Reading Colson Whitehead
By Valentina López Liendo
Colson Whitehead is perhaps most widely known for his latest two novels The Underground Railroad (2016), a novel which follows a runaway slave on her journey to freedom,and The Nickel Boys (2019), a novel about the violent realities of a 1960s reform school. These works have gathered considerable attention – both praised as, and described by Whitehead himself as timely interventions in the context of Trumpian America (cf. for instance Rich 2019; Kakutani 2016; Sandhu 2019; “The Underground Railroad”). As these two novels might be the most discussed of Whitehead’s works, I’d like to highlight some of Whitehead’s older novels that may not be as widely read. His older publications cover an interesting complex range of topics, from questions of authenticity to commodification and identity-building, and thus might provide an interesting addition to readers’ quarantine reading lists.
Whitehead has been a prolific writer since the beginning of his literary career in 1999. He has often described his literary project as one of dabbling in different genres. In a 2013 interview, he described each of his novels to as “an antidote to the one [that] came before” (Shukla 2013, n.p.). More recently, he stated that he is driven by a force towards innovation, and that it is his “job as a writer” to “make something new” (The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences 2021:49:05-08). His hitherto published works include a coming-of-age novel, a noir detective story, a zombie novel, and an exploration the John Henry myth. The common themes of his novels include explorations of contemporary African American identity and questions of authenticity, though critics may argue about their centrality in Whitehead’s earlier work.
Notably, the title Whitehead has announced for this year’s fall is a heist novel set in 1960s Harlem. While doing press for the novel, Whitehead emphasizes the genre aspect of the novel, as he discusses, for instance, the “fun” of writing a novel about “human ingenuity” and references Ocean’s Eleven (Feldman 2021, n.p.). Hence, I would like to explore this particular aspect of his literary career in the following. I will shortly discuss four of his earlier publications in the hope that – in this time of long quarantine recommendation lists – readers might find a novel that piques their interest, varied as their tastes might be.
Modernity and Uplift: The Intuitionist (1999)
The Intuitionist (1999), Whitehead’s debut novel, was highly praised for its originality at the time of publication (Krist 1999; Publisher’s Weekly 1999; Cryer 1999). The novel is set in a pre-civil rights Northern metropolis and follows Lila Mae, the first black woman to become an elevator inspector. The plot is set off in motion when one of the elevators inspected by Lila Mae falls, potentially endangering the Mayor’s life. Although no one was harmed, the scandal is great. An investigation is set in motion, which, in typical noir fashion, is about more than the damage caused by a broken elevator. The matter is also tied to political conflicts within the Elevator Guild, which is torn into two epistemological camps: the traditional, objectivist Empiricists and the newly established Intuitionists. Lila Mae, being part of the latter, finds herself implicated in conflicts that go – pardon the elevator pun – all the way to the top.
The Intuitionist thus draws on noir and crime fiction elements, its characters and plot reminiscent of mid-twenty-century highly stylized Hollywood crime films. The list of characters includes mafiosi and their thugs, corrupt politicians, and an upstanding journalist. Whitehead’s unnamed metropolis echoes comic book depictions of “Batman’s Gotham,” as John Updike writes (2001, n.p.), or Daredevil‘s Hell’s Kitchen. Whitehead thus consciously evokes popular depictions of the city and its crime-ridden underworld. “Verticality is such a risky enterprise,” the narrator remarks at one point (Whitehead 2017:44), commenting on the theme of upward mobility the novel explores. While situating himself firmly within “the African-American literary tradition,” Whitehead seemed a little irked at the manifold comparisons to Ralph Ellison his debut drew at the time, originally intended as a nod to the hard-boiled detective fiction of Dashiell Hammett (Zalewski 2001, n.p.). Whitehead explores notions of modernity, technological progressivism and plays with elements of the passing narrative. Regardless of your frame of reference, this complex range of topics, and Whitehead’s carefully crafted prose make The Intuitionist an engaging read.
History and its Implications: John Henry Days (2001)
In his second novel, Whitehead explores the John Henry myth, a folk story about a 19th century black steel driver who competed against a steam-engine drill. John Henry is most widely known on this side of the Atlantic via Johnny Cash’s song “The Legend of John Henry’s Hammer.” Whitehead traces the myth across American history, as he fictionalizes real events –among them the John Henry festival, for instance – and includes a wide scope of characters, including historical figures. The novel received favorable reviews, among others, from established writers John Updike and Jonathan Franzen (Franzen 2001; Updike 2001).
