The History of the United States According to Colson Whitehead
Alexander Manshel on the Historical Fiction Boom of Contemporary American Literature
Since the publication of his first novel in 1999, Colson Whitehead has become one of the most lauded, prized, taught, and studied American novelists writing today. Winner of the National Book Award, two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize (the only writer apart from William Faulkner and John Updike to accomplish this), recipient of a MacArthur “genius grant” and the nearly-as-lucrative honor of Oprah’s Book Club, among the youngest writers to receive the Library of Congress Lifetime Achievement Award, and the most contemporary novelist included in the Norton Anthology of African American Literature, Whitehead stands at the very center of the contemporary American canon. According to critics and scholars alike, part of what makes Whitehead so singular is his ability to write across a vast array of literary and mass-cultural forms: detective and encyclopedic fiction (The Intuitionist, 1999; John Henry Days, 2001), contemporary satire and the bildungsroman (Apex Hides the Hurt, 2006; Sag Harbor, 2009), postapocalyptic zombie fiction (Zone One, 2011), the meta-slave narrative (The Underground Railroad, 2016), historical fiction (The Nickel Boys, 2019), and the heist novel (Harlem Shuffle, 2021).While Whitehead’s own oeuvre represents a veritable catalogue of genres, it also chronicles nearly two hundred years of American history.
Whitehead’s play with genre is so well-known and so self-conscious that he has even joked about it publicly in the pages of the New York Times. Before the release of his zombie novel, Zone One, Whitehead published an essay titled “Picking a Genre,” in which he describes his artistic process. “If you’re anything like me, figuring out what to write next can be a real hassle….To make things easier, I modified my dartboard a few years ago. Now, when I’m overwhelmed by the untold stories out there, I head down to the basement, throw a dart and see where it lands. Try it for yourself!” What follows is a list of targets on that dartboard, both a catalogue and a sendup of the genres that characterize contemporary American fiction, ranging from the “Encyclopedic” novel for the “postmodern, or postmodern-curious,” to the “Ethnic Bildungsroman,” “Little Known Historical Fact,” and “Southern Novel of Black Misery.” Here Whitehead is satirizing not only his own career but also the phenomenon that critics such as Andrew Hoberek, Theodore Martin, and Jeremy Rosen have called the contemporary “genre turn”: that is, the spate of literary novelists in recent years who have drawn on the “frameworks” of mass-market genres. By now, the set of these “literary genre writers” is familiar—Margaret Atwood, Michael Chabon, Jennifer Egan, Kazuo Ishiguro, Cormac McCarthy, and Viet Thanh Nguyen—as is the array of those genres themselves: detective, dystopian, fantasy, Western, and postapocalyptic fiction. One of the central aims of Writing Backwards: Historical Fiction and the Reshaping of the American Canon, however, is to document the process by which historical fiction, despite its mass-market popularity and its “déclassé” status for much of the twentieth century, has been left off that list. After all, every one of the writers just mentioned has published a historical novel, and in some cases several.
While Whitehead’s own oeuvre represents a veritable catalogue of genres, it also chronicles nearly two hundred years of American history. If we rearrange his novels not by publication date but loosely by their historical settings, we end up following Whitehead from the slave narrative and folklore of the nineteenth century (The Underground Railroad and John Henry Days) to the hard-boiled civil rights noir and ethnic bildungsroman of the mid- and late twentieth century (The Intuitionist, Harlem Shuffle, The Nickel Boys, and Sag Harbor). From this vantage, it seems clear that Whitehead is not only a writer of genre fiction, but a prolific writer of one genre in particular: historical fiction. Yet this is somehow not what critics mean when they say that these literary novelists have “turned to genre.” Writing historical fiction is not what makes them “genre writers,” but rather what makes their work “literary” in the first place.
The historical survey course that Whitehead’s body of work represents therefore offers insight not only into one of the most important twenty-first-century novelists but also into the larger structures of the contemporary literary field that Whitehead’s career indexes. Reading The Intuitionist as an academic satire that is both a product and an allegory of the campus canon wars of the 1980s and 1990s, this chapter argues that Whitehead’s first book dramatizes contemporaneous debates over literary canon reformation in a formally inventive (and Intuitionist-influenced) historical novel. Situating the novel in the context of Whitehead’s undergraduate years at Harvard University thus provides a new rubric for The Intuitionist as well as a historical account of the institutional forces that motivated American literature’s significant historical turn. Moving from the author’s first novel to his more recent successes, this investigation then turns to The Underground Railroad as a case study in twenty-first-century historical fiction, and in particular the hypercanonical genre of the meta-slave narrative. Focusing closely on the novel’s allusive and performative relationship to the genre it participates in, this chapter argues that The Underground Railroad embodies both the recent history and the present limits of contemporary narratives of slavery. Finally, this chapter examines The Nickel Boys and Harlem Shuffle as more recent additions to Whitehead’s single-author syllabus of American history, and it argues that the novels both exemplify the field-specific forces that have encouraged Whitehead’s canonization and emphasize the inadequacies of an aesthetic program that relies on historical analogy as its chief method of political intervention. If The Intuitionist offers us a glimpse at the academic and aesthetic debates that launched the historical turn, Whitehead’s career since then stands as a testament to the ways in which that period and its logics have reshaped American literature.
