Solutions for Higher Education

Episode 58 - Summer Book Club Book 1: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead


President Scott L Wyatt and Steve Meredith are joined by Dr. Kyle Bishop to discuss the first book in the Summer Book Club: The Underground Railroad. The trio discuss the metaphor of the railroad, break down the motives of the main characters, and identify the learning outcomes from the book.

SUU Blog: President Wyatt’s Summer Book Picks for 2019



Full Transcript

Steve Meredith: Hi again everyone, and welcome to Solutions to Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah. I’m your host, Steve Meredith, and joining me in the studio, as he always does, is President Wyatt. Good morning, Scott.

Scott Wyatt: Good morning, Steve.

Meredith: It’s good to be here on a…we’ve kind of had a crazy spring.

Wyatt: Yeah, we certainly have.

Meredith: It’s been snowing through much of the month of May [Both laugh] and we’re looking forward to spring actually showing up, or at least getting closer to summer. But this is the first week of our summer book club, despite the fact that it looks like winter outside, and we’re very excited to be discussing a really amazingly dramatic and fantastic—I mean that in the best possible way—book called The Underground Railroad. And we have a guest from our English department, our literature department, to discuss that with us. And why don’t you introduce him?

Wyatt: So, we are so happy to have Dr. Kyle Bishop with us today. Kyle, welcome.

Dr. Kyle Bishop: Thanks for having me.

Wyatt: You probably hold the distinct, unique honor of being maybe the only person—certainly the only person at Southern Utah University, but I would find it hard to imagine that anybody could fit into this category—of being a third generation teacher at the same school who also is the third-generation Distinguished Educator Award recipient. That’s got to be unique.

Bishop: That’s true. I hope so. It’s a very large point of pride for me and my family.

Meredith: I’ll bet.

Bishop: I’m grooming my son now. [All laugh]

Meredith: That’s right.

Wyatt: A lot of weight if he decides to become an educator.

Meredith: That’s right.

Bishop: Oh yeah, pressure.

Wyatt: Well, three professors in a row, generations, all three professors recipients of a Distinguished Educator Award and Kyle, I’ve had—actually, Steve and I both have had an opportunity to listen to you teach.

Meredith: We have. Kyle is a terrific teacher.

Bishop: Thank you.

Wyatt: And it is fun to get into a really interesting book, for me in the classroom, and Steve, for you, it was on a study abroad.

Meredith: It was. And actually, I’ve been in a play with Kyle.

Bishop: It’s true.

Meredith: We were in a 1940s radio drama version of Frankenstein and I played Frankenstein and if there was ever type-casting…[Bishop and Meredith laugh] That was the one.

Wyatt: You know…

Meredith: A radio face. Strap a couple of bolts on me on the neck and I’m good to go. [All laugh]

Wyatt: You know, I have—you’re going to find this interesting, Kyle—I have a son that lives in Salt Lake County and he lives on Frankenstein Avenue.

Bishop: Oh, lucky man.

Wyatt: That’s his address. Frankenstein. [All laugh]

Meredith: I’ll bet they get a lot of play around Halloween.

Wyatt: Well, you’d hope so.

Meredith: Yeah.

Wyatt: Well, we are talking about a very interesting book today. Why don’t you lead us…why don’t you give us the one minute intro and then let’s start diving in?

Bishop: Sure thing. So, I taught this book last semester in an African-American Literature course for English majors, and one of the reasons I taught it is it has received quite a bit of critical attention since its publication. So, and English teacher usually can do no wrong teaching a National Book Award winner, a Pulitzer Prize winner, and so, I was very curious about the book The Underground Railroad. I’ve also read Colson Whitehead’s excellent post-apocalyptic zombie novel, Zone One, which I recommend to all the literate zombie fans out there. And one of the reasons I taught it—and this is a little bit of a self-disclosure—for teachers, one of the only ways we get to read a new book is we have to assign it. [All laugh] And then we have justification to find the time to do that. So, I really wanted to read it, so, I assigned it to my students. I also think that there’s some benefit as a teacher in addition to teaching the books that I know really well, it’s good for me to teach a book for the first time with them. So, as they’re reading the book, I’m reading the book. And they don’t know what happens, but neither do I, and it’s kind of fun to walk them through my experience of that kind of first exposure, first journey through a book. And this one was very rewarding as I went on that journey with them. And usually, the first time I approach a text—I’m sure this is true with everybody—it’s kind of a formalist, structuralist approach. You’re trying to figure out, “OK, what exactly is going on?” And it’s a little hard to read into some of the symbolisms and the larger meanings at that point, but it’s really crucial to nail that stuff down. And we usually start, if there is a table of contents, we start with the table of contents. But be cautious, gentle listeners, as table of contents can sometimes include spoilers as was made recently clear by a Harry Potter novel. And so, the structure of this book, and we’ll get into this a little bit more as we get into the detail, is fascinating because it has alternating chapters that are people’s names and location names, which really tells us a lot about the book because this is a book about a journey, not surprisingly. It’s called The Underground Railroad, you would assume that this is a book about a slave’s attempt to find freedom during the slave time in the United States and that’s exactly what it is and the table of contents lays that out by eliminating a steady progression from Georgia to South Carolina to North Carolina to Tennessee to Indiana and to the fabled “north.” But, interspersed among those headings are also proper names of characters, characters that the reader, of course, has not yet met. And by interweaving these locations with these character names, we get a very clear sense that this novel is not just about the journey but it’s about the people, and I think that’s one of the key things to focus on when you read any book, of course, but this book, in particular, is a lot about character study and understanding people and personalities. And so, that’s what you kind of need to know to dive into it and you don’t want to necessarily know too much, although we will be doing that. [All laugh]

