The Urban Gothic Vision of Colson Whitehead's the Intuitionist (1999)

By Liggins, Saundra | African American Review, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

The Urban Gothic Vision of Colson Whitehead's the Intuitionist (1999)


Liggins, Saundra, African American Review


But we do have in the Negro the embodiment of a past tragic enough to appease the spiritual hunger of even a James; and we have in the oppression of the Negro a shadow athwart our national life dense and heavy enough to satisfy even the gloomy broodings of a Hawthorne. And if Poe were alive, he would not have to invent horror; horror would invent him.

--Richard Wright, Native Son xxxiv

By listing Henry James, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Edgar Allan Poe as cultural references in his essay "How Bigger Was Born" Richard Wright does not merely address the similarities between the richness and depth of African American literature and the historical and cultural focus of these authors. As implicit in his use of the word "horror" to describe the racial history of the United States, Wright was also drawing an important connection between black America and the literary tradition known as the gothic. On its surface gothic literature seems an unlikely context in which to find a discussion of the African American experience. Originating as a formal literary tradition first in Europe with Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto, published in 1764, and consisting of such figures as castles and abbeys, tyrannical aristocrats, and damsels in distress, the genre's main purpose is to terrify, to reflect the threats and anxiety that individuals and societies often confront. With Charles Brockden Brown's Wieland, or the Transformation (1798), the American gothic literary tradition began, thus transplanting the genre onto US soil and transforming many of the earlier conventions. Rural towns and plantations replaced castles and abbeys, and landed gentry and slave owners stood in for European aristocracy. The gothic literature that would arise out of each of these contexts, even with their differences, took its inspiration from the social and political climates of the late eighteenth century.

Despite the temporal and contextual distance from its European and American gothic counterparts of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, contemporary African American literature resonates with many characteristics of the gothic aesthetic. The past still influences the present and future, and issues of identity still create conflicts within the individual. What contemporary African American gothic literature offers is a new set of questions: What does it mean to be a modern black American? Have class and gender differences replaced racial distinctions as the main threats to societal stability, for blacks and whites? How is future racial uplift to be achieved? In diverse ways, Wright and other novelists--Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor, and Ralph Ellison, in particular--have widened the perception of the gothic genre. (1) Like these black authors before him, Colson Whitehead demonstrates a gothic sensibility in his 1999 novel The Intuitionist. Set against the unusual backdrop of an investigation into elevator operations, The Intuitionist is an allegorical tale of blacks' struggle for upward mobility. Whitehead uses an urban gothic landscape and traditional gothic conventions to portray the alienation of the modern black American due to the progress in urban cities and to speculate on the future of US race relations.

In The Intuitionist Lila Mae Watson is an elevator inspector who becomes embroiled in big-city politics when an elevator that she has passed free-falls, fortunately without any passenger injuries. Lila Mae's occupation as an elevator inspector, and her subsequent investigation into the accident, is a clever variance of the detective figure and the detective genre, seen throughout African American literature, but also closely tied to the gothic narrative. (2) As Lila Mae s inquiry deepens, she dashes with dangerous characters and learns of plans for a new elevator design called "the black box." These plans lie at the heart of a power struggle within the elevator industry, and underscore a much larger social battle. …

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