Colson Whitehead Skillfully Depicts Slavery, Road Trip in 'Underground Railroad'

By Barnes, Harper | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), August 14, 2016 | Go to article overview

Colson Whitehead Skillfully Depicts Slavery, Road Trip in 'Underground Railroad'


Barnes, Harper, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


Colson Whitehead's brilliant, multifaceted new novel about race, resistance and perhaps reconciliation is called "The Underground Railroad," and the title is rich with meaning. Historically, the Underground Railroad was a network of safe houses and secret passageways that enabled African-American slaves to flee north to free states from the antebellum South. Abolitionists, whites or free blacks (like Harriet Tubman), acted as "conductors" and "station agents" along the way, risking their own freedom, and sometimes their lives, to help the fugitives.

Whitehead's title embraces the traditional metaphoric meaning of the term in the title, but, in an initially jarring slide from horrific naturalism into magic realism, the author also presents us with an actual railroad running underground, in tunnels beneath the eastern third of the United States, bound for freedom.

The novel is the saga of one traveler on the railroad, a young runaway slave named Cora fleeing a cotton plantation in the swamps of eastern Georgia. The novel is set some years before the Civil War.

The rapes and whippings Cora suffers give plenty of reason to flee the plantation, owned by two dissolute brothers, and once gone she cannot return what Cora faces if caught is detailed by Whitehead in the case of a male runaway, who is caught and dragged back to the plantation, where he is whipped for days, castrated and set on fire. Whitehead doesn't hesitate to graphically indict the horrors of slavery, but he is a skillful writer who can evoke even more horror by describing the superficially ordinary like the cruel variety of chains and mantraps hanging in a barn that hides a doorway to the underground railroad. He writes:

"Thousands of them dangled off the walls on nails in a morbid inventory of manacles and fetters, of shackles for ankles and wrists and necks. ... Shackles to prevent a person from absconding, from moving their hands, to suspend a body in the air for a beating. One row was devoted to children's chains. ..."

Entry to the railroad is through a trapdoor in the barn floor, and below it stairs lead to a small platform. The tunnel, Cora astonishingly narrates, "must have been twenty feet tall, walls lined with dark and light colored stones in an alternating pattern. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

Colson Whitehead Skillfully Depicts Slavery, Road Trip in 'Underground Railroad'
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.