Wyatt: Well, hopefully a lot of the listeners have read it.

Meredith: Yeah, that’s our goal.

Bishop: Yeah, hopefully people have read it. If you haven’t read it though, I don’t want any kind of spoilers to dissuade that experience because it’s very rich and enjoyable. The other thing that is helpful, although it doesn’t become clear until almost 2/3 of the way through the novel, Whitehead is basing his novel on Gulliver’s Travels. So, the idea is as Gulliver had a number of kind of isolated adventures on different islands where he encountered different people with different beliefs and different practices, that’s what we get in this novel as Cora moves from one rail station to the next and they present those narratives in almost isolation. So, in some ways, it reads like a bunch of short stories. A bunch of short stories that share a protagonist. But it also has that sense of the journey that is in that Gulliver Travel narrative that has become famous. Even if you haven’t read it, you kind of know the basic structure of it. So, that’s one thing to be aware of is it’s going to be a journey that presents almost disparate episodes, or adventures, for the protagonist. And then the other thing to bear in mind, and we’ll talk about this in more detail, is it’s…the book is an example of magical realism. So, it’s a type of historical fiction, but it’s historical fiction that is presented as a fable mythology or allegory with some kind of magical or supernatural content. And for this novel, the supernatural content isn’t…there’s no literal magic, but the idea that this railroad even exists or even could exist is obviously outside of realism in a lot of ways and helps Whitehead to create a narrative that is inspired by the history of the United States but presented as an allegorical reading of this underground railroad as it really existed. That’s basically how it started, right? He just said, “What if the underground railroad was real?”

Wyatt: “Was real?” Yeah.

Meredith: Yeah, right.

Wyatt: I read an interview with him on NPR and he…some people have been frustrated that he presents the underground railroad as a real railroad underground.

Bishop: Yeah.

Wyatt: And that they were a little disappointed. And he says, “Yeah, but when I was a kid, I thought the underground railroad was real and when I found out that it wasn’t real, then I was disappointed.” [All laugh] And that was kind of the seed planted in his mind to create this story imagining…

Bishop: Right.

Wyatt: That the underground railroad was a real…real secret underground railroad.

Bishop: Well, and that’s part of the brilliance of his conceit. The idea that the underground railroad was already an allegory, it wasn’t literal. It was a metaphor for some greater cause. And so, he literalizes that aspect and then crafts a story that’s allegorical on a different level, on a different layer. So, it’s operating in that initial tradition but turning it on its head.

Wyatt: This…the underground railroad could be seen as the mechanism to take Cora…

Bishop: Mhmm.

Wyatt: From story to story to story to story. But the metaphor in The Underground Railroad in contrast to Harriet Tubman’s metaphor, the underground railroad, that was really fascinating. Thinking that they never know where the railroad is going, they don’t know how fast it’s going, they don’t know the condition of the train.

Bishop: Right.

Meredith: Yeah.

Wyatt: [Laughs] It’s dark, it’s not clear when it’s going to show up.

Bishop: Right.

Wyatt: There are some stations that close down and nobody knows…just the journey from story to story to story I thought was a fascinating part of this book. I like The Underground Railroad because of the metaphor or never knowing where life is headed.

Bishop: Well, it literalizes those aspects of the actual underground railroad that you just illustrated. That these slaves, in their desperation to seek freedom, also really had to exercise a tremendous amount of faith. They had to believe that the people they were trusting were a part of the underground railroad and not actually slave catchers or representatives of the authorities. They did have to go into darkness, they had to hide themselves, they had to debase themselves…very dangerous conditions and uncertainty. And I think that that is really well illustrated, this idea of descending into darkness with little more than a hope that what is on the other side is better than what was left behind.

