The Pulitzer Prize For Fiction

2017 - Colson Whitehead

Born: 6 November, 1969, New York, U.S

Awarded for: "The Underground Railroad"

Whitehead Quote: "What isn't said is as important as what is said."

Field: Fiction

Prize share: 1/1

Books Written By Colson Whitehead

About Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead (born November 6, 1969) is an American novelist. He is the author of six novels, including his debut work, the 1999 novel The Intuitionist, and The Underground Railroad (2016), for which he won the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction and the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. He has also published two books of non-fiction. In 2002, he received a MacArthur Fellowship ("Genius Grant").

After leaving college, Whitehead wrote for The Village Voice. While working at the Voice, he began drafting his first novels.

Whitehead has since produced seven book-length works—six novels and a meditation on life in Manhattan in the style of E.B. White's famous essay “Here Is New York”. The novels are 1999's The Intuitionist, 2001's John Henry Days, 2003's The Colossus of New York, 2006's Apex Hides the Hurt, 2009's Sag Harbor, 2011's Zone One, a New York Times Bestseller; and 2016's The Underground Railroad, which earned a National Book Award for Fiction. Esquire magazine named The Intuitionist the best first novel of the year, and GQ called it one of the "novels of the millennium.  Novelist John Updike, reviewing The Intuitionist in The New Yorker, called Whitehead "ambitious," "scintillating," and "strikingly original," adding, "The young African-American writer to watch may well be a thirty-one-year-old Harvard graduate with the vivid name of Colson Whitehead."

Whitehead's The Intuitionist was nominated as the Common Novel at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). The Common Novel nomination was part of a long-time tradition at the Institute that included authors like Maya Angelou, Andre Dubus III, William Joseph Kennedy, and Anthony Swofford.

Whitehead's non-fiction, essays and reviews have appeared in numerous publications, including The New York Times, The New Yorker, Granta, and Harper's.

His non-fiction account of the 2011 World Series of Poker The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky & Death was published by Doubleday in 2014.

He has taught at Princeton University, New York University, the University of Houston, Columbia University, Brooklyn College, Hunter College, Wesleyan University, and been a Writer-in-Residence at Vassar College, the University of Richmond, and the University of Wyoming.

In the spring of 2015, he joined The New York Times Magazine to write a column on language.

His 2016 novel, The Underground Railroad, was a selection of Oprah's Book Club 2.0, and was also chosen by President Barack Obama as one of five books on his summer vacation-reading list. In January 2017 it was awarded the Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction at the American Library Association Mid-Winter conference in Atlanta, GA. Colson was also honored with the 2017 Hurston/Wright Award for fiction presented by the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Foundation.


The Underground Railroad - Colson Whitehead

By Josh Mauthe

If all Colson Whitehead’s remarkable The Underground Railroad had to offer was its central conceit – in which the “Underground Railroad,” a covert, loose organization that worked to help slaves in the Confederacy get to freedom, becomes a literal subterranean rail network – that might almost be enough to capture the imagination and make the book great. Because, in short, what this allows Whitehead to do is tell an age-old story – the efforts of a runaway slave to escape – in a way that feels like little else out there, bringing new life to a story that none of us can ever afford to forget. It’s a minor tweak to reality, but it gives the story a unique, odd feel, making literal the astonishing work that went into saving these people.

So, yeah, that might be enough. But luckily for us all, Whitehead has more on his mind than just that one conceit. Instead, Whitehead turns this flight for freedom into a modern day Odyssey, letting each stop along the way become an entirely different narrative in the life of slavery, America’s race relations, prejudice, and fear. And the result is a sprawling, strange, haunting novel, one whose separate episodes combine to make something far more fascinating and complex than any one story might have been able to do on its own.

For instance, a more traditional slave escape narrative could never contain the subtly wrong paradise that feels at first like heaven on Earth, only to have Whitehead slowly turn that world on its head. You wouldn’t have the nightmarishly violent community that has purged itself of African-Americans in the most horrific way possible; nor would you have the beauty of acts of kindness that come when least expected. In Whitehead’s capable hands, the journey becomes a more complex one, echoing back and forth through time as he takes on racism not just as an explicit force of slavery, but as a much more insidious, subtle evil that can hide behind people’s smiles. In other words, it’s not just the slave catchers we need to fear; it’s those for whom help means condescension and manipulation.

Make no mistake, though; this is undeniably a book about slavery, and one that deals with the horrors of the institution without blinking or flinching. Violence is casual and brutal, with torture being commonplace and almost barely worthy of mention. And while our heroine’s plantation is known for its cruelty, that doesn’t mean that it’s any more cruel than half of what she sees in her journeys. Whitehead doesn’t allow us the luxury of “this place is the worst”; it’s just a particularly bad one, but nothing special. And even if it were somehow worse, it barely compares to some of the psychological and emotional horrors to come, and the wanton cruelty and disregard that we see on display throughout the book.

And yet, for all of that, The Underground Railroad is still a slave escape narrative, one in which we’re invested in our heroine’s success, and one that keeps us reading in the face of all of the potential horrors, hoping for something good. Whitehead never lets The Underground Railroad become crushing or so bleak as to be unpalatable; he tempers it, mixing the good and the bad, and investing us in the characters so that we need them to succeed – and feel it all the more when some of them don’t.

In other words, The Underground Railroad is something remarkable – a look at history that finds its truth through fiction, a dose of magical realism that serves to emphasize hard facts, a novel that explores ideas that many of us wish we had left in history. That it does all this is no small feat; that it does so in such a complex, powerful way without ever becoming didactic or simplistic, even less of one. But the fact that it manages to do all of that while still telling a gripping, exciting story? That‘s what makes it such an incredible novel, and worthy of its reputation.

The Underground Railroad - Colson Whitehead

By Sherry Thorn

I chose this book, frankly, because Oprah chose it for her book club. As a lower middle class white child, educated in the '60's, I was well aware of the segregated south, but I had no idea the depth of the degradation and depravity of what people of color had endured in this country. The land of the free, home of the brave......unless you were a person of color. Kidnapped from your village in Africa, sold into bondage......IF you had survived the arduous journey from the Dark Continent to the Americas. Seeing your heritage stripped from you, as surely as your dignity and humanity as you stood on the auctioneers' block.

Bearing children, only to see them torn from you to satisfy your master's debts. I am sure that these atrocities were part of my education, but this novel brings them more to the forefront than any textbook ever did. Even my college textbooks were circumspect in their description of man's inhumanity to man. For example, I did not know that all abolitionists were not involver in the underground railroad for purely altruistic reasons. Some actually used the newly "freed" slaved for medical research, delivering them from one sort of subhuman bondage to another. This book is a real Eye-opener for anyone educated in the public school system . Our textbooks did NOT tell the whole story. This novel gives a glimpse into the hardships and injustices we really never grasped in our American History class. An easy, if unsettling, read for this white girl!