The Intuitionist, 1999
John Henry Days, 2001
Colson Whitehead has been hailed as one of the United States’ most talented and innovative young writers. As a child growing up in New York City, he decided that he wanted to be a novelist after reading Stephen King’s novels. Whitehead matriculated at Harvard University; after he was not accepted into Harvard’s creative writing seminars, he studied English and comparative literature. Upon receiving a B.A. in 1991, he became an editorial assistant at The Village Voice; he wrote music, television, and book reviews and eventually became the newspaper’s television editor. While working at The Village Voice, he met and married Natasha Stovall, a photographer and writer. Whitehead’s essays have appeared in other publications, such as The New York Times, Vibe, Spin, and Newsday.
Although Whitehead worked in San Francisco, where he wrote about Internet events, and taught in the University of Houston’s creative writing program during the spring semester for several years, he is a self-described lifelong New Yorker. He and his wife made their home in Brooklyn. On September 11, 2001, Whitehead and Stovall stood on a hill in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene Park and looked out on lower Manhattan. They watched the World Trade Center’s two towers burn and collapse after the terrorist attacks of that morning. One of Whitehead’s most eloquent and memorable essays, “Lost and Found,” (The New York Times, November 11, 2001), pays tribute to the Twin Towers, New York City, and memories.
Whitehead continues to write essays, yet he is best known for his fiction. In his first novel, The Intuitionist, he pits an urban department of elevator inspectors’ two contentious groups against each other: the Intuitionists and the Empiricists. The novel’s protagonist, Lila Mae Watson, is the first African American woman in the department. She is known as the most competent inspector until an elevator, inspected by her, freefalls. Elated Empiricists blame the accident on Watson, an Intuitionist. Determined to find out what happened, Watson investigates in a work that critics have described as a racial allegory, comic fantasy, and mystery.
The Intuitionist, a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award for First Fiction in 1999, won the Quality Paperback Book Club’s New Voices Award, 1999, and the Whiting Writers’ Award, 2000. The Intuitionist was published when Whitehead was twenty-nine; consequently, critics proclaimed that he was one of the most talented of the younger generation of writers. His debut novel garnered comparisons with novels by Don DeLillo, Ralph Ellison, Joseph Heller, Toni Morrison, and Thomas Pynchon. Excerpts from Whitehead’s novels began appearing in such anthologies as Step into a World: A Global Anthology of the New Black Literature (2000), edited by Kevin Powell, and Giant Steps: The New Generation of African American Writers (2000), edited by Kevin Young.
The Intuitionist and Whitehead’s second novel, John Henry Days, focus on racial as well as gender issues. Whitehead became aware of John Henry, the legendary railroad figure, when he was an elementary school student. When Whitehead’s teacher showed his class a cartoon about Henry, Whitehead was intrigued. Although he had read Marvel comics, John Henry represented a phenomenon Whitehead had never seen before–an African American superhero. Years later, Whitehead decided to write about Henry; however, he postponed beginning the novel until he felt capable of presenting the nineteenth century folk hero differently from the image depicted in the various versions of the ballad of John Henry. Thus in his novel, Whitehead emphasizes Henry’s humanity rather than portraying him as a mythical figure. Henry, an Industrial Age figure, is contrasted with J. Sutter, a young, African American freelance journalist who represents the Digital Age and is sent to Talcott, West Virginia, to write about a three-day festival held in Henry’s honor.
The critical acclaim bestowed upon Whitehead’s second novel surpassed the favorable commentary conferred upon The Intuitionist. John Henry Days won the New York Public Library Young Lions’ Fiction Award, 2002, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize. It was selected as the 2001 New York Times Editor’s Choice and was cited as the “Best Book of the Year” by reviewers at the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post, and Salon.com. Established writers such as Ishmael Reed and John Updike acknowledged Whitehead’s talents as a novelist. The Intuitionist and John Henry Days also merited the attention of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation; Whitehead was one of twenty-four 2002 MacArthur Fellows awarded $500,000 grants.
Whitehead has received more favorable critical recognition in three years than many of his peers receive after decades of writing.