Wyatt: Yeah, just hope. Because they don’t know where it’s going. And at times, she wondered if the railroad was taking her back.

Bishop: Right. Yeah, because there’s a lack of awareness of direction, distance, all those things. And one of the things that Whitehead does that I think is really effective is he doesn’t dwell a lot on narrating the time in the tunnels. Once one chapter ends with getting off of the underground railroad and heading into the darkness, it cuts away and then we come back to Cora’s story and she is at her destination. Sometimes has been for a while. And so, he kind of excises some of that uncertainty so we can get to the next part of the story which leaves the underground railroad portion, in a lot of ways, to our imagination which I think is so key historically as well, right?

Wyatt: Yeah, I…Kyle, what do you make of the idea that every time she gets on the train, if I can use that phrase…

Bishop: Mhmm.

Wyatt: Because at the end, it’s not much of a train.

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: It seems to be worse than the time before.

Bishop: Yeah.

Wyatt: There’s a diminishing quality, or maybe an increase in the danger and faith required to get on.

Bishop: Absolutely. It’s a tearing down ad it’s a wearing down of her, but at the same time, that’s and increase in faith. And so, she starts on a passenger train, more or less, she goes to a service train, she goes to a handcart, and ultimately, she ends up on foot. And I think that is a good metaphor for the journey. And not just this journey, but any journey. Where in reality, I think for most of us in life, the most difficult journeys don’t necessarily get better and more luxurious, they strip us down to our essence. And that’s where triumph really takes place. And I think that it’s super important for Cora’s journey that by the end of the novel, she saves herself. She’s not a passenger, she’s not a passive piece of cargo, she’s escaping on her own power and under her own conscious will.

Wyatt: Yeah.

Meredith: The character of Ridgeway, who is the slave catcher who is pursuing throughout, he, too, seems to degrade significantly through the telling of the story and there’s a…again, without giving away too many spoiler alerts, so, there are three women, Cora, who is the protagonist, and then she talks about her grandmother, Ajarry, and her mother, Mabel. And Mabel is the one great escape that was never captured by Ridgeway.

Bishop: Mhmm.

Meredith: She is the one that got away and he had to come back and say, “Sorry, I can’t find this runaway slave.” And because of that, it seems like he is especially driven to bring Cora back, despite the fact that she inflicts grievous harm on him a couple of times. [All laugh]

Bishop: Yeah.

Meredith: And it becomes almost like a Moby Dick sort of “I have to capture this one person to redeem myself.” And he…

Wyatt: It just gets worse and worse and worse.

Meredith: It just gets worse and worse and worse, yes.

Wyatt: He should have given up.

Meredith: Yes, long since should have given up on it.

Wyatt: But the story required this.

Meredith: It does, yeah. But I found his character and, again, without giving away the story, the character of Mabel, who kind of drives this antagonism between the character of Ridgeway and Cora, turns out not to be how we think it happened.

Bishop: Mhmm.

Meredith: It’s not how it happened in Cora’s mind, it’s not how it happened in Ridgeway’s mind. And so, they are pursuing one another based on a fallacy, based on a story that neither of them knows the accurate ending of.

Bishop: Right. Well, I think that’s why it’s so key that you bring up Moby Dick there because Ridgeway really is this kind of Ahab figure. And so much of magical realism is that intertextuality to create, craft a new mythology from existing literature. Because Ridgeway’s devolution is similar to Ahab’s where he becomes increasingly obsessed, he’s led by delusions, the information he’s operating on is inaccurate, he puts himself in increasing danger. Which does pair him so interestingly to Cora because she is also operating on some of the same principles. But, I agree. Ridgeway is one of the great villains that I’ve read in recent years. He’s not quite at the level of Cormac McCarthy’s Judge character from Blood Meridian but he’s in the ballpark. He’s in that same camp where he’s just a juggernaut.

Meredith: Yeah.

Bishop: He just keeps showing up. And then in class when we got to his chapter, they gave some insight into his personal philosophy and ideology and who he was, we just all agreed that we really wanted to see this guy come back. [All laugh] And it was nice that…you don’t introduce a character like that and then just move on. And so, as he continues to return Terminator like from each failure, he increases in a lot of ways in his terror, but also kind of manifests and represents the stubbornness of the Southern states to refuse to let go, no matter how damaging it…

Meredith: Right.

Bishop: Things were.

Wyatt: You know, Kyle, there’s an interesting line towards the end of the book. I was thinking that, in some ways, Ridgeway is really after Cora, but he also protects her in some respects.

Bishop: Right.

