Whitehead, Colson 1970–
Whitehead, Colson 1970–
Writer. Village Voice, New York, NY, television critic.
Finalist, Ernest Hemingway/PEN Award for First Fiction, and New Voices Award, Quality Paperback Book Club, both 1999, and Whiting Writers' Award, 2000, all for The Intuitionist; Editors' Choice, New York Times, 2001, and Young Lions Fiction Award, New York Public Library, 2002, both for John Henry Days; MacArthur fellowship, 2002; National Book Critics Circle Award finalist and Pulitzer Prize finalist, both for John Henry Days.
The Intuitionist, Anchor Books (New York, NY), 1999.
John Henry Days, Doubleday (New York, NY), 2001.
The Colossus of New York: A City in Thirteen Parts (nonfiction), Doubleday (New York, NY), 2003.
Apex Hides the Hurt, Doubleday (New York, NY), 2006.
Contributor to periodicals, including Granta, Harper's, and the New York Times.
The Intuitionist has been optioned for a movie by director Jonathan Demme.
Called a "large and vibrant talent" by Adam Begley in the New York Observer, author Colson Whitehead has penned several award-winning and critically acclaimed novels, The Intuitionist John Henry Days, and Apex Hides the Hurt. Writing in the London Guardian, Maya Jaggi described The Intuitionist as a "thrilling blend of noir and fantasy in the allegorical tale of an elevator inspector in pre-civil rights New York." Jaggi further noted that with John Henry Days, Whitehead "has waded into epic" in penning what she described as a "poignant, wittily observed and often gleefully comic" novel juxtaposing a nineteenth-century black folk-hero who defeated a steam drill but died in the process with a modern freelance journalist covering the John Henry Days festival in West Virginia.
Whitehead, a native New Yorker, decided as a young boy that he wanted to be a writer after reading his first Stephen King novel. In 1991 he graduated from Harvard University, and then worked for several years as a television critic for the Village Voice. Speaking about his journalism experience with Salon.com contributor Laura Miller, Whitehead noted: "I think I got a lot of stuff out of my system. I learned some good habits from having to produce every other week and trying to make it fresh. Village Voice style back then encouraged the first-person—that sort of me-me-me stuff—and I worked through various preoccupations with pop culture." Whitehead also kept busy writing fiction during his Village Voice years, and completed a satirical novel of adult life in New York that nobody wanted to publish. "Even my agent dumped me," he admitted to Daniel Zalewski in the New York Times Book Review.
Then one night in 1996, while watching a television program about defective escalators, inspiration hit. Whitehead, who had been reading hard-boiled detective novels, wondered if he could fashion an allegory about an equally hard-boiled escalator inspector. Changing the occupation to elevator inspector, Whitehead spent the next nine months writing The Intuitionist, the story of Lila Mae Watson, a black elevator inspector whose career is basically sabotaged by white co-workers. "On one level the novel was an homage to Dashiell Hammett," wrote Zalewski, "but its supple racial metaphors earned comparisons to Ralph Ellison." Set in a city that strongly resembles New York, The Intuitionist is an allegory dealing with rival schools of elevator inspectors, those who use intuition in their work, such as Watson, the first black woman in the profession, and those who use more hands-on techniques to detect flaws in the system, dubbed the Empiricists. It is election time at the Elevator Guild, and the Empiricists are determined to do whatever it takes to show that the Intuitionists are on the wrong track; their primary tactic is to sabotage one of the elevators in Watson's building. A day after inspection, an elevator in her building goes into free fall, a terrible disaster. In an attempt to clear her name, Watson in turn winds up in a search for the missing notebooks of the Intuitionists' founder, James Fulton, who was working on a "black box": a "perfect elevator" that would allow the city to construct buildings sky-high. Fuller's blueprints for his foolproof elevator are in the missing notebooks, and whoever finds them will control the destiny of the city.
"Deftly and beautifully," wrote Robin Brenner in the online Rambles, "the story spins into a subtle exploration of so much more than the predictable points of politics and technology. Reminiscent of post-modern theory, Intuitionism and the debate over the soul and existence of elevators is illuminated as an intriguing argument that echoes the modern yearning for the streamlined sublime." Brenner further noted that Watson's search for the blueprints to the mythical "black box" that will eliminate limits to upward mobility "almost echoes contemporary physicists' search for a Grand Unified Theory of the universe…. The Intuitionist asks equally piercing and unsettling questions about identity, race, and through this warped mirror, our own less than honorable past."
