NYS Writers Institute, October 17, 2002
Novelist Colson Whitehead was among the 24 winners of a $500,000 MacArthur Foundation "genius award" for 2002. The awards, which were announced this September, are given to scholars, artists, and others to free them to pursue their work. The Foundation praised Whitehead's novels for their inventive plots that weave American folklore and history into the stoires.
Colson Whitehead's multilayered second novel, John Henry Days (2001) juxtaposes the story of the 19th century folk-hero John Henry, a black railroad worker who died in the act of defeating a steam drill in a contest, with J. Sutter, a modern-day hack journalist who is sent to cover a John Henry Day festival. Sutter is engaged in his own private contest to attend back-to-back press junkets for the free food and paid expenses. Praising the novel for exploring such dualities as legend and history, black and white, altruism and greed, and the machine age and the digital age, Booklist called it "masterfully composed and full of myth and magic."
"funny and wise and sumptuously written. . .compelling" - Jonathan Frazen, New York Times Book Review
"a narrative tour de force that astonishes on almost every page." - Time
In addition to winning the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award, established to honor a novel or short story collection by an American author age 35 or younger, John Henry Days also was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and a Book Sense 76 pick.
Whitehead's debut novel, The Intuitionist (1998) received widespread and enthusiastic critical praise for its quirky and imaginative writing and its complex allegories of race. Lila Mae Watson is the first black woman to become an elevator inspector. Jealous of her success and flawless record, and suspicious of her inspection methods, a rival group sabotage one of her recently approved elevators.
[the resulting investigation leads to] "a deftly plotted mystery and quest tale that's also a teasing intellectual adventure," - Kirkus Reviews
"the freshest racial allegory since Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man and Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye" - Walter Kirn, Time
"Literary reputations may not always rise and fall as predictably as elevators, but if there's any justice in the world of fiction, Colson Whitehead's should be heading toward the upper floors." - New York Times Book Review
"Whitehead's writing is dazzling." - USA Today
The Intuitionist won the Quality Paperback Book Club's New Voices Award and was an Ernest Hemingway/PEN Award for First Fiction finalist in 1999.
Winner of a 2000 Whiting Writers' Award, Whitehead's journalism has appeared in Vibe, Spin, Newsday, and The Village Voice, where he was a television columnist. Colson Whitehead was born in New York City and he currently lives in Brooklyn.
For additional information, contact the Writers Institute at 518-442-5620 or online at http://www.albany.edu/writers-inst.