Wyatt: But he’s trying to take her back and he knows what’s going to happen when she gets back. But, at the very end, this description of her on the stairs leading down to the underground railroad, the words that are used are that she’s going to embrace him like a lover.

Bishop: Mhmm.

Wyatt: And she does. She grabs him and she hangs on. But for the author to describe this as kind of this build up, I wasn’t sure when he was writing about Cora imagining embracing him like a lover. I didn’t…it took me a while to realize that he was referring to Ridgeway.

Bishop: Right.

Wyatt: But then when she grabs Ridgeway and holds on to him tight and they tumble down the stairs, I just thought that was a really…that there’s a relationship between the two…

Meredith: Yeah.

Wyatt: That was a little surprising to me. Nothing outwardly positive between the two…

Bishop: No.

Wyatt: Because they both seem to hate each other and he’s hunting her.

Bishop: Well, they have that kind of disturbing symbiotic relationship. In the end, it’s not so much Ridgeway and Cora as it is the South and slavery itself that it is kind of this love/hate relationship. And my students were particularly creeped out when he like, takes her on a date. [All laugh] Where Ridgeway buys her a dress…

Meredith: Yep.

Bishop: And takes her out to dinner and he demonstrates a strange type of affection for her that is perhaps based on admiration for her tenacity and for the success that she’s seen. He’s also attracted to her in some weird way, but it’s not…I don’t think it’s in any way romantic. It’s more like an owner of an animal where he wants to take her out and show her off and prove his mastery. But then she turns it against him, and she takes advantage of his affection, whatever that affection is, because the key of that quote, of course, is the simile. It’s the word “like.” It’s not that she does love him, she’s going to do it as if she did. Because he loves her in the way that the South loves slavery and she hates him in the way slaves hated the South, but it’s that misunderstanding of the relationship that leads to Ridgeway’s destruction because Cora does understand the relationship. And that’s part of the broader allegory, of course.

Wyatt: Yeah. And she had opportunities to kill him and she didn’t take them.

Bishop: Well, right. Because that’s not her in so many ways. And of course, in the broader scheme of things, she does more damage to him by letting him live.

Meredith: Yeah.

Bishop: Because then he has to deal with his failure. And his fate is mildly ambiguous which I think is also important for the larger story.

Wyatt: [Laughs] Her fate is somewhat ambiguous.

Meredith: Yeah.

Bishop: Her fate is tremendously ambiguous. And that’s one thing that frustrates a lot of people with more modernist or post-modernist writing is it’s the ambiguity. Author’s love the ambiguity because we don’t really know when this story takes place. We don’t really know if this is an alternative history where there was no Civil War or if this is pre-Civil War because it’s…my students noticed that it reads like a dystopia. It reads like a post-apocalyptic narrative in a lot of ways. Particularly the narrations of the Carolinas.

Meredith: Yes.

Bishop: Which are set up as a utopia that is gradually revealed to be anything but. I mean, each one of these episodes is a type of twilight zone, right? And I think that that ambiguity lends itself to multiple interpretations, but there’s a certain comfort in a single interpretation and I don’t think Whitehead’s given us that.

Wyatt: The story, as we go through each of the locations, there’s a part of it that I wouldn’t call myself a history, but I am a historian-like person.

Bishop: Mhmm.

Meredith: [Laughs]

Wyatt: And as I read through it, I think, “Well, that’s close to accurate, but that’s not accurate” or “This is…wow, how did they come up with this? Because these weren’t the laws in North Carolina.”

Bishop: Mhmm.

Wyatt: And so, I struggled just a little bit with a historical novel that took so many liberties with history. But then, when I think about it, this is a…this is one of those Gulliver’s Travels stories and this is the story…when I go on a vacation and come home, I don’t tell it accurately probably. [All laugh] I grab all of the interesting pieces and lump them together.

Bishop: Yeah, I think one way to approach is it it’s not historical fiction, it’s historical fantasy. It’s kind of a what-if narrative and he plays off of hyperbole. So, he wants to reveal through exaggerating the problems with different types of…well, this intentional colorblindness or these alternative versions of equality or, “How do we deal with the race issue or the slavery question?” And so, he shows these exaggerated extremes, be it through a well-intentioned but ultimately genocidal sterilization program or whether it’s the races will live together by eradicating one completely. And so, he takes these ideas which I think were presented somewhat accurately as historical options by albeit fringe philosophers and manifest them in their full-blown hand maiden tale exaggerated state. And then we have to look at them and realize what's actually going on and have to say, “OK, what does that say not only about then but what might that say about now?”

Meredith: It’s so interesting for Cora to have to determine who to trust.

Bishop: Mhmm.

Meredith: In that regard. I mean, there were the station masters in whom she was placing her life.

