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Biography Colson Whitehead

2020 Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction

Colson Whitehead – credit © Chris Close.

Colson Whitehead was born in New York City in 1969. He is a graduate of Harvard University and has taught at Princeton and New York universities. The author of seven novels, Whitehead is a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. He received a MacArthur Fellowship in 2002, and in 2019 he was named “America’s Storyteller” by Time magazine.

Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden selected Whitehead based on nominations from more than 60 distinguished literary figures, including former winners of the prize, acclaimed authors and literary critics from around the world. “Colson Whitehead’s work is informed by probing insights into the human condition and empathy for those who struggle with life’s sometimes harrowing vicissitudes,” Hayden said, announcing the prize. “In novels such as ‘The Nickel Boys’ and ‘The Underground Railroad,’ he has expanded the scope of historical events, transforming them into metaphors for today’s world.”

“As a kid, I’d walk into great New York City libraries like the Schomburg and the Mid-Manhattan, on a field trip or for a school assignment, and feel this deep sense of awe, as if I’d stumbled into a sacred pocket in the city,” Whitehead said. “I hope that right now there’s a young kid who looks like me, who sees the Library of Congress recognize black artists and feels encouraged to pursue their own vision and find their own sacred spaces of inspiration.”

Esquire magazine named Whitehead’s first novel, “The Intuitionist” (1999), the best first novel of the year, and his second, “John Henry Days” (2001), received the Young Lions Fiction Award and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. “The Underground Railroad” (2016) was selected for Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 and featured on President Barack Obama’s summer reading list. The Pulitzer judges called the novel “a smart melding of realism and allegory that combines the violence of slavery and the drama of escape in a myth that speaks to contemporary America.” Of “The Nickel Boys,” the Pulitzer judges noted its “spare and devastating exploration of abuse at a reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida that is ultimately a powerful tale of human perseverance, dignity and redemption.”

Whitehead is also the author of two books of nonfiction: “The Colossus of New York” and “The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky & Death.” His work has been widely published in The New York Times, The New Yorker and Harper’s, among others. Whitehead is married to literary agent Julie Barer and lives in New York.

Selected Works at the Library of Congress