Thursday, March 16, 2017

Novel Insights: Colson Whitehead Speaks About 'The Underground Railroad,' Inspiring Me to Read It

Lecture Recap / Book Discussion

Colson Whitehead
Author of The Underground Railroad
Speaking February 27, 2017
at Evanston Township High School

Thursday morning on Facebook, I expressed consternation about President Trump's proposed budget eliminating all funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Although the annual budgets of these organizations represent 0.001 of the President's 2018 budget--which adds $54 billion in defense spending--and in sum would cost about a third of the silly border wall that I thought "Mexico will pay for," their existence, and those they help and inspire, are clearly irrelevant to Trump.

If there is one underlying theme to the Seth Saith blog, it is a testament to the importance of arts and culture--for me personally in myriad ways, for society as a whole and for the entirety of human endeavor.

In stark contrast to President Trump's position on the arts and government programs that support them, a friend surfaced a meme noting that during World War II, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was asked to cut funding for the arts.

To which he replied, "Then what are we fighting for?"

While I hope city, state, corporate, foundation and private funding of the arts will mushroom as Humpty Trumpty sits on his wall, it isn't hard to imagine the crushing consequences on artists of all idioms and ilks if the federal government indeed closes its checkbook on benevolent and developmental cultural resources.

Although I saw the author Colson Whitehead deliver a public lecture at Evanston Township High School three weeks ago--which was presented by the Family Action Network, a community-based organization working with ETHS and New Trier High School that appears supported by a mix of public and private sponsors--as I prepared to write this piece I couldn't help but think of the relevancy of Trump's aims to defund the arts, and how detrimental such actions could be to writers like Whitehead and those who may follow in his footsteps.

The 47-year-old Whitehead has been, by various measures and degrees, a "successful writer" since graduating from Harvard in 1991.

He initially wrote for The Village Voice and earned high praise for his first novel, 1999's The Intuitionist.

Per Wikipedia, he's written several other novels, non-fiction books, essays and articles for prestigious magazines, has taught at Princeton, Columbia, NYU and other top institutions, and received MacArthur and Guggenheim Fellowships plus numerous other awards.

His latest novel, The Underground Railroad, was a selection of Oprah's Book Club 2.0, cited by President Obama as a book he was reading last summer, became a #1 New York Times Bestseller and won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2016.

And yet, I had never heard of Whitehead or The Underground Railroad until my friend Dave--a much more voracious reader than I--mentioned that the author would be doing some local speaking appearances.

I wasn't initially inclined to seek more details, but took note when I happened to see a flyer--as shown at top--in the window of Northfield's Taco Nano (more on them in an upcoming blog post) on the day of Whitehead's ETHS engagement.

The event was open to the public and free of charge, and was being held in the auditorium of Evanston High School, a renowned campus on which I had never stepped foot. (I imagined ETHS alums like John & Joan Cusack, Jeremy Piven, Michael Shannon and others may have cut their acting teeth in that very room, but the auditorium seemed quite new, so perhaps not.)

Just the previous week, I had seen a small exhibit of photographs on the Underground Railroad--a safe-passage route for escaped slaves during the Civil War--at the Evanston History Center (which I wrote about in this piece).

Although a quick bit of Googling revealed Whitehead's book to be a work of fiction--it imagines an interstate subway-like network of actual trains used by runaway slaves--it felt well worth my time to hear a renowned writer speak close to my home.

Before attending I watched a few minutes of a Talks at Google video in which Whitehead said things similar to what he discussed in Evanston, so if this piece prompts your curiosity, check it out.

And at the event, I bought a copy of The Underground Railroad from Winnetka's The Book Stall. Colson Whitehead had signed a few before heading into his presentation, and this saved me waiting in a long line afterwards.

I've now read the book, so although I'll mainly focus on aspects of the author's speech, I can also (somewhat) intelligently make reference to the novel.

Whitehead had read a couple excerpts as part of his prepared remarks and Q&A that lasted a bit over an hour.

This was on Monday, February 27 and the next day, Whitehead would speak twice at New Trier, at the Loyola University School of Law and at Francis Parker School in Chicago.

The vast ETHS auditorium was nearly full, and Whitehead was supposedly heard by over 5,000 people at his Chicagoland stops.

Preceded and warmly introduced by local dignitaries and educators, Whitehead opened by observing:

"I usually spend Monday nights at home in my apartment weeping over my regrets."

This was obviously a self-deprecating line that elicited laughter, but in the Talks at Google video he had mentioned "nursing a depression" when inspiration struck for The Underground Railroad.

This latter part was referencing 17 years ago and I won't surmise anyone's psychological being based on a couple of brief statements, but the combination of these remarks ignited my pathos for the life of a writer, even one as clearly gifted as Whitehead, who lives with his wife and kids in Brooklyn but noted that his job essentially entails sitting in a room by himself for hours on end.

And as a descendant of slaves, putting his heart and soul into The Underground Railroad--which begins by vividly describing the excruciating existence of slaves on a Georgia plantation--was presumably emotionally draining for Whitehead, who mentioned that "Melatonin helps" when asked how he got to sleep each night while writing it.

