The Man Who Lived Underground

Today school really went the way it should with two classes
discussing The Man Who Lived Underground by Richard Wright.

I see the story as a metaphorical somewhat surreal treatment of the New York City  sewage
system as an allegory of modern urban culture.  The story is obviously influenced by Dostoevsky's Underground Man, concerned with some of the same issues of alienation and injustice in an urban bureaucracy although Dostoevsky's Underground Man isn't actually underground and he also has an obviously repugnant personality.  It is less clear in that story that the UM's condition isn't his own fault.  Yet his problems are structural as well, built into a bureaucracy which forms the outer layers of a hierarchy in which the Czar and his family are at the summit.  Conditions in Russia at that point might be considered predictive of the subsequent Russian Revolution, although the Revolution which actually followed many decades later did little to make things better for the not well connected individual.

Whereas in Wright's story,   you can readily imagine that much of the hero's problems stem from his race as black but he is also poor and friendless, marginal in terms of caste as well as present condition, which he has in common with Dostoevsky's hero.  Where he differs is that he is running from the police who have beaten him into confessing to a crime he didn't commit when he sees a manhole that has popped slightly off its fitting.  He flees down under the manhole cover to find himself in the sewer systems of New York.  He narrowly escapes
being flushed and finds a series of hidden tunnels that allow him to
peak into the world's of a nearby church and  a nearby jewelry store.
He steps in and out of these worlds and has some impact on what
happens there. He robs a safe full of money and returns to see the
custodian being tortured by the same police who beat him in an
attempt to extract a confession from the custodian who did nothing.

Later our underground man is stamping diamonds he stole into
the ground and papering the wall with the money, which has become
meaningless to him.  Finally, he becomes so disoriented that he
transcends his physical hindrances and begins to believe that he knows
the secret truth which he now wants to share with the church members,
who ejects him because he is so filthy. 

Suddenly he realizes that who he really needs to talk to is the police who beat him. Not clear how long he's been underground but it takes a while for them to remember
him and what crime they associated him with. They have since found
someone else to take the rap. He begins to tell them about the money
and tries to lead them back down into the sewer to show them the
money and diamonds whereupon one of the police shoots him. The other
police man asks him why he shot him to which his partner answers, when
they get like that, you have to shoot them. He falls down into the
sewer and is pushed down the drain into the flow of water, and to his death presumably.

Wright's story is littered with obvious symbols--money, a dead baby, the police, the sewer itself.  But I suppose it is also significant where you are personally when you read this story.  The first time I read it was maybe 20 years ago and at that time I think I imagined that the sewer to be more like the subways, and was less preoccupied by the idea of the hero standing in untreated sewage, or that there were cave-like pockets in the wall, or the relative probability of his being able to see into businesses on the streets above.
Since it is an allegory about truth and freedom, you see your own life
reflected in it, certainly the life of the city.

So the discussions among the master's student was wonderful and
helpful to me because I found myself constantly comparing his
treatment of the sewers to how I imagined the subways. I googled
sewer and found some materials on sewer systems and manholes, and some
stuff on combined sewer and rain water drainage systems.

As some of my students mentioned, homeless people live in the subway
system.  Reference: The Mole People.


Further having looked into some various sources
National Geographic's New York Underground Site.

 Ideally, there was once the notion that waste disposal should go in a cesspool in the backyard, and then the British began with the flush toilets (in order to perpetuate the bourgeois notion that some people didn't actually have waste), which multiplied the volume of waste exponentially.

In the time that Wright is writing about specifically this would have begun to be a deep but largely concealed problem resulting in much untreated sewage going into the rivers around New York, rivers that poor children swam in.  More than likely there were dead animals if not a dead baby or two.

Later in the M.A. class we got into a discussion of revolutionary times, and whether or not the 1850s were inherently revolutionary in Russia and what that might mean. 
I wanted to stress that there had been little freedom for the poor people of the world at this time, even when there was revolutionary fervor as there would be in the French Revolution and the American Revolution (and much much later in the Russian Revolution). The serfs who were nominally freed from serfdom were far from free. They were peasants, which has nothing to do with a state of freedom, however you may definite it.  

Even the ideologues of the Russian revolution saw the peasant as hopeless. Their vision was for the elevation of the proletariat (urban workers) not the peasant. The Russian Revolution largely continued the exploitation of the peasant class as did every previous regime. There has never been much freedom for those who are tied to the land, which seems to me a great shame since our need for the fruits of the earth is likely to continue forever. Can such need co-exist with freedom?  What is freedom?  I think perhaps freedom is being a child but I don't know.

Anyway it was interesting.

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