Oxford AASC: Whitehead, Colson

Whitehead, Colson

By: Zach Weir
Source:
 African American National Biography What is This?

Related Content

Whitehead, Colson

(1969– ),

novelist and essayist, was born in New York City and lived in various Manhattan neighborhoods over the course of his childhood with his parents Arch and Mary Ann, both businesspeople working in the city. Whitehead graduated from Harvard College in 1991 and lived in San Francisco for less than a year before returning to New York to take an editorial assistant post at the Village Voice, where he established himself as a television and popular culture critic. After leaving the staff of the Village Voice, Whitehead began writing for numerous periodical publications, including New York Magazine, Vibe, and Spin, in addition to his novelistic output.

Published in 1999, Whitehead's first novel, The Intuitionist, announced his emergence as a major contemporary American author with its markedly positive popular and critical reception. A finalist for the Ernest Hemingway/PEN Award for First Fiction and winner of the Quality Paperback Book Club's New Voices Award, The Intuitionist brought Whitehead's writing into the purview of critics and scholars, owing in large part to its nuanced and delicate dissection of race, class, and gender within the frame of its highly inventive, allegorical plot.

In the novel, Lila Mae Watson, the first black female elevator inspector appointed to the Department of Elevator Inspectors, finds her status and professional abilities under fire after the free fall crash of an elevator she had previously inspected and certified. A devotee of the Intuitionist camp of inspection technique and procedure, Lila Mae must defend not only her perfect inspection record but also the entire Intuitionist methodology and practice against the impending investigation and rival Empiricist faction. She must prove herself innocent of the charges of negligence brought about by the Empiricists, who wish to undermine and discredit Intuitionist practice, which relies mainly on touch, feel, and sensations, not only upon the visible and verifiable world.

Concerned heavily with race, The Intuitionist, though set in an unnamed time and place, allegorizes pre–civil rights urban America, with its recumbent xenophobia and stringent social divisions. Writing within the detective fiction genre (though arguably in a postmodern manifestation of the form), Whitehead directed Lila Mae's quest with a light touch, affording his protagonist a diffident agency that sets her apart from the surrounding cast of characters and positions her keenly for uncovering the conspiratorial plot running deep within the Guild of Elevator Inspectors. At the same time, Lila Mae also brings to the narrative's forefront the more insidious cultural logic of racism, perhaps most cleverly rendered in the departmental response to the fact that the inventor of elevator safety brakes and the author of the founding Intuitionist text, James Fulton, was a black man, though one who passed as white. The uncovering of Fulton's racial background throws the impasse between the Intuitionists and the Empiricists into greater relief, since whichever faction dominates the guild possesses formidable social and political power.

Following the success of The Intuitionist, Whitehead's second novel, John Henry Days (2001), further bolstered his literary reputation. A work of fiction that played with the distinction between myth and history, agency and determinism, John Henry Days was nominated for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Award for fiction and helped earn Whitehead the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award. Likewise selected as a New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice and a Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and Salon.com Book of the Year, John Henry Days brought Whitehead's writing to an even larger reading public.

In this novel, Whitehead took as his subject an actual historical event—the 1996 John Henry Days Festival in Talcott, West Virginia—and mused upon both the folk history of John Henry's fabled competition against a steam drill at Big Bend Tunnel in 1872 and the myth of John Henry that has since proliferated and permeated the American national imagination. In the novel's frame narrative, the junketeer and glossy journalist J. Sutter, challenging the record for attending the most consecutive press junkets, travels to Talcott to cover the festival and the unveiling of the John Henry stamp, which stands as its main event. Mixing genres and narrative forms, the novel confidently moves among different forms of writing and presentation, casting the technological, historical, and sentimental with a striking evenness of tone—a feature of Whitehead's writing that has invited comparisons with Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, William Gaddis, and other accomplished postwar American novelists.

Around J. Sutter and the goings-on of the festival, Whitehead introduces a cast of at least twelve major characters with their own connection to John Henry—both the myth and the man—in a complex narrative that shifts abruptly not only among the perspectives of its characters but also across time and geographical space. John Henry, both the fictional character rendered in certain sections within the novel and the American folk legend, provides an epic myth that Whitehead weaves and reworks in both parodic and reverent guises: man versus machine or, perhaps, the teleological narrative of historical progress. As in The Intuitionist, Whitehead's work proves especially attentive to issues of race and class, making a clear case for the historical provenance of American racism that pervades society not only in the post–Civil War era but also at the contemporary moment.

With two successful novels behind him, in 2002 Whitehead was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship (popularly referred to as the “Genius Award”), which carried with it a five-hundred-thousand-dollar grant. Soon after receiving the fellowship, Whitehead published his first book-length work of nonfiction, a paean to New York City written largely in response to the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, titled The Colossus of New York: A City in Thirteen Parts (2003). Though the attacks themselves are not directly mentioned, the book remains expressly and obsessively concerned with both memory and the constant morphing and revamping of city space that provides its foundational condition. Impressionistic and imagistic, The Colossus of New York does not attempt to masquerade as a work of popular history; rather, it serves as a work of memory that demonstrates Whitehead's insistence on the simultaneity of recording and reconstructing that goes into any act of writing.

Colson Whitehead's virtuoso prose and adept handling of multiple genres and styles distinguished him as one of America's most aggressive and ambitious contemporary novelists. When asked by Salon.com editor Laura Miller about the pressures of treating race within the American novel, Whitehead responded:

"There were two rigid camps in the '60s: the Black Arts movement, denouncing James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison for being too white, and Ralph Ellison calling the Black Arts writers too militant and narrow, not universal enough. Now I think there are a lot more of us writing and a lot more different areas we're exploring…. I'm dealing with serious race issues, but I'm not handling them in a way that people expect."

Melding the serious with the comical, the true with the fantastical, Whitehead's writing challenged conventional literary treatment of race and gender, while at the same time doing so without recourse to a flat and unmoving didacticism. Whitehead's work in the 2000s has reflected this commitment to expanding the horizons of fiction. His introspective novel Sag Harbor (2009), a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, depicts affluent African American teens in the summer of 1985. Two years later, Whitehead published Zone One, a literary take on the zombie genre that employs familiar tropes from apocalyptic science fiction films in order to critique topics as diverse as popular culture, gentrification, consumerism, and nostalgia.

Further Reading

  • Larimer, Kevin. “Industrial Strength in the Information Age: A Profile of Colson Whitehead,” Poets and Writers Magazine 29.4 (July/Aug. 2001).
  • Miller, Laura. “The Salon Interview: Going Up,” Salon.com. Available at http://www.salon.com/books/int1999/cov_si_12int.html.
  • Zalewski, Daniel. “An Interview with Colson Whitehead: Tunnel Vision,” New York Times Book Review, 13 May 2001.
Sign up to receive email alerts from African American Studies Center
Highlight any word or phrase and click the button to begin a new search.