Whitehead, Colson 1969–
Colson Whitehead 1969-
American novelist and nonfiction writer.
Considered among America's most accomplished young authors, Whitehead is esteemed as a literary descendent of Ralph Ellison. While his work often defies genre categorization, it is characterized by a postmodern assessment of American tradition. His penetrating examinations of racial identity and modern culture, combined with the poetic sensibility of his prose, have placed Whitehead at the forefront of his generation of writers.
Whitehead was born in New York City in 1969. As a young boy, he decided that he wanted to be a writer after reading a Stephen King novel. He attended high school at the Trinity School in New York City and went on to attend Harvard University. After graduating from Harvard in 1991, he worked as a freelance writer and a television columnist for the Village Voice. His first novel, The Intuitionist (1999), was a Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award finalist. He received a Whiting Writers' Award in 2000, and earned an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for his second novel, John Henry Days (2001). John Henry Days was also a finalist for the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. That same year Whitehead was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship. Whitehead's work has appeared in such notable periodicals as Granta, the New York Times Magazine, Harper's Magazine, and the New York Times. He lives in Brooklyn.
Whitehead's writing is marked by a highly poetic prose style and a postmodern aesthetic. Frequently likened to works by Thomas Pynchon and Paul Auster, The Intuitionist is an allegory dealing with rival schools of elevator inspectors. The novel is set in a city that resembles modern New York but incorporates elements of nineteenth-century society. Modeled after the noir detective genre, The Intuitionist examines the insidious nature of institutionalized racism in a manner both realistic and fantastic. The epic scope and complex narrative structure of John Henry Days brings together a wide variety of fictional and historical figures, and revolves around a festival honoring the legend of folk-hero John Henry. Shifting between disparate periods and locations, John Henry Days provides a satirical look at journalism and an examination of American history and popular culture. The nonfiction work The Colossus of New York (2003) consists of a series of impressionistic ruminations on the nature and character of New York City rendered in a manner reminiscent of prose poetry. Whitehead's third novel, Apex Hides the Hurt (2006), tells of a "nomenclature consultant" who is hired by the small community of Winthrop to help them decide whether they should revert to calling the town by its original name—chosen by its freed-slave founders—or adopt the name selected by a consumer-conscious software developer. The narrative relies upon humor and a peculiar premise to highlight concerns of racism and personal integrity in modern American society.
Although Whitehead's first novel garnered widespread critical enthusiasm, his subsequent works have received mixed reactions. Scholars have hailed The Intuitionist as an off-beat, imaginative contribution to the tradition of African American literature, praising the novel for its rich insights into professionalism and physical disability. Despite a critical consensus that John Henry Days is an intelligent and ambitious work and despite favorable comparisons to Don DeLillo's Underworld, a number of reviewers have deemed Whitehead's second book convoluted and incoherent, censuring the author's extravagant prose. Some critics have derided The Colossus of New York for presenting an overly abstract, nearly unrecognizable version of New York City, though others have admired the book's descriptive passages. Still other reviewers have lauded the volume for providing a perspective on how the city has affected black culture and society. Extolled as a cutting social satire, Apex Hides the Hurt has nonetheless been faulted for its underdeveloped characters. Despite the mixed reviews of his literary oeuvre, commentators recognize Whitehead's ambition and talent and value his contribution to contemporary American literature.
The Intuitionist (novel) 1999
John Henry Days: A Novel (novel) 2001
The Colossus of New York: A City in Thirteen Parts (nonfiction) 2003
Apex Hides the Hurt (novel) 2006
Colson Whitehead with Suzan Sherman (interview date summer 2001)
SOURCE: Whitehead, Colson, and Suzan Sherman. "Colson Whitehead." BOMB, no. 76 (summer 2001): 74-80.
[In the following interview, Whitehead discusses such topics as the central themes of his novels, his creative process, and his familial and educational background.]
The Intuitionist, Colson Whitehead's acclaimed first novel, rests on a completely original premise—elevator inspectors split into two opposing camps. There are the Empiricists (the good-old-boy network of textbook followers) and the Intuitionists (who "intuit" elevator malfunctions, and are chided by the Empiricists as "voodoo men" and "witch doctors"). When a new elevator named for Fanny Briggs—a slave who taught herself to read—crashes, Intuitionist Lila Mae, the "first female colored elevator inspector," is scapegoated by the Empiricists for the free fall, and goes undercover to unravel what actually occurred. With consistently elegant prose Whitehead transforms the elevator into a multilayered metaphor for metropolis, religion, race and upward mobility. Painted in cool shades of gray, where urban grit, philosophy, and poetry quietly coexist, The Intuitionist is a stunning, mysterious world.
Whitehead continues to explore themes raised in The Intuitionist in his much anticipated new novel, John Henry Days, with the folk hero and former slave John Henry, who in the famous race of man versus machine, beats the steam drill and dies afterward. Henry converges with the present day at a John Henry festival, and with J., a black New York journalist who smugly covers the event. In this ambitious novel Whitehead presents a chorus of voices linked to John Henry, weaving the past and present together with confidence. Like the elevator in The Intuitionist, the John Henry myth is heightened to take on varied meanings and interpretations, as the recurring replacement of man with machine is explored. Whether it's the dishwasher, Victrola or the Internet, whether industrial or technological, whether John Henry or J., the question of "progress" and its startling affects on humanity is raised. Though John Henry Days is written in the third person, it contains the flavor of oral history, pointing to forgotten moments, gaps in American history, through Whitehead's extraordinary fiction.
[Sherman]: There is a grandness, in both scale and subject matter, toJohn Henry Days. No stone is left unturned in tracing a huge chorus of characters who converge on the John Henry legacy. I am reminded of Robert-Altman's film Short Cuts; the splicing together of lives, a fantastically complex mosaic, though your characters cross centuries. I wonder how you began writing it; was it with the John Henry myth, or with J. the journalist, or was it more a conceptual idea?
[Whitehead]: The book started off conceptually; I wasn't sure how to write about John Henry, though I knew I didn't want to do a historical novel. The early idea was very formal—five-page chapters dealing with different aspects: the history of the steam drill, the Altamont Speedway, and some modern trajectories such as the John Henry stamp ceremony. I plotted it out but it felt like I hadn't discovered anything new, it seemed too conceptual. I had the great myth of John Henry to jump off of, but no characters, no story. So the real-live historical event of the stamp ceremony became the backbone of the story, J. and his group of hack journalists erupted from there, solidifying the industrial age/information age angle. I fleshed out the town and what would happen over the weekend of the stamp ceremony, and when I did, it became a pretty linear, contemporary story. By forcing these hacks to cover this relatively insignificant event, I found an entry. They were my modern equivalents of the railroad laborers, pick and shovel men of the information age. I wanted to break free of my previous novel, The Intuitionist, which is very hermetic; it takes place in one city and has a very small cast. In John Henry Days a lot of characters present themselves. As I started to think about the transmission of the John Henry myth and the theme of changing technology, I created characters who would provide footholds for discussing the oral ballad transmission, and then sheet music, the advent of vinyl, and then the late 20th century where we have all different technological formats for expression.
Initially, why didn't you want to write a historical novel?
It just didn't appeal to me. I wanted to do something where I could talk about modern pop culture. The Intuitionist had no pop culture references at all. From being a TV critic and a cultural critic, it felt like an obsession for me. With John Henry I got my history jones out by having chapters that take place in different time periods.
There is such loving reverence inThe Intuitionist for the elevator as a grand machine, and the swelling metropolis of skyscrapers it brings. Industry takes on a biological, almost human quality—"a tunnel like a throat," "a stone cocoon," "the skyline rows of broken teeth"—whereas inJohn Henry Days there is an overall disdain for the ever-advancing technology. From the steam drills to Web startups, it's like some sort ofamorphous disease. In moving fromThe Intuitionist to writingJohn Henry Days, did you see a thread of continued interest in man's relationship to machine, but from an opposing perspective?
I wasn't trying to make a counterpoint to The Intuitionist. I definitely have a fascination with machines, the sheer mechanism of the steam drill, the kind of obscure, random invention of the elevator. I like those weird, fun facts. It's only afterwards, now that the book is done and I've read it a couple times …
A couple of times? (laughter)
Well, yeah. You get a copy of the manuscript and then the galley, each a few months apart, so each reading is like a new experience. You start to love and hate different chapters, and you gain and lose favorite parts. In both cases there's an anxiety about progress and the advancement of machines. Everyone in The Intuitionist has all sorts of hopes and aspirations tied into the perfect elevator. In John Henry Days it's a lot more diffuse, where you have a songwriter threatened by the mechanization of sheet music, and a blues singer, who makes his living doing concert work, threatened by the advent of the Victrola. There's this anxiety and uneasiness, which I guess is a part of me since it's in both of my books. But technically and structurally I know exactly why those sections are there.
You mentioned there are parts ofJohn Henry Days that you love and parts that you hate. I'm wondering, what are they?
Oh, it varies from week to week. Without getting specific, there are chapters that I can feel proud of because there's a new kind of sentence, it's like wow, that's a weird comma-clause-comma construction I haven't done before. Some chapters are just funny, light and lively, and it's a different kind of humor than the rest of the book and what I've done before. There's so many different voices in the book; the stream of consciousness voices were fun to do and worked well, but the following week I thought, nah, that's kind of mannered. Then next week I change my mind again and think it's great. So I still have a relationship with the book even though it's in the can.
A tremendous amount of research went intoJohn Henry Days. Historical references abound; from the steam drill to the Harlem Renaissance to the free Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. Was it a challenge to incorporate history into a fictional narrative without weighing it down; was it some sort of balancing act?
It was definitely a balancing act. Since I didn't write it start-to-finish, I wrote different sections at different times, if I got bored I could take a break doing research for a month before writing another chapter. I'd get five stamp books out of the library and just have a stamp week, or a Tin Pan Alley week. Even though I'm kind of a lazy person, I went down to the town of Talcott, West Virginia, where the actual John Henry Days festival takes place every year. I flew to Georgia and my friend picked me up and we drove around in his car for a day and a half. We got a small hotel room in Talcott and walked around, saw the Big Bend Tunnel named in the John Henry ballads. It wasn't something I normally do because I work out of my head. The Intuitionist is a book with a lot of small rooms, and John Henry Days is a lot bigger; I guess I had to break the mold.
John Henry Days begins with people recounting their versions of who they think John Henry is. Each person has a different take on the man, in some cases their point of view is completely tied up with the color of their skin. By beginning the book in such a way, it clearly shows the subjective nature of history, the fluidity of truth, depending upon who tells the story. The idea of truth is also toyed with inThe Intuitionist, when we learn that Fulton has been keeping the color of his skin a secret. Can you trace when your concern for that sort of truth emerged?
