Portrait of author Colson Whitehead leaning forward against a white box, staring upward and off camera to the right.

Acclaimed Novelist Colson Whitehead Named Janet Weis Fellow

September 26, 2023

by Katie Neitz

Colson Whitehead is the author of 11 works of fiction and nonfiction, including The Nickel Boys and The Underground Railroad. Photo by Chris Close

Celebrated writer Colson Whitehead will speak at Bucknell University Sept. 9, 2024, as the Janet Weis Fellow in Contemporary Letters.

Whitehead is the No. 1 New York Times bestselling author of 11 works of fiction and nonfiction. He received the Pulitzer Prize for The Nickel Boys and The Underground Railroad, which also was honored with the National Book Award and the Carnegie Medal for Fiction. He became the second writer of color and the sixth writer ever to win both a National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize for the same novel.

In The Underground Railroad, Whitehead's railroad isn't a metaphor, but rather an actual network of tracks and engineers that can transport enslaved people seeking freedom. It became an Oprah's Book Club recommendation in 2016, and then went on to sell more than one million copies and receive praise from President Obama.

"I am personally thrilled that Mr. Whitehead will be visiting Bucknell to speak to our students, colleagues and community," says Interim Provost Margot Vigeant. "His works offer students the opportunity to experience the transformational power of literature, enriching their understanding of contemporary issues through profound engagement with his characters' experiences of the past."

The Janet Weis Fellow in Contemporary Letters is a biennial honor at Bucknell that recognizes the highest level of achievement in the craft of writing within the realms of fiction, nonfiction or biography. Previous recipients are Peter Balakian, Elizabeth Kolbert, Robert A. Caro, Edward Albee, John Edgar Wideman, David McCullough, Derek Walcott, Joyce Carol Oates, Tom Wolfe, Salman Rushdie, John Updike, Toni Morrison and Rita Dove.

After graduating from Harvard in 1991, Whitehead became a writer for The Village Voice. His reviews, essays and fiction writing have appeared in numerous publications, including The New York Times, The New Yorker and New York Magazine. In 2019, he was featured on the cover of Time magazine, which described him as "America's Storyteller."

Whitehead is the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Writers Award, the Dos Passos Prize and a fellowship at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers. In 2020, the Library of Congress awarded him its Prize for American Fiction. In 2021 he was awarded the National Humanities Medal, which he received from President Biden in March 2023.

Whitehead has taught at the University of Houston, Columbia University, Brooklyn College, Hunter College, New York University, Princeton University and Wesleyan University. He has also been a writer-in-residence at Vassar College, the University of Richmond and the University of Wyoming.

Whitehead will provide a keynote presentation Sept. 9, 2024, at 7:30 p.m., in Bucknell's Weis Center for the Performing Arts. The event is free and open to the public.

The Janet Weis Fellowship was established in 2002 through a grant from the Degenstein Foundation in honor of Janet Weis, an author, civic leader and philanthropist as well as trustee emerita of the University. Her husband, Sigfried Weis, was chair of the Bucknell Board of Trustees from 1982 to 1988.