The Underground Railroad Wins Pulitzer Prize

Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad has won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

The citation says Whitehead’s book was chosen “For a smart melding of realism and allegory that combines the violence of slavery and the drama of escape in a myth that speaks to contemporary America.”

As the publisher describes the story:

In Whitehead’s ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor—engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven. But the city’s placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens. And even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.

The Pulitzer Prize, worth $15,000, goes to “distinguished fiction published in book form during the year by an American author, preferably dealing with American life.”

The winner was determined by a jury composed of Eric Banks (Chair), Director, New York Institute for the Humanities, New York University; Lan Samantha Chang, Director and May Brodbeck Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Iowa Writers’ Workshop, University of Iowa; Mary Ann Gwinn, Book Editor, Seattle Times.

Overcoming a historic mainstream bias, in the past two decades speculative fiction has contended for the Pulitzer several times. In 2016 Kelly Link’s Get in Trouble: Stories was one of two finalists, while past winners have included The Road, by Cormac McCarthy (2007) and The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon (2001).

6 thoughts on “The Underground Railroad Wins Pulitzer Prize

  1. I really seem to have missed the boat on this one. I didn’t really care for it — could never really connect. OTOH, I was very impressed by Underground Airlines by Ben Winters.

    Oh well! Guess it’s a good thing nobody asked me!

  2. I think this may be the first time I’ve read a Pullitzer price winner before it actually won, rather than trying one on the strength of it being a winner.

  3. @Contrarius

    Yeah, I thought it was okay, but not deserving of this high an honor. And the rather thin (and unbelievable) speculative element kept throwing me out of the story.

  4. @Contrarius I remember hearing about Underground Airlines, and that truly sounded like a smart reimaging of the metaphor and all that, but I guess that it was too skiffy for a smart group like the Pulitzer Committee what with the whole alternate history aspect, and they would have dropped it like a hot rock. I actually looked for Underground Airlines when the book was too new in hardcover, and I was told it wasn’t in softcover yet. Now that it’s not trendy, maybe I’ll look for it again.

  5. @Bonnie McDaniel —

    Yeah, I thought it was okay, but not deserving of this high an honor. And the rather thin (and unbelievable) speculative element kept throwing me out of the story.

    Well…. I can kind of see where he was going with that. I mean, the whole book has this message that nobody can really escape slavery or its consequences. The character keeps thinking that she is escaping or that she has escaped, but then subsequent events prove that she hasn’t. And the railroad itself is a symbol of that false hope — here’s this ridiculously unbelievable, pie-in-the-sky, we-can-wish-it-into-existence, magical-thinking supposed miracle that is ludicrous on its face, yet all these victims and well-meaning would-be saviors insist on continuing to believe in it. And meantime the suffering continues, with no real solutions anywhere in sight.

    @David —

    Now that it’s not trendy, maybe I’ll look for it again.

    I’m a big fan of character, and I thought this had very interesting character work. All the internal conflict, the varying awareness of oblivious or blithe or self-hating hypocrisy, the repressed frustrations ready to explode — that’s the sort of thing that really engages me.

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