After a very long period of disrepute, historical fiction can suddenly claim in its ranks the most garlanded novelists on either side of the Atlantic. In the U.K., that’s Hilary Mantel, the eerily brilliant channel of the Tudor mind, who has only Stockholm left to call her with good news. Here in America, meanwhile, the master of historical fiction in his prime, who has won two Pulitzer Prizes, a National Book Award, a MacArthur, and a Guggenheim, is … Colson Whitehead?
Fans of Whitehead’s early work might well be astonished to learn it. But it’s time for those fans (I’m one) to adjust their notions of the author. The ludic—at weak moments, antic—postmodernism of his first period, with John Henry Days and The Intuitionist its high points, was only very faintly traced into his breakthrough: 2016’s The Underground Railroad. That book, with its breathless stakes, inventive but unerringly accurate carnival of white supremacy, and stunning evocation of the internal emotions of slavery, finally combined Whitehead’s many strengths across a sustained work for the first time.