“What was interesting to me about it in that moment was the ready-at-handness with my students of white supremacy as a critical analytic term.”
On the latest Reading After Trump, we welcome Professor Michael Benveniste back to his alma mater, Stanford University (’12). Now an Assistant Professor of English at University of Puget Sound, Mike draws on the example of Colson Whitehead’s acclaimed historical novel The Underground Railroad (2016) to discuss what it’s like teaching multi-ethnic U.S. literature in the age of Trump.
Transcript: Episode 8, Michael Benveniste
Mike recalls first reading Whitehead’s novel in the months preceding the 2016 general election, and compares his initial reaction to what he learned from reading it the following year, with his undergraduate senior seminar.
Initially—before Trump’s election—Mike says he found himself perplexed by Whitehead’s apparent disinterest in the novel’s titular conceit: its fictional literalization of the historically figurative “underground railroad.” Mike illustrates his point by reading a passage from early in the novel, in which the fugitive protagonist Cora encounters the railroad for the first time:
from The Underground Railroad (2016)
by Colson Whitehead
The black mouths of the gigantic tunnel opened at either end. It must have been twenty feet tall, walls lined with dark and light colored stones in an alternating pattern. The sheer industry that had made such a project possible. Cora and Caesar noticed the rails. Two steel rails ran the visible length of the tunnel, pinned into the dirt by wooden crossties. The steel ran south and north presumably, springing from some inconceivable source and shooting toward a miraculous terminus. Someone had been thoughtful enough to arrange a small bench on the platform. Cora felt dizzy and sat down.
Lumbly pulled a yellow paper from his pocket and squinted. “You have two choices. We have a train leaving in one hour and another in six hours. Not the most convenient schedule. Would that our passengers could time their arrivals more appropriately, but we operate under certain constraints.”
“The next one,” Cora said, standing. There was no question.
“The trick of it is, they’re not going to the same place,” Lumbly said. “One’s going one way and the other…”
“To where?” Cora asked.
“Away from here, that’s all I can tell you. You understand the difficulties in communicating all the changes in the routes. Locals, expresses, what station’s closed down, where they’re extending the heading. The problem is that one destination may be more to your liking than another. Stations are discovered, lines discontinued, you won’t know what waits above you until you pull in.”
They waited. At Caesar’s request the station agent told of how he came to work for the underground railroad. Cora couldn’t pay attention. The tunnel pulled at her. How many hands had it required to make this place? And the tunnels beyond, wherever and how far they led? She thought of the picking, how it raced down the furrows at harvest, the African bodies working as one, as fast as their strength permitted. The vast fields burst with hundred of thousands of white bolls, strung like stars in the sky on the clearest of clear nights. It was a magnificent operation, from seed to bale, but not one of them could be prideful of their labor. It had been stolen from them. Bled from them. The tunnel, the tracks, the desperate souls who found salvation in the coordination of its stations and timetables—this was a marvel to be proud of. She wondered if those who had built this thing had received their proper reward.
“Every state is different,” Lumbly was saying. “Each one a state of possibility, with its own customs and way of doing things. Moving through them, you’ll see the breadth of the country before you reach your final stop.”
At that, the bench rumbled.
When they next stepped into the sunlight, they were in South Carolina. She looked up at the skyscraper and reeled, wondering how far she had traveled.
—Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad (New York: Anchor Books, 2016)
Reading the novel with his senior seminar the following year, Mike says his students’ enthusiasm for the work, and their rapid engagement with its ideas, enhanced his own appreciation of its operations. As Mike’s students quickly recognized the novel’s speculative interrogation of white supremacy, and found in it resonances with the Black Lives Matter movement, they highlighted the ways in which the railroad’s fable-like, frequently anachronistic passage from state to state explores a variety of social and racial “state[s] of possibility.”
As our conversation proceeds, we discuss how the novel’s resonance within the context of Trump’s rise unsettles common critical notions about the relationships between aesthetics and morality; the figurative and the literal; image and idea; and, ultimately, literature and history.
