The Underground Railroad, an inventive and searing take on slavery in 1850s Georgia, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction Monday, adding to author Colson Whitehead’s list of accolades and bolstering the case for the book to be included in the pantheon of Great American Novels.
Published on Aug. 2, Railroad also won the 2016 National Book Award in November.
The novel, which had significant pre-publication buzz, became an instant best seller when Oprah Winfrey chose it for her book club in August. (Whitehead, 47, also was USA TODAY’s 2016 Author of the Year.)
Last year, post-vacation, President Obama gave the book a boost, saying Americans should read it. If Whitehead is breaking out the champagne, who can blame him?
According to publisher Doubleday, The Underground Railroad has sold more than 825,000 copies in the USA. It peaked at No. 6 on USA TODAY’s Best-Selling Books list on Aug. 18.
The novel mixes harsh reality — slavery in the antebellum South — with a vividly imagined alternative world, one in which the Underground Railroad is a literal subterranean network of tracks and stations.
Whitehead’s heroine is a headstrong teenage runaway slave named Cora, who escapes a brutal cotton plantation and tries to find her way to freedom.
The Pulitzer committee lauded Railroad “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.”
In an interview with USA TODAY after learning he’d won the Pulitzer, Whitehead said: “My baseline happiness level has been pretty high the last 10 months.”
He said when he wrote the first 100 pages of The Underground Railroad, he felt he was “firing on all cylinders.” But he had no idea the novel would “have this kind of reception. I try to do the same old thing and hope it works out. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. This time it really did.”
As for that glass of bubbly, the novelist said he was planning to meet his editor and agent for a drink Monday evening.
When she chose Railroad for her book club, Winfrey called it “one of the most grim, gripping, powerful novels about slavery I have ever experienced.” But she also alluded to the novel’s ultimately hopeful message: “At the end you feel a sense of inspiration. … I think (there is) no better book for a time such as this.”
The Underground Railroad is Whitehead’s sixth novel; his other books include Zone One, Sag Harbor, The Intuitionist and John Henry Days.
This is the 101st year of the prestigious Pulitzers.
Other winners in “Letters and Drama”:
Biography or autobiography: Hisham Matar for The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between.
History: Heather Ann Thompson for Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy.
General non-fiction: Matthew Desmond for Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.
Poetry: Tyehimba Jess for Olio.
Drama: Lynn Nottage for Sweat.