I don't find history very reliable; there's a white history, and there's a black history. And I grew up at a time in college and right after college when there was this crazy deconstructionist sort of thing that nothing exists, everything is fluid, meaning in itself is fluid. It's hard to keep up with everyone's version of the truth; they cancel each other out.
InJohn Henry Days slavery is referenced with a focus on emancipation; that's certainly not the whole truth of what happened in this country.
The end of slavery is not a happy ending; it is not the complete triumph as it's presented in children's schoolbooks. In The Intuitionist I left a lot of things open, like the meaning of the perfect elevator. At different points in the book it means a literal transformation of the city, and then in other parts it's more of a personal transcendence. Then in John Henry there's the question of whether John Henry existed or not. In the book I talk about the two folklorists who went down to Talcott in the twenties; one guy came away talking to 40 people with the idea that he did exist, and two years later, another guy went down and talked to the same people and thought he didn't. The John Henry myth is so ambiguous. He challenges the mechanical steam drill that will replace him to a race; he drills faster and farther and wins, and then he dies from the exertion. So is that a triumph? Is it a defeat? Is it a triumph for the individual, a triumph for the machine, a necessary sacrifice that the community needs? I was trying to emphasize that kind of ambiguity.
Earlier, you said you consider yourself a lazy person. You don't seem that way at all, but of course I don't know what you do on a daily basis.
Yeah, you don't want to know. (laughter) I write very intensely for say, six months at a time. And then when I'm not writing, in between books, I take a lot of time off. I'm gestating, thinking about stuff. But I really do plumb the depths of complete slug labor, play a lot of computer solitaire and catch up on TV. The greatest compliment someone ever gave to me was, "You're the most productive lazy person I know."
In both books you delve into the self-consciousness of talking about color; not only in terms of white people, but black people as well. Here's quote: "The biracial who adopted a superficial militancy to overcompensate for light skin discussed the perfidy of ice people with gangster rapper ashamed of a placid upbringing in a middle-class suburb." Your books challenge white presumptions about blackness; I'm thinking about the marketing of your book in the predominantly white publishing industry. What have been your concerns in this regard?
It's being marketed as a literary novel, which is what it is, and what I want. Personally, I don't have any gripes the way things are going, though I definitely have gripes with the amount of black fiction being published. In my generation there's me, Paul Beatty, Danzy Senna and others, and we all do different things. And there are so few black editors around that certain voices aren't getting out there. Then on the other hand, I think there are five new black publishers opening up this year, putting out their particular flavors, so there are ways around the traditional outlets of the commercial publishers.
Were you working onThe Intuitionist when you were at the Village Voice?
I had a TV column there, which gave me a lot of free time. At that point my living expenses were low and I had a really cheap-ass apartment, so I only had to work four days a month. I had time to do my fiction. I did the column for two years and then I ran out of things to say. I had become a hatchet man, criticizing shows that no one watched anyway; the unseen Fox "Married With Children" rip-off. So I quit that and started The Intuitionist. I was freelancing. I was definitely very broke, but I had a lot of time to work on the book.
What did you study at Harvard? Were you a philosophy major?
No, I was an English lit major. There weren't a lot of 20th-century fiction classes, just the classics. So I spent a lot of time going to the library to look up Ishmael Reed and Thomas Pynchon. Harvard has a really cool drama program with the American Repertory Theatre, so I took a lot of postmodern drama classes. I got this absurdist theater training, which, you know, comes out periodically in different things.
The postal workers.
Yeah, their humor, that Abbott and Costello back and forth.
Your writing makes achingly clear the complexities of black upward mobility. Lila Mae views the first elevator inspector as an Uncle Tom figure, while he feels she's made it because of him. InJohn Henry Days, in the Harlem Renaissance scene, the mother is disgusted to discover her daughter's purchase of black folk music. Blackness is reinterpreted generationally; how heavy is this weight of reinterpretation when you yourself are writing about it?
It's not so much a weight.
Is it a freedom then, to be writing it yourself?
Coming out of the post-Black Arts movement, and having blackness being reaffirmed in literature and drama, I think the young black writers of my generation have the freedom to do what we want. I can write a book that uses elevators to talk about race. Or I can talk about John Henry as a slave doing the only kind of work he can in 1873, and then talk about a privileged middle-class black man in 1996 who chooses his own numbing drudgery. I chose different moments in history to accentuate how issues of race and class have been dealt with; one example being the Strivers Row chapter in John Henry, where the bourgeois mom forbids any street Negroness in the house, to the point of erasing the black contribution to pop music.
There is no written account from that time of John Henry having beaten the steam drill—there is only oral history. For many reasons it's been imperative for blacks to assert what's been left out of history books. Were you thinking along those lines in terms of the Intuitionists, those who intuit what something is; they feel it, without relying on textbook facts?
Your narratives have a wonderful zigzagging quality. The plot moves in a progression, but it's not anything that's expected. There's a scene inJohn Henry where a girl gets an internship at a newspaper, which she ends up resenting because all her friends go to Europe that summer. This girl does not show up again in the rest of the novel; I kept expecting her to reemerge. What was the decision in bringing her up and letting her go?
In terms of the story itself, there are chapters that serve to further the story of what happened during the John Henry Days stamp festival weekend, and then there are chapters which serve to further the advancement of different notions of John Henry, what John Henry-ness is to different people.
And the notion of what journalism is becoming, its elitism.
Yeah, she's a part of the journalistic hackery world; the dilettante intern. She doesn't come back because I feel like she served her purpose. A lot of the characters show up and don't come back, or come back only in references, or come back as ghosts in other characters' stories.
You chose to center the book on a postage stamp festival honoring the John Henry stamp. Despite all the technological advances, there are still some things, like postage stamps, which are steeped in nostalgia. When you were writing were you thinking at all about this, as a contrast to the ever-advancing technology?
I think for me, the nostalgia comes out in different ways; the town of Talcott embraces the 120-year-old myth as a cause for celebration. The John Henry Days Festival actually exists.
Is that when you went down there?
No, I went down in the off-season. (laughter) I'm pretty sure the festival in my book is a lot bigger and definitely more lethal than theirs. In the face of rapid growth of these mono cities, these edge cities, where every town has a Gap, and we're all connected through the media. We're united in a mass-produced culture, and then there's this nostalgia for things we never had. You get that tension in Lucien, the PR guru who goes down to Talcott, he's not really sure what to make of all this authentic sentiment. He wants to embrace it, but can only think in a corrupt way. He doesn't know what to make of these strange feelings of community and loss. Because I grew up in Manhattan, I have a lot of weird notions about small town life. It was definitely fun for me to go to Talcott and try to create a few characters in opposition to the cynical, urban Lucien.
There's the husband and wife who run the motel that everyone stays in. Did these characters emerge as you were going along?
Yeah. I had a semi-outline. The more research I did, the more I wanted to expand on the myth. I put in Guy Johnson, the black folklorist who goes down there in the twenties, I put in Paul Robeson because he's such an incredible figure, and then I found out he was in a John Henry play on Broadway. I definitely had to reign myself in, because it just became a kitchen sink, anything that mentioned John Henry I wanted to put in. (laughter) The one thing I'm sorry I didn't put in was a Johnny Cash chapter, because he has this John Henry song which is pretty cool. He sang it one day on a variety show in the seventies and misidentified the town as Beckley, West Virginia. The residents of Talcott were very upset, and so he paid for the John Henry monument in Talcott. It would be incredibly cool to write about Johnny Cash, but it seemed like I had enough as it was.
Was it easier writing the second book with all the acclaim you received forThe Intuitionist, or did that make the writing, the living up to something, all the more difficult?
I was lucky that I wrote half the book before The Intuitionist came out.
Lazy me. (laughter) So what happened was I wrote half of John Henry Days, we moved back to New York, The Intuitionist came out, and I didn't actually work on the book for a year. I knew exactly what was going to happen in it, I had the voices down, though that wasn't what was weighing on my mind, anxiety-wise. John Henry is such a different book, stylistically and structurally, from The Intuitionist, I just hadn't done anything like it before; that was more my worry rather than can I live up to the good reviews of The Intuitionist.
InJohn Henry Days you describe the writer Bob the newcomer, his debut, then Bob's return as, "the second novel, recapitulating some of the first's themes, somehow lacking—emboldened by success tries to tackle too much." Do you have different fears on the publication of your second book?
I'm fearless. (laughter) I attracted a lot of mystery fans with The Intuitionist, because of its structure, so I'm not sure if they're going to be coming along for the ride this time. But I think it will attract different people for being a very different book.
Do you have an ideal audience?
I have a few friends who read all my stuff, works in progress. I think about what they might say, their predilections, but my ideal reader is me. (laughter) I guess the effort's wasted, since I'm actually writing it. But someone like me, or younger, who hasn't been exposed to crazy, more contemporary fiction, or who might want to start writing. For me, it's been important when I've encountered particular books in my life like Invisible Man at the age of 20, or Gravity's Rainbow as I started to write and to learn what I could and couldn't do.
Do you remember what you were told you couldn't do?
In sophomore English, reading Jane Austen all the time, you think that's what literature is. I don't worry about following some sort of Dickensian structure I learned in high school. The canon is not all that it's cracked up to be—there's a lot more out there.
Do you like Ben Katchor's cartoons?
Oh yeah, I've always felt a real affinity. His New York is the New York I love, the sort of fictional New York I never lived in; the buildings below 30th Street that I got from growing up with "The Twilight Zone," and the beleaguered guys in fedoras who are shoe salesmen and ventriloquists. All the weird, kind of Broadway, shticky 42nd Street, sad characters living in this sort of pugnosed world. I'm not really sure why I latched onto that as an interesting place or landscape, but Ben Katchor really captures it.
I'm going to a lecture of his tomorrow night on museum cafeterias of the world. (laughter)
InThe Intuitionist Lila Mae is described as the first female colored elevator inspector. Do you see yourself as a "first" in some way?
The first colored novelist to write about elevators.
Maybe on a more personal level?
Well, I think I'm trying to do what's not expected.
What do you think is expected?
When I started writing, the 20-something, angstystruggle, first novel would come into the Voice all the time. It was the slacker moment. And that was what I didn't want to do; I wanted to make it new. It's the way my mind works; I can't write any other way. I don't worry about staking a claim for myself because what I end up writing is freaky in conception and readable in execution, at least I hope so.
Numerous male authors are accused of focusing predominantly on male characters and concerns in their books, but you've painted consistently strong, independent female characters. In an interview you gave for Salon you mentioned that Lila Mae had initially been a man. Did you choose to make her a woman to further separate her from the good-old-boy world of the Empiricists?