Here are a few links for exploring further the works Prof. Benveniste mentions in this episode:
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead
John Henry Days by Colson Whitehead
Apex Hides the Hurt by Colson Whitehead
Zone One by Colson Whitehead
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs
Beloved by Toni Morrison
A Mercy by Toni Morrison.
“Marx, Race, and Neoliberalism” by Adolph Reed
Flight to Canada by Ishmael Reed
[I]t’s rhetorically a lot easier to blame a president that you don’t like, than it is to deal with issues at a 125-year-old institution that also employs you… I think to skew everything towards the frame of Trump is really to miss a much more important big picture. The big picture is a series of class politics that’s been ongoing for the last 100 years…
In our seventh episode, we spoke with Justin Tackett (Ph.D. ’18), Abigail Droge (Ph.D. ’18) and Juan Lamata (Ph. D. candidate) about reading across institutional boundaries in order to cultivate community and bridge the divisions characteristic of our political moment.
Transcript: Episode 7, Reading 1984 in 2017
Justin, Abigail, and Juan recount how the 2016 presidential election inspired them to form Civic English at Stanford, a group devoted to combining literary study and civic engagement. (more…)
[L]iterature is one of the best venues to explore complicated questions. Because you can really get into the weeds of these issues, and we need deep thought, and we need non-binary, non-simplistic thinking now more than ever. It’s binary thinking, simplistic thinking, good-bad kind of thinking that is getting us into trouble right now. . . . We need to be able to learn to think more complexly, and literature trains us to do that.
In our sixth episode, we got to speak with Professor Paula Moya, the Danily C. and Laura Louise Belle Professor of the Humanities at Stanford.
Transcript: Episode 6, Paula Moya
We spoke with Paula about how literature can both reflect and shape the social schemas through which people perceive the world and process their experiences.
When I read Old English, “The Battle of Maldon” or Beowulf or any of these texts, I read resilience and even in times of successive conflicts, which we have now, there’s an ability to be resolute and to seek to overcome that we would do well to emulate.
Our newest episode is a conversation with Professor Elaine Treharne, an expert of medieval literature and Director of Stanford’s Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis.
Transcript: Episode 5, Elaine Treharne
We got to talk with Elaine about her research and writing, her political and scholarly development, and above all about the beauty and fascination of early medieval literature. Our key text is the famously enigmatic poem generally known as “Wulf and Eadwacer,” translated here by Elaine:
“There are certain allegiances to the myth of a nation that should not be broken but would be necessarily broken if you were to follow a line of inquiry to its conclusion, which is basically what a poem would ask you to do.”
Our guest in Episode 4 is Solmaz Sharif, poet and Jones Lecturer in Stanford’s Creative Writing Program.
Transcript: Episode 4, Solmaz Sharif
In this episode, we got to talk with Solmaz about James Baldwin and Muriel Rukeyser, as well as Solmaz’s poetry collection Look, which was shortlisted for the National Book Award.
“Swift I think is basically the great diagnoser of the human modern condition…Swift was writing at the time basically of the invention of the modern political party…and he was very, very shrewd about what that was likely to mean and what it looked like.”
In our third episode, we got to speak with Professor Blakey Vermeule on our Gulliver’s Travels—our most canonical text so far, and one with special insights into the formation of the modern Western political states.
Episode 2: Morgan Frank on Nathanael West’s A Cool Million
“Just the sense of ‘mute anguish’ and not being sure how to respond or even what to say seems like a powerful literary statement or stance.”
— Morgan Frank
“If you really pause on that, ‘too sane to understand the modern world,’ it’s a very haunting phrase. Think about 1984 and Winston Smith’s struggle to remain sane. Think about Orwell’s proposition that if you remain sane that might prevent you from understanding.”
Our first show, an ad hoc recording in mid-November 2016, was a discussion of George Orwell in the context of the 2016 US election results.
Transcript: Reading After Trump, Episode 1