Published in 1999, The Intuitionist narrates the investigations of Lila Mae Watson, a municipal elevator inspector in a thinly veiled version of New York. As the novel opens, the city is in crisis, torn asunder by the upcoming election for chair of the Elevator Inspectors Guild and the rival theoretical camps that the two candidates represent. On one side, we have the Empiricists, long dominant in the world of elevator inspection, invested in observable facts, and marked by methodological and social conservatism. On the other, we have the Intuitionists, the upstart underdogs of elevator maintenance, who believe in “communicating with the elevator on a nonmaterial basis,” and boast (somewhat inexplicably) of “a 10 percent higher accuracy rate.” Lila Mae Watson is not only a devout Intuitionist but also the first Black woman inspector in the biz. To make matters even more interesting, the Fanny Briggs Building—the high-profile skyscraper named after an enslaved woman who taught herself to read, and the building for which Lila Mae is responsible—has just suffered a catastrophic accident: an elevator in complete free fall.
Critical accounts of The Intuitionist have read it variously as “a wry postmodern noir,” a “racial protest novel” with a “gothic sensibility, and a “not-quite-steampunk, alternative history of the future.” Yet while many scholars have commented on the novel’s historical themes, nearly all have stopped short of calling it a (capital-H, capital-N) Historical Novel, preferring instead to read it—as an early Time magazine review did—as “the freshest racial allegory since Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man.” One reason why critics may prefer to read the novel as a kind of allegory seems to be the lack of consensus as to when, exactly, The Intuitionist takes place. The novel is set, Lauren Berlant states definitively, “around 1964.” Or, according to other critics, in “something like 1960s New York.” Well, “1950’s or 60’s.” Either that, or it’s “’40s-ish New York,” or “before…the 1940s,” or “during the Harlem Renaissance.” To summarize, The Intuitionist is a novel of “the early twentieth century,” the “post–civil rights era,” and “some unspecified mid-twentieth-century milieu.” No wonder, then, that critics read the novel as an “allegory,” a “historical fantasia” set in “an alternative reality.” In Whitehead’s world, history works differently.
At first glance, The Intuitionist seems an easy target for Fredric Jameson’s well-known critique of contemporary historical fiction: namely, that it traffics in “stylistic connotation…and pseudohistorical depth, in which the history of aesthetic styles displaces ‘real’ history.” Not the historical moment, in other words, but its aesthetic trappings; not the 1950s, but what Jameson calls “1950s-ness.” Whitehead’s novel is littered with periodizing references to fashion (“fedoraed men” and “torpedo bras”), popular culture (“big band music” and “stickball”), technology (“new watches equipped with…radium dials,” an “icebox” and “milk bottle”), and historical referents: we’re told that one of Lila Mae’s professors had “been in the war”—though not which war—and we catch a brief glimpse of Martin Luther King Jr. Jameson’s notion of “stylistic connotation” seems to run aground on The Intuitionist, a novel that—as critical confusion makes clear—connotes ’50s-ness, ’60s-ness, and ’20s–’30s–’40s-ness all at once. While the temporal indeterminacy of Whitehead’s novel has led critics to read it as a portrait of “an alternative reality,” what The Intuitionist ultimately represents is an alternative history of our own. Looking only at the usual clues, the novel’s setting seems muddled, indecipherable. Yet, as in any great detective novel, the answer is hiding in plain sight. In its first paragraphs, Whitehead announces precisely when The Intuitionist takes place.
In the novel’s opening scene, as Lila Mae first inspects the doomed Fanny Briggs elevator, the building’s superintendent asks, “You aren’t one of those voodoo inspectors, are you? Don’t need to see anything, you just feel it, right?” When Lila Mae corrects him, saying that she practices Intuitionism rather than “voodoo,” the super adds: “I haven’t ever seen a woman elevator inspector before, let alone a colored one, but I guess they teach you all the same tricks.” This is the first of many instances in the novel where Lila Mae and the rest of The Intuitionist’s Black cast are referred to as “colored.” What is more, she is the first “colored” woman in her field. Here Whitehead offers an alternative, but no less historically grounded, method of periodization. The Intuitionist takes place in the time of burgeoning integration, the time of “colored,” a term that Whitehead half-jokingly claims in a later essay “lasted 82.3 years.”
Whitehead further emphasizes this synchronicity on the level of the novel’s form by narrating the action of The Intuitionist in the perpetual present and collapsing multiple decades into a single novel temporality. What may seem like a playful pastiche of period styles is in fact a deadly serious historiographical claim: the novel nods to the Harlem Renaissance and the civil rights movement and the decades in between because that was precisely the period of so many African American “firsts.” In this way, The Intuitionist operates on a clear historical timeline, albeit one with a different structure than historical fiction as it is traditionally understood. Abandoning specific dates and coherent decade aesthetics, Whitehead offers an alternative to what we can think of as historical fiction’s latent “Empiricism”: that is, an Intuitionist historical novel.