Bishop: Right.

Meredith: She had to decide to trust a white person, which I’m sure in this particular case, would have been enormously difficult. But then there were seemingly, as you suggest, Kyle, seemingly benevolent white folks who were outwardly trying to get rid of the scourge of slavery, but in so doing, they were also suggesting that free slaves be sterilized or that they…anyway, that, in fact, this outward benevolence was really a trap.

Bishop: Right.

Meredith: And knowing, for Cora, knowing who to trust outside of her circle of friends, of comrades on the plantation, would have just been terrifying.

Bishop: Right.

Meredith: Knowing that if you make the wrong choice, that’s the end and you go back and have a horrifying fate when you’re returned.

Wyatt: The journey she’s on is not optional. It was almost for her mother…I think it’s an interesting comparison. Her mother thought she had an opportunity to return, but Cora absolutely didn’t have an option because earlier in the story she kills somebody. And so, the journey she’s on is not a choice anymore.

Bishop: No. it’s a redemptive journey to a certain extent, but it’s also one that the further she goes, the less she can turn back. And it’s significant that the railroad, the literal railroad, is presented as one way journeys, because she…the railroad is often destroyed behind her and so, she’s kind of burning her way out of the South as she has these, again, these hyperbolic adventures that underscore these larger issues. Because she does encounter complex characters, and Whitehead takes the time to give us back story, even on characters that are seemingly insignificant, and then we started getting a richer tapestry between a character like Ridgeway or one of the operators like Stephens or Ethel, who is, to me, one of the most fascinating characters.

Wyatt: [Laughs]

Bishop: Where her religious zeal blinds her to her own hypocritical racism.

Meredith: Yeah.

Bishop: And so, what he does there is he presents us with this cast of characters in a strangely sympathetic but simultaneously horrifying way. Because my students struggled with finding themselves understanding Ridgeway’s ideology more than some of the other characters, because as sinister as Ridgeway is as a character, the argument could be made that he’s true to himself. He stands by his ideals, whereas a character like Ethel doesn’t. Where she represents some of the rampant hypocrisy in the system.

Wyatt: Ethel was an interesting character.

Bishop: Yeah, and I think it’s significant that her chapter is right in the center of the novel in so many ways. And I know that that’s not nearly as significant as I like to make it out to be, but when I read books, I am always particularly curious of what happens in the very middle.

Meredith: Hmm.

 

Bishop: These turning points. And she’s a little after the midpoint but she’s kind of the middle character we get which is fascinating. But I have a tendency to overread things. So, it’s a…

Meredith: That entire segment seemed very Diary of Anne Frank to me.

Bishop: Mhmm.

Meredith: Where she was living in the attic and lived in mortal fear of making a sound.

Bishop: Right.

Meredith: Because there was a maid in the house, and they knew the minute that she was suspicious that she would turn her in.

Bishop: Right.

Meredith: But I don’t…that seems to me to be a pretty apt comparison. That these were people that were…Cora was literally being hidden for her survival.

Bishop: Yeah.

Meredith: For her life. And their…it’s fortunate that, and I don’t remember Ethel’s husband’s name now.

Wyatt: It’s Martin.

Meredith: Martin kind of inherited the railroad stop from his father.

Bishop: Right.

Meredith: And was not as happy to be in that business but didn’t feel like he could let his father’s legacy go and Ethel was quite unhappy…

Wyatt: Seriously unhappy.

Meredith: To have Cora in their house. Yeah.

Wyatt: Cora had to stay upstairs. But as soon as Ethel saw herself going up into the attic to care for somebody, then all the sudden the whole world changes.

Bishop: Mmm.

Wyatt: I mean, all the sudden now she’s inviting Cora to come down into the house, giving her food in the home and letting her sleep in the bed.

Bishop: Yeah, it’s…

Wyatt: Because she’s now…as a…anyway, I thought that was interesting.

Bishop: No, there is that responsibility, right? That she is torn between her own self of…she wants to keep herself and her husband alive, but there’s also a human being in her home under her care who needs her. Who is sick and who needs that nurturing? And so, presenting Ethel in kind of these Christian terms demonstrates the complexity of the issue and also the hypocrisy that led to slavery in the United States to begin with. And I think it does offer a sense of hope initially that someone can change, their hearts can be touched, they can see people for who they actually are, but Whitehead’s cynicism is revealed when, of course, things go tragically south for Martin and Ethel and their kindness is repaid through violence. And we get that throughout the whole narrative as increasingly as the story progresses. Everyone Cora cared about and everyone who was kind to Cora dies.

Meredith: Yeah.

