Analysis

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Last Reviewed on March 16, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 286

Colson Whitehead's writing style varies widely. He has written speculative fiction and fantasy in the form of an imagined city (implied to be New York) with vertical transport requiring elevator inspectors (The Intuitionist), an alternate historical novel that imagines the underground railroad as a literal railroad (The Underground Railroad), and a post-apocalyptic zombie-killing story (Zone One). With the success of The Underground Railroad, many writers and critics noted the rarity of a Pulitzer Prize-nominated author of a well-received slavery epic having written a thriller and a work of science fiction as well. Whitehead's one nonfiction novel is a memoir about his journey (through a journalistic assignment) into the world of poker. He uses poker itself and the culture surrounding it to examine human interactions and the nature of group dynamics.

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Whitehead's novels are also often in the first person, and he uses both external observations and internal examination to relay a character's experience and search for meaning. In every book, he writes with a modernist sense of formal narrative with a strong attention to descriptive writing. He demonstrates metaphoric thinking at every level—from the details of a door to the conceit of the book (like in the case of the railroad). He often employs dramatic irony and humor in addressing heavy themes in his novels. In The Nickel Boys, the author fictionalizes a real-life reform school that abused and tortured the boys who attended it. This marks a pattern for Whitehead of fictionalizing real historical events in imaginative ways to delve into oppression, justice, and the power and vulnerability of young people, particularly young people of color (the two slaves at the heart of The Underground Railroad, and the eponymous schoolboys of The Nickel Boys).

Other literary forms

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 96

Although Colson Whitehead is primarily a novelist, he has also published the collection of essays The Colossus of New York: A City in Thirteen Parts (2003), a work that makes clear the importance of place and surroundings for him. Working as a journalist and as a critic of books, music, and television has enabled Whitehead to develop the keen sense of language and its nuances that plays a significant role in his fiction. He has published articles in a wide variety of publications, including The New York Times, Salon, Spin, New York Magazine, Harper’s, and Granta.

Achievements

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 171

Colson Whitehead was heralded as a talented writer from the publication of his first novel. The Intuitionist received the New Voices Award presented by the Quality Paperback Book Club and was a finalist in the competition for the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award. Whitehead was from this first endeavor opening the way for a new type of novel that defies classification. The Intuitionist can be read as an allegory, as a detective novel, or even as a comedic tale. His next novel, John Henry Days, further broke the boundaries of the traditional novel with its multilevel structure, its satire, and its probing look at historical and contemporary racism. The work received the Young Lions Award and was a finalist for both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Whitehead’s ability to create fiction that goes beyond the traditional norms of the genre earned him a MacArthur Fellowship in 2002. His work continues the tradition of the intellectual black novel, which is part of the canon of African American literature.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 214

Franzen, Jonathan. “Freeloading Man.” The New York Times Book Review, May 13, 2001, 8. Novelist Franzen reviews John Henry Days, focusing on Whitehead’s theme of men’s problems in contemporary society.

Hill, Logan. “Whitehead Revisited.” New York Magazine 34 (May 7, 2001): 38. Provides updates on Whitehead’s career weeks prior to the release of John Henry Days.

Krist, Gary. “The Ascent of Man.” The New York Times Book Review, February 7, 1999, 9. Review of The Intuitionist that predicts a successful career as a novelist for Whitehead.

Mari, Christopher. “Colson Whitehead.” In Current Biography Yearbook 2001, edited by Clifford Thompson. New York: H. W. Wilson, 2001. Emphasis on Whitehead’s two novels; few details about his personal life.

Porter, Evette. “Writing Home.” Black Issues in Higher Education 4 (May/June, 2002): 36. Contains concise biographical information.

Reed, Ishmael. “Rage Against the Machine.” The Washington Post Book World, May 20, 1991, 5. Review of John Henry Days which commends Whitehead for daring to go beyond literary conventions.

Updike, John. “Tote That Ephemera.” The New Yorker 77 (May 7, 2001): 87-89. A review of John Henry Days that acknowledges Whitehead’s talents as a gifted writer.

Whitehead, Colson. “Tunnel Vision.” Interview by Daniel Zalewski. The New York Times Book Review, May 13, 2001, 8. An interview with Whitehead, who discusses his inspiration for The Intuitionist and John Henry Days as well as how he constructed his second novel.

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