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As a Harvard undergraduate, Colson Whitehead ’91 turned his papers in late, sat in the back of his classes and, as he puts it, “didn’t say anything.”
As he attended cores and filled concentration requirements, Whitehead probably never thought that barely a decade later Henry Louis Gates would name him as one of the authors he most admires.
Whitehead returned to Harvard last month to speak as part of the W.E.B. DuBois Institute’s “Black Writers Reading” series, but did so as a 2002 MacArthur fellow with two highly touted novels to his name.
Yet, for all of his fame, his appearance suggests that he never fully evolved past his student years: with vintage clothing and designer glasses, caustic wit and deadpan delivery, one can still see an easy-going undergraduate somewhere within this 32-year-old.
He has gratitiude for his years in Cambridge. “This place lets you do what you want…it gives the creative encouragement to find your own path,” he says. “[Harvard] really gives you sort of a nice sense of freedom and confidence to pursue your own weird stuff.”
He also credits Harvard with making background research, such as riding innumerable elevators to prepare for his first published novel, 1998’s The Intuitionist, seem not quite so “freaky.”
Although The Intuitionist was a significant career milestone for Whitehead, landing numerous awards, including Esquire’s Best First Novel of the Year award, Whitehead’s rise to success was not automatic.
His first job was with the Village Voice, where he eventually rose to the position of television critic.
He says his years at the Village Voice gave him the discipline and money he needed to keep writing. More recently, he received a second financial windfall, to the tune of $500,000, from the MacArthur Foundation—a prize “intended to encourage people of outstanding talent to pursue their own creative, intellectual, and professional inclinations.”
Although his second novel, John Henry Days, was even more successful than his first—it was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award—Whitehead still welcomes the opportunity to be able to write with few constraints.
“The money makes working on riskier projects a lot easier…I live mostly off of some of my books,” he says.
He hopes the fellowship will give him freedom to experiment, which it seems he has already begun doing. “Downtown,” the essay he read for the Harvard audience from his upcoming book, The Colossus of New York, is a work that he describes as “impressionistic.”
Taking an extremely caustic and poetic approach to portray the life of barhopping young professionals in his hometown, he experiments here with prose and narrative form to push the boundaries of what we call the “essay.”
In response to those who question his unique style, he says, “I call these essays; some people give me crap for that. I don’t care.”
This sharp wit is never out of reach for Colson Whitehead; it was apparent in his lecture as he followed up a forceful reading of Public Enemy’s “I Can’t Do Nothin’ For You Man” by deconstructing it to the delight of the well-read audience.
Similarly, after his thoughtful consideration of all the opportunities the MacArthur fellowship will give him, he summed up its benefits: “I have taxes coming up.”
Whitehead has experienced a meteoric rise, even by Harvard standards. Called the “emerging Ralph Ellison of his generation” by writer Edwidge Danticat, who preceded Whitehead at the reading, his mixture of humor, rich allegory, and complex stories has already brought him fame as one of the great young American novelists.
A line from “Downtown” reads, “They applaud his wit.”
And, at the reading, they did.
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