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Colson Whitehead

Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winning author of The Underground Railroad

  • About Colson Whitehead

    Colson Whitehead’s novel, The Underground Railroad, is the winner of both the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction and the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. One of the most critically acclaimed novels in recent years, the book was a #1 New York Times bestseller, an Oprah’s Book Club 2016 selection, and Amazon’s #1 book of 2016, in addition to being included on numerous 2016 best books lists, including The New York Times‘ and The Washington Post’s top ten books of the year.  Describing the book, Oprah Winfrey writes, “From the first page of Colson Whitehead’s extraordinary novel The Underground Railroad I knew I was reading something ground-shifting.” The Underground Railroad is a magnificent tour de force that chronicles a young slave’s journey during a desperate bid for freedom in the antebellum South. The novel is a shattering meditation on the United States’ complicated political and racial history. “The Underground Railroad reanimates the slave narrative, disrupts our settled sense of the past and stretches the ligaments of history right into our own era.” (The Washington Post). In April 2017 Whitehead was named one of Time Magazine‘s “100 Most Influential People.”

    A dynamic speaker, Whitehead lectures with his characteristic honesty and wit. He is a winsome storyteller and captivates audiences with inspiring anecdotes about his diverse bibliography, irreverent “Rules for Writing,” and how he came to write his powerful new novel.

    Whitehead is the New York Times bestselling author of The Intuitionist, John Henry Days, The Colossus of New York (a book of essays about the city), Apex Hides the Hurt, Sag Harbor, Zone One, and The Noble Hustle. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, New York Magazine, Harper’s, and Granta among other publications.

    A PEN/Faulkner Award finalist, he is the recipient of both a MacArthur Fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He has taught at universities across the country.

    Whitehead’s next book, The Nickel Boys, is an exploration of life under Jim Crow told from the perspective of two boys in one of the country’s most notorious juvenile correction institutions, the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, located in the Florida panhandle. This meticulously researched and searing book is set for release in the summer of 2019.

    Discover how you can champion diversity within your organization. Visit Colson Whitehead’s Company Reads page to learn more.

  • Speaking Topics

    Revisiting the Underground Railroad

    In this lecture, Colson Whitehead discusses his new novel The Underground Railroad and how he came to write it. In the novel’s ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is not a metaphor: a secret network of tracks and tunnels has been built beneath the Southern soil, and it is through this web of stations that our heroine, an escaped slave named Cora, flees the unrelenting brutality of the Georgia plantation on which she was born. Throughout the lecture, Whitehead deals frankly and powerfully with the complexities of revisiting and ultimately writing about slavery, and closes the talk with a short reading from the book.

    Becoming a Writer

    Colson Whitehead gives audiences a humorous introduction to the writing life, beginning with a tour through the many failures and setbacks that marked the beginning of his career. Drawing on his irreverent “Rules for Writing” originally published in The New York Times Sunday Book Review, Whitehead teases fresh advice from the well-used adages on craft with which we are all familiar, and closes this lecture with a short reading from one of his many books.

  • Video

  • Praise for Colson Whitehead


    There is no way to encapsulate the power of Colson’s talk, except to say that while people were really laughing at his description of the writing life and the issues he faces as a writer, they were also very involved in his reading and the heaviness of the topics presented in The Underground Railroad — the audience was present for a complete literary and cultural experience. Colson was gracious and poised through it all, and we are indebted to him for his engagement with all of us.

    Shasta College

    I believe this event has been the most successful out of all the authors I have brought to the library. Colson was a wonderful speaker, and it was a pleasure to be the one to escort him through the event. I also immensely enjoyed his talk and found myself bursting out laughing several times at his humor while feeling the deeper message of encouragement he sent through his stories and advice about writing.

    Champaign Public Library

    Colson was great! He was very generous with his time and attention. Everything went on schedule and all was well. His talks were all quite interesting and he answered all questions with lively responses. He’s very funny.

    Memphis Reads

    The event was amazing. Truly one of my favorites ever.

    Lannan Foundation, Lannan Foundation

    “It was a truly stellar and deeply moving night on so many levels.”

    Center for the Art of Performance, UCLA

    Colson’s visit was a wonderful success! I was especially impressed with how well he engaged a multi-generational audience. Beautiful mix of autobiography, craft-talk, social activism, comedy, and drop dead gorgeous writing. Colson’s generosity was quite remarkable for one of his stature, his visit meant so much to us. A fantastic event all around!

    Hamilton College

    Colson’s talk last night was the most brilliantly crafted and delivered talk I’ve heard. Our students were enthralled and haven’t stopped talking about him since. He immediately put pressure on and subverted all the narratives we expect to hear and did so hilariously. He interspersed readings from The Underground Railroad, allowing the power of his writing to stand by itself. It was a day that will resonate for a very long time at our school and in the lives of our students.

    St. Andrew’s School

    We were thrilled with Colson Whitehead’s appearance over the last two days with Pen Pals. He’s a rare and talented speaker who deeply engages his audience, dares them to face harsh realities, and then turns on a dime charming them with his abundant sense of humor. He pushed our Minnesotan boundaries in all the right ways, and the crowd loved him for it. So, Bravo Colson (who was duly thanked on his way out this afternoon) and thank you to Penguin Random House Speaker’s Bureau for sharing this national treasure with us!

    Friends of the Hennepin County Library

    “Colson was AMAZING. We had a completely full house and even some people who couldn’t get a seat but waited in the lobby for the book signing. The audience absolutely loved him, he was so engaging. The event was a complete success.”

