Although Colson Whitehead says that he wrote The Underground Railroad (Doubleday, Sept.) “pretty quickly” last year, this novel has been 15 years in the making. He first thought about writing such a book as he was finishing up his 2001 novel, John Henry Days, inspired by the 19th-century African-American folk hero, whose legend grew from his skill in hammering steel drills into rock to build railroad tunnels.
“To do the subject justice was beyond me at the time,” Whitehead says, noting that his last major appearance at BEA was to promote John Henry Days 15 years ago; the show that year was also held at McCormick Place. Whitehead is speaking at the Adult Author’s Breakfast, where he will introduce readers to Cora, who has lived her entire life on a Georgia cotton plantation until, as a teenager, she escapes, with an obsessed slave catcher always close on her heels. As Cora travels through the antebellum South seeking freedom, she is transported along the way on the Underground Railroad, which, in her world, is more than the metaphor we know it as: in Whitehead’s alternative and fantastical South, the Underground Railroad is an actual hidden network of tracks and tunnels that has been built underneath the earth’s surface.
Whitehead explains that, evocative of Jonathan Swift’s satirical Gulliver’s Travels, he divided the novel into chapters set in South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Indiana to emphasize that Cora was moving “between different kinds of political economies and different states of possibility” on her journey north. Whitehead freely admits that, while the historic backdrop for each state that Cora travels through “started out realistic,” he subsequently deviated from the actual historical record and made each place, its culture, and its inhabitants distinct from the others so as to sustain the literary conceit.
Although The Underground Railroad takes great liberties with the historical record, Whitehead notes that he did extensive research, reading classic slave narratives, as well as oral histories of surviving former slaves that were commissioned by the WPA in the 1930s and have since been digitized and made available online. It’s important for contemporary readers to understand, he notes, that there was “no one slave experience,” just as there was “no one kind of plantation.” Despite the many possible permutations of what slaves lived through, he points out, one theme remains constant whether one is talking about slaves in 1790, 1850, or in 1910: “It’s all timeless American misery.”
In addition to his appearance at the Adult Author’s Breakfast, Whitehead will be signing at the Doubleday booth (2433), today, 3:30–4 p.m.
This article appeared in the May 12, 2016 edition of PW BEA Show Daily.