Once the character became female that came into play, but it was more just trying to not do what was comfortable. When I first finished the manuscript for The Intuitionist the main character was a wise-talking, young guy. And after reading a page of it, I was like, who cares? So I said, female character. Let's stretch it, not make it first person. Both those things, a third person book and a female character just seemed more interesting; it made the book more fun to do than something I already know. In the same way that John Henry Days started as gemlike essays on facets of John Henry. Once you think it up, why do something you already know you can do?
I imagine it would not be as fun for the reader either.
Yeah, that's more of a secondary concern. It's just less fun to write. If there's no challenge, there's no point in doing it.
Does being a writer make sense to you in relation to your familial history? Were you one of those people who planned on becoming a writer when they were six years old?
I was in the seventh or eighth grade. I thought it would be cool to write big geeky, slasher, horror, sci-fi movies: Blade Runner, The Shining, or be a comic book writer. I was living in a kind of fantasy world. My parents wanted me to do something more stable, lawyering or doctoring, but they got off my back when I started working for the Voice. As a kid in New York I always wanted to write for the Voice. Every week I went to the back pages to see which band was playing, and then went to Irving Plaza and the Ritz, and read the music reviews afterwards. I became a sort of Voice addict.
Intuitionism, the ability to feel without having to see is described by the Empiricists as "downright voodoo." I'm curious about your own religious upbringing.
Did we practice voodoo? I guess my mom went to church as a child, and started going again a few years ago. We were not a religious household when I was growing up. We were agnostics or atheists, I'm not sure which.
We were a very skeptical household.
Why inThe Intuitionist did you choose to make the metropolis "the most famous city in the world," as opposed to simply Manhattan, and why not place it in a specific time? Did the choice of leaving it vague, sort of Kafkaesque, have to do with giving the story more reverberation in relationship to today?
I wanted it to start as a parody of a detective story. I wanted this noirish city to work in, and then as different themes began to develop I started playing around with Lila Mae as a civil rights baby thrust into a completely male workplace. It became advantageous and fun to have a timeless locale where creatively I wasn't pinned down. Also the story is so fantastic, like a parallel world of New York that exists only on certain street corners at certain times of day. As the story became more allegorical, it seemed like the right choice.
Did it feel like a relief then, whenJohn Henry became incredibly specific?
Oh, totally, yeah. There was one thing I couldn't figure out how to shoehorn in: Flight 800, the New York-to-Paris plane that went down in August of 1996. I thought it would be interesting to have one of the junketeers on that plane, since they're such doomed mercenaries. It fit in with the undercurrent of modern violence in John Henry Days. It was great to put real life names in the book instead; to be able to say he walked down Broad- way as opposed to the great boulevard. And then being able to bring in Paul Robeson or the Eleanor Bumpers case or Altamont; real life scenes that glance off the themes in John Henry. It was totally fun, and liberating.
Here's a question about endings.The Intuitionist concludes with Lila Mae sitting down to write her own words, andJohn Henry ends with J. almost certainly going off with the woman he's grown fond of—the "real story," as he calls it—as opposed to remaining on his sorry press junket. Do you consciously see your novels as ending on hopeful notes, and are you yourself hopeful in regard to the future?
It's funny because in both books, different people interpret the endings in different ways. It seems that the more pessimistic you are, the more optimistic you find the endings of both books, and the more optimistic you are, the more pessimistic you find the endings.
I thought of both J. and Lila Mae as writers; Lila Mae writing The Last Elevator and having a room of her own, being apart from the world in order to create, and J. having his existential dilemma about writing and if it's worthwhile. For me, personally, I summon those feelings for the books apart from their constructions. I find both endings to be both optimistic and open-ended, but then people read them and seem really upset.
What could possibly be upsetting about them?
Well, people say Lila Mae's all alone, everybody hates her, she has no friends, and she's stuck in this small room overlooking a factory and nobody understands what she's doing for many years—which is actually a writer's dilemma; you're writing something and it might get published, it might not, and if it does no one buys it and you struggle, and maybe one day someone will actually dig it. With John Henry, without trying to spell out the ending, it's a question of whether J. is fated in the same way John Henry is, to meet a certain course of action, or can J. escape the loop that seems to be his destiny? I got calls from some people who said, I finished the book and the ending is so sad. God, I'm so depressed. And other people said the complete opposite.
Do you like the variety of interpretation?
Yeah, I feel pretty hands-off once it's done.
But was that your intention?
Yeah, it was more intentional with John Henry. It's what I wanted.
In the face of all the acclaim you received withThe Intuitionist, and that you will certainly receive forJohn Henry Days, you have such a humbleness about you. How have you maintained this sense of yourself?
Well, my attitude is that hopefully I'll be writing books for awhile, and they won't all be as well received as The Intuitionist. You have ups and downs. They'll all be received differently, I'll have different experiences writing them, and they'll serve different purposes for me creatively. I'm glad people can read them and have different responses.
Do you have another book in the works—being that you're so lazy?
I've started a book which you could say is about the Band-Aid industry. It's pretty fun, and I'll leave it at that.
Robert Butler (essay date September 2004)
SOURCE: Butler, Robert. "The Postmodern City in Colson Whitehead's The Colossus of New York and Jeffrey Renard Allen's Rails under My Back." CLA Journal 48, no. 1 (September 2004): 71-87.
[In the essay below, Butler contrasts the depictions of urban life and the social standing of city dwellers in The Colossus of New York and Jeffrey Renard Allen's Rails under My Back, while placing both works in the context of prominent African American urban narratives.]
Twenty-eight years ago Blyden Jackson observed that "The Negro Novel is a city novel. It almost always has been" (80), and Amiri Baraka remarked a few years later that black literature has been "urban shaped" and has produced a "uniquely black urban consciousness" (148). Although many African American masterworks are clearly pastoral in outlook, such as Dunbar's Lyrics from Lowly Life, Washington's Up from Slavery, and Walker's The Color Purple, it remains generally true that African American fiction is largely urban and even anti-pastoral in nature, mainly because rural life has been so strongly linked in the black imagination with slavery and post-Civil War segregation and sharecropping. Wright's Native Son, Petry's The Street, Ellison's Invisible Man, Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain, Naylor's The Women of Brewster Place, and Morrison's Jazz, to cite a few important texts, provide vivid examples of the strongly urban drive in African American literary tradition.
Colson Whitehead and Jeffrey Renard Allen, two black writers who have emerged in the past few years, have produced significant works which grow out of this rich tradition and have made important contributions to this tradition by providing fresh visions of the American city and how it impacts on black life. Whitehead's The Colossus of New York and Allen's Rails under My Back offer strikingly new interpretations of urban life and no doubt will exert a strong influence on subsequent Afri- can American writing. But what is the precise nature of the cities which these two writers present? How are their urban visions different from those contained in previous black masterworks? And what do their visions of city life reveal about black American life in the twenty-first century?* * *
Unlike the cities in Wright's Native Son, Ellison's Invisible Man, Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain, and Morrison's Jazz, which are clearly identifiable places that are easily visualized and located in a realistically presented time and culture, Whitehead's city is more of an indeterminate space than a fully reified place. As Kevin Larimer has observed, the city in The Intuitionist is "a non-specific setting—you don't know what year it is, where you are, or how long you've been there. With no cultural signifiers with which to identify, you accept the terms of its fictional world" (22).1 In the same way, the city described in The Colossus of New York is more of a symbolic space than an actual place. A cauldron of perpetual change, it serves as a powerful reflection of the postmodern self, a provisional ego that is always in the process of ongoing and relentless transformation and always on the edge of extinction.
Indeed, nothing has any permanence or continuity in the city presented in The Colossus of New York. As Whitehead reveals in the opening paragraph, "You are a New Yorker the first time you say that used to be Munsey's or that used to be the Tic Tac Lounge" (3). The narrator describes his "home" in New York as a bewilderingly large number of apartments he once inhabited, each one signifying a temporary "identity" in a never-ending series of self-creations. Instead of providing its inhabitants with a stable place grounded in a shared history, common values, or genuine communal life, Colson's New York breaks down into the always shifting, subjective perceptions of the countless people who experience it:
There are eight million naked cities in this naked city—they dispute and they disagree. The New York you live in is not my New York; how could it be? The place multiplies when you are not looking. We move over here, we move over there. Over a lifetime, that adds up to a lot of neighborhoods, the motley construction materials of your jerry-built metropolis.
In such a wildly protean world, one can never define a single historical city which is an objectively real and stable place but can, instead, define only "his or her New York" (7), a "private New York" (4) that is a radically unstable process of change. Accordingly, the self which is generated in Colson's New York is always becoming, never settled into a stable condition of being. In this sense, his city bears close resemblance to the New York described in Jean-Paul Sartre's Literary and Philosophical Essays, a "city in motion" (128) which is always changing, separating from the past and thus offering Americans the possibility of endless growth, ongoing self-invention. Unlike the "changeless cities" (118) of Europe, which are deeply rooted in place and tradition, American cities for Sartre were open spaces promising freedom but often delivering loneliness and alienation. In such a city, Sartre tells us, "you never lose your way, and you are always lost" (129).
Colson's "colossus," therefore, cannot be fictionally presented as a stable, solid setting which characterizes realistic novels such as Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain or naturalistic fictions such as Petry's The Street. It is instead recreated surrealistically and impressionistically with images of endless motion. Most of the chapter titles are named after places of transit, for example, "The Port Authority," "Subway," "Broadway," "Brooklyn Bridge," "Times Square," and "JFK." The key actions present people in constant motion'"runaways" (2) entering the city through the Port Authority Terminal, commuters using the subway to get to work and return home, a woman crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, and people exiting the city at JFK Airport. The chapter entitled "Rush Hour" best epitomizes Colson's protean city. Describing late afternoon "quitting time" when Manhattan's workers pack elevators and subways on their way "home" to a place which might offer some stability and connection with friends and loved ones, it envisions a world of "move, move, move" (151), where people get trampled and lost.
Indeed, the three inventions which make possible the modern skyscraper city, the elevator, the subway, and the commuter train, are seen as providing motion toward oblivion rather than movement toward a redemptive world of stable, fruitful relationships rooted in a coherent place. As people leave their highly pressured but meaningless jobs, they enter elevators which become striking symbols of their highly mobile but purposeless lives:
People huddle into elevators and ride down to in-betweeness, into the space between work and home which is a kind of dreaming: it's where they go to make sense out of what just happened so they can go a little further.