John Henry Days follows J. Sutter, as he undertakes a journey South to cover the John Henry festival, despite his previous efforts to stay “away from the forge of his race’s history” (Whitehead 2002:15). J., a self-described “junketeer[…]” journalist (2002:10), is driven by the newly emerging quest for content in the early days of the internet. . The novel’s cast is expansive, spanning across American history, including John Henry himself, an anthropology professor researching the John Henry myth, and the composer behind one of the many iterations of the folk song. Whitehead ties the John Henry myth to other folk legends and wider American mythology, reframing the John Henry story within American expansionism, for instance, and explores the workings of myth-making and its curious re-iterations via Americana kitsch. Where The Intuitionist offered an tightly-knit plot, John Henry Days is meandering as Whitehead raises questions of historiography, authenticity and commodification. These topics make the novel interesting and engaging, and, upon revisiting it during lockdown, I found it had aged surprisingly well.
Teenage Self-Invention: Sag Harbor (2009)
Sag Harbor (2009), Colson Whitehead’s fifth novel, is a coming-of-age story. The novel set in the summer of 1985 and we follow the teenaged Benji, as he tries to re-invent himself during the summer holidays spent in his family’s beach house in the Hamptons. Benji navigates the dangerous waters of being an awkward, geeky teenager and attempts to catch up with the latest trends that have emerged outside of his private-school bubble. The older version of Benji, who narrates the various episodes of the novel, provides at times wry, at times heartfelt commentary when retelling his teenage adventures and tracing his own attempts to create a coherent self.
Whitehead’s Bildungsroman, too, draws on popular culture. From musings on Star Wars, like the “Han shot first” debate, to discussions on the role of sampling in early hip-hop, Whitehead alludes to a wide range of media, including comic books, music and film. In contrast to the works described above, Whitehead’s tone in Sag Harbor is nostalgic and playful – the novel even features, among others, an insult generator (Whitehead 2011:41). Its episodic format as well as the protagonist’s haplessness make Sag Harbor a quick and enjoyable read.
Surviving the Post-Apocalypse: Zone One (2011)
Zone One (2011) is a post-apocalyptic zombie novel set in New York. The everyman protagonist, who readers only get to know by the nickname of Mark Spitz, volunteered to join the rebuilding efforts in Manhattan, the titular Zone One. The American government has re-emerged, freshly rebranded as the “American Phoenix,” complete with a catchy national anthem “Stop! Can You Hear the Eagle Roar? (Theme from Reconstruction)” and company sponsorship by a Disney-like (former) economic giant (Whitehead 2012:41-42, 110). As part of its reconstruction efforts, civilian volunteers in paramilitary units are tasked with preparing the Zone One for a future repopulation of the city. We follow Mark Spitz for three days as he and his unit work through the drudgery of clearing the district from remaining zombies.
Whitehead has frequently referred to a preference for the “slow-moving” zombie film, and described the book as a mixture of the horror of zombie lore with “Sartre’s famous quip (“Hell is other people”)” (Pappademas and Whitehead 2011, n.p.). He plays with different pop-cultural iterations of the zombie, subdividing the undead into passive stragglers – undead stuck repeating mundane tasks, such as making copies – and the more aggressive skels, who pose an imminent threat to the surviving human population. The stragglers in particular allow for a wide range of interactions between human and zombies, and provide room for characters’ ruminations on the nature of the apocalypse, or even the undead themselves. The novel is thus, perhaps in contrast to genre-based expectations, surprisingly meditative. Those familiar with zombie lore may recognize many of the plot points and character tropes Whitehead plays with and, at times, subverts – from the falling of the barricade to the experienced, hard-boiled Lieutenant. Whitehead’s choice to set the novel during a phase of reconstruction efforts contrasts the extraordinary circumstances of the post-apocalypse with familiar societal structures and systems. “Systems die hard,” states the narrator shortly before Mark Spitz arrives in Manhattan, now an active member of the reconstruction efforts (Whitehead 2011:162). Zone One has been featured on several quarantine reading recommendations lists (Time Staff 2020; Khatib et al. 2020; Saka 2020), and, as discussions on the persistence of unjust systems emerge, it might be an interesting novel to read at this particular cultural moment.
