedom. He tries to persuade Paul D to make a realistic appraisal of Sethe, whom Stamp once found with two children, one covered with blood. Nothing is clearly stated, but the implication is that she has killed one child in order to preserve it from the life she has known. But, unlike in Faulkner, where confusion reigns but is eventually clarified, my frustration continues.

Until we remain in the present, where new details finally begin to make sense. That Stamp Paid stopped Sethe from killing Denver, after she had killed her other child, presumably Beloved, and tells this to a distraught Paul D. That Paul D and Beloved hate each other, and she is triumphant when he leaves after learning this. That Sethe still loves Beloved, and now tries to justify what she did by emphasizing the plight of fellow coloreds. But Beloved refuses to listen; and, as they argue, Beloved gains control over her mother, for Sethe is fearful Beloved will leave.

The climax occurs when Denver seeks a job with Quaker abolitionist Bodwin in order to support Sethe and Beloved, but to get that job she has to reveal the situation at home. Which riles up the local woman, who gather at the house to pray just as Bodwin arrives to pick up Denver. At the height of the action, Sethe rushes from Beloved’s side to attack Bodwin, thinking he is a slave catcher. This act also frees her from Beloved. And from her past?

A chapter later, we learn what happened and that Beloved is gone. The house also appears empty, except the faithful Paul D finds Sethe lying in bed, as grandmother Suggs did before she died. Who was Beloved, the town asks. Did she really exist? A final chapter recalls how she has been forgotten.

To sum up, this novel’s mysteriousness and misdirection certainly hearkens back to Faulkner. Why did Morrison take this approach? Partly, I think, because so much of the action is internal, and that while the life of the colored people is vividly captured, not much happens dramatically in the novel’s present. What happens is offstage or in the past, and often told indirectly, with the emphasis on the reaction to those developments.

As presented here, my interests were too much distributed among Sethe, Denver, Paul D, and Stamped Paid. Might the latter two, in fact, have been combined? And Beloved, torn between being real and being a ghost, is not vivid enough. She is described more through others reacting to her than through her acting on them. She thus becomes a symbol more than a real person. Especially when she is naked at the end, and some outsiders see her and some do not.

This work does not urge me to seek further Morrison. I must work too hard to understand what is going on. Which is deliberate, as I said, for the Foreword states: “I wanted the reader to be kidnapped, thrown ruthlessly into an alien environment as the first step into a shared experience with the book’s population—just as the characters were snatched from one place to another, from any place to any other, without preparation or defense.”

This is a valid purpose. And the work is beautifully written. But the approach makes it difficult to identify with the characters, as the author both moves from one character to another and moves back and forth in time. This is another case in which the events are not told sequentially. Often this is to hide the lack of a dramatic cause and effect, but here it is also because Morrison is emphasizing the significance of the events rather than the events themselves, and the repercussions of the events rather than their causes.

I can understand why Morrison is thought of so highly. Her message, her portrait of where today’s black society came from, is important. And perhaps requiring the reader to dig for that portrait and its repercussions is a valid means to impress that history on the white reader. But I for one would rather have been so immersed in the fate of these characters—instead of having to figure them out—that the same message would have been implanted in my emotions as much as in my mind. Which, I suggest, is the more traditional literary approach. And one that I am more comfortable with.

I regret my reaction to this work. I am still a conservative in literary terms, however, even if I am liberal in social and political terms. (June, 2015)