Who Builds Anything In This Country?

Colson Whitehead, you may have heard, has written a new novel. In The Underground Railroad, he has created a sympathetic protagonist, Cora, through whom readers can experience the surreal depredations of 19th-century …

This is the sixth installment of our series An Engineer Reads a Novel.


Colson Whitehead, you may have heard,1 has written a new novel. In The Underground Railroad, he has created a sympathetic protagonist, Cora, through whom readers can experience the surreal depredations of 19th-century America. Most intriguingly, in the novel Whitehead has transformed the metaphorical Railroad—the famous network clandestinely aiding slaves to freedom—into a physical system, whose tunnels and stations and rails are as vividly real as Cora herself. “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.” The challenges of steam power and “the problem of ventilation” have been resolved by unseen engineers. Dizzied by “the sheer industry that had made such a project possible,” Cora asks the station agent:

“Who built it?”

“Who builds anything in this country?”

His rhetorical response is a heart-aching encapsulation of African American experience. For the answer, of course, is countless workers already forgotten to history: slaves, immigrants, anyone the establishment considers disposable.

What was true then holds fast today. Like Whitehead’s station agent, too many of our citizens now expect to be simultaneously relied upon and rendered invisible, both necessary and negated. When Michelle Obama recently described the slaves who built the White House, many responded to this fact with a knee-jerk defensiveness, one that revealed our continuing discomfort with slavery and its systemic echoes into the present. When we make heroes out of engineers and builders, we often valorize the individual inventor (swallowing misgivings about the way he exploited his workers,2 falsely maligned competitors,3 felt emboldened to share his racist views,4 or imposed his own values on another culture in a disastrous colonial experiment5) and erase the contributions of the collaborators and maintainers who truly make our structures, systems, and infrastructure work.6 When that less glamorous work does get recognized, we declare ourselves shocked by the “untold story”: for example, of the black women whose calculations permitted NASA’s Mercury 7 to become national heroes.7 This emphasis on individual invention doesn’t just minimize the importance of collaboration, refinement, and maintenance; it also reinforces a sense that it’s white men who are heroes deserving of our attention, and that the design and engineering community ought to prize their contributions above all others. (Memo from an engineering department: this is not a message in need of reinforcement.)

<i>“Passengers dining in a Pullman parlour railway car,” 1882</i>. Photograph by George Augustus Sala / New York Public Library Digital Collections

“Passengers dining in a Pullman parlour railway car,” 1882. Photograph by George Augustus Sala / New York Public Library Digital Collections

As Cora boards her first train, the station agent promises: “If you want to see what this nation is all about, I always say, you have to ride the rails. Look outside as you speed through, and you’ll find the true face of America.”

That’s a case I’ve made myself. Teaching classes about how technology and society interact, I hope students appreciate the way the railroad reveals new parts of the country and changes the way we see the landscape. In Edward Hopper’s painting Railroad Sunset, the telegraph and signal house are a nearly organic part of the slightly blurred landscape we see from the rails. Such a perspective does allow us to see something beautiful about America. And yet we must also recognize another truth: that the marvel of the transcontinental railroad was achieved through the underpaid, underappreciated labor of Chinese and Irish immigrants, and of African-Americans. We would rather not see this American tendency to take advantage of imported labor—to view such workers as less than fully human—but the railroad reveals it to us. (Who builds anything in this country?)8

In Whitehead’s Underground Railroad, the station agent’s statement seems to encompass all of this; hopeful, to be sure, but also a subtle warning that the view isn’t going to be all golden sunsets. The statement is also somewhat confounding: since Cora’s rails are underground, there is a strange suggestion here that the dark inner walls of hand-dug tunnels are “what this nation is all about.”

This underground perspective yields important insights. One of those allegedly solitary inventors whose name we know, Eli Whitney, produced the cotton gin, a device that performed the laborious task of de-seeding cotton. Alas, the device made cotton a more profitable crop; thereby necessitating the picking of more cotton and strengthening the industry’s dependence on slave labor. Underground Railroad’s Ridgeway, a bounty hunter for runaway slaves, links his own vocation with that of his blacksmith father: “We’re both of us working for Mr. Eli Whitney.” Whitehead writes: “The cotton gin meant bigger cotton yields and the iron tools to harvest it, iron horseshoes for the horses tugging the wagons with iron rims and parts that took it to market. More slaves and the iron to hold them … The two men were parts of the same system, serving a nation rising to its destiny.”