    George Mason University, Fall for the Book Festival

    “I’m still basking in the glow of a truly spectacular event! Colson was an enormous hit. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you what a gifted speaker he is; honestly, the man could have had a career as a stand-up comedian—his material is strong and timing impeccable! And he reads his work masterfully. Given the disturbing, often grim content of his book, I think it was a welcome surprise to people that he used humor to lead into the evening.  He was engaging and gracious with the people who had books signed. His visit with the undergraduate students was a unique opportunity for them to converse with him about his work, his process, and get his advice.  I know the students were inspired by what he shared about this own journey as a writer and just his overall kindness.  His work aside, just his presence and demeanor as a human being was a great example of how to graciously handle fame.”

    Butler University

    It was a really wonderful event. Colson was so gracious and generous to our community and really engaged with people who waited to have a book signed afterward. The audience really loved Colson’s presentation. He had a great blend of his own story (with some unexpected, but very welcome humor) and the story of The Underground Railroad. It was the best author presentation I’ve heard and everyone I spoke with loved it.

    Bexley Public Library

    It would be an understatement to say that Colson was “well-received” by the audience. Many people in the audience said it was one of the finest literary events they’ve attended in years and felt privileged to receive a ticket. I couldn’t agree more with their assessment. I must say Colson delivered a masterful performance Thursday evening. He began his remarks with an artfully delightful, self-deprecating monologue describing his evolution as a writer. It was so funny and insightful that he may have convinced a few staid businessmen to give up their careers to join him as a writing disciple. Colson is a gracious, independent guest and we would be honored to invite him back in a few years to discuss his future projects.

    New Orleans Public Library

    It was a fantastic lecture! His talk touched on so many emotions. I laughed hysterically at his intellectual humor. I grimaced while remembering graphic details from the novel. I honestly walked away inspired.

    Virginia Commonwealth University

    Praise for The Underground Railroad

    Kept me up at night, had my heart in my throat, almost afraid to turn the next page. Get it, then get another copy for someone you know because you are definitely going to want to talk about it once you read that heart-stopping last page.

    Oprah Winfrey, (Oprah’s Book Club 2016 Selection)

    [A] potent, almost hallucinatory novel that leaves the reader with a devastating understanding of the terrible human costs of slavery. It possesses the chilling matter-of-fact power of the slave narratives collected by the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s, with echoes of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and brush strokes borrowed from Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Kafka and Jonathan Swift… [S]urreal elements inject the narrative with a mythic dimension… One of the remarkable things about this novel is how Mr. Whitehead found an elastic voice that accommodates both brute realism and fable-like allegory, the plain-spoken and the poetic — a voice that enables him to convey the historical horrors of slavery with raw, shocking power…. The harrowing tale he tells here is the back story to the injustices African-Americans and immigrants continue to suffer today, but the back story only in the sense, as Faulkner put it, that ‘the past is never dead. It’s not even past’… [H]e memorializes the yearning for freedom that spurs one generation after another to persevere in the search for justice — despite threats and intimidation, despite reversals and efforts to turn back the clock. He has told a story essential to our understanding of the American past and the American present.

    Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

    [T]hink Toni Morrison (Beloved), Alex Haley (Roots); think 12 Years a Slave. Now here comes Colson Whitehead and with an extraordinary new take… an electrifying novel … a great adventure tale, teeming with memorable characters. At times, it's almost too sad to bear, but you'll keep reading, inspired by Cora and all the others who struggled to keep their humanity alive while trapped in America's ‘peculiar institution’ of slavery. Tense, graphic, uplifting and informed, this is a story to share and remember.


    [M]asterful, urgent… The vivid, heart-clutching narrative of [Cora’s] escape takes care of its own implications about the enormity that is America slavery…a major American novelist… A tragic, disturbing necessity: that describes the feeling of The Underground Railroad... The result is one of the finest novels written about our country’s still unabsolved original sin.

    USA Today

    Far and away the most anticipated literary novel of the year, The Underground Railroad marks a new triumph for Whitehead… The MacArthur “genius” has nimbly explored America’s racial consciousness — and more — with an exhilarating blend of comedy, history, horror and speculative fiction. In this new book, though, those elements are choreographed as never before. The soaring arias of cleverness he’s known for have been modulated in these pages. The result is a book that resonates with deep emotional timbre. The Underground Railroad reanimates the slave narrative, disrupts our settled sense of the past and stretches the ligaments of history right into our own era.

    Ron Charles, The Washington Post

    Ingenious… Whitehead brilliantly recreates the unique terrors for black people in the pre-Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman's ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share.


    Praise for The Noble Hustle

    Astonishing. . . . Witty. . . . Tom Wolfe crossed with Tom Pynchon.

    The Washington Post

    Hilarious. . .. Equal parts philosophical and farcical.

    The Seattle Times

    Praise for Zone One

    A zombie story with brains. . . . [Whitehead is a] certifiably hip writer who can spin gore into macabre poetry.

    The Washington Post

    Whitehead writes with economy, texture and punch. . . . A cool, thoughtful and, for all its ludic violence, strangely tender novel, a celebration of modernity and a pre-emptive wake for its demise.

    The New York Times Book Review

    Praise for Sag Harbor

    He can write sentences like nobody’s business, and the deepest satisfaction in this book full of them is his crafty turn of phrase.

    Bloomberg News

    No one writes with more acrobatic imagination and good humor about the complexities of race in America than Colson Whitehead.

    Ron Charles, The Washington Post
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