Bishop: Systematically and mercilessly as the story progresses. Which is not a particularly inspiring narrative in a certain way. That the rewards that these people reap are not earthly rewards.

Wyatt: But it does show the struggle, if you use this as a metaphor, it does show the struggle to help slavery.

Bishop: Oh, yeah.

Wyatt: To help us overcome slavery.

Bishop: Well, it’s about sacrifice, right? What is worth the sacrifice? What is worth the risk? What are these people willing to do for Cora? And that’s why, in so many ways, it’s significant that the book starts with her grandma because it really is about where people come from and who they are and how everyone’s an individual and how this system…so many people are complicit and what is it going to take to stop it and what are the risks involved? And we get, in so many of the classic hero’s journeys, of course, we get usually a male protagonist who goes on a quest to reconcile some sort of misunderstanding or allegiance to a ancestry, usually a father, and I love how Whitehead twists that and turns this into a hero’s journey which is this…the quest for the mother. Because it’s a matrilineal legacy that he’s presenting here, not a patriarchal one. And so, in another way, that’s also what this book is about. It’s about the matriarchy versus the patriarchy. It’s about the female spirit versus those kind of negative, masculine stereotypes. But, the resolution is, the like the rest of the novel, ambiguous. I don’t know exactly what he’s saying.

Wyatt: Yeah. Well, and there are really great male characters.

Bishop: Mhmm.

Wyatt: At least a lot of the station master or whatever we call it were males.

Bishop: Yeah. And they were kind and they were dedicated, and they risked everything for her.

Meredith: They did, yeah.

Wyatt: And she outlives the males that are helping her.

Bishop: Yep.

Wyatt: So, she is the character.

Bishop: Yeah.

Meredith: So, near the end, perhaps the second-to-last vignette is Valentine’s Farm in Indiana.

Bishop: Mhmm.

Meredith: What do you make of this utopia? This kind of mixed-race utopia?

Bishop: Yeah. Well, I mean, that’s it, right? That was the ideal, was the dream. Could the races come together in harmony? Would there be places of refuge where the system could work a waystation for slaves to reset and give back and move on beyond that? And I think it’s a great vision and in some ways, perhaps, that’s where Whitehead is presenting this utopian idea of Indiana as a utopian ideal of today. Is this the…is Valentine’s Farm what we hope we have in the United States today? Is it what we think we have? Is it…I don’t know. But…because the point is that it falls apart. Ultimately, that type of utopic racial utopia is not sustainable. At least not in the time period and the frame of the novel. Is there something to that? That an overly idealistic utopic union of racial identity and ideology is ultimately doomed to failure? I hope not. I hope that his books are more…that he and his novels are more optimistic, but I will say Zone One does not have what I would call a happy ending either. [All laugh]

Wyatt: Well, I think the very ending has an optimistic piece to it. The very ending.

Bishop: I think it does for her, but the one thing that, again, I go back to my student’s reactions because I think they’re so interesting. The final chapter, of course, is called “The North” and her whole journey has been her flight to the North, but she actually ends up going west.

Wyatt: Right.

Bishop: So, what does that mean? That the goal was wrong to begin with? That sometimes the solutions we seek are not the ones we sought? That the journey will take us to unforeseen destinations? But I like to read it as, and this is weird but I’m going to delve into it anyway, when I was young, I remember reaching an age where I desperately wanted to know if our family fought for the North or the South when I was studying the Civil War. I’m like, “What side were we on?” And I remember my dad saying, “Well, neither.” [All laugh] “We were in the West. We were out west, we weren’t really involved in that. Our ancestors weren’t involved at all.” And so, I wonder if there is kind of that sense of, “the South is corrupt, but the North is complicit, and the only true salvation is found by leaving the system entirely.” That the North and South are two sides of the same coin and that’s the hope of the West. And, President Wyatt, you could probably speak to that more than I can because you know a little bit more of the history, but I know that there was a lot of mythology associated with the West.

Wyatt: Right. And it’s an interesting question to ask today.

Bishop: Mhmm.

Wyatt: Because back then, if a person was fed up with the society or with the systems, they could always go west. My ancestors homesteaded on land and started in communities where there were no communities to begin with. But what happens when there’s no more west?

Bishop: Right.

Meredith: Yeah.

Wyatt: And we’ve kind of…there really isn’t a West anymore in the way that we think of it as being the West.

