Essay by Ted Gioia

I first came to the American slave narrative via a roundabout
path. Many years ago, my interest in black music, folklore and
culture spurred me to undertake a slow, thorough study of
primary documents that might broaden my grasp of those
subjects. Back in my student days, my teachers never told me
about Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography (first published in 1789)
or Solomon Northup’s
Twelve Years a Slave (1853) and other
similar accounts from the antebellum era, but I later stumbled
upon them as part of my self-assigned reading list in black
cultural history. Yet if I started reading these works because of
my research, I came to prize them for their inspiring testimonials
and thought-provoking accounts of quiet heroism.

I also read the more familiar memoirs
by Frederick Douglass and Booker T.
Washington, and later dug into the
massive collection of oral histories
from former slaves compiled by the
Federal Writers’ Project in the late
1930s. Eventually I sought out far
more obscure first-person source
documents, a process that confirmed
my view that the unfiltered
reminiscences of participants are
almost always a better starting-point
in any historical inquiry than the
current-day theories of academics.
(I still regret my inability to secure
a copy of Harry Middleton Hyatt’s
massive five-volume collection—
a total of 4,766 pages—
Hoodoo -
Conjuration - Witchcraft – Rootwork
, an out-of-print rarity that
draws on interviews with 1,600 African-Americans, most of them
conducted in the 1930s. The last time I checked, a copy of this
work cost $6,500. Maybe someone will give it to me as a birthday
present someday.)

I do not envy the novelist who tries to match the power or
intensity of these accounts in their works of fiction. Yet our
nation’s leading storytellers are drawn again and again to this
rich, almost inexhaustible subject.  The plot of the oppressed
seeking freedom is compelling and timeless…and also woven into
the fabric of  American experience. Even outsiders to African-
American culture can relate to it. When my Italian grandfather
came to America from Sicily at age 14, he was tricked into
signing on with a gang of railroad workers, whose overseers kept
him in chains and forced him to work against his will. He had to
overcome a guard late one night and make a rapid pre-dawn
escape from the chain gang camp before he could launch his own
pursuit of the American dream. Many others had similarly
troubled introductions to the opportunities of the New World. For
them the African-American slave narrative might not be represent
their identical story, but they can grasp its emotional and
psychological truths as symbolic of their own heritage.

I suspect that emotional connection explains why William Styron,
a white writer from the South who later moved North, decided to
The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967), a searing literary
work which won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction at a time when the
Civil Rights movement was stirring up debate in America. But a
backlash soon set in, and Styron was accused of “whitened
appropriation” of black history.  Like other books from that period
on racial issues by sympathetic white liberals—such as Norman
Mailer’s essay “The White Negro” or John Howard Griffin’s
Like Me
The Confessions of Nat Turner gradually lost its
progressive credentials and disappear from school reading lists
as an embarrassing example of white usurpation of the black

That’s now a distant memory, and the next phase ushered in a
new generation of African-American writers who had their own
notions about the slave narrative. Their efforts were, in an odd
way, both progressive and unprecedented, yet also marked a
return to the roots of the genre. In its first manifestation, back in
the 19th century, these stories were told by black writers but
targeted at a broad general audience, and their purely literary
qualities coexisted with a desire to enlighten and influence. That
now happened again, with books such as Toni Morrison’s
and Edward P. Jones The Known World—both of which won the
Pulitzer Prize, just as Styron had done a generation earlier.
These novels broke new ground, but also harkened back to the
firsthand accounts by Northup, Equiano, Douglass and others who
created the genre.

Is it still possible to find a new angle on this old story in the
current day?  Colson Whitehead aims to do just that with his
2016 novel
The Underground Railroad. At first glance, the book
seems to follow the familiar path of the slave narrative, with all
the usual character types and incidents; but as the reader
proceeds more deeply into the story, unexpected elements
appear in the work. The plot begins to dance across genre
categories, and a phantasmagorical quality enters the tale.

At the most basic level,
The Underground Railroad is a historical
novel dealing with the worst aspects of plantation life in Georgia
during the pre-Civil War period. But on top of this chronicle,
Whitehead mixes in elements of magical realism and alternate
history. Yet these never undercut the intense realism of the
unfolding story. The end result is a kind of slave narrative as it
might be imagined by Franz Kafka or Gabriel García Márquez, but
still retaining the plausibility of a non-fiction memoir. In some
ways, I am reminded of Toni Morrison, who defied expectations
by inserting a ghost into the fabric of
Beloved, yet without
misleading anyone into thinking she had written a horror genre

Whitehead's story follows the life and times of Cora, a young
woman who aims to escape the degradation of the Randall
Plantation and make her way North. She is approached by
Caesar, an ambitious fellow slave who has seen life outside of
Georgia and has come into contact with a representative of the
Underground Railroad. His friend can facilitate their secret
departure, and Casear proposes that Cora join him on this
journey to freedom. Years before, her mother had made a similar
escape, somehow managing to elude the slave catchers who
followed in her wake. Now the daughter agrees to take the same
dangerous course.

So far, these details will be familiar to readers who have read
other slave narratives. Yet Whitehead departs dramatically from
historical realism when he introduces the actual Underground
Railroad. In real life, this network of Abolitionists, former slaves
and sympathizers organized a series of safe houses and travel
itineraries that allowed the transit of slaves without the
detection of the white authorities. Yet in Whitehead’s novel he
turns this loose-knit group of paths and people into an actual
underground railroad, a kind of subway with railcars, stations and
conductors. It’s an alternative transit system for those who can’t
use the trains above ground.

