Understanding Colson Whitehead

Understanding Colson Whitehead

Understanding Colson Whitehead

Understanding Colson Whitehead


Although 2002 MacArthur Fellowship recipient Colson Whitehead ardently resists overarching categorizations of his work, Derek C. Maus argues in this volume that Whitehead's first six books are linked by a careful balance between adherence to and violation of the wisdom of past generations. Whitehead bids readers to come along with him on challenging, often open-ended literary excursions designed to reexamine accepted notions of truth.

Understanding Colson Whitehead unravels the parallel structures found within Whitehead's fiction from his 1999 novel The Intuitionist through 2011's Zone One. In his choice of literary forms, Whitehead attempts to revitalize the limiting formulas to which they have been reduced by first imitating and then violating the conventions of those genres and sub-genres. Whitehead similarly tests subject matter, again imitating and then satirizing various forms of conventional wisdom as a means of calling out unexamined, ignored, and/or malevolent aspects of American culture.

Although only one of many subjects that Whitehead addresses, race often takes a place of centrality in his works and, as such, serves as the prime example of how Whitehead asks his readers to revisit their assumptions about meanings and values. By jumbling the literary formulas of the detective novel, the heroic folktale, the coming-of-age story, and the zombie apocalypse, Whitehead reveals the flaws and shortcomings of many of the long-lasting stories through which Americans have defined themselves. Some of the stories Whitehead focuses on are explicitly literary in nature, but he more frequently directs his attention toward the historical and cultural processes that influence how race, class, gender, education, social status, and other categories of identity determine what an individual supposedly can and cannot do.


Perhaps it should come as no surprise that the career of an author whose first novel focused on a power struggle between rival groups of elevator inspectors would develop in idiosyncratic and unpredictable ways. With five highly divergent novels and a collection of nonfictional essays about his native New York City to his credit as of 2013, Colson Whitehead has found little inclination to retrace his literary footsteps while building up a body of work that has received a generally positive critical response and begun to find a larger audience among both literary critics and mainstream readers. Whitehead has always walked a fine line between the hyperliterary experimentalism of some of his generational peers (a group that includes many of his Brooklyn neighbors) and formulaic popular fiction, fusing aspects of each into hybrids that initially threaten to underwhelm devotees of the former and overwhelm fans of the latter.

It would not, however, be accurate to say that Whitehead’s work defies categorization; in fact, his relationship to literary categories (that is, genres and subgenres) is quite strong and explicit throughout his work, whether in the film-noir undertones of The Intuitionist or the zombie-apocalypse plot structure of Zone One. Whitehead engages in an intentional flirtation with genres and their conventions, one that inherently involves first suggesting and then frustrating the easy interpretations they seem to offer to both writers and readers. Whitehead discussed how his novel Sag Harbor exemplified his approach to literary genres in a 2013 interview with Nikesh Shukla: “That novel is my take on a traditionally realist genre, the coming of age novel. I was wearing realist drag in the same way that I have worn detective drag or horror drag in my other books.” the “wearing drag” metaphor drives . . .

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