Colson Whitehead ’91 wins Pulitzer Prize for fiction

Novelist Colson Whitehead has an interest in history, and now he has made some.

The 1991 Harvard graduate won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in fiction on Monday for his novel “The Nickel Boys,” joining William Faulkner, John Updike, and Booth Tarkington as the only writers to win the prestigious prize twice. But unlike the other three, Whitehead’s wins are consecutive efforts, his last book, “The Underground Railroad,” having garnered a Pulitzer in 2017.

Judges praised the novel, inspired by a brutal real-life reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida, for its “spare and devastating exploration of abuse … that is ultimately a powerful tale of human perseverance, dignity and redemption.”

“Obviously 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,” Whitehead, 50, said in a statement.

Former inmates of the school, which ran for more than a century before it was closed in 2011, said that beatings, abuse, and forced labor were regular features of life at the Dozier School. In recent years, investigators have identified scores of unmarked graves on its grounds.

Whitehead’s other Pulitzer winner, “The Underground Railroad,” follows an enslaved teenage girl’s journey to freedom from a Georgia plantation by way of an actual underground railway. Embracing elements of magical realism, it is an inventive piece of storytelling (a hallmark of Whitehead’s other fiction, such as “John Henry Days,” “The Intuitionist,” and “Zone One”). In addition to the Pulitzer, “The Underground Railroad” also won the National Book Award.

“The Nickel Boys” won the 2019 Kirkus Prize for Fiction and was a finalist for the National Books Critics Circle Award and a New York Times Bestseller. President Barack Obama recommended the novel in his list of favorite books in 2019.

Born and raised in New York City, Whitehead said in a 2016 interview with the Gazette that he always knew he wanted to be a writer. Growing up, he read comics, science fiction, Stephen King’s books, and dreamed about writing “The Black Shining.”

When he came to Harvard, he wanted to write about werewolves and vampires, but reading books by James Joyce, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jorge Luis Borges, and Samuel Beckett in his first year expanded his horizons. After that, he said in a public talk at a Brookline library, he wanted to be “the black Garcia Marquez.”

A recipient of both a MacArthur Fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship, Whitehead was awarded the 2018 Harvard Arts Medal. In a ceremony at Sanders Theater, he recalled his Harvard days, including how a creative writing class in his junior year helped him develop his craft.

“Harvard didn’t make me a writer,” said Whitehead, “but it made me a reader.”

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