But in order to fully appreciate just what kind of historical novel this is, and how it frustrates existing accounts of the genre, we first need to go back in time ourselves—not to the period of desegregation in which it takes place, but to another, far more animating context for The Intuitionist: the campus culture wars of the 1980s and early 1990s. At the risk of adding still one more genre to Whitehead’s dartboard, I submit that The Intuitionist is, in large part, an academic satire: a campus novel and archival thriller shaped by Whitehead’s years at Harvard and the canon wars that marked them. For as much as the present action of the novel narrates Lila Mae’s investigation of the Fanny Briggs elevator crash, that investigation itself hinges on the prominent theorists, ideological debates, and institutional histories of the academy—the elevator academy. The world of The Intuitionist may read as an “alternative reality” to some, but I posit that it is likely all too familiar to the scholars and students who hold it in their hands. As readers, we learn of “the early days of passenger-response criticism.” We hear of “Erlich,” the “mad” French theorist, who “never gets invited to conferences” and whose “monographs wilt on the shelves.” We even meet Ben Urich, a young writer desperate to publish in Lift, the leading professional journal, but willing to place his article in “one of the smaller elevator newsletters who don’t pay as well and have a smaller circulation.”
Whitehead’s mirror-image academy is best captured in one early passage, when the narrator describes Lila Mae’s colleague, Chuck, who harbors a passion for an overlooked corner of the profession, the field of escalator studies:
Escalator safety has never received its due respect….But Chuck can live with the obscurity and disrespect and occasional migraines. Specialization means job security, and there’s a nationwide lack of escalator professors in the Institutes, so Chuck figures he’s a shoo-in for a teaching job. And once he’s in there, drawing a bead on tenure, he can branch out from escalators and teach whatever he wants. He probably even has his dream syllabus tucked in his pocket at this very moment, scratched on a cheap napkin. A general survey course on the history of hydraulic elevators….Or hypothetical elevators; hypothetical elevator studies is bound to come back into vogue again, now that the furor has died down. Chuck’s assured Lila Mae that even though he is a staunch Empiricist, he’ll throw in the Intuitionist counterarguments where necessary. His students should be acquainted with the entire body of elevator knowledge, not just the canon.
As this last line makes clear, the battle between the Empiricists and the Intuitionists is being waged not only in municipal elections but also on the syllabus itself, much like the 1980s culture wars which displaced national political debate onto the English department and the substance of what was taught there.
On the right, the group of conservative thinkers branded as “The Traditionalists” argued that the preservation of the Western—largely white and male—literary canon was essential to the project of national education. William Bennett claimed it was the university’s responsibility to uphold the “legacy” of the Western tradition currently being undermined by “respect for diversity.” Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind—published in 1987, the year Whitehead entered Harvard—decried in even stronger terms multiculturalism’s “demagogic intention…to force students to recognize that Western ways are not better.” Focusing on contemporary prize culture in particular, Carol Iannone’s 1991 essay “Literature by Quota” contended that a “new order” ruled by the “democratic dictatorship of mediocrity” had taken over the nation’s major literary awards, transforming them into “less a recognition of literary achievement than some official act of reparation.”
Responding in part to the rise of Black and ethnic studies curricula that grew from student activism in the 1960s and ’70s, the Traditionalists’ sneering at “diversity” and “reparation” appears now as little more than a racially coded backlash couched in the language of academic debate. In this way, the Traditionalists are not unlike our very own Empiricists, who label their intellectual rivals as “swamis, voodoo men, juju heads, [and] witch doctors.” Sounding as much like Bennett or Bloom as he does more contemporary conservatives, the leader of the Empiricist party—the aptly named Frank Chancre (pron. canker)—advocates for tradition in the key of racist dog whistle: “sometimes the old ways are the best ways. Why hold truck with the uppity and newfangled when Empiricism has always been the steering light of reason? Just like it was in our fathers’ day, and our fathers’ fathers. Today’s [accident] is just the kind of unfortunate mishap that can happen when you kowtow to the latest fashions.” Make Elevators Great Again.
Meanwhile on the left, the Multiculturalists and New Historicists pushed not only for a diversification of the curriculum but also for an end to the practices of reading in isolation that they saw as a kind of ethical failure. From Jameson’s commandment at the start of the decade—Always Historicize!—to the New Historicist approaches that largely defined it, a surge of literary scholarship worked to “combat empty formalism by pulling historical considerations to the center stage of literary analysis.” Joseph North has recently described this period as the beginning of the “historicist/contextualist paradigm” in literary studies, a program that prizes historicity over aesthetics, celebrates “the opening up of the canon,” and dominates the discipline to this day.
For all of the disagreement between the right’s ethnicized traditionalism and the left’s multiculturalist revisionism, both sides had one thing in common. Whether literature served as a testament to racial and national preeminence within a global meritocracy or worked instead to identify and redress systems of inequality, both sides mobilized it against what they described as a contemporary culture of forgetting.
Excerpted from Writing Backwards: Historical Fiction and the Reshaping of the American Canon by Alexander Manshel. Copyright © 2023 Columbia University Press. Used by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.