Updike on Pulitzer Prize-winner Colson Whitehead

Photo: Colsonwhitehead.com

Ninety-three American writers have won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction since the award was first given in 1918 to Ernest Poole for the novel His Family. Only four writers have won the prize more than once: Booth Tarkington (The Magnificent Ambersons, Alice Adams), William Faulkner (A Fable, The Reivers), John Updike (Rabbit Is Rich, Rabbit at Rest), and Colson Whitehead (The Underground Railroad, The Nickel Boys).

Erin McCarthy’s reasons for writing about “7 Pulitzer Prize-Winning Novelists” for Mental Floss aren’t divulged—only “here are a few other authors whose books have nabbed the prestigious prize”—but she reminds us of Updike’s response to Whitehead, who was nominated for his first Pulitzer in 2002 and won in 2017 and 2020, after Updike had died.

Updike said that Whitehead’s writing “does what writing should do. It refreshes our sense of the world.” Years later, the Pulitzer jury would echo that in calling The Underground Railroad “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.”

Of Updike, McCarthy wrote, “John Updike, the author of more than 25 novels, won Pulitzers for two books in his series that follows ex-athlete Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom: Rabbit Is Rich (1981) and Rabbit at Rest (1990), the latter of which ends with Rabbit’s death. In 1997, Updike described ending the series as ‘kind of a relief. … It wasn’t as sad for me as perhaps for some of my readers. Writers are cruel. Authors are cruel. We make, and we destroy.’ The character of Rabbit, Updike said, ‘opened me up. As a writer, I could see things through him that I couldn’t see by any other means.'”

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