African American Studies Colson Whitehead
by
Derek C. Maus
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0081

Introduction

Over the course of a career now in its third decade, Colson Whitehead has produced a nine-book oeuvre that has made him one of the foremost 21st-century American literary authors. Born Arch Colson Chipp Whitehead in New York on November 6, 1969, he spent his childhood and adolescence devouring pop culture—in particular, science fiction and horror films. His early years were generally divided between Manhattan and his family’s summer home in Sag Harbor on Long Island. In 1987, he began studying literature at Harvard University, where he befriended poet and editor Kevin Young and other members of the influential Dark Room Collective. After graduation, he spent several years in New York writing for the Village Voice. During this time, he also started working on what eventually became his debut novel, The Intuitionist (New York: Doubleday, 1999). Although his initial readership remained relatively small, Whitehead’s critical reputation grew quickly, with each of his first two books earning rave reviews and literary prizes. The Intuitionist was a finalist for the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for debut fiction and his second novel, John Henry Days (New York: Doubleday, 2001), won the Anisfield-Wolf Award, a prize given to exemplary American literary works dealing with racism and diversity. John Henry Days was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 2000, he received the Whiting Award, which supports promising new writers, and then followed that up with a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (colloquially known as a “Genius Grant”) in 2002 and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2013. Although his third novel, Apex Hides the Hurt (New York: Doubleday, 2006), was less critically lauded, it nevertheless won the PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Literary Award, which recognizes outstanding multicultural literature. Over the next decade, Whitehead’s readership began to catch up with his critical acclaim and each of his subsequent five novels has landed on the New York Times bestseller list. The Underground Railroad (New York: Doubleday, 2016) has been his most noteworthy book to date, reaching the top of the New York Times bestseller list, as well as earning him the Pulitzer Prize, the Carnegie Medal, the National Book Award, and public endorsements from Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama, among others. He followed this success up with a short historical novel, The Nickel Boys (New York: Doubleday, 2019), whose release was accompanied both by considerable fanfare (including Whitehead’s appearance on the cover of Time magazine) and continued critical praise. Although he has gravitated away from the comic-satirical tenor of his earlier work, Whitehead remains both a masterful prose stylist and a pointed social critic.

Primary Sources

As of July 2019, Whitehead’s body of published work consists of seven novels, two books of nonfiction, and roughly two dozen uncollected essays, along with more than fifty Interviews that are available in print or online. Although The Underground Railroad (cited under Novels) has undoubtedly been his greatest success thus far in both critical and commercial terms, he has been heralded as a “writer to watch” (as John Updike called him in a 2001 review in the New Yorker) since making his debut with The Intuitionist (cited under Novels). That first book was compared favorably to such notable precursors as Ralph Ellison and Thomas Pynchon, both of whom Whitehead has cited as formative influences in numerous interviews. As he articulated in an essay entitled “A Psychotronic Childhood” (Whitehead 2012a, cited under Nonfiction), though, the influence of various forms of popular culture was at least as important, particularly to John Henry Days, Sag Harbor, and Zone One (New York: Knopf, cited under Novels). His expansive repertoire of literary and pop-cultural knowledge has contributed to the impressive thematic and stylistic variation among his works, helping him continue his practice of conceiving “each book [as] an antidote to the one [that] came before,” as he told Nikesh Shukla in 2013 (included in Maus 2019, cited under Interviews).

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