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Colson Whitehead '91

One of Harvard's recent authors keeps it real

By Sanders I. Bernstein, Crimson Staff Writer

The work of Arch C. Whitehead ’91 (better known as Colson Whitehead) has been invariably compared to Ralph Ellison’s masterpiece, “The Invisible Man.” He’s garnered plaudits of all kinds: a MacArthur Genius grant at age 32, Pulitzer finalist status for his novel “John Henry Days,” and a myriad of awards for young authors, including the Young Lions Fiction Award, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, and a Whiting Writers Award. However, for all the attention paid to him within the world of letters, here at Harvard, he might as well be the man Ralph Ellison’s title refers to.

As a Harvard undergraduate, Whitehead did not call attention to himself. As he admitted to the Crimson in 2003, he “didn’t say anything.” Though he completed his coursework, he was not an exceptional student nor was he a central player in the publication scene on campus, eschewing the traditional incubatory institutions for a would-be-writer, opting not to take part in John H. Updike ’54’s Lampoon, David L. Halberstam ’55’s Crimson, or Norman K. Mailer ’43’s Advocate.

It was when he was eight years out, in 1999, after a stint as a critic at the Village Voice, that Whitehead began to make noise with the release of his first novel, “The Intuitionist,” which follows a black, female elevator inspector during a time of racial integration. Cameron Leader-Picone, a graduate student in the African-American Studies Department whose dissertation includes a chapter on Whitehead, says, “‘The Intuitionist’ was really big coming out of the gate. It became a major novel immediately. I had him assigned in two of my classes [as an undergraduate at Yale].”

Whitehead has become a powerful voice in the literary world, participating in critical literary discourse, along with producing creative works. His novels “John Henry Days” (2001), a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and “Apex Hides the Hurt” (2006) have been highly lauded for Whitehead’s comedic command of language and his ability to create interesting conceits that explore race in a post-racial world. Leader-Picone says, “I think the African-American literary tradition is incredibly rich and I think that he moves it forward while also drawing deeply from it.”

Recently, he even took shots at Professor of English James Wood, harnessing his comedic touch in a vicious parody of Wood’s “How Fiction Works.” The article, “Wow Fiction Works!,” which appeared in Harper’s Magazine in February, attacked the perceived snobbery of Wood’s approach to literature, the arrogance of Wood’s crypto-normative approach. Whitehead assumed the voice of a pompous literary quack to make his point, “I have essayed to instruct your writers in how to write correctly. Now I will teach you to read correctly.”

He himself has not been immune to criticism, however. His novels have been faulted for their refusal to directly confront issues of race head-on and the page-turning power of his plots have been called into question by more than one reviewer. Leader-Picone answers Whitehead’s detractors. “I think he is more focused on the politics of aesthetics. He is not political in the way African-American writers of the 1960’s were political,” Leader-Picone says. “And he is not unique in that.”

And yet, despite Whitehead’s stature, in the last ten years he has come to speak at Harvard only once, as part of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute’s “Black Writers Reading” series in 2002. Though his work is taught on campus—Professor Henry Louis Gates’s English 276x, a graduate seminar on the African American Literary Tradition, features “The Intuitionist” on its syllabus—he is not present in any real way in the ethos of the school. Unlike past authors of some note, perhaps Mailer being the most Harvard-bound, his connection to the institution seems tenuous at best. In interviews, he rarely mentions his Harvard years.

Later this month, Whitehead will embark on a tour to promote his new novel, “Sag Harbor,” an excerpt of which appeared in The New Yorker’s Winter Fiction Issue. Last time he was in town, in 2006, he drew a crowd of 75 people to the Brattle Theatre, according to Heather Gain of Harvard Book Store. This time when he is in Boston, he will read at Porter Square Books on May 7.

When asked about the reading, Ellen Jarrett, who is in charge of organizing events for the bookstore, says, “I am very hopeful for a good event...His first book was very popular. And based upon the popularity of his piece in The New Yorker, it should be a good event.”

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