These are the kinds of elevators depicted so brilliantly in The Intuitionist which symbolize the modern world's promise of self-fulfillment by "elevation" into a world of existential freedom and individuality, but instead they deliver a terrifying postmodern "total free fall" (228) into self-destruction. The people huddled in the elevators depicted in The Colossus of New York want to move toward a place where they can "make sense of what has happened" to their restless and "elevated" lives but must settle instead for a liminal space that symbolizes their "in betweeness," nervous liminal exist- ences characterized by pointless flux. Their desire for a stable "home" is always undercut and eventually destroyed by their aspiring to the American dream of endless mobility, always going "a little further" by moving perpetually to new jobs and more elegant apartments and houses.
Once off the elevators and making their way on streets filled with fast-moving crowds of people, "a grim procession of faces" (114), they enter subways which, like the elevators, are ingenious machines of constant motion which lead to no human destination. The subway is described as an "Abomination" of people who are packed together and bitterly competing for seats like pigeons squabbling over "stale crumbs" (119). Although one particular car is filled with people from the same office, they are essentially strangers who have nothing to say to each other, as each is locked in a private universe of economic competition and personal resentment. Emptying out into Grand Central Station and taking commuter trains to their widely spread-out suburban homes, they are "stupified" by the "spectacle and speed" (119) of their journey. They leave the train expecting solid family lives which will somehow redeem their empty work routines but find in the suburbs another purposeless existence on the margins of life:
What waits for them across thresholds: marriages, mattresses, mortgages of all kinds … sleep the sleep of the successful because somehow you made it through the day without anyone finding out you are a complete fraud.
Like the city which had earlier been compared to an elaborate theatrical spectacle, Colson's New Yorkers must live out fraudulent lives at work and in their homes because they are in both places expected to act out always changing roles while enunciating "lines" (120) which have no lasting meaning.
Colson's The Colossus of New York, like Phillip Roth's The Human Stain and Don DeLillo's Colossus, portrays the dark underside of the American myth of self-creation in the city. Colson's city, unlike the pragmatic city of Dreiser's Sister Carrie or the existential city of Ellison's Invisible Man, which envision the urban world as a protean setting inviting personal transformation, is, in fact, a firmly nihilistic world which promises the "elevation" of self but delivers instead self-annihilation. While Dreiser's Carrie becomes a more potent new person in Chicago and New York, and while Ellison's urban underground can become a womb offering new life, Colson's fast-moving metropolis is, paradoxically, an extremely fragile world in which human beings simply disappear.
Midway through The Colossus of New York the narrator imagines himself walking up Broadway and "disappearing with every step" (80) because he inhabits a world of narcissistic strangers who do not give a "damn" (80) about him. This feeling is particularly strong when he is "between corners" (80) and experiences the anomie of "in-betweeness" (113) which Colson's other New Yorkers feel when they ride elevators. Thus caught between two states of becoming but not anchored in any sense of stable being, Colson's narrator thinks, "This is Broadway after all and it will undo you bit by bit" (80). This fear of disappearance into an anonymous, always changing urban landscape runs throughout the entire book. At the beginning of the chapter on Coney Island, the narrator worries that "what people will find under their feet will not be pavement but something shiftier" (89) and that "everything disappears in the sand … the way people get lost in the streets" (90). In the cocktail party described in "Downtown," the two people nervously engaging in empty conversation remember that they were lured to New York from their "hometowns" by a "dream city" but could find "nothing solid beneath their feet" and "disappeared into the quicksand" (129) of a perpetually shifting urban world. Indeed, the entire book begins with "broken" (15) people leaving Port Authority Terminal, New York's "back entrance" (15), and disappearing into crowded streets. It concludes in precisely the same way with people leaving New York by one of its front entrances, JFK Airport, pursuing vaguely imagined destinations as the narrator intones, "Sometimes things disappear" (117).
Even the city itself is in danger of dissolving. A "make believe" (81) construction, which is constantly redefining itself as a work in progress, it is an unstable mixture of parts which can disintegrate. Apparently solid streets like Broadway have "fissures" (80) which Colson's New Yorkers worry will widen and bring about a general collapse. The Brooklyn Bridge "shakes in the wind" and the narrator reminds us that "[i]f it shakes it can fall" (104). Potholes and sewer lines, likewise, inspire anxieties that the city's "infrastructure is weak and aged and solid only in one place, under his feet" (84). Even New York's massive skyline is "fragile" and can "easily be destroyed" (92), a fear which Americans know all to well after the events of September 11, 2001.* * *
The Colossus of New York, like The Intuitionist, is premised upon the belief that the postmodern American city is an infinitely complex technological system and, as such, is both extraordinarily powerful and perilously fragile. Contemplating the Ferris wheel at Coney Island, the narrator of The Colossus of New York muses that it is "a gear of the great engine of the metropolis" (94) and that such a "vertiginous city" (95) induces a "fearful sweat" (94) because it is the source of both wonder and terror as its riders move precariously "up and down" (95). Jeffrey Renard Allen's Rails under My Back is built upon a similar paradox which haunts mod- ern and postmodern life since the Chicago it recreates is a city of wondrous power and terrifying fragility where its inhabitants are always in danger of "disappearing." Like Colson, Allen describes his city in terms of two central symbols, machines and "gravity," both of which are strongly deterministic forces which threaten to overwhelm his characters, making them literally and morally "disappear" into a postmodern environment characterized by social instability, random violence, and moral relativism.
At one point in Rails under My Back the narrator describes New York as "a great big machine" (359), and a character later describes it as "The city of trains" (410). A huge mechanical grid of high-rise buildings connected by subways and automobile-crammed highways, New York is a colossal mechanism which strips people of free will and eliminates them if they can not adjust to the city's highly restrictive routines. Allen's Chicago is also presented as an immense mechanical system which processes people, stripping them of their human qualities and then disposing of them. During the Great Migration large numbers of black people flooded into Chicago as they "followed the train" (271) from locations in the South, hoping to find an alternative to Southern racism and violence. But as Sheila McShane, the wife of one of the novel's central characters, eventually found out, the "rails" leading from Southern farms to Northern ghettos only gave them new forms of discrimination and injustice. Indeed, as she remembers her first ride to the North on a train also loaded with hogs destined for Chicago's slaughterhouses, she realizes that animals and people faced similar fates: "She remembers. Cows rode trains, passengers rode them here to the country's bumping, swinging heart … where they were slaughtered and butchered" (531). Many of the novel's black characters are indeed "slaughtered" and "butchered" by the lives they are forced to live in Allen's Chicago. The novel is densely populated by murdered and disfigured people. The aptly named "No Face" is missing an eye from a gang fight, and T Bone, a "crippled motherfucka" (22), operates an elaborate wheel chair after he has been paralyzed by the gun violence of gang warfare. Sam has had his legs literally sliced off by a train after he has fallen asleep on the tracks. The most hideous image of disfigurement appears at the end of the novel when at a funeral for a victim of gang violence the casket is opened to reveal that the corpse has been reduced to something resembling the by-products of a slaughterhouse, a "soup of ash, shit, and blood" (543).
Allen's Chicago is filled with machines which process and dehumanize its citizens. "Robotic surveillance cameras" (179) patrol its underground shopping mall and No Face is described as a similar kind of machine as his one functioning eye is described as a "surveillance camera" (181). Red Hook, the immense public housing project consisting of sixteen high-rise buildings which comprise a "massive grid" (377) trapping 9600 black families, is envisioned as a gigantic mechanical contraption, a huge "metal commode flooded with an invisible tide of heaving black brown and yellow flesh" (374). Although its broken elevators, inoperable stairwells, and impacted laundry chutes literally establish Red Hook as a dysfunctional mechanism, on a more important symbolic level, it is an intricate system which works all too well. A long train connects it with downtown Chicago, and the high-rises themselves are described as being built "rail upon rail" (374). And as Sheila McShan has earlier observed, "a train can't run a man but in one direction" (284). Just as Chicago's train system is a deterministic symbol placing Allen's characters on "rails" of environmental forces which control them, Red Hook and its sister project, Stonewall, is a massive machine dominating its inhabitants. Buried in an underground room at the center of Red Hook is a huge control center, "a maze of levers, buttons, gauges, meters, dials, switchboards, keyboards" (496). Red Hook, therefore, is described as an "inevitable" (495) universe, a series of deterministic forces which pull people into its orbit and reduces them to things.
Put another way, Chicago in general and Red Hook in particular symbolize what both Whitehead and Allen understand as "gravity," powerful forces which overwhelm people and strip them of human qualities. The first paragraph of Rails under My Back stresses that "nothing escapes the laws of gravity. We martyr to motion" (3), and throughout the novel a wide variety of characters are pulled down by inner compulsions and external forces which crush their most human impulses. Jesus Jones's bitterness toward his family compels him to kill his uncle and attempt to murder his father. After a dispute at his family's Christmas dinner, he disappears from their lives but then "orbite[s] back into their life like a red meteor" (353) when Freeze puts him on a "mission" (42) to kill his father. Indeed Freeze, himself frozen into the roles of Red Hook gang culture, eliminates all of Jesus's choices, making "all possible movements" gravitate toward "a single definitive act" (486). As he accepts the task given to him by Freeze, Jesus literally descends into the "spit mottled steps of the subway" and morally falls into the violent world controlled by this "Gravity" (48) of Red Hook culture. In a similar way, his father, John Jones, impulsively leaves his wife in Chicago and gravitates to New York, either to escape Freeze's murderous plan or to pursue a life free of family responsibilities and dwindling economic prospects. His brother Lucifer is quick to follow him, driven on by "the necessities of blood" (345).
At several points in the novel characters meditate on the force of gravity as it causes water to circle downward in various drains. When Lucifer returns home from New York and is completing his morning bath, he ponders the water as it "[loses] its battle against centripetal motion (force) and [circles] down the drain" (341). Late in the novel when Birdleg is searching for a metaphor of ghetto life in order to warn the young Jesus and Hatch against succumbing to its pressures, he first of all illustrates his ideas with buzzards "flying in a circle," to suggest the predatory nature of street life, and then uses an even more revealing figure of speech: "Ain't you never looked in a sink and seen a drain? The water flying in circles?" (506). And Red Hook, Allen's ultimate symbol of the hell into which the black underclass falls, is seen as a gigantic "metal commode" which in a "toilet flush" (324) excretes "heaving black brown yellow flesh" (374). The horrific implication behind this pattern of drain metaphors is altogether clear—Allen's city, like Dante's circular Hell, is driven by a kind of relentless gravity which draws people into a downward spiral of deterministic behavior resulting in their elimination, figuratively "going down the drain" of ghetto life.
