Colson Whitehead Biography

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Born on November 6, 1969, Colson Whitehead was raised in Manhattan with three siblings. He attended Trinity, a private school, and then Harvard, where he studied English and Comparative Literature. At college, he befriended the poet Kevin Young. Following graduation from college, he worked at the Village Voice newspaper.

He has written several acclaimed novels. His first, The Intuitionist, published in 1999, won the Quality Paperback Book Club's New Voices Award and was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award. This book is about elevator inspectors, including the first African American female inspector, in a fictional city modeled on New York. His next novel, John Henry Days, was published in 2001 and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. In 2003, he published The Colossus of New York, a nonfiction work in which he discusses the way people approach and live in the ever-changing city.

His next novel, Apex Hides the Hurt (2006), was a recipient of the PEN/Oakland Award. In 2009, he published Sag Harbor, about two African American brothers spending the summer in Sag Harbor, a town in the Hamptons, largely without parental supervision. Zone One, published in 2011, is about a fictional New York following a pandemic that creates zombies. He then published The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky & Death about his search for meaning at the World Series of Poker. In 2016, he published The Underground Railroad, about two slaves who escape northward via a literal underground railroad, not the actual, metaphorical "railroad" slave escape route of history. In 2019, he published The Nickel Boys, about an African American boy thrown into a hellish, abusive reform school called Nickel Academy in the 1960s.

He is married to a literary agent named Julie Barer and has two children. Whitehead has taught at several colleges, including Columbia, the University of Houston, and Princeton. He has won several other awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and a MacArthur Fellowship.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 1,287 words.)