Colson Whitehead on Monday became the fourth author in history to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction twice, joining Booth Tarkington, William Faulkner, and John Updike in that pristinely exclusive club. This means Whitehead is the first author of color to accomplish that feat.
The African-American author won his second Pulitzer Prize for fiction with the novel The Nickel Boys which tells the story of Elwood Curtis, a black boy growing up in 1960s Tallahassee, who found himself trapped in a grotesque chamber of horrors in a juvenile reform school.
Whitehead won the 2017 prize in the same category for his book The Underground Railroad.
Monday’s announcement of the 2020 awards took place remotely this year in the living room of Pulitzer administrator Dana Canedy due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
The Pulitzer committee praised Whitehead’s novel as “a 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.”
Born in 1969, Whitehead was raised in Manhattan. He decided to be a novelist after reading Stephen King’s novels. Whitehead attended Trinity School in New York, NY, and later, Harvard University in Massachusetts where he studied English and Comparative Literature. He tried twice to enroll in one of Harvard’s creative writing seminars but was rejected, according to Enotes.
He started working at the Village Voice upon his graduation with a B.A. in 1991 where he wrote reviews of television, books, and music. Whitehead’s first novel, The Intuitionist, concerned intrigue in the Department of Elevator Inspectors, and was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway and a winner of the Quality Paperback Book Club’s New Voices Award.
It was followed by John Henry Days in 2001, an investigation of the steel-driving man of American folklore which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Los Angeles Times Fiction Award, and the Pulitzer Prize. The novel received the Young Lions Fiction Award and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, his website stated
Praised as one of the United States’ most talented and innovative young writers, Whitehead would author seven more novels including The Underground Railroad, which was published in the summer of 2016. It won his first Pulitzer Prize in the fiction category as well as the National Book Award and the Carnegie Medal for Fiction.
“It’s pretty nuts!” Whitehead told The Los Angeles Times. “I’m very honored and I hope that it raises awareness of the real-life model for the novel — The Dozier School for Boys — so that the victims and their stories are not forgotten.”
In an earlier interview, Whitehead told EW, “Whether you’re a young black man in Florida in 1962, or a young black man in 1986 in New York City, like I was, you can be caught up in the snare of law enforcement at any time. In a split second, your life can change.”
Whitehead has taught at various universities including the University of Houston, Columbia University, New York University, and Brooklyn College. He has also been a Writer-in-Residence at Vassar College, the University of Richmond, and the University of Wyoming.