Rails under My Back, like Whitehead's The Colossus of New York, is filled with people who try to elevate themselves above their environment but who invariably fall victim to the worst forces in their surroundings and eventually disappear. Casy Love, the man with whom Lula Mae goes to Mexico, runs off and she never sees him again. R. L., who went West seeking a new life, is rarely heard from and is buried "somewhere in California on foreign soil" (452). Porsha falls in love with Deathrow, a resident of Red Hook, but he goes missing late in the novel due to mysterious circumstances and is not seen again. And John Jones, one of the novel's central characters, tells his wife he is leaving for a few days to attend an antiwar rally in Washington and to visit friends in New York, but he never returns and is not sighted in either city. His nephew Hatch regards his "disappearance" as a process which is both gradual and sudden, for John's entire life is a long process of depletion resulting in invisibility, "an oxidizing of a single cell, a single organ, a single limb, until—no more John" (352).
The Kafkaesque setting of the novel, like the city portrayed in The Colossus of New York, is an urban world where people disintegrate rather than grow, and disappear rather than develop continuous relationships which form the basis of meaningful social life and human identity. Two of Gracie's pregnancies produce stillborns, children who "disappeared" and "left no trace of their presence" (134). Porsha, who works as a "body model" whose face is deleted from the photographs for which she poses, fears that the biological force of aging, which she imagines as a kind of "gravity" (287), will eventually erode her beautiful body, thus reducing her to an insignificant cipher. Even after death, people in Rails under My Back simply vanish rather than become memorialized. A funeral home ironically named Sleepytime Incorporated often loses corpses in their immense warehouses and specializes in "mass incinerating" (228), strongly suggesting a version of the Holocaust. The recurrent disappearance of black people in a racist society regarding them as "invisible" is further underscored when Hatch remarks, "Nobody in our family had a gravestone" (227).* * *
Whitehead and Allen, therefore, provide strikingly similar visions of the postmodern American city as centers of alienation and dehumanization. But a critically important difference between their urban visions is that Whitehead's city is an absolutely nihilistic world which defeats its people not only with various kinds of "gravity" but also their attempts to "elevate" themselves, both of which inevitably lead to "disappearance." But Allen's city offers a measured hope in urban sanctuaries which provide meaningful social experiences enabling his characters to salvage moral and spiritual meanings that allow them to construct human identities. While Whitehead's city condemns its inhabitants to a complete isolation which guarantees their destruction, Allen's city has significant pockets of social connectedness which empower people to resist the "gravity" that threatens to pull them down into circles of despair, leading to their disappearance.
This is true even in Red Hook, as Pool Webb's apartment provides a kind of "home" for him and his friends. Once he realizes that Hatch is related to John Jones, a fellow war veteran and a person with whom he has worked in developing a basketball program for the project's youth, he relaxes his gruff exterior and welcomes Hatch to "make yourself comfortable" (379) and talk. While most other locations in Red Hook are murderous places which threaten to "snuff" (380) people by throwing them off roofs or killing them in drive-by shootings, Pool's apartment is a place where Hatch and Pool can converse, share a meal, and help each other. The windows of his apartment look out to a stimulating vista offered by the lake, a sharp contrast to the dark, prison-like places which otherwise characterize Red Hook. And Pool's veranda has a full "garden" of "tomatoes, collard greens, and peppers" (379) which also serves as a dramatic contrast to the filth and sterility which afflict most of Red Hook.
A war veteran who was on the clean-up crew at Hiroshima and who in later years suffered a series of strokes, Pool does not succumb to the "gravity" of his old age and deteriorated social environment. Rather, he continues to struggle to maintain himself as a person and to help others. As the Superintendent of Red Hook, he operates a Community Center which tries to ameliorate the harsh lives of Red Hook's tenants. As his last name clearly suggests, he helps to create a "web" of positive social relationships which can catch a few people who are in danger of a "free fall" into oblivion.
The novel has several other important sanctuaries which also provide some relief from Allen's stark urban environment. The back yard of Nia's childhood home is a "private green haven" (293) where she and Porsha play, share, and become life-long friends. Her beauty shop, located in a very rough neighborhood filled with "beggars, bums, hoodlums" (295), is an oasis where people can relax, talk, and enjoy a physically beautiful environment. Her clients, who are treated like invisible people or inanimate objects in the outside world, get special attention in her shop, being treated individually by beauticians who operate in "the cool shade of a hidden grove" (297). The basketball courts at Red Hook and Stonewall also supply positive outlets for human energy in a world that has painfully few such outlets. At the beginning of the novel Jesus shows a humane side of himself as he plays a game of pick-up basketball at Red Hook. Moving like a "ballerina" (43), he literally resists gravity by spectacularly dunking a basketball and feeling connected to a team of friends. A flashback described toward the end of the novel depicts Jesus in a similarly humane way as he and Hatch are taught how to play basketball by Birdleg at a court in Stonewall. Here again, playing the game not only allows the boys to express themselves creatively but also to become part of a social unit, a team which they affectionately name the Stonewall Aces. As Birdleg instructs them in the game, he uses it as a metaphor of how to oppose the downward pull of their environment by using their "height" (500) and developing "wings" (499).
But by far the most substantial and significant sanctuary in the novel is the black church, an institution providing life-giving community, tradition, and spiritual growth. It empowers certain people to get off the "tracks" laid by others and achieve an important means of control over their lives. Gracie, whose external life has been dominated by her directionless husband and her volatile son, ultimately regards the Bible as a force which has "directed her life" (136) fruitfully. Religion tells her to "keep seeking, not only her own advantage, but that of the other person" (136). Lula Mae's church in West Memphis, Tennessee, performs a similar function, centering her life in stable values grounded in family and social activism. Towards the end of the novel, Porsha, who has despaired of locating Deathrow, after he has mysteriously vanished, attends the revival meeting in Reverend Rivers' church and is emotionally and spiritually lifted by the experience. Rivers' sermon envisions a fire and brimstone version of a postmodern Hell controlled by Satan's "engineering" (546). Cautioning his congregation to avoid "The quicksands and breakers of spiritual degradation" (548), he insists that "God is the only stability" (548) in a world where souls "dangle over the licking fires of hell" (548). Listening to this sermon, Porsha feels a "power" (549) rising within her, "radiating bright streams" (549) throughout her body. This elevating power arising from within, which is experienced by a congregation of people who share her values, offers some hope that she can resist the gravity of cultural forces which make her a faceless body model instead of a person capable of the "salvation" (548) preached by Rev. Rivers.* * *
In post-9/11 America, Whitehead's and Allen's extraordinary visions of the postmodern city take on an especially compelling significance.2 More than ever, we now realize how fragile are our apparently powerful cities and the culture which they so dramatically reflect. Colossal in design and intricate in the way they use a wide variety of interconnected technologies, American cities are vulnerable not only to spectacular terrorist attacks but also, as Whitehead and Allen stress, to failures brought out by systemic weaknesses deeply rooted in American history and culture. Whitehead's New York and Allen's Chicago are vulnerable monuments to American blindness, materialism, racism, and egoism. Housing projects like Red Hook are built with the hope that they will solve social problems, but they succeed only in making such problems worse by making people disappear into an urban design which renders them invisible. We have discovered that such a "city built into the sky" (372) is an extremely fragile construction and does not need a terrorist plot to destroy it since it can collapse from inherent weaknesses in its own design. Or to use the metaphor so brilliantly elaborated in The Intuitionist and strongly implied in The Colossus of New York, our very American impulse for "elevation" from the traditional values which put human limits on our desire for infinite personal development and economic growth may ultimately spell our doom as a nation, putting us in what Whitehead has so aptly termed a "total free fall" (228).
1. Walter Kirn's review of The Intuitionist makes a similar point, arguing that the novel's temporal setting is deliberately vague, being set in "either the near future or the distant past." Moreover, the Kafkaesque "unnamed Eastern city" in which the novel takes place is a "parallel universe" rather than an actual place. ("The Promise of Verticality," Time 153 [Jan. 25, 1999]: 78.) Phillip Lopate's review of The Colossus of New York, however, argues that the book's lack of "detailed, physical description" of actual places such as Broadway, Times Square, and Coney Island, is a serious artistic defect because it produces a confusing "hydra-headed subjectivity" ("New York State of Mind," Nation 227 [Dec. 1, 2003]: 34) rather than a vision of New York as an actual city. While this objection would make sense when applied to a "realistic" book about New York such as Alfred Kazin's A Walker in the City, it misses the point when applied to an impressionistic text like Colossus, which attempts to envision the postmodern city subjectively as a process which is experienced differently by different people.
2. Although the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, are not directly mentioned in The Colossus of New York, they loom large in the book's composition. Whitehead had done preliminary work on the book before September 11, taking extensive notes on his perceptions of New York, but his main focus as a writer consisted of working on a third novel. After observing and photographing the destruction of the World Trade Center from Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn, however, he put the novel aside and devoted himself to working full-time on Colossus. As Felicia Lee observes in her New York Times review of Colossus, the terrorist attack on New York compelled Whitehead "to tuck away the novel and delve into the essays about a city that suddenly felt more fragile, yet more solid." Realizing that New York, for all its impersonality and impermanence, was still the place he called "home," Whitehead pursued his book on New York with renewed energy and emotional commitment (E4).
Darryl Lorenzo Washington's review of The Colossus of New York, however, complains that the absence of any direct reference to the events of September 11 is a serious flaw in the book. He finds "such a significant omission" to be "confusing." Given Whitehead's postmodern outlook, such an omission makes sense. Envisioning a world of absence and disappearance, his decision to omit any direct reference to 9/11 is a clever literary strategy which dramatizes his vision of twenty-first century urban life.
Allen, Jeffrey Renard. Rails under My Back. New York: Harcourt, 2000.
Baraka, Amiri. "Black Literature and the Afro-American Nation: The Urban Voice," in Urban Experience: Essays on the City and Literature. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1981.
Jackson, Blyden. The Waiting Years: Essays on Negro Literature. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1976.
Kirn, Walter. "The Promise of Verticality." Time 153 (Jan. 25, 1999): 78.
Larimer, Kevin. "Industrial Strength of the Information Age: A Profile of Colson Whitehead." Poets and Writers July/August 2001: 21-25.
Lee, Felicia. "Singing the City Evanescent." New York Times 15 (Oct. 20, 2003): E1, E4.
Lopate, Phillip. "New York State of Mind." Nation 277 (Dec. 1, 2003): 31-35.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. Literary and Philosophical Essays. New York: Collier, 1962.
Wellington, Darryl Lorenzo. "New York Is the Only Thing on This Author's Mind." The Crisis 110 (Nov./Dec. 2003): 47.
Whitehead, Colson. The Colossus of New York: A City in Thirteen Parts. New York: Doubleday, 2003.
———. The Intuitionist. New York: Anchor, 1999.
Saundra Liggins (essay date summer 2006)
SOURCE: Liggins, Saundra. "The Urban Gothic Vision of Colson Whitehead's The Intuitionist (1999)." African American Review 40, no. 2 (summer 2006): 359-69.