Critical reception to Whitehead's debut novel largely followed Brenner's assessment. Booklist contributor Donna Seaman, while comparing Whitehead's work to that of George Orwell, Ralph Ellison, Kurt Vonnegut, and Thomas Pynchon, also found it "resoundingly original." Calling the story "mesmerizing," Seaman noted that it is the author's "shrewd and sardonic humor and agile explications of the insidiousness of racism … that make this such a trenchant and accomplished novel." A reviewer for Publishers Weekly similarly called the book "meaty and mythic," and also commented that Whitehead "has a completely original story to tell, and he tells it well, successfully intertwining multiple plot lines and keeping his reader intrigued from the outset." Joining the chorus of praise, Newsweek reviewer Veronica Chambers dubbed The Intuitionist "the most engaging literary sleuthing you'll read this year," while Time contributor Walter Kirn called the book "the freshest racial allegory since Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man and Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye."
Whitehead's second novel, a riff on the John Henry myth, is as genre-busting as his first, an attempt to "define the interior crisis of manhood in terms of the entire pop-mad consumer society," according to a reviewer in the New York Times. In the novel, the nineteenth-century African-American folk-hero who proved the equal of technology has earned a spot on a postage stamp to be commemorated in 1996. The ceremony, held in a small West Virginia town, draws a crowd of urban media types, including J. Sutter, a freelance journalist who will cover any event in the hope of free food and getting his expenses paid. Sutter is the only black journalist among this pack of hack writers, and he is personally staging his own John Henry-like competition to see how many such events he con consecutively cover. Also among the journalists is Pamela Street, whose father was an avid collector of John Henry memorabilia. Street and Sutter find a focus in one another, and the author even brings John Henry himself into the story as the narrative drifts back in time. Additionally, Whitehead introduces other characters inspired by the John Henry story, including the singer Paul Robeson who played the "steel driving man" on Broadway.
Whitehead's second novel was met by positive critical reaction, most of which applauded the epic scale of his endeavor. Not all reviewers felt, however, that Whitehead was successful in his attempt. Writing in Esquire, Sven Birkerts remarked: "We anticipate a full-tilt grappling with myth, but instead Whitehead backs down, leaving us with the clatter and whir of failed connections, the reproachful silence of meanings left unexplored." Entertainment Weekly contributor Troy Patterson also had mixed feelings about the novel, calling it an "odd gem—a novel of dazzling facets and glaring flaws," while Time critic Paul Gray likewise concluded that John Henry Days is "a narrative tour de force that astonishes on almost every page, but it generates more glitter and brilliance than warmth."
Several critics greeted John Henry Days with even more praise than they had The Intuitionist. Countering the criticism of meanings left unexplored, Zachary Karabell noted in his appraisal for the Los Angeles Times that Whitehead's novel "works as a cascade of images and stories that intrigue and engage while remaining opaque, and yet, delicately, meaning emerges." Malcolm Jones, reviewing the title in Newsweek, acknowledged that while John Henry Days is something of a "mess," it is "a grand mess, one of those stories where the getting there is all the fun. Plundering the past, eviscerating the present, John Henry Days is a feast for famished readers." Booklist contributor Donna Seaman applauded the novel as an "even more sagacious tale" than Whitehead's debut, calling it "inventive, funny, and bittersweet," as well as "masterfully composed." This "great American novel" explores dualities such as "nature and civilization," "legend and history," "black and white," and "altruism and greed," according to Seaman. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly similarly called the book "smart, learned and soaringly ambitious," a novel that "consolidates … [Whitehead's] position as one of the leading writers of serious fiction of his generation." Reviewing John Henry Days in the Review of Contemporary Fiction, Keith Gessen deemed it "an important book," and New York Times contributor Jonathan Franzen described Whitehead's second novel as "funny and wise and sumptuously written," as well as an "aleatory fugue on the difficulty of manhood in an age that measures a man by what he buys or what he wears, not by his labor, not even by his human decency."
Whitehead turned to nonfiction in 2003 with The Colossus of New York: A City in Thirteen Parts, a collection of short pieces that "mix stream-of-consciousness with observational snapshots," according to Book contributor Don McLeese. Drawing comparisons to E.B. White's classic 1949 work Here Is New York, Whitehead's volume has "both a loose chronological and a cyclical sense: morning to night, arrival and departure, birth and death," observed a Kirkus Reviews critic. According to Philip Lopate, writing in the Nation, Whitehead "is treating New York directly as his subject matter, employing some of the classic organizing devices of the urban sketch, such as time of day (‘Morning,’ ‘Rush Hour’), season (‘Rain’), place (‘Subway,’ ‘Central Park’) and so on. It is moving to watch Whitehead patiently reworking these old tropes, fully conscious of his enterprise's antiquarian aspects. And he writes wonderfully, commanding a lush, poetic, mellifluous prose instrument."