Indeed, Whitehead makes slavery itself a machine: “It was an engine that did not stop, its hungry boiler fed with blood.” “The ruthless engine of cotton required its fuel of African bodies … The pistons of this engine moved without relent.” The railroad powered by such an engine is, of course, the focus of Whitehead’s work. As such, The Underground Railroad is a corrective to the version of the Railroad story we like to tell ourselves: a network of mostly white abolitionists, Quakers, and other heroes who ferried black cargo to safety. The Underground Railroad, Whitehead shows us, was also a mechanism constructed of and by (mostly) black energies: Cora is “the locomotive itself.”

Our common understanding of the Underground Railroad is, to use Kathryn Schulz’s phrase, “not quite a myth, but mythologized.”9 It is a tall tale in which we admire larger-than-life strength, ingenuity, bravery, and moral courage. No coincidence that another Whitehead masterpiece takes on another tall tale, that of John Henry.

America has always been built—and continues to be built—by those the establishment keeps invisible

Whitehead’s 2001 John Henry Days is a virtuosic thrill ride. It’s hilarious, intellectually rigorous, and moving, not by turns but all at once. Briefly, the setup: a new postage stamp honoring John Henry is launched with a festival, in the West Virginia town home to the Big Bend Tunnel of legend. To the diverse crowd gathered, including our protagonists, the Postmaster General proclaims, “Folk heroes like John Henry represent the best of American values.”

This cleverly ambiguous line is the John Henry Days version of “you’ll find the true face of America.” For what American values are ascribed to John Henry? He was good with his hands: manual labor is often valorized, especially when it is the underdog pitted against a machine. John Henry also conquered nature. His opponent was a machine, but the opposition was the mountain through which the railroad tunnel would pass. That’s a classic American story, too. One character is moved by his drive through West Virginia to resolve: “this is the way things were meant to be all along. That in the shrinking dregs of the Ice Age glaciers retreated and scraped through mountains in order to facilitate these modern highways … he has come to believe that the intent of geological dynamism is modern convenience.” There’s a hint of what I call “technological manifest destiny” here,10 and what The Underground Railroad’s Ridgeway might call “the American imperative.” John Henry was using his hammer to fulfill that destiny, as Whitehead’s Postmaster says: “He was an American. He helped build this nation into what it is today.” Plus, John Henry as we know him was defiant, independent, principled to the point of stubbornness; we do love that in our heroes. That all of these traits lead to his death complicates things a little, but maybe self-destructiveness is also an “American value.” With a little Vaseline on the lens of history, “his great competition with the steam drill is a testament to the strength of the human spirit,” as put by Whitehead’s Postmaster.

Whitehead’s cast includes scholars who’ve tried to research John Henry’s history, to find a man under the mythology, or to unpack the layered versions of the “Ballad of John Henry” that echo profoundly through the novel. “He was everyman. Every freed slave, traveling under the most common freed slave name. He was a six-foot-tall bruiser, big as a barn, dark as chocolate, darker … They all have their own John Henry.” Our versions of John Henry are only cartoons, like the festival posters in Talcott that “seem so violent … The flashing sparks and sweat, John Henry’s heaving black body.” This reader pictures the larger-than-life workers painted by Thomas Hart Benton.

And John Henry worked on the railroad: a shining example of acceleration, of transformative technology, of increased freedom and broadened horizons. Like many towns made by rail depots, Talcott, the home of John Henry Days, still has a “railroad romance.” The Postmaster reminds an audience that Talcott was “instrumental in a great moment of our nation’s growth—the forging of a national railroad, an effort unrivaled in human history.” (If that seems hyperbolic, well, Robert Louis Stevenson agreed, asking: “What was Troy to this?”11) Yet the Postmaster wonders: ”How often does one of those passengers on the train think about all the blood and sweat that made their journey possible?” That was John Henry’s blood and sweat—but not only his.

Who builds anything in this country?