[In this essay, Liggins discusses The Intuitionist as a gothic novel, arguing that Whitehead chose the genre in order "to portray the alienation of the modern black American due to the progress in urban cities and to speculate on the future of U.S. race relations."]
But we do have in the Negro the embodiment of a past tragic enough to appease the spiritual hunger of even a James; and we have in the oppression of the Negro a shadow athwart our national life dense and heavy enough to satisfy even the gloomy broodings of a Hawthorne. And if Poe were alive, he would not have to invent horror; horror would invent him.
—Richard Wright, Native Son xxxiv
By listing Henry James, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Edgar Allan Poe as cultural references in his essay "How Bigger Was Born" Richard Wright does not merely address the similarities between the richness and depth of African American literature and the historical and cultural focus of these authors. As implicit in his use of the word "horror" to describe the racial history of the United States, Wright was also drawing an important connection between black America and the literary tradition known as the gothic. On its surface gothic literature seems an unlikely context in which to find a discussion of the African American experience. Originating as a formal literary tradition first in Europe with Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto, published in 1764, and consisting of such figures as castles and abbeys, tyrannical aristocrats, and damsels in distress, the genre's main purpose is to terrify, to reflect the threats and anxiety that individuals and societies often confront. With Charles Brockden Brown's Wieland, or the Transformation (1798), the American gothic literary tradition began, thus transplanting the genre onto US soil and transforming many of the earlier conventions. Rural towns and plantations replaced castles and abbeys, and landed gentry and slave owners stood in for European aristocracy. The gothic literature that would arise out of each of these contexts, even with their differences, took its inspiration from the social and political climates of the late eighteenth century.
Despite the temporal and contextual distance from its European and American gothic counterparts of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, contemporary African American literature resonates with many character- istics of the gothic aesthetic. The past still influences the present and future, and issues of identity still create conflicts within the individual. What contemporary African American gothic literature offers is a new set of questions: What does it mean to be a modern black American? Have class and gender differences replaced racial distinctions as the main threats to societal stability, for blacks and whites? How is future racial uplift to be achieved? In diverse ways, Wright and other novelists—Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor, and Ralph Ellison, in particular—have widened the perception of the gothic genre.1 Like these black authors before him, Colson Whitehead demonstrates a gothic sensibility in his 1999 novel The Intuitionist. Set against the unusual backdrop of an investigation into elevator operations, The Intuitionist is an allegorical tale of blacks' struggle for upward mobility. Whitehead uses an urban gothic landscape and traditional gothic conventions to portray the alienation of the modern black American due to the progress in urban cities and to speculate on the future of US race relations.
In The Intuitionist Lila Mae Watson is an elevator inspector who becomes embroiled in big-city politics when an elevator that she has passed free-falls, fortunately without any passenger injuries. Lila Mae's occupation as an elevator inspector, and her subsequent investigation into the accident, is a clever variance of the detective figure and the detective genre, seen throughout African American literature, but also closely tied to the gothic narrative.2 As Lila Mae's inquiry deepens, she clashes with dangerous characters and learns of plans for a new elevator design called "the black box." These plans lie at the heart of a power struggle within the elevator industry, and underscore a much larger social battle. In this singular novel, Whitehead offers a tale that is part detective novel, part racial protest novel.3
For early American gothic writers the New World was a wild frontier. Novels such as Brockden Brown's Edgar Huntly, or, Memoirs of a Sleepwalker (1799), and James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans (1826) have depicted what Donald Ringe calls "the darker aspects of the American landscape—the terrible insecurity felt by the whites who find themselves alone in the threatening wilderness, the terror inspired in them by the hostile Indians" (109). Although rural environments have perhaps more often been the setting of American gothic literature, best exemplified in southern gothic novels by William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, and Flannery O'Connor, as urban cities developed, their concrete and steel terrains and turbulent social conditions provided a rich backdrop for the American gothic. Particularly during the 1930s and 1940s, the Los Angeles novel, represented by such texts as Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust and Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep, and its cinematic counterpart, film noir, reflected an urban gothic sentiment. The US metropolis was brooding and pessimistic, rife with scandal, deception and treachery. In keeping with this novelistic tradition, Whitehead displays his own vision of America's dismal landscape in The Intuitionist.
The northern city in particular has been the source of much inspiration in African American literature, codifying ideas of both hope and frustration. In the nineteenth century, slave narratives depicted the North as a refuge, a Heaven to which slaves escaped, if they could. In his 1845 narrative, Frederick Douglass describes his reaction to seeing New Bedford, Connecticut, for the first time: "From the wharves I strolled around and over the town, gazing with wonder and amazement…. Everything looked clean, new, and beautiful" (111). Into the twentieth century, the North was a land of disappointment and bitterness, as African Americans realized that the region was not completely free of racism or other forms of oppression. In his autobiographical Black Boy (1945), Wright describes his arrival in Chicago in 1927: "My first glimpse of the flat black stretches of Chicago depressed me and dismayed me, mocked all my fantasies. Chicago seemed an unreal city whose mythical houses were built of slabs of black coal wreathed in palls of gray smoke, houses whose foundations were sinking slowly into the dank prairie…. The din of the city entered my consciousness, entered to remain for years to come" (261). In The Intuitionist, Lila Mae's father, Marvin, likewise cautions his daughter about leaving their southern home for the North after she has been accepted into the Institute of Vertical Transport, a college for the study of elevators. "It's not so different up there, Lila Mae," he warns. "They have the same white people up there that they got down here. It might look different. It might feel different. But it's the same" (234). Despite this admonition, she sees the North as her opportunity to progress. She explains, "I moved up here because here is where the elevators are. The real elevators" (168).
The Intuitionist operates within two time periods. Its 1999 publication date, at the conclusion of arguably one of the most prosperous decades in American history, allows it to speak to the continuing alienation of the classes of people who were not the beneficiaries of social and economic gains. Whitehead portrays a northern city that was perhaps once a promising urban center but in the novel's present is a metropolis hit hard by economic downturns. Employment is scarce and influenced by racial and gender discrimination and the policies established at mid-century to counter this prejudice. Cronyism and patronage are rampant in business and politics. Minority groups and the poor struggle against social and economic repression that leaves them isolated and vulnerable to abuse. The contrast between economic prosperity and inner-city despair that the author depicts contributes to a gothic landscape infused with mystery, fear, and apprehension.
Without specifying the year in which this novel's story takes place, Whitehead uses subtle details of diction, automobile make, and dress styles, and so on, to depict a 1950's or 60's urban environment. In addition, the city setting is never named, although Whitehead coyly refers to it as "the most famous city in the world, with magnificent elevated trains, five daily newspapers, two baseball stadiums," and "the most famous street in the world" (12, 23, 163). The time of year, too, is ambiguous, the narrator revealing only that "everything in the garden is dying, that's what time of year it is" (58). One of the few references to the popular culture of the era comes from the appearance of a singing group called "Rick Raymond and the Moon-Rays," who performs "a song from a movie musical that was popular a few years back" at an elevator industry party (150). The history of the city and the larger surrounding area are referred to only by referring to "the infamous sale of the island" (47).
Whitehead delivers characters who are estranged from the majority of society. Reminiscent of Ellison's Invisible Man, another novel with (black) gothic overtones, the individuals who inhabit the fictional world of The Intuitionist only exist in surroundings that are hidden, underground, and peripheral. The hierarchy of the Department of Elevator Inspectors, for example, positions white employees above ground while black men are relegated to the motor pool in the "rank gloom of the garage" located at the bottom of the building: "This space in the garage is what the Department has allowed the colored men—it is underground, there are no windows permitting sky, and the sick light is all the more enervating for it—but the mechanics have done their best to make it their own" (18).
This description highlights the black American's relationship to the larger society. The dominant society is determined to keep African Americans, and perhaps all minorities—although no others are discussed in the text—at the bottom, in the dark, and out of sight. By making the most of their situation, "mak[ing] it their own," the black men take ownership of their work conditions, of their very existence, out of the hands of the white heads of the Department. They periodically revolt against their imposed subordination by defacing a poster depicting their boss, the chair of the Elevator Inspectors Guild. Whitehead writes:
A close inspection of Chancre's campaign posters, which are taped to every other cement column despite regulations against campaign literature within a hundred yards of Headquarters, reveals myriad tiny insurrections, such as counterclockwise swirls in the middle of Chancre's pupils, an allusion to his famous nocturnal dipsomania…. Horns, boiling cysts, the occasional cussword inked in across Chancre's slat teeth—they add up after awhile…. No one notices them but they're there, near-invisible, and count for something.
Whitehead presents a picture of subtle determination and resilience sustained by various characters throughout the text. This conflict between those who work underground in the garage and those who work in the building itself is symbolic of the larger struggle that gothic literature depicts. What Juliann Fleenor has written about the nightmare that the female gothic exhibits can equally be ascribed to Whitehead's presentation: the discord depicted in the literature is "created by the individual in conflict with the values of her society and her prescribed role" (10). The black workers at the Department of Elevator Inspectors are struggling within the confines of their position to find and reaffirm their voices and very identity.
Also linking The Intuitionist with the gothic tradition is the manner in which Whitehead molds the notion of evil into the shape of a modern patriarchy, producing a climate of terror and seclusion that devalues not only women but blacks as well. In becoming an elevator inspector—the first female and only the second black—Lila Mae has escaped the plight of those in the motor pool, only to face her own isolation. She experiences no camaraderie or even a professional rapport with her fellow inspectors. This separateness began even before Lila Mae joined the ranks of the elevator inspectors, however. As a student at the Institute for Vertical Transport, Lila Mae had to live in a converted janitor's closet above the gymnasium because there were no living quarters for "colored" students. She was a specter on campus, seen by other students and yet not acknowledged. Race relations at the school were characterized not only by whites' disregard for blacks, but by a blatant fear and hostility towards blacks. Using language that recalls the discourse of 19th-century slavery, the narrator tells us that "the admission of colored students to the Institute for Vertical Transport was staggered to prevent overlap and any possible fulminations or insurrections that might arise from that overlap" (44). Despite this staggered admission, the white faculty is unable to tell the black students apart, and they frequently call Lila Mae by the name of the previous black student, a male.
Lila Mae is able to use this invisibility to her advantage as she embarks on her own investigation into the crash of the elevator. At the Funicular Follies, the Department's annual banquet/variety show, she is mistaken for a maid and is therefore able to operate behind the scenes and witness the outlandish actions of her colleagues. Examining herself in the mirror after donning the maid's uniform that has been mistakenly thrust into her hands, and noting that she is not wearing shoes appropriate for such work, she shrugs off the contradiction, reminding herself that those in attendance "won't be looking at [my] shoes. They won't be looking at me at all." Throughout the night she repeats this observation, deciding not to put her hair back in a bun, more appropriate for her position as a waitress or maid, because "[t]hey do not see her." Even though these are the same men with whom she works side-by-side during the day, "[i]n here they do not see her. She is the colored help" (Whitehead 153).
