An Alternate History Lesson on the Clean Left

Underground Airlines by Ben Winters. Little, Brown and Company, 2016.

Truman desegregated the armed forces in 1948, the same year Faulkner published Intruder in the Dust.  In the novel Faulkner wrote a famous meditation on the mesmerizing power of historical contingency:   “For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armistead and Wilcox look grave yet it’s going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn’t need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose than all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago.”  And ever since, novelists working in a growing sub-genre imagined precisely that.

An alternate history, the genre a wit once dubbed history written in the subjunctive mood, is usually a novel, more rarely a scholar’s thought experiment.  There are famous and often whimsical flashes of it in Livy, Pascal and Gibbon, but the novels are much more recent.  Leaving aside a few mostly French outliers, the novels were until recently written in English and published after the Second World War.  Only a handful have broken out of their sub-genre ghetto to find mainstream audiences, and the shortest list would consist of Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, Len Deighton’s SS GB, Robert Harris’ Fatherland, Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America and Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.  Underground Airlines will probably join that handful.

The novels that undid the outcome of the American Civil War usually altered a series of military outcomes enough to erode the Union’s political will and cost Lincoln the election of 1864.  Along with the loss of Gettysburg,  the premature death of Grant and British and French intervention following Seward’s bungling are among the most common alternate paths to Confederate survival. In these historical fantasies slavery is often swiftly abolished by some imagined economic necessity and/or a vision of Robert E. Lee’s elemental goodness, possibly because people who enjoy thinking about Confederate survival are understandably reluctant to think too hard about its likely consequences, and are probably far too confident about what are taken to be the inevitable epiphenomena of industrial development.  The alterations have varying degrees of plausibility, since there is a strong case that Northern political will was more durable than is sometimes assumed, latent Northern military resources were immense, and Britain’s ability to retain Canada in the event of war sufficiently doubtful to make British intervention imperfectly plausible.  Winter’s success springs in part from his invention of a strangely plausible alternate history where the war is simply not fought, and slavery survives in “the hard four”:  the united Carolinas, Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana.

Details of this altered history emerge in a first person narrative marked by euphemism: slaves are Persons Bound to Labor.  One business enterprise, Garments of the Greater South, Inc,, holds more than four thousand PBs on a ‘campus’ where Federal inspectors enforce some limits on the labor discipline inflicted in Building 20, “Detention/Reconditioning”, where “necessary corrective actions” are administered by Free White Workers, the latter monitored by Federal officials from a Bureau of Labor Practices established by FDR in 1935.  We never see inside Building 20, and do not have to.  Other details of a modern race-based slavery and its methods of control are sparing but harrowing, with one appropriated and repurposed from the routines of contemporary American prisons.

Interestingly, most of this altered history’s Americans disdain or detest the existence of slavery, as do a lot of foreigners—under a ‘European Consensus’ all American manufactures are boycotted and most industrial democracies have embargoed us, although Japan has just broken ranks with a policy of ‘stakeholder influence’.  But a Cold War apparently similar to our own is over, and East Asians and former colonies are eager to buy cheap American products. While the force of disapproval is not derisory—Georgia has abolished slavery only a few decades before the novel begins—neither is it obvious that it will prevail; alternate histories are rarely benevolently teleological.  The moral campaign against the Hard Four seems more than faintly ludicrous:  the Montreal-based North American Human Rights Association has inspected the supply lines of a restaurant in Indianapolis where the narrator eats a hasty meal, for  “Indiana was, like most states, a Clean Hands state”, so there is a little gold seal on the menu of the diner.

Outside of a lecture hall we never hear extended arguments about how our history came to be, and the details of a novel’s altered history should be provided sparingly. Winter gives us just enough information to avoid sounding like a man conducting a thought experiment, while still limning a credible history.  His great success is his first person voice, which belongs a very peculiar kind of detective.  A fair amount of alternative history grafts its otherness onto a detective story—Deighton, Harris and Chabon all did this.  But Winter’s detective, who has been free since the age of fourteen and is approaching forty, is an undercover agent for the U.S. Marshal Service, the only organization that enforces the widely detested Fugitive Slave Act.  Because a decades-old law exempts African-American Marshals from tracking down fugitive slaves, recaptured slaves are sometimes offered a choice between re-enslavement and employment as infiltrators of the abolitionist Underground Airlines.  Winter’s narrator despises both himself and the cheap self-righteousness of the ‘Abbos’ he lives among, and is grimly confident that nothing can change in the hard four.  Schooled in the arts of the informer, he habitually describes other African Americans in the categories of the Pigmentation Taxonomies of the U.S. Marshal Service’s field guide:  the color of his quarry in Indianapolis, whereUnderground Airlines begins, is “late summer honey, warm tone, #76”, one of the 172 varieties of African American skin tones listed in the Pigmentation Taxonomies. The narrator himself is “moderate charcoal, brass highlights, #41”, and as is the case with all Persons Bound to Labor, his color is recorded in a national data base along with age, height, weight, chest and shoe sizes, and scars, bumps and moles—what his field manual calls dermatological idiosyncrasies. Winter’s extrapolated slavery has other arresting details:  the momentary revelation of the despair of not owning his own body is offset by his narrator’s unnerving pride in being taken to own a prized foreign car—a new Altima—while the insoluble paradox of a democratic ethos coexisting with race-based slavery underpins a crucial plot point.

The history downstream from a point of divergence must be compatible with what we think we know about the logic of history, in this case the chance of a stable slavery surviving in an industrial economy, and Winter’s readers know that no-one has yet practiced profitable and efficient slavery on a mass scale, with literate slaves working in an industrialized urban setting. Winter avoids the problem by flanking it:  his slaves work on cotton plantations, in mines, in rural sewing plants and slaughter houses and on offshore oil rigs, living in versions of panopticons.  Objections to profitable slavery in a modern economy were pretty effectively disposed of by Fogel and Engerman in Time on the Cross and Without Consent or Contract, while objections to the possibility of using of slaves in industrial economies were disposed of by Hitler and Stalin through their historical practice.  Both used slave labor with murderous inefficiency, which does not prove that economic rationality was impossible.   It was long fashionable to insist that American slavery would have collapsed because of its intrinsic inefficiency, but this assumed the point at issue.  A good alternate history does not spell out such things, because credible characters never explain to one another that they live in a possible world; they simply know that they live in a world, and the writer who has dreamed that world into being avoids details that make us doubt its possibility.  Winter shows us that we can care about a history that never happened, just as we can care about a person who never happened, and for the same reasons:  because of the imaginative power and artistry of the person who has invented it.

Winter shows us something else, too.  Heraclitus noted that “War is the father and king of all: some he has made gods, and some men; some slaves and some free.”  Winter shows us that the failure to fight a war would very likely have made our history more awful, and more shameful, than even our most terrible war made the history we have actually endured.  This, at least, is the pretty clear implication of the history Winter has dreamt and written into being.

Within living memory the emancipatory possibilities of an American army were easier to grasp, possibly because our historians more frequently wrote about sights like the slaves in Maryland who watched Meade’s men race after Lee’s—they would collide at Gettysburg—and improvised lyrics to a spiritual wherein the Army of the Potomac became Lincoln’s chariot, coming to carry them home.  American armies were imagined to have brought, along with other and worse things, the Jubilee, of which the men who served in them also sang.  In Winter’s novel one can newly imagine what those armies brought in their train only because he has conjured into being a world where, to our bitter sorrow, they never marched, and we mind true things by what their mockeries be.