The Colossus of New York earned strong critical praise, with several reviewers paying special attention to the author's complex narrative technique. Booklist contributor Donna Seaman remarked that Whitehead "incisively distills the kaleidoscopic frenzy of the city into startlingly vital metaphors and cartoon-crisp analogies." Luc Sante, writing in the New York Times Book Review, commented that Whitehead's volume "is a tour de force of voice, restlessly hopscotching from first to second to third person, from observation to speculation to reminiscence to indirect citation, in a staccato rhythm that effectively mimes the noise of the city," adding: "The texture is like the flick of a radio dial across the band, if all the stations had achieved a mysterious unity of subject." In the words of Library Journal reviewer Terren Ilana Wein, "this unique treatment of New York is … well, it's very New York: beautiful, imaginative, textured, and vibrant."
Whitehead returned to fiction with his 2006 novel Apex Hides the Hurt, "a smart tale about who we are under our labels," noted Raina Kelley in Newsweek. The work concerns a corporate "nomenclature consultant" who devises names for consumer products, including a series of flesh-toned bandages known as Apex. The melancholic protagonist is called out of his self-enforced retirement to help rename the small Midwestern town of Winthrop. Though a local software entrepreneur favors New Prospera, the African American mayor and members of the city council want the town to revert to its original name, Freedom, in honor of the former slaves who founded it. "The parodically conventional mystery provides the novel's forward motion," observed New York Times Book Review critic David Gates, "but—and here's the paradox—what keeps you reading this critique of language is its language, and our perverse delight in the ingenious abuse of words. Corporatespeak is an easy target, and Whitehead wastes little time on such sport." Seaman, writing in Booklist, similarly noted that the author "archly explicates the philosophy of excess and the poetics of ludicrousness, and he incisively assesses the power inherent in the act of naming." In Apex Hides the Hurt, remarked a Kirkus Reviews contributor, "Whitehead audaciously blurs the line between social realism and fabulist satire."
Speaking with Walter Mosley in Book, Whitehead noted: "I feel my ideal reader is me at sixteen, or someone like me, who has just been reading the usual high school stuff and hasn't been exposed to some kind of freaky postwar black literature…. Last week I did a thing for this Writers in Schools program in [Washington,] DC. The teacher had taught [John Henry Days] two days before and I went and talked about the book and the kids were incredibly smart and thoughtful. They seemed to get the book, they didn't ask the same sort of questions I usually get…. They see me as the novelist guy, which I still have a hard time seeing myself as. I guess I am a novelist but they see me as a Novelist with a capital ‘N’."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, January 24, 1999, Laura Wexler, "Intuitionist Rises and Falls, Twisting Clichés with Glee," p. L12; June 3, 2001, Mark Luce, "Regarding ‘John Henry,’" p. D4.
Black Issues Book Review, May-June, 2002, Evette Porter, "Writing Home," p. 36; January-February, 2004, Herb Boyd, review of The Colossus of New York: A City in Thirteen Parts, p. 58; May-June, 2006, Christopher Jack Hill, "Literary Landscapes," review of Apex Hides the Hurt, p. 32.
Bomb, summer, 2001, Suzann Sherman, "Interview with Colson Whitehead," pp. 74-80.
Book, May, 2001, Walter Mosley, "Eavesdropping," p. 44; November-December, 2003, Don McLeese, review of The Colossus of New York, p. 82.
Booklist, December 1, 1998, Donna Seaman, review of The Intuitionist, p. 651; April 15, 2001, Donna Seaman, review of John Henry Days, p. 1536; September 1, 2003, Donna Seaman, review of The Colossus of New York, p. 4; February 1, 2004, Donna Seaman, "Walkabout, New York Style," review of The Colossus of New York, p. 944; January 1, 2006, Donna Seaman, review of Apex Hides the Hurt, p. 64.
Boston Globe, March 19, 2006, Saul Austerlitz, "Identity Crisis," review of Apex Hides the Hurt.
Ebony, April, 2006, "Topshelf," review of Apex Hides the Hurt, p. 26.
Entertainment Weekly, May 18, 2001, Troy Patterson, review of John Henry Days, p. 74; October 24, 2003, Troy Patterson, review of The Colossus of New York, p. 111; March 24, 2006, Jennifer Reese, review of Apex Hides the Hurt, p. 74.
Esquire, May, 2001, Sven Birkerts, "Carry That Weight," p. 30; March, 2006, Douglas Danoff, "The Talented Mr. Whitehead," p. 78.
Guardian (London, England), June 23, 2001, Maya Jaggi, "Railroad Blues," p. 10.
Houston Chronicle, March 29, 1999, Peter Szatmary, "An Intuitionist's Over-the-Top Elevator," p. 23.