“I had the idea for the book about 16 years ago,” Whitehead told
an interviewer “recalling how when I was a kid, I thought the
Underground Railroad was a literal railroad and when I found out
it wasn’t, I was disappointed. So I thought it was a cool idea,
and then I thought, ‘Well, what if it actually was a real railroad?
That seems like a cool premise for a book.’”

The Underground Railroad thus takes its place alongside a series
of high-profile new millennium novels that mix tiny amounts of
fantasy with large doses of realism, creating a new hybrid form.
Jonathan Lethem set the tone for this new approach with his
2003 novel
The Fortress of Solitude, which is a semi-
autobiographical novel about the author’s childhood in Brooklyn.
The story proceeds with a gritty real-life urban quality, except for
a few passages in which the leading protagonists find a
superhero’s cape which allows them to fly through the air. Most
other writers of ‘literary fiction’ would have feared that this tiny
addition—akin to something out of a comic book—might
invalidate the social realism of the rest of the book, but Lethem
grasped that the introduction of a wee bit of magic could actually
amplify the potency of his narrative. In his final novel,
The Pale  King,
David Foster Wallace did something similar: the entire
novel follows the rules of realism with scrupulosity, except for
one character who can float in the air a few inches from his chair.
The Oscar-winning film
Birdman starts out with precisely that
same notion—a hero who floats above ground—yet once again
the plot keeps magical elements mostly in reserve in a story that
not only avoids excessive fantasy elements, but is actually a
critique of their bloated importance in popular culture.

This genre needs a name.  The basic formula can be described
succinctly: (1) the book cannot embrace escapism, but must
address actual social or personal issues, even dark and tragic
ones; (2) an element of magic is introduced into the story; but
(3) the realistic elements must account for 90% of the setting
and story.  Indeed, the fantastic ingredients are rarely allowed to
enter into the forefront of the tale.  When they do so, they are
treated as everyday and normal, hardly worthy of attention. What
shall we call these works, stories that represent a breed of
fiction similar to magical realism, but downsizing the magic and
supersizing the realism?  For want of a better label, I will call
hyper-realist fantasies.

The surprising subway isn’t the only odd ingredient here.
Whitehead also rewrites nineteenth century history, envisioning a
range of political initiatives and agendas that never existed—for
example a genocidal plan in North Carolina to kill everyone of
African descent and staff plantations with Irish, German and
other white immigrants. The ideas on display here are
provocative and the story proceeds with energy, although
teachers assigning this book in a classroom will need to spend
some time educating students on the difference between the
fantastic and historical aspects of the narrative.

Even so, the emotional force of
The Underground Railroad won’t
need explaining.  The heroes and villains are presented in stark
relief—alas, sometimes in an almost outlandish degree. But this
isn’t a novel about nuance and the moral judgments here could
hardly be more stark. Indeed, the story proceeds with the clarity,
verve and sense of righteousness we have come to expect from
Hollywood big-budget films. So much so, that I’d be surprised if
this Whitehead’s story doesn’t show up on theater screens in the
not-so-distant future.

Ted Gioia's latest book is How to Listen to Jazz (Basic Books)

Publication date: Novemeber 4, 2016
Colson Whitehead & the Evolution of
the American Slave Narrative

In The Underground Railroad, antebellum
history joins hands with hyper-realist fantasy
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Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Blind Assassin

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Bacigalupi, Paolo
The Windup Girl

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barker, Clive
Books of Blood, Vols. 1-3

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Bierce, Ambrose
The Complete Short Stories

Blackwood, Algernon
The Complete John Silence Stories

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Brooks, Max
World War Z

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Butler, Octavia E.

Campbell, Ramsey
Demons by Daylight

Campbell, Ramsey
The Nameless

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chambers, Robert W.
The King in Yellow

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Cline, Ernest
Ready Player One

Crichton, Michael
Jurassic Park

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Dickens, Charles
A Christmas Carol

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Egan, Jennifer
A Visit from the Goon Squad

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fowles, John
A Maggot

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gardner, John

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haig, Matt
The Humans

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Hendrix, Grady

Herbert, Frank

Joe Hill
Heart-Shaped Box

Hill, Susan
The Woman in Black

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Houellebecq, Michel

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Ishiguro, Kazuo
Never Let Me Go

Jackson, Shirley
The Haunting of Hill House

James, Henry
The Turn of the Screw

James, M.R.
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Ketchum, Jack
Off Season

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

King, Stephen

King, Stephen
Pet Sematary

Koja, Kathe
The Cipher

Krilanovich, Grace
The Orange Eats Creeps

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Our Lady of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Levin, Ira
Rosemary's Baby

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Lindqvist, John Ajvide
Let the Right One In

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Lovecraft, H.P.

Machen, Arthur
The Great God Pan

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mandel, Emily St. John
Station Eleven

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
I Am Legend

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morris, Jan

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o
Wizard of the Crow

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

North, Claire
The First 15 Lives of Harry August

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Oyeyemi, Helen
White is for Witching

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Poe, Edgar Allan
Tales of Mystery & Imagination

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Rice, Anne
Interview with the Vampire

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Roth, Philip
The Plot Against America

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Clark Ashton
The Dark Eidolon

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Straub, Peter
Ghost Story

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stevenson, Robert Louis
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde

Stoker, Bram

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Tryon, Thomas
The Other

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack
The Dragon Masters

Vance, Jack

Vance, Jack
The Languages of Pao

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vollmann, William T
Last Stories and Other Stories

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Wallace, Edgar
King Kong

Walpole, Horace
The Castle of Otranto

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Weir, Andy
The Martian

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Wong, David
John Dies at the End

Woolf, Virginia

Yamada, Taichi

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features

Notes on Conceptual Fiction
My Year of Horrible Reading
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
The Most Secretive Sci-Fi Author
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

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