Jonathan Rizzo



Colson Whitehead reads from The Underground Railroad

Introducing Colson Whitehead - MARCH 15, 2016

I had the pleasure of introducing Colson Whitehead when he read from his as-of-then unpublished Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Underground Railroad, at Hunter College. I was preceded in introduction by my teacher,  memoirist and fiction writer, Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, and novelist and Hunter College MFA Associate Director, Gabriel Packard.

Whitehead reads from page 29 of The Underground Railroad (hardcover and paperback)

Whitehead reads from page 29 of The Underground Railroad (hardcover and paperback)

Audio can be advanced by clicking within the black player box above. 

draft of my introduction:

It’s a pleasure to introduce Colson Whitehead.

Though I had seen his name in print many times before, I first encountered his writing as a consequence of these readings. I am teaching a class structured around the Distinguished Writers Series, in which we have just finished reading Mr. Whitehead’s, “The Colossus of New York.” The language of Colossus is rich and layered, fluid and sharp. In it, Mr. Whitehead explores possibilities of prose and point of view to make a poetic portrait of New York. 

In the words of the Macaurthur foundation, whose fellowship he was awarded in 2002, after the publication of his first two novels, ‘His willingness to take the intellectual risks necessary to expand the boundaries of contemporary writing characterizes his approach to fiction, foreshadowing further contributions to American literature...'

Since then he has capitalized on those intellectual risks. The scope of his interest and imagination is evident in the overt subject matter he chooses—he has written about a nomenclature consultant, an elevator inspector who favors intuition over instruments of measurement, the crisis of manhood side by side with the steam driving folklore hero John Henry, New York City, impending zombie apocalypse, Sag Harbor, the world series of poker, and soon to be published, The Underground Railroad—and at the sentence level. I have plucked a few from Colossus to share.

It is mid-town, rush hour, hence the darkness:

“Architects lay psyche in steel and concrete. Birth of first-born, bye-bye to mistress, alimony checks—it’s all there encoded in columns, the features of facades, windows that will not open. Walk in the shadow of subconscious, toil in the monuments to bitter decline. The skyline graphs the hubris of generations, visible for miles, and inevitably all who see it extract the wrong morals from the stories.”

He has won:

  • a Whiting Award

  • a Young Lions Fiction Award

  • an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award

  • a PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Literary Award

  • and the Dos Passos Prize

He is the recipient of:

  • a Cullman Center Fellowship

  • a MacArthur Fellowship

  • and a Guggenheim Fellowship

And has been a finalist for:

  • the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award

  • the LA Times Book Prize

  • the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award

  • the National Book Critics Circle Award

  • the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction

  • and the Pulitzer Prize

In my favorite moment preparing this introduction, I encountered a video of Mr. Whitehead speaking to the Chicago Humanities festival. In his opening remarks he says, and this is a quote “...there’s a small mistake in the program. It says that my upcoming novel is a love story set on the cusp of the Russian revolution. I have a website, ( and I use it to announce upcoming readings, or book tour stuff, but I only have a book coming out every two or three years….I feel like the website gets lonely, so I put up fake stuff, the spring, I finished my book, and I didn’t want to say what it was about, so I wrote that it was a love story set on the cusp of the Russian revolution, and that because I was writing outside of my experience, cuz there are a lot of white people in it, I had to do research, so I was watching a lot of episodes of the Golden Girls…..And I thought that, that would be sort of an obvious’s come up a lot.’

This sort of playful humor underlies the seriousness of his work, and serves as a refreshing reminder, that though life is serious, let’s not take ourselves too seriously. As an MFA student, looking to learn from other writers, I take note of his language, the scale of his concerns, and his courage exploring the possibilties of storytelling. There is great intelligence, grace, and wit, in his writing. A comittment to humanity, and concern regarding the ever encroaching mechanization of society. His language conveys the intimate and the expansive, the universal and the unique, and evokes our own participation in these mysteries. He is a skillful and engaging storyteller, and a bold experimental writer whose social and philosophical themes speak to the heart of American society.

Ladies and Gentleman, please welcome Colson Whitehead.