Meredith: Although I would say, if you fast forward to today, the West is still more independent, more libertarian probably as a political…you know, we want to kind of just be left alone. I always hearken back to the…because I just spend a couple of weeks back East, I always hearken back to that time that…Kyle, you may not have been alive, I don’t know how old you are, but back in the 70s when Scott and I were teenagers, we had that drive 55 thing and there were a bunch of folks in the East who said, “We’re going to make the speed limit 55 miles an hour because it’s going to save gas” which was kind of a dubious claim, but nevertheless, they imposed this federal guideline of 55 miles per hour. And people out in the West said, “No. We’re…do you know how long it would take to drive from Helena to Bozeman driving 55 miles an hour? Do you know how long it would take to drive from Logan to St. George going…?”

Wyatt: “Do you realize how wide these roads, how long they are and how straight they are?”

Meredith: “You have no idea. It would be across four states back where you folks are, but here, the distances are greater.” And so, there was kind of this sagebrush rebellion and I think the West is still seen a little bit that way. If you go visit Alaska, for example, there’s the adage of, “If you live in Alaska, you were either native, you were born there or you’re running from the law.” [All laugh] Those are kind of the three options of living in Alaska and that’s the legacy of the West, I think.

Wyatt: Yeah, and I stayed in bunkhouse in Alaska—this was quite a while ago—but I stayed in a bunkhouse when I was up there climbing a mountain and I immediately noticed there were no zoning laws until Talkeetna, Alaska.

Bishop: Hmm.

Meredith: Yeah.

Wyatt: Because my bunk, if I rolled over, I’d go right down the stairs. [All laugh] There was no protection at all. No banisters, the steps were not necessarily…there just were no zoning laws, no codes, no building codes. You just build the house however you want to build it. Nobody was going to inspect it to make sure it was safe and clean.

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: But the myth of the West, and I think that’s where this ends…but I know that Whitehead drew, in some of his horrible pieces, he drew from things that were happening in the West.

Bishop: Hmm.

Wyatt: So, I don’t believe that he was suggesting the West was the literal answer, but in his kind of magical fantasy story, the West is an ideal, perhaps.

Bishop: Right. Well, and I think that your anecdote of Alaska is relevant because the sense of lawlessness, right? The laws of the South have betrayed them, and the laws of the North are not helping. And I think if there is a frontier still today, there is that kind of liberation from whatever particular restriction somebody’s fleeing from. Because we still do see these migrations where people reinvent themselves and reinvent their families and they relocate whether it’s a formalized as refugees or if it’s simply something about getting a new job somewhere. It opens up a sense of promise. But she also doesn’t ride triumphantly off into the sunset either.

Meredith: No.

Bishop: There is this sense of everyone she loved is dead, the great mysteries of her life that were revealed to us as readers remain mysteries to her as a character. And she’s faced with a shockingly uncertain future travelling with a very unclear companion. And I just want to look at that end because it’s so interesting how she has, and his is the allegory, right? We love threes. So, there’s three generations of women, there’s three men that she trusts, but she’s trying to head north, and she’s passed by wagons heading west and the first is a white man and she ignores him.

Wyatt: He offers to help.

Bishop: Right, and she just like ignores him. The second one is an Irishman, so, a marginalized figure who’s discriminated against.

Wyatt: Marginal immigrant.

Bishop: But an immigrant, but a white immigrant. And so, she actually responds to him but lets him pass. And so, only when another black person stops is she ready to engage and to give it a chance. And then the two of them together go into this uncertain future, right? This idea that her salvation she’s relied upon too many white people, perhaps, and they’ve betrayed her and the system of…even the white abolitionists have ultimately failed her and so, her future is to throw in with another of her race and go into an uncertainty rather than the certainty she has received from the white community.

Wyatt: Well, and there were some black characters who betrayed her.

Bishop: Right, yeah.

Wyatt: I’m trying to remember the name of that kid.

Bishop: Yeah.

Meredith: Is it Homer?

Wyatt: Homer.

Meredith: Homer, yeah.

Wyatt: Homer is an example.

Bishop: Homer is super fascinating and obviously not at accidental name that Whitehead throws out there. But this idea of the…

Meredith: Yeah, he’s gathering from many different places.

Bishop: Yeah, it’s not subtle. But the idea of this almost indoctrinated, dare we say brainwashed, kid who Ridgeway strangely loves as a child.

Meredith: Yeah.

Bishop: Yeah, the Homer character fascinates me, and I have no idea what to say about him, but he does represent this kind of ambiguous racial traitor at best. It’s weird, but of course he’s shown an affection that, from the character we least expect to see affection from so Whitehead’s definitely playing with us.

Wyatt: What do you take of the names? So, the first male of significance in Cora’s life’s name is Caesar.

Bishop: Mhmm, yeah.

Wyatt: The second one is Royal.

Bishop: Right? [Laughs]

Wyatt: So, these aren’t random names.

Bishop: No.

Wyatt: And the third is unknown. I just thought that was interesting.