Lila Mae's misidentification as a maid signifies what Hana Wirth-Nesher describes as "the paradox of the simultaneous visibility and invisibility of the black to the white in public space." In discussing the examination of double consciousness in Ellison's Invisible Man, Wirth-Nesher writes, "Although visible due to race, the black figure in the landscape is rendered invisible by being ‘naturalized’ into a familiar icon—the shoeshine boy, the ‘Jolly Nigger,’ or variations of Sambo" (96). Whitehead thus depicts the black female figure in white society rendered invisible and "naturalized" as a maid; thus, he illustrates the narrow-mindedness and racism within the Department and indeed within the larger US society.4
If race and gender erase Lila Mae, race distinguishes as hypervisible a blackface duo, "Mr. Gizzard and Hambone," actually two white elevator inspectors, who perform at the banquet. Their performance accentuates the dividing line between the predominantly white audience of elevator inspectors and the black waiters, waitresses, and busboys. The duo entertains the crowd in the traditional minstrel fashion: "The skinny man wears a white T-shirt and gray trousers. Clothespins hold his suspenders to his pants. The fat man wants to be a dandy, but his green and purple suit is too small for him, exposing his thick ankles and wrists. Their elbows row back and forth in unison and their feet skip 'cross the stage to the music. Their faces are smeared black with burnt cork, and white greasepaint circles their mouths in ridiculous lips" (154). To raucous applause, they perform a routine that includes dances and jokes, complete with requisite "Negro dialect" and pejorative stereotypes. One such joke: "Hambone, you ole niggah, where you git dat nice hat you got on yo head?" His partner answers, "I got it at dat new hat stoe on Elm Street." "Tell me, Hambone, did it cost much?" "I don know, Mr. Gizzard—de shopkeeper wasn't dar!" (154).
The response to this performance signals Whitehead's sense of the contrast between white and black. The world that Lila Mae and her fellow African Americans live in is one in which whites still accept such racial exhibitions as "Mr. Gizzard and Hambone" as accepted sources of entertainment, and as such, the white audience enthusiastically receives the minstrel performance. In appreciation, the elevator inspectors "[go] mad" and give the pair a standing ovation. In contrast, "the […] colored workers do not speak on what they have just seen" (156). Lila Mae's reaction is similar to that of her fellow colored workers, reflecting their mutual disbelief, shame, and anger. Despite her seemingly outspoken personality and her more advanced position as an elevator inspector, she "does not mention it either, telling herself it is because she does not know the silent women she has been working with, whom she has not talked to all evening for her concentration on the Follies" (156). She rationalizes her silence, thinking to herself that her reticence "is because she is undercover and speaking to them might trip her up, a dozen other reasons." Initially believing that "the other women are so beaten that they cannot speak of the incident," she finally realizes that "all of them, Lila Mae included, are silent for the same reason: because this is the world they have been born into, and there is no changing that" (157). Although she is verbally silent, like the men who work in the garage, Lila Mae also ultimately performs her own act of resistance. Before giving a new fork to one of the attendees of the dinner, she drags it through grease and the contents of the garbage can.
Included in the audience is Pompey, the city's first black elevator inspector, who "rub[s] laughter-tears from his eyes, [and] lean[s] against [another audience member] to steady himself" (157). Pompey's seemingly traitorous behavior, appearing to enjoy the blackface performance as much as his white co-workers, rather than being stunned into silence like the other African Americans, is understood when a clearer picture of Pompey develops. Called "little Pompey" (25) by the white inspectors, he has incurred the disdain of Lila Mae due to his "appalling obsequious nature, cultivated to exceptional degree" and a persistent rumor (or truth) that he, upon being invited to the office of the head of the inspectors, allowed himself to be kicked in the behind. "The next day," the story goes, "a small memo appeared on Pompey's desk informing him of his promotion to Inspector Second Grade."5 Significantly, Pompey equally dislikes Lila Mae, declaring about the elevator accident and the impending investigation that threatens Lila Mae's career, "She's finally getting what's been coming to her for a long time" (26).
The smothered, growing conflict between Lila Mae and Pompey explodes when she visits his home to confront him regarding her suspicions that he is involved in inspecting the elevators of a mob-owned building and that he might have been responsible for sabotaging the elevator that she had inspected. She is surprised that he lives only two blocks from her, although his pleasant neighborhood is very different from her own desolate community; there are children playing in the street and people greet each other amiably. Unbeknownst to Lila Mae, Pompey has a wife and children, who are the motivation for his sycophantic actions. Confronting her accusations, he tells Lila Mae that he took the extra job because he needs the money to take his family out of the neighborhood that, while looking nice, is undergoing a change. "You see them kids play ball?" he asks Lila Mae. "Ten years from now half of them be in jail, or dead, and the other half working as slaves just to keep a roof over they heads. Ten years from now they won't even be kids playing ball on the street. Won't be safe enough even to do that" (194). He continues, defending his on-the-job demeanor, "how am I supposed to act, the way you carry yourself. Like you some queen. Your nose up in the air? I got two kids." And after Lila Mae criticizes Pompey for "shuffl[ing] for those white people like a slave," Pompey responds with his own critique. "What I done," he explains, "I done because I had no other choice. This is a white man's world. They make the rules. You come along, strutting like you own the place. Like they don't own you. But they do." He persists, frustrated by Lila Mae's unwillingness to appreciate his struggles with race and class as the first black inspector. "You had it easy, snot-nosed kid that you are," he states, "because of me. Because of what I did for you" (195).
This clash between Lila Mae and Pompey obviously echoes arguments between the early and later generations of African Americans who struggled for equal rights. Lila Mae feels embarrassed by Pompey's seemingly subservient behavior, behavior that she ultimately sees as part of very real sacrifices he has made. Pompey, on the other hand, is resentful of the ease with which Lila Mae has incorporated herself into the elevator industry, a progression perhaps made easier because she is female, and her appearance of having no regard for the path that was paved before her. Both characters are so concerned with their own agendas that neither of them can see their ultimate reliance on one another, or their place within a larger scheme set in motion by those looking for the missing elevator plans. As the novel draws to a close, one of the men who wants to find the plans to the black box tells Lila Mae how beneficial and utterly predictable it was for her to suspect Pompey, thereby steering her away from the real potential culprits. "Let one colored in and you're integrated," he says. "Let two in, you got a race war as they try to kiss up to whitey" (249).6
Whitehead offers no easy resolutions to this intergenerational conflict. Later in the novel, an unacknowledged, if one-sided, truce has been called. Lila Mae admits her misreading of Pompey, acknowledging that she was no better than her white co-workers. Whitehead describes the role that Pompey played in society:
The Uncle Tom, the grinning nigger, the house nigger who is to blame for her debased place in this world. Pompey gave [whites] a blueprint for colored folk. How they acted. How they pleased white folks. How eager they would be for a piece of the dream that they would do anything for massa. She hated her place in the world, where she fell in the order of things, and blamed Pompey, her shucking shadow in the office. She could not see him any more than anyone else in the office saw him.
Whitehead later adds that Lila Mae "hated something in herself and she took it out on Pompey" (240).
The divisiveness between Lila Mae and Pompey is a product of one of Whitehead's main tenets in The Intuitionist, what he calls "the lie of whiteness" (239). All of the characters, white and black, are afflicted by a blindness that prohibits them from realizing their position in society and from determining their own fate. All of them are searching for a means of escape, of rising above their present individual and social circumstances. The potential for this transformation might be found in the mysterious plans of the black box.
The very possibility of change informs Lila Mae's quest for the elusive black box. The search for the cause of the elevator's fall, and the resultant discovery of the plans for a potentially revolutionary elevator model—the black box—in the missing notebooks of a deceased inventor, could create a shift not only in the local politics of the city, but also in the city's and the nation's race relations. With this black box, Whitehead has created an ingenious metaphor for racial uplift. The investigation into the validity and location of the plans for the black box functions effectively as an exploration into the past, present, and future of racial progress, outlining the compromises, losses, and gains inherent in such an evolution.
Whitehead has created, then, an intricate postmodern tale, at the center of which is the symbol of the elevator. The structure of the elevator is an elaborate, mechanical, and philosophical fantasy, the design of which suggests the very opposite of the elevator's actual function. Of the form of the traditional elevator, the Arbo Smooth-Glide, Lila Mae notes: it was "equipped […] with an oversized door to foster the illusion of space, to distract the passenger from what every passenger feels acutely about elevators. That they ride in a box on a rope in a pit. That they are in the void" (5). The elevator that Lila Mae describes is similar to the garage where the maintenance people work in the Department of Elevator Inspectors building: each is designed to give the appearance of openness—the elevator by its large doors, and the garage by its florescent lights—while masking the true intent and design of the space. On the one hand, the elevator is constructed to give the impression that it is not moving at all, all the while hurtling passengers through the heights and depths of a building. The Department's garage, on the other hand, while seemingly a blacks-only space where the workers experience freedom and autonomy, serves the white power structure as a perfect holding cell to the keep blacks in their place. Lila Mae and the other blacks in the city hope to find in the elusive black box an escape from the void of the garage.
The Arbo Smooth-Glide and the mechanics' garage further symbolize Whitehead's critique of late 20th-century US social and political programs that promise more than they actually deliver. The progress made by the 1960's civil rights movement and the subsequent passing of legislations beneficial to racial and ethnic minority groups was tempered by economic policies that kept any real progress to a minimum. Like dysfunctional social, political, and economic policies, the elevator and the garage offer the illusionary appeal of movement and progress, while simultaneously keeping things stagnant, or even moving them backwards.
