115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and the Civil-War Era Midwest’s Failed Future

Christopher Leise, Whitman College

This paper reads The Underground Railroad as a prequel to Whitehead’s Apex Hides the Hurt. It concludes with its antagonist babbling exceptionalist rhetoric about America being a “shining beacon”: language that recalls the infamous “city upon a hill” tying UR to Apex, which is set in a town called "Winthrop."


Near the end of its dystopian subjunctive history of the Civil-War Era South, Colson Whitehead’s widely praised The Underground Railroad turns a temporarily optimistic gaze toward the US Midwest. In contrast with the mythical Canada, which turns out to be a profound disappointment for Ishmael Reed’s Flight to Canada, Whitehead’s Midwest offers the promise of a primarily black American safe-haven. Perhaps it might have become somewhat like the Sag Harbor of Whitehead’s youth; instead, however, the surrounding white community’s racism eventually closed in, suffocating any hopes for an independent African-American region in the US’s interior.

This paper will read The Underground Railroad as a prequel to Whitehead’s largely under-appreciated Apex Hides the Hurt. The Underground Railroad concludes with its antagonist Ridgeway babbling in exceptionalist rhetoric about America being a “shining beacon”: language that uncannily recalls the infamous “city upon a hill” line appropriated by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s but most frequently attributed to John Winthrop. Winthrop, Whitehead acolytes will recall, serves as the namesake for Apex Hides the Hurt’s Midwestern town—one that was “settled” by freed slaves but quickly appropriated by a barbed-wire magnate for his capitalist purposes. As I’ve argued previously, Apex signifies on the Midwest’s history of restaging Old Europe-influenced thinking.[1] The Underground Railroad further implicates the Midwest in a project typically ascribed to thinking associated with the US South: that is, perpetuating Old-World aristocratic fantasies in a New-World setting. It will also consider the cultural history of barbed-wire as a technology of racial and class division in the 19th-century.

[1] Leise, Christopher, “With Names, No Coincidence: Colson Whitehead’s Postracial Puritan Allegory,” African American Review