Meredith: Yeah. Yeah, that’s very interesting.

Bishop: Yeah, we do get his name finally, but it’s Ollie, it’s not as significant. Because Caesar, it’s…well, so much of it is ironic, right? Royal acts royal but he doesn’t enjoy the rights of royalty, Caesar is destined to rule but he doesn’t get that opportunity. And some many of the deaths are so senseless and tragic and so, I think that a lot of the names are ironic. But her name, and my student had to point this out to me, Cora, now I can’t remember the exact details, but Cora does have some connection with classic mythology and like Persephone and these underworld mythologies and I should have double checked that. Whereas her grandma has an African name.

Meredith: Right.

Bishop: And so, yeah. I love to analyze names because they sometimes have so much hidden meaning. Sometimes it’s just the author being cheeky, or they just sound good or they rhyme but I think more often than not, I think authors spend a tremendous amount of time picking character names. I don’t think they’re ever accidental.

Wyatt: Speaking of names, my wife and I were thinking of our own names…

Bishop: Hmm.

Wyatt: Scott and Kathy.

Meredith: Yeah.

Wyatt: Names largely discarded. [All laugh] I don’t know a single person under the age of ten that’s named Kathy or Scott. Steve and Kyle, we grew up in a time…

Meredith: And yet every possible spelling of Katelyn.

Bishop: That’s true.

Meredith: We had like 17 Katelyn’s one semester and they were all spelled differently, amazingly. I couldn’t figure out how people came up with that many different ways of spelling that name.

Wyatt: Well, this has been a really fun discussion, Kyle and Steve. We would encourage those that haven’t read it to read it. I think we’ve talked about it enough that those that haven’t read it, hopefully this is really interesting, and for those that haven’t read it yet, hopefully this provides that spark.

Bishop: Yeah, and I would say there’s some hard stuff in here. But it’s hard stuff that we…it benefits us to look at with eyes open.

Wyatt: Yeah.

Bishop: So, don’t shy away.

Meredith: Yeah, it’s not a fun beach read. I was trying to lay there on the beach in North Carolina and read this book and I thought, “You know, I really need to be sitting in a room where I can just…the beauty that’s surrounding me is in stark contrast to the words I’m reading on the page which are tough.”

Bishop: Yeah.

Wyatt: Well, but I’ll add this: there have been books that I’ve read that when I got done, I thought, “That was a complete waste of my time. There was nothing in here thought provoking, it was just a story.”

Bishop: Mhmm.

Wyatt: Without listing some of those books…but this is one of those books that when you read it, when you’re done, you think, “OK, I’ve had an experience with thinking and considering” and that’s what makes life rich.

Bishop: Well, and it’ll stick with you.

Meredith: A real journey.

Wyatt: We have another book coming up.

Meredith: We do. Thank you for that cue. We’re going to be studying Hamlet. We’ll be studying that play, reading that play in anticipation of the Utah Shakespeare Festival doing sort of an alternative version of Shakespeare, Hamlet. And…

Wyatt: A very, very, very slight, subtle alternative.

Bishop: Hmm.

Wyatt: Because we can’t change the words, right?

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: The play, the words are the same. It’s just how the actors look and present it.

Meredith: Are you…

Wyatt: You’ve got to read the book.

Meredith: How much do you want to give away about the performance version of it?

Wyatt: I think that all we should say is this is a Hamlet for today.

Bishop: Hmm.

Meredith: Hamlet for today.

Wyatt: Hamlet for today.

Meredith: Anyway, we’re going to be joined by Joy Sterrantino from our English faculty again who is an expert in this particular area, and we’re excited about that. It’s going to be…it’s going to air on Monday, June 24th and so, you have about a month to read that and we encourage you. I have read a number of Shakespeare plays, I actually really love reading plays, but I have not read Hamlet so, I’m looking forward to this. I’ve seen it a number of times, but I’ve never read it.

 

Wyatt: Yeah, this is our big chance. Yeah, this is a fun summer because we just asked the English department for volunteers and so, we’re getting four fascinating, very different works.

Meredith: Yep. And The Underground Railroad was a great way to kick it off, thanks to Kyle.

Wyatt: Great way to kick off our journey, Kyle. Our odyssey through the summer reading.

Bishop: It is an odyssey. Thank you for letting me come on and share this great book with everybody.

Wyatt: Well, thank you.

Meredith: You've been listening to Solutions to Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah. We’ve been studying The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead and join us again on June 24th when we’ll be reading Hamlet, Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet and we’ll be joined by Joy Sterrantino. We thank Kyle for joining us in the studio today and we thank you, our listeners, for hanging in there with us. We hope you’re having a great summer. We’ll be back again soon. Bye bye.