Kirkus Reviews, July 15, 2003, review of The Colossus of New York, p. 959; January 1, 2006, review of Apex Hides the Hurt, p. 15
Library Journal, October 15, 1999, Dan Bogey, review of The Intuitionist, p. 132; April 1, 2001, Ellen Flexman, review of John Henry Days, p. 135; August 1, 2003, Terren Ilana Wein, review of The Colossus of New York, p. 84; January 1, 2006, Bette-Lee Fox, review of Apex Hides the Hurt, p. 106.
Los Angeles Times, May 24, 2001, Zachary Karabell, "Heartache Delicately Circles Old Tale of Man versus Machine," p. E3.
Nation, December 1, 2003, Phillip Lopate, "New York State of Mind," review of The Colossus of New York, p. 31.
New Republic, July 24, 2001, Chloe Schama, "The Name Game," review of Apex Hides the Hurt, p. 36; August 6, 2001, James Wood, "Virtual Prose," p. 30.
Newsweek, January 11, 1998, review of The Intuitionist, p. 66; January 11, 1999, Veronica Chambers, "Love at First Sight," p. 66; May 21, 2001, Malcolm Jones, "Whitehead Hammers out a Hit," p. 59; March 13, 2006, Raina Kelley, "When the Name Game Isn't Just a Game," review of Apex Hides the Hurt, p. 61.
New Yorker, May 1, 2006, "Briefly Noted," review of Apex Hides the Hurt, p. 87.
New York Observer, July 23, 2001, Adam Begley, "Air Miles and Press Junkets, Consumerism and Coincidence," p. 19.
New York Review of Books, November 2, 2006, Darryl Pinckney, "Branding in America," review of Apex Hides the Hurt, p. 56.
New York Times, December 2, 2001, "Editors' Choice."
New York Times Book Review, February 7, 1999, Gary Krist, "The Ascent of Man"; May 13, 2001, Jonathan Franzen, "Freeloading Man," pp. 8-9, Daniel Zalewski, "Tunnel Vision: Interview with Colson Whitehead," pp. 8-9; October 19, 2003, Luc Sante, "Eight Million Reasons," review of The Colossus of New York, p. 38; April 2, 2006, David Gates, "You Are Now Entering—," review of Apex Hides the Hurt, p. 12.
People Weekly, March 27, 2006, Kyle Smith, review of Apex Hides the Hurt, p. 53.
Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH), May 27, 2001, Frank Bentayou, "PR, Puffery Face off with a Hero of Legend," p. I11.
Publishers Weekly, November 16, 1998, review of The Intuitionist, p. 56; March 22, 1999, p. 28; April 16, 2001, review of John Henry Days, p. 43; May 26, 2003, review of The Colossus of New York, p. 57; January 30, 2006, review of Apex Hides the Hurt, p. 40.
Review of Contemporary Fiction, summer, 2001, Keith Gessen, review of John Henry Days, p. 155.
San Francisco Chronicle, May 16, 2001, David Kipen, "Whitehead Gives Life to John Henry," p. B1.
Time, January 25, 1999, Walter Kirn, "The Promise of Verticality," p. 78; May 21, 2001, Paul Gray, "A Ballad for All Times," p. 91; March 20, 2006, Lev Grossman, "The Third-Novel Curse," review of Apex Hides the Hurt, p. 117.
Times Literary Supplement (London, England), January 15, 1999, Sam Gilpin, review of The Intuitionist, p. 21; August 19, 2001, Mark Greif, review of John Henry Days, p. 19.
USA Today, March 30, 1996, Bob Minzesheimer, "Apex Is the Height of Excellent Writing," p. 5D.
Utne Reader, November-December, 1998, Jon Spayde, "The New Faces of Fiction," pp. 69-75.
Vanity Fair, April, 2006, Elissa Schappell, "Hot Type," review of Apex Hides the Hurt, p. 106.
Washington Post Book World, June 21, 1999, Brian Gilmore, "Race to the Top," p. 3; May 20, 2001, Ishmael Reed, "Rage against the Machine," p. 5.
Colson Whitehead Home Page,http://www.colsonwhitehead.com (February 1, 2007).
Powells.com,http://www.powells.com/ (June 14, 2001), Dave Welch, "Interview with Colson Whitehead."
Rambles Web site,http://www.rambles.net/ (April 30, 2002), Robin Brenner, review of The Intuitionist.
Random House Web site,http://www.randomhouse.com/ boldtype/ (April 30, 2002), "Colson Whitehead."
Salon.com,http://www.salon.com/ (January 12, 1999), Laura Miller, "The Salon Interview: Going Up."