Whitehead presents as an antidote to this conservative condition the mythological black box. To the novel's students of elevator science, the black box is more than another means of conveyance. It is "the perfect elevator," "one that will deliver [people] from the cities [they] suffer now, these stunted shacks" (61). The dueling national elevator companies, Arbo and American, are both in search of the plans for this project that holds such hope, not just for their respective companies and the industry as a whole, but for all people. Compared to the first elevator, invented by Elisha Otis in the early nineteenth century, which "delivered [people] from medieval five- and six-story constructions," this (post) modern invention, developed by James Fulton, "will grant [people] the sky, unreckoned towers: the second elevation…. [I]t's the future" (61). The second elevation represents unlimited potential and possibility for Lila Mae and the other residents of the city, if not the world. It suggests a lifting of the restrictions and constraints placed on black Americans in contemporary society.7
The inventor of the black box, James Fulton, was a black man who had passed for white, holding the position of outsider in the industry of elevator invention, as well as in the larger society. His is a dual presence throughout the novel, not only representing the evolution of the elevator industry, but also personifying the early days of race relations. When Lila Mae learns that Fulton was black, she perceives him as "a spy in white spaces, just like she is" (139).8 Not only is Fulton a spy, but he also signifies the spectral presence so often present in the gothic. As such, throughout the text both he and his invention haunt the characters, especially Lila Mae. A unique bond develops between them, although they never meet in person. For several months, from the vantage point of her room at the Institute, Lila Mae would see a mysterious figure moving through the stacks of the library. On the last night that she was to see him, Fulton waved back to her, "communicat[ing] all he knew and what she already understood about the darkness" (46); the next day Fulton was found dead on the library floor. Fulton, in turn, had inquired about the girl he had seen through the window. When the Dean of the Institute identifies Lila Mae, Fulton senses an affinity as well, in part perhaps because of her race. He absentmindedly writes in the margin of his notebook, "Lila Mae Watson is the one" (253).
Fulton's imaginative theories on elevator construction and operation speak to the status of the black American in US society; they reflect the race's movement up—and down—the social order. In his seminal multi-volume text, Theoretical Elevators, he writes that "horizontal thinking in a vertical world is the race's curse," thereby positing that what plagues the black race is a lack of upward vision, an inability to seek heights previously unreached (151). He further addresses this deficiency in Volume Two of his text: "The race sleeps in this hectic and disordered century. Grim lids that will not open. Anxious retinas flit to and fro beneath them. They are stirred by dreaming. In this dream of uplift, they understand that they are dreaming the contract of the hallowed verticality, and hope to remember the terms on waking. The race never does, and that is our curse" (186). With his innovative creation he proposes to lift this curse, thus realizing the dream of uplift, "the promise of verticality" (176). In truth, he writes of, in sociological, non-elevator, terms, racial uplift. One character says, in speaking of his search for the black box and its importance to the black community, "they always saying it's the future. It's the future of the cities. But it's our future, not theirs. It's ours. And we need to take it back. What he made, this elevator, colored people made that. It's ours. And I'm going to show that we ain't nothing. Show them … that we are alive" (140).
This second elevation, or black box, mirrors the gothic's function in philosophy in that it responds to traditional modes of thought. Just as the Fulton-designed elevator served as an improvement over the early Otis conception, so, too, did the gothic emerge in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as an improvement, or at least a change, over earlier philosophies. Gothic fiction, as J. Gerald Kennedy writes in his essay about Edgar Allan Poe, "enacts the radical uncertainty of an epoch of revolution in which nearly all forms of authority … came to be seen as constricting systems" (40). Fulton's design challenges not only the authority of the leaders of the elevator industry and their present theories of elevator inspection, but the dominance of traditional notions of race as well. Despite the vagueness of the novel's temporal setting, The Intuitionist clearly reflects a racial revolution. Like the gothic, the elevator responds to the fears of an industrial, urban, multiracial western society. Fulton has found a better way, and that way is the black box.
What makes Fulton's invention even more intriguing than its potential is that it is based on a joke, an attempt by Fulton to challenge traditional notions of elevator philosophy. Prior to Fulton's theories, elevator inspection was based on Empiricism, physical examinations of elevator machinery, its material components, to determine how the apparatus is working. As a means of revealing the deficiencies of this approach, Fulton writes a volume promoting an opposing ideology—one that he did not fully believe himself—based on sensing the elevator's movements and interior design. When investigating the elevator that eventually falls, Lila Mae "listens" and "concentrate[s] on the vibrations massaging her back." In her mind, the vibrations take the shape of an "aqua-blue cone," and she visualizes the upward movement of the elevator as "a red spike." Other shapes form as the elevator ascends. Lila Mae's intuition is innate and magical, for, the narrator tells us, "You don't pick the shapes and their behavior. Everyone has their own set of genies" (6). One critic would come to deem the practice "Intuitionist" and define it as "postrational, innate. Human" (238).
It is not accidental that the language that Whitehead uses to describe these differing philosophies evokes the dichotomy that exists between East and West, black and white. What Whitehead presents is not solely a potential technological shift, but ultimately an entire paradigm shift. Lila Mae's own description of the position of the early inspectors reveals the larger implications of the development of such a revolutionary approach as Intuitionism. "They looked at the skin of things," she says, further delineating the two methods not just along philosophical lines, but racial ones as well. "White people's reality is built on what things appear to be—that's the business of Empiricism" (239). The men at the Funicular Follies just "looked at the skin of things" when they failed to recognize Lila Mae in a maid's uniform, seeing her merely as a black servant, and not as their co-worker. Lila Mae shares their myopia when she initially suspects Pompey. The failure of Empiricism is that individuals don't see the subtle shadings, either of elevators or people. "Their sacred Empiricism has no meaning," Lila Mae concludes, "when they can't even see that this man [Fulton] is colored because he says he is not. Or doesn't even say it. They see his skin and see a white man."9 Fulton's design suggests that Intuitionism, conversely, offers a new opportunity, a new vision, for both this city and for all of US society.
There are no clear conclusions at the end of Whitehead's novel. Lila Mae finds Fulton's notebooks that contain the plans for the black box, and she delivers them, incomplete, to both of the elevator companies. What is missing is the key that will break the code that Fulton used to design his elevator; only Lila Mae possesses the code. After she has completed Fulton's manuscripts, when she feels that the time is right, when society is ready to receive what the black box represents, Lila Mae will reveal the code to the rest of the world. It is then that Fulton's vision of the world will be transformed from a joke into a reality.
2. For a discussion of the relationship between the detective and gothic novels, see, for example, Cawelti (27) and Day (passim).
3. Laura Miller cites Whitehead's influences as being Don DeLillo and "Ralph Ellison and Thomas Pynchon by way of Walter Mosley." Reviewer Shelley Ridenour sees traces of Ralph Ellison as well, but also includes George Orwell as an obvious inspiration. In an interview with Miller, Whitehead himself cites Stephen King, Ishmael Reed, and Jean Toomer as authors who have directly or indirectly inspired him.
4. As a courier, Lila Mae's father represents yet another familiar icon for whites. When he appears at an office building seeking a job interview for the position of elevator inspector, "[t]he secretary handed him a package when he walked in the door. He returned it to her thin white hands and informed her he was here for an interview. Wasn't a messenger boy" (161).
5. This scene replicates a scene in Wright's Black Boy, where Shortly lets a white man kick him in the behind for a quarter (227-29). Just as it is probably no coincidence that Wright's Shorty is also an elevator operator, Pompey is the name given, ironically or contemptuously, to an officious slave type in various antebellum slave narratives.
6. Racial politics had infused Lila Mae's career from the beginning. Lila Mae's assignment to the Fanny Briggs Memorial Building, named for a slave woman who had escaped to the North and taught herself how to read, was politically motivated. It was an election year, Lila Mae observes, and Chancre, the current Inspector Guild chair, "was so naked in his attempt to score points with the electorate," particularly the minority population, that he assigned her to that building (13).
7. So much is the elevator a symbol of (racial) progress, and therefore a threat to the white majority, that at the press conference following the accident, a reporter asks the city's mayor, "Do you think that a party or parties resistant to colored progress may be responsible?" (22)
8. When she discovers that Fulton was passing for white, she asks herself, perhaps reflecting upon her own experiences with her co-workers, "What did Fulton do when [other colored people] acted white? Talk about ‘the colored problem’ and how it is our duty to help the primitive race get in step with white civilization. Out of darkest Africa. Or did he remain silent, smile politely at their darkie jokes. Tell a few of his own" (139).
9. In discussing the potential impact of the discovery of Fulton's racial identity, one character remarks, "'I don't know if [the upper ranks of the Inspectors Guild] know he was colored, but if they do you know they ain't going to tell the truth. They would never admit that…. They'd die before they say that" (138).
Cawelti, John G. Adventure, Mystery and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1976.
Day, William Patrick. In the Circles of Fear and Desire: A Study of Gothic Fantasy. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself. 1845. Ed. David W. Blight. Boston: Bedford, 1993.
Fleenor, Juliann, ed. "The Female Gothic." The Female Gothic. Montreal: Eden P, 1983. 3-28.
Kennedy, J. Gerald. "Phantoms of Death in Poe's Fiction." The Haunted Dusk: American Supernatural Fiction, 1820-1920. Eds. Howard Kerr, John W. Crowley, and Charles L. Crow. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1983. 37-65.
Miller, Laura. "Colson Whitehead's Alternate New York." 12 Jan. 1999. Salon.com. 1 July 2006. http://www.salon.com/books/feature/1999/01/cov_12featureb.html.
———. "The Salon Interview: Colson Whitehead." 12 Jan. 1999. Salon.com. 1 July 2006. http://www.salon.com/books/int/1999/01/cov_si_12int.html.
Ridenour, Shelley. Rev. of The Intuitionist, by Colson Whitehead. 4 Oct. 1999. Chicago Words Hub. 1 July 2006. http://newcitychicago.com/home/daily/book_reviews/intuitionist10499.html.
Ringe, Donald. American Gothic: Imagination and Reason in Nineteenth Century Fiction. Lexington: Kentucky UP, 1982.
Whitehead, Colson. The Intuitionist. New York: Anchor, 1999.
Wirth-Nesher, Hana. City Codes: Reading the Modern Urban Novel. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge UP, 1996.
Wright, Richard. Black Boy. 1945. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.
———. Native Son. 1940. New York: Harper & Row, 2001.
Bérubé, Michael. "Race and Modernity in Colson Whitehead's The Intuitionist." In The Holodeck in the Garden: Science and Technology in Contemporary American Fiction, edited by Peter Freese and Charles B. Harris, pp. 163-78. Normal, Ill.: Dalkey Archive Press, 2004.
Elucidates concepts of personal and professional identity, spatiotemporal setting, and physical disability in The Intuitionist.
Hill, Christopher Jack. "Literary Landscapes: Novels of Disparate Places, Themes and Souls." Black Issues Book Review 8, no. 3 (May-June 2006): 32.
Brief review that contends that Whitehead effectively satirizes corporate branding and society's penchant for empty and useless titles in Apex Hides the Hurt.
Whitehead, Colson, and Kevin Larimer. "Industrial Strength in the Information Age: A Profile of Colson Whitehead." Poets & Writers Magazine 29, no. 4 (July-August 2001): 20-6.
Provides a biographical sketch of Whitehead as well as an interview with the author.
Additional coverage of Whitehead's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 202; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 232; and Literature Resource Center.