Colson Whitehead is what many scholars would call a modern-day Renaissance man. A 1991 graduate of Harvard University, his failure to be accepted into the creative writing program brings to mind basketball player Michael Jordan's narrative of overlooked talent. Like Jordan, Whitehead would prove his doubters wrong within a decade of leaving Harvard, garnering the MacArthur Foundation's "genius" award in September 2002. His first novel, The Intuitionist (1998), a creative detective story framed around the black female protagonist, Lila Mae Watson, won the Whiting Writers' Award in 2000 and the Quality Paperback Book Club's New Voices Award in 1999. Whitehead was also a finalist for an Ernest Hemingway/PEN Award for First Fiction in 1999.
Whitehead's popularity stems from his ingenious approach to history, culture, and literature. Born in 1969, this Brooklyn native has written his way into the social consciousness of America's elite literary circle. Critics have located Whitehead's fiction within the tradition of mythical realism, comparing his work with that of such authors as Toni Morrison and Ishmael Reed. Whitehead himself has located his work within the tradition of the black intellectual novel, tracing his literary roots back to such writers as Jean Toomer, whose 1923 narrative Cane was a tour de force during the Harlem Renaissance because of its creative attention to folk culture and history. Whitehead's 2001 novel, John Henry Days, is inventive in the same manner as it explores the historical impact of the nineteenth-century folk hero John Henry upon a modern-day hack journalist, J. Sutter, who is sent to cover the first annual "John Henry Days" festival in Talcott, West Virginia. The ensuing narrative parallels the lives of these two black men, shaping a complex allegorical portrait of racism, history, and popular culture that explores heroism in the postmodern age. This novel likewise investigates the impact of technology on the moral and social development of American society at key moments in the nation's history.
The literary evolution of John Henry Days mirrors, in some respects, the reallife journey of Whitehead himself. In the summer of 1997 Whitehead found himself working at a new Internet company in San Francisco to pay off the debt he had incurred while writing The Intuitionist. His job—to write forty-word blurbs for upcoming Web chats in the style of TV Guide —allowed him the opportunity to experience not only the transcoastal worlds of the West and East Coasts with his wife; it gave him the chance to surf the Web each afternoon while completing his weekly assignment. One afternoon Whitehead stumbled across the U.S. Postal Service's press release of its John Henry stamp, which had been released in 1996 as part of its "Folk Heroes" series. Whitehead's fascination with the details surrounding not only the commercialization of folk heroes but also the life and death of John Henry—particularly his race with a steam drill engine—gave him the kernel he needed to begin his next literary project.
Whitehead's publishing career is as varied and extensive as his intellectual pursuits. His articles have appeared in the New York Times, Salon, Vibe, Spin, Newsday, and the Village Voice, where he worked as an editorial assistant and a TV critic. His third book, The Colossus of New York: A City in 13 Parts (2003), blends Whitehead's journalistic talents with his creative cultural voice.
See also Literature of the United States
Gates, Henry L. Jr., et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, 2d ed. New York: Norton, 2004.
Miller, Laura. "The Salon Interview: Going Up." An interview with Colson Whitehead. January 12, 1999. Available from <http://www.salon.com/books/int/1999/01/cov_si_12int.html>.
carol e. henderson (2005)