The answer is: men and women who are too often invisible. Even John Henry, as Whitehead shows so stunningly, is celebrated but unknown. “The black laborers on the C&O [railroad] weren’t allowed in town …” writes Whitehead, “they lived in shanties near the work camps and were allowed into town only for one hour on Friday afternoons to buy supplies.” They had traded “tobacco and cotton for the currency of the industrial South. Coal and steel. And layin’ the line.”12

A beautiful thread through Whitehead’s novel is the Ballad of John Henry. The song’s many variations show the differing “American values” various singers and songwriters have decided that John Henry represents. The song’s quasi-spiritual qualities further elevate John Henry’s status, especially one version that seems to count God as just one more obstacle in the way of John Henry’s strength. “Lord, Lord,” one character muses over the song’s classic refrain, “is the real mountain in this song, thrown up from his bedrock and looming.” (Challenging nature, then, is a glove-slap in the face of God: mega hubris.)

One character in John Henry Days believes in ghosts, including John Henry’s, and thinks the train whistle is actually a prayer to the mountain. “Each time a train leaves the Talcott station and rushes into Big Bend Tunnel, the engineer blows the whistle for old John Henry, poor John Henry. His was the triumph of the human spirit … and if you dare enter the tunnel you will hear his hammer singing in the darkness … [the whistle] is the engineer … ask[ing] Big Bend to save his life, to let the train through the big heart of rock.” As Whitehead reminds us, “God made the mountains and man made the steam drill. True mechanical marvels.”

Whitehead is a novelist who gets us, in all our intersectional strangeness. Among the many things he groks is how deeply society and technology are intertwined. “Man made the steam drill”; technology is a human, social construction. We may “marvel” at this construction, but we are also threatened and discomfited by the tech we’ve made. In that vein, the novel savagely satirizes the online “journalism” of its protagonist, J. Sutter: “A year ago the web didn’t exist, and now J. has several hitherto unemployable acquaintances who were now picking up steady paychecks because of it.” Some technology is so new—and J. such a Yankee city-dweller—that J. worries a West Virginian may think “a laptop is some new kind of banjo.” And Whitehead nails a suspect euphemism of online journalism, “content,” as a disingenuous mask: “It sounds so honest. Not stories, not articles, but content. Like it is a mineral.” This engineer can’t help but note that all these laptops and phones—and the internet on which they cruise—are made possible by more invisible labor we’d rather not think about.

But of course, we’ve made this technology, too. Perhaps future generations will tell folk tales of the brave research librarian who puts herself up against The Google; as when, in the 1957 film The Desk Set, Katharine Hepburn and her fellow researchers were “challenged” by a newfangled computer.13 Perhaps we’ll learn to celebrate the contributors we’ve traditionally ignored, in real time. Or maybe we’ll figure out that no one wins in the struggle of man versus machine, that collaborations have happier endings than contests. Lord, lord. icon

  1. Kima Jones, “The Excellence of Colson Whitehead,” GQ, August 18, 2016.
  2. For example, Andrew Carnegie’s Homestead Strike, as in Edward W. Bemis, Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 2, No. 3 (June, 1894), pp. 369-396.
  3. For example, Edison’s battle with Tesla and Westinghouse, encapsulated here.
  4. Where to begin? Henry Ford’s series “The International Jew” in the newspaper he owned, The Dearborn Independent, or Charles Lindbergh’s “America First” speeches and Reader’s Digest articles, will likely leave a bad taste in your mouth.
  5. Greg Grandin’s excellent Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City (Picador, 2010).
  6. David Edgerton, The Shock of the Old (Oxford University Press, 2007).
  7. Margot Shutterly, Hidden Figures, William Morrow, 2016.
  8. And even in the 1950s, Robert Frank, pointing his camera lens at our trolley cars, captured the division between white and black passengers: he found “the true face of America,” one we might’ve preferred not to expose. The images in The Americans (1958) are devastatingly revealing.
  9. Kathryn Schulz, “Derailed,” The New Yorker, August 22, 2016.
  10. Jenn Stroud Rossmann, “Too Bad About the Trees,” Public Books, June 2, 2016.
  11. Robert Louis Stevenson, Across the Plains (1896): “It seems to me…as if this railway were the one typical achievement of the age in which we live…If it be romance, if it be contrast, if it be heroism that we require, what was Troy to this?”
  12. Later, they’ll be the men on Detroit’s assembly lines, and in other Northern cities, supporting the oil, steel, and automobile industries. Highly recommended: Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns (Random House, 2010).
  13. The Desk Set, screenplay by Henry and Phoebe Ephron (1957).
Featured image: Women working at a Bell System international telephone switchboard, 1939-1945. Photograph courtesy of the US National Archives / Wikimedia Commons