The Underground Railroad and Using History in Fiction

This past Monday Centre College hosted a Pulitzer Prize winner: Colson Whitehead, author of The Underground Railroad, for which he received this year’s prize for fiction, as well as the National Book Award. We invited Colson as the college had adopted the book as our choice for the first year common reading experience, a practice through which all incoming Centre first year students read a the same book before discussing it on campus. One of these discussions comes in meetings between students and academic advisors. At Centre, students are assigned to members of the faculty in groups of ten. Usually, the faculty member will have the group over at his or her home for ice cream and to talk about the book. The idea is to give people a chance to get to know each other, and to give our incoming a students a sense of the kinds of conversations we want to have at Centre College. So, it can be a tricky decision (I am on the committee that makes the decision), but ultimately we look for work that is engaging and thought provoking.

The Underground Railroad was certainly both of those things, as was its author! Colson was a pleasure to have on campus. In addition to making a sweet Steve Martin reference, his address to our students and the wider community was funny, personal, and insightful. He gave us a window into his process, and when he turned to read from his own work the talk focused on the strengths of the novel and why we picked it in the first place.

The novel is deeply moving in large part because of Colson’s effective evocation of varying episodes of the African-American experience, but it begins with a deeply effective opening section set entirely on a southern slave plantation. Personally, reading the beginning of The Underground Railroad unexpectedly brought back clear memories for me, of a history course I took at University College Cork as an undergraduate. Colson conducted research using digital collections at the University of North Carolina Greensboro in addition to wide secondary source reading, and he uses historical material extremely well. Although the individuals are creations of his imagination, the brutalities they endure are not; I was reminded of my first exposure to the horrors of the Atlantic Slave Trade in my history class at UCC.

It’s an important point, and one I think is often unintentionally underplayed, that the slavery system in the Americas was brutal. Emotionally brutal and psychologically brutal, sure, but also physically brutal, sadistic on a daily basis. Sadism was systematized. There’s an important role for novels such as The Underground Railroad to play here. Fiction will reach audiences typical history books will not, and creating his own stories allows Colson Whitehead to do things an historian cannot do. He is not beholden to anything. However, his decision to tie his work so closely to historical events, particularly in that opening section of the book with all of its harrowing detail, lends it notable strength.

Uses of history in fiction, whether in novels or in cinema, can frustrate historians. However, although I may share others’ disdain for Michael Bay’s ridiculous Pearl Harbor, on the whole I strongly support creative works using history for their material. Frankly, all they are doing is acknowledging an existing debt. Our common pasts clearly inform the stories we look to tell in the present. The Underground Railroad is more than that, of course, purposefully arguing for interpretations of an American past that highlights episodes glossed over, ignored, or conveniently forgotten. This is the novel’s strength. This is historical fiction done well.

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