I hope to have drawn attention towards Whitehead’s earlier works, which in spite of their relative obscurity make for an engaging read. The different genres he alludes to provide a varied back catalogue to choose from and so I hope that readers found an iteration of Whitehead to their liking. Perhaps one or the other of the works discussed here will make it onto your reading list!
Cryer, Dan. 2001. “The Evolving Ballad of Colson Whitehead, Writer.” Los Angeles Times, June 17, 2001. https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2001-jun-17-cl-11398-story.html.
Feldman, Lucy. 2021. “How the Energetic Cover of Colson Whitehead’s ‘Harlem Shuffle’ Hints at the Heist Within.” Time Magazine, February 2, 2021. https://time.com/5935152/harlem-shuffle-colson-whitehead-cover/.
Franzen, Jonathan. “Freeloading Man.” The New York Times, May 13, 2001. https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/01/05/13/reviews/010513.13franzt.html.
Kakutani, Michiko. 2016. “Review: ‘Underground Railroad’ Lays Bare Horrors of Slavery and Its Toxic Legacy.” The New York Times, August 2, 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/03/books/review-the-underground-railroad-colson-whitehead.html.
Khatib, Joumana, Concepción de León, Tammy Tarng, and Alexandra Alter. 2020. “Your Quarantine Reader.” The New York Times, March 12, 2020, sec. Books. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/12/books/coronavirus-reading.html.
Krist, Gary. 1999. “The Ascent of Man.” The New York Times, February 7, 1999. https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/99/02/07/reviews/990207.02kristex.html?_r=2.
Maus, Derek C. 2014. Understanding Colson Whitehead. Columbia: The University of South Carolina Press.
Pappademas, Alex, and Colson Whitehead. 2011. “When Zombies Attack!” Grantland, October 24, 2011. https://grantland.com/features/when-zombies-attack/.
Publishers Weekly. 1998. “Fiction Book Review: The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead,” December 1, 1998. https://www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-385-49299-7.
Rich, Frank. 2019. “In ‘The Nickel Boys,’ Colson Whitehead Depicts a Real-Life House of Horrors.” The New York Times, July 14, 2019, sec. Books. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/14/books/review/nickel-boys-colson-whitehead.html.
Saka, Rasheeda. 2020. “Why Now Is a Great Time to Read Colson Whitehead’s Zone One.” Literary Hub. October 6, 2020. https://lithub.com/why-now-is-a-great-time-to-read-colson-whiteheads-zone-one/.
Sandhu, Sukhdev. 2019. “Colson Whitehead: ‘We Have Kids in Concentration Camps. But I Have to Be Hopeful’.” The Guardian, July 20, 2019, sec. Books. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/jul/20/colson-whitehead-reality-is-kids-shot-by-racist-cops.
Shukla, Nikesh. 2013. “Colson Whitehead: Each Book An Antidote.” Guernica, April 24, 2013. https://www.guernicamag.com/colson-whitehead-each-book-an-antidote/.
The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. 2021. “A Conversation with Colson Whitehead and Solmaz Sharif.” January 27, 2021. YouTube video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4qHO4TvA_Tw.
“The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead (Doubleday).” n.d. The 2017 Pulitzer Prize Winner in Fiction. Accessed February 7, 2021. https://www.pulitzer.org/winners/colson-whitehead.
Time Staff. 2020. “30 Books and Series to Read While Social Distancing.” Time Magazine, March 20, 2020. https://time.com/5807460/books-to-read-coronavirus/.
Updike, John. 2001. “Tote That Ephemera.” The New Yorker, April 30, 2001. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2001/05/07/tote-that-ephemera.
Whitehead, Colson. 2002. . John Henry Days. London: Fourth Estate.
———. 2011. . Sag Harbor. London: Vintage Books.
———. 2012. . Zone One. London: Vintage Books.
———. 2017. . The Intuitionist. London: Fleet.
Zalewski, Daniel. 2001. “Tunnel Vision: An Interview with Colson Whitehead.” The New York Times, May 13, 2001. https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/01/05/13/reviews/010513.13zale.html.
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About the author:
Valentina López Liendo is a PhD candidate in the research program “Authority and Trust” at the HCA. Her research focuses on contemporary literary authorship in the U.S. as exemplified by Colson Whitehead. Get in touch via Twitter.