Yet while candid, the author's speech was more enlightening, humorous and uplifting than it was maudlin.

Sharing that as a child who loved to stay indoors and devoured the works of many authors, including Stephen King, Whitehead joked that he once planned on writing "The Black Shining," while also expressing a fascination with Samuel Beckett.

He conveyed that he "learned to be a writer" while at The Village Voice from 1991-97, while glibly describing how the weekly New York paper perpetually "went downhill after I left" in the eyes of ex-staffers throughout its history.

But plum assignments certainly didn't come instantly, as Whitehead's first piece--after cajoling and impressing editors--was about season finales of the Growing Pains and Who's the Boss sitcoms.

Whitehead went on to reflect on some of his early novels, how daunting it was to pursue a career as a writer when an "average book of literary fiction sells 5,000 copies...if you're lucky" and that as a "skinny black man with slender wrists and feminine fingers" he was heartened when another such individual became President.

I can't exactly explain the segue, but one of the evening's coolest moments came when Whitehead pontificated about the Donna Summer song, "MacArthur Park." (Written by Jimmy Webb, it was also famously sung by Richard Harris and others.)

While others have often derided the song's melodramatic lyrics, such as:

Someone left the cake out in the rain 
I don't think that I can take it 
'Cause it took so long to bake it 
And I'll never have that recipe again

...Whitehead expressed non-ironic affinity while identifying with "MacArthur Park" as an "investigation of the artist's journey," representing to him the reality of rejection letters, disinterest and caustic treatment by publishers.

He even played a recording of the song on a tablet, prompting a hearty singalong:

It was only later in his talk that Colson Whitehead spoke of The Underground Railroad with any depth, before reading passages from it.

He noted that the conceit of an actual underground railroad train, transporting escaped slaves from state-to-state--each representing a different experience for 19th Century African-Americans--was something he had thought about as a kid and initially considered as a book subject 17 years ago.

But he didn't feel ready, believing he needed to hone his skills writing other novels first.

Three years ago, Whitehead told his idea--which draws structural inspiration from Gulliver's Travels--to his editor, shrink and wife, the latter convincing him it was more worth pursuing than a novel about a "Brooklyn writer going through a midlife crisis."

Per the author, his editor enthused in shorthand, "Giddy-up motherfucker!"

He began by doing research, including of WPA stories on slavery available in the public domain, and went on a Plantation Tour, noting that he was "the only black guy on the bus."

Incredulously, he came upon a plantation offering lodging accommodations in the present day, with a ghastly slogan along the lines of, "If you want to escape from hotel chains..."

The book itself centers around a teenage slave named Cora, who is convinced to run away from the Georgia plantation--and abusive overseers--by a young male slave named Caesar.

Given that it is far from the disposable page turners I typically read, that I finished the 306-page Underground Railroad in just over two weeks--not extraordinarily fast, but an accomplishment for me--bespeaks the quality of Whitehead's writing.

And while I would describe it as important, gripping and enlightening more than spellbinding or overly surprising in its narrative, it is undoubtedly a fine work of historical fiction.

And art.

The kind we should always celebrate, support and--to individual tastes--seek out.

I should note that Colson Whitehead did not explicitly speak about the current administration or its policies, except for expressing that: "Oppression is the same, whether of blacks, Jews, Muslims or Mexicans."

Yet he was quite inspiring, from an artistic and social consciousness standpoint.

And if took to this point in his career, through numerous undertakings, experiences, observations, obstacles, etc., before writing what will presumably be considered his masterpiece--though Dave speaks well of earlier work--it seems essential that we continue to fund the development of artistic talent.

"I keep trying to keep myself amused and challenged," Whitehead responded to a question about what he might write next, and it's voices like his that will eternally rise above the ephemeral din.

May they never be quieted or quelled, regardless of the whims of whomever may be in power.

1 comment:

Ken said...


Trump’s apparent attempts to silence involvement in the arts reminds me of one of Nelson Algren’s quotes:

“The hard necessity of bringing the judge on the bench down into the dock has been the peculiar responsibility of the writer in all ages of man.”
― Nelson Algren, Chicago: City on the Make

Guess Trump doesn’t want to fund his potential critics.

Colin’s struggle with depression seems to be a common affliction among writers. My suspicion is that the cause is threefold.

1) Being constantly immersed in the struggle to express the tragic side of human life causes an unbalanced focus for the writer, i.e. thinking constantly about suffering or the ultimate tragedy of life will sadden anyone. You don’t seem to notice this kind of depression among science fiction writers. In effect the solitary writer spends days alone focusing on sad topics and ultimately trains his/her mind to reflexively react that way.

2) I think excessive solitariness can inevitably leads to a form of unhappiness because humans are naturally social creatures. It’s long been scientifically proven that an abundance of deep, social relationships causes an increase in subjective well being.

3) Many writers seem to have sensitive temperaments coupled with good bullshit detectors, (Orwell, Hemingway, Algren, Wright, Baldwin, Vonnegut, etc.) They have a kind of “depressive but accurate worldview” and live without the positive illusions most of us utilize to get through our days. Psychiatrists have long noted that the problems of mild depressives are not that their thinking is faulty but that they see reality too clearly.