“The direction of the bizarre”: Reimagining History in Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad

Sonia Weiner*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


In Colson Whitehead’s novel, The Underground Railroad (2016), the past and the present are interconnected by means of a two-way (rail)road. Whitehead takes his readers on imaginative thought-routes, as well-established literary, historical, and geographic territories veer peculiarly off-course, destabilizing and scrutinizing the known and familiar. By linking what literary critic Ramón Saldívar has called “the fantasy of the imaginary” with “the real of history,” Whitehead creates a literal and metaphorical underground railroad that takes us, as one character says, “to places we know and those we don’t.” By employing the speculative underground railroad as the central metaphor for his novel, Whitehead signals his readiness to challenge the myths surrounding it. He does so by turning to the fantastic, the imaginary and the anachronistic, raising thereby questions concerning ‘reliability’ and ‘authenticity,’ which have become pertinent in Trump’s post-truth America. Using the example of Whitehead’s ‘Museum of Natural Wonders,’ this chapter examines Whitehead’s dialogue with P.T. Barnum, Joice Heth and the disconcerting overlap between science and popular culture, to suggest that integrity is located not in the verisimilitude of the representation of the past, but rather (following Michel Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past) in the nature of its encounter with the present.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationAmerican Literature Readings in the 21st Century
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan
Number of pages23
StatePublished - 2022

Publication series

NameAmerican Literature Readings in the 21st Century
ISSN (Print)2634-579X
ISSN (Electronic)2634-5803


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