Whitehead Wins Prize

Published 3:46 pm Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The 31st John Dos Passos Prize for Literature was awarded to Colson Whitehead during a ceremony on February 28.

From a tantalizing peek at the first sentence of his latest novel, which includes zombies and PASD (Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder), to the sex appeal of bald men, Whitehead filled Wygal Hall with laughter throughout his reading the last Thursday of February.

The Dos Passos prize was first awarded in 1980 and is primarily funded by the Carson and Sharon Coulter '63 Gibb Fund held by the Longwood University Foundation. The prize seeks to honor Dos Passos, a “talented-but-overlooked American writer of the early twentieth century by recognizing contemporary writers in his name,” according to a university press release.

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Since its inception in 1980, the prize has been given to such authors as Richard Gains, Tom Wolfe, Maxine Hong Kingston and Graham Greene.

Last year's Dos Passos Prize winner, Mat Johnson, served as a member of the jury this year and, after praising Whitehead's work in a letter, added, “Colson, I'm sure you'll enjoy the hospitality of Longwood University as much as I did and agree with me when I say, Farmville will be an excellent location to wait out the zombie apocalypse.”

Interim Longwood University President Marge Connelly presented Whitehead with a medal at the end of the event, commenting that she thought Whitehead's reading “was absolutely fabulous. I mean that sincerely. You have ruined baldheadedness for me, however.”

Whitehead has been the finalist for such awards as the National Book Critics Circle Award and Pulitzer Prize, but he takes special pleasure in the Dos Passos Prize, because he has been so directly influenced by Dos Passos' work. “For me, that's what makes it even more delightful,” Whitehead chuckled, when he spoke about it with The Herald.

When introducing Whitehead, Dr. David Magill, chair of this year's Dos Passos prize committee and assistant professor of English at Longwood University, described him as an accomplished author “with a knack for taking subjects that might seem at first glance mundane and making them into something magical.”

The prize committee looks at American authors whose work “displays characteristics of Dos Passos' writing: an intense and original exploration of specifically American themes, an experimental approach to form, and an interest in a wide range of human experiences,” according to the press release.

Whitehead's writing certainly covers a wide range of experiences, from his first novel published in 2000, The Intuitionist, a mystery novel about elevator inspectors, to his most recent work, published in 2011, Zone One, which occurs in post-apocalyptic New York City.

About Zone One, Whitehead says, “I'm using horror and the apocalypse as a rhetorical vehicle to talk about people and the world. And, if I'm doing it right, I'm doing it in a way you haven't seen before.”

A Manhattan native, he has also written a collection of essays about New York City, The Colossus of New York, which he says was directly influenced by Dos Passos. The controlled stream of consciousness, which Whitehead experienced while reading Dos Passos' Manhattan Transfer, a novel also about New York City, has stuck with him since he read the book as a sophomore in college.

The “camera-eye” sections of three novels known as Dos Passos' USA trilogy were also a big influence on the essays. “If you look at some of those sections in Dos Passos, you'll see, hopefully, some of that kind of music in the Colossus of New York,” Whitehead said.

Whitehead also learned from the structure of several of Dos Passos' works, which Whitehead terms as “modular.” In his 2001 novel John Henry Days, “There's a main narrative line and then I'll take…side trips to visit with Paul Robeson or Johnny Cash or different historical figures,” a technique which Dos Passos helped him craft.

Currently, Whitehead is working on a new book and contributes to the New York Times, The New Yorker and Harper's.

Like many writers, he can be self-effacing, commenting at the beginning of the event on Thursday night, “I usually spend Thursday nights at home, in my apartment, weeping over my regrets. So, this is a nice change of pace from that.”

During an interview with The Herald, Whitehead added that as a writer such awards are helpful because “on really bad days, I mean, I can look to the wall…see the bronze medal and think, 'Oh, actually I am not a complete waste of space and people do like my books and I'll keep going.”

When asked if he is often frustrated by his own writing ability, Whitehead was quick to answer, “Well, yeah. You know, it's a crappy job. It doesn't get any easier.”

Although he no longer worries about whether he will finish writing his novels, Whitehead says he still worries, “Will it be the book I want it to be? Will I figure out what's wrong with it?… Yeah, it's a crappy job.”

However, Whitehead believes that worrying about what he writes is a good form of quality control. The awards offer a counterbalance. They help you step out of yourself and say, “keep going, tiger,” Whitehead says with a chuckle.

When asked what he saw as the particular value of reading contemporary literature over older books, Whitehead pointed out, “There are good books that are new and there are bad books that are new. There are good books that are classics. There are some that…have probably outlived their usefulness… If you're interested in how we live now, you can read Dickens. You can also read Ben Fountain.”

Either way, old or new, writers are still writing about how to be a human being in the world, Whitehead points out. What stands the test of time is a work that talks about “how people live and feel about being on the earth, whether it's Achilles in The Iliad or Leopold Bloom in Ulysses. The books stick around because they are recognizable, even if they are outside of their own moment of creation.”

And, for Whitehead, those novels may include zombies.

Whatever the nature of hope, the safety of Farmville in the unlikely occurrence of a zombie pandemic or the sexiness of bald men, it cannot be denied that Whitehead's visit was certainly a breath of fresh air at Wygal Hall last month.