Colson Whitehead's 20-Year Journey to Oprah's Book Club

The Underground Railroad
No one is more deserving of a nod from Oprah Winfrey than Colson Whitehead, whose new novel, "The Underground Railroad," is the latest pick for Oprah's Book Club. Doubleday

In November 2015, novelist Colson Whitehead tweeted a picture of a sign that read, "NEXT — THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD." The tweet's text read, "Fall 2016," and the image is now pinned to the top of his Twitter page, which 180,000 people follow, quite a lot for a novelist. It isn't quite the fall of 2016 yet, but anticipation for Whitehead's sixth novel has been ramping up. On Tuesday morning, it reached its peak.

The New York Times called the book "dynamic," one that "tells a story essential to our understanding of the American past and the American present." Then that publication's magazine announced that it would run a 16,000-word excerpt in this Sunday's print edition. Eclipsing both of these venerable distinctions, though, was the announcement that The Underground Railroad would be the latest pick for Oprah's Book Club, a stone-cold guarantee that a novel will be a commercial smash. Whitehead was excited.

So was his publisher, Doubleday, which moved the book's release date up to Tuesday and raised the first pressing from 75,000 to 200,000 copies. "I was blown away by it," Oprah Winfrey told the Associated Press when speaking about the book, which imagines the Underground Railroad as an actual railroad. "'Blown away' is an often used expression, but with this book, it was to the point of sometimes putting it down and saying, 'I can't read anymore. I don't want to turn the page. I want to know what happens, but I don't want to know what happens.'"

Though his name may be unfamiliar to Winfrey fans, Whitehead has been a staple of the literary community since his 1999 debut novel, The Intuitionist, which explored the world of elevator maintenance men in New York. The novel wasn't explicitly about race, but it was certainly a theme throughout, with different "elevations" representing stages of the African-American experience. The Times called the book "dense and sometimes difficult," but noted that Whitehead's literary reputati0n "should be heading toward the upper floors." That is, if "there is any justice in the world of fiction."

John Henry Days, named for the African-American folk hero, followed in 2001. Set around the present day but deeply informed by history, the novel was short-listed for the 2002 Pulitzer Prize. Along with The Intuitionist, it garnered Whitehead a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, awarded previously to such writers as Susan Sontag, William Gaddis and David Foster Wallace. A year after receiving the grant, Whitehead published The Colossus of New York, a book of nonfiction about life in Manhattan.

For 2006's Apex Hides the Hurt, Whitehead once again cast a bizarre profession at the center of a novel, this time an African-American "nomenclature consultant" who had been known for selling bandages that came in various colors to match various skin tones. Three years later, he cast race into the forefront with Sag Harbor, a novel about a group of African-American boys spending the summer in the titular Long Island village. Published a year after Barack Obama was elected, the book offered a new perspective on what it means—and can mean—to be black. "Now that we've got a post-black president, all the rest of the post-blacks can be unapologetic as we reshape the iconography of blackness," began the Times's review.

In 2011, Whitehead published his fifth novel, Zone One, which, of course, was about a zombie apocalypse. "I try to keep each different book different from the last," he told The Atlantic. "So Sag Harbor is very different from Apex Hides the Hurt; The Intuitionist, which is kind of a detective novel, is very different from John Henry Days. I'm just trying to keep things rich for me creatively and for the readers who follow me."

He continued his penchant for switching course with his second book of nonfiction, The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky & Death, which chronicled Whitehead's participation in the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. The book was released following a stint writing for Grantland, where he covered poker and the Olympics. In recent years, he has also written regularly for The New York Times Magazine but has contributed nothing approaching in length the 16,000 words from The Underground Railroad that the magazine will publish on Sunday.

Nearly two decades, four novels, two books of nonfiction and plenty of pieces published by outlets like The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine and Grantlandand over 10,000 tweets after the Times said Whitehead's reputation should be heading toward the upper floors—it appears he has finally reached the top of the building, proving that despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, there can be justice in the world of fiction after all.

"When I got the call [about Oprah's Book Club], I let out a stream of loud, joyful expletives—which was awkward because my plane had just landed and everyone looked at me like I was crazy," Whitehead said in a statement. "Oprah has introduced so many wonderful books to people, from The Song of Solomon to The Sound and the Fury, that I'm honored and grateful that The Underground Railroad is joining such great company. You write the best book you can and hope it finds its way. This is the best kind of send-off."

Colson Whitehead's 20-Year Journey to Oprah's Book Club | Culture