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Whitehead wins 2017 Clark Fiction Prize for ‘Underground Railroad’

Colson Whitehead
Colson Whitehead (Photo by Madeline Whitehead)

Posted by Jayme Blaschke
Office of Media Relations
December 13, 2017

Colson Whitehead’s novel, The Underground Railroad, has won the 2017 L.D. and LaVerne Harrell Clark Fiction Prize. The prize of $25,000 is one of the largest literary awards in the United States.

Established at Texas State University in 2016 and administered by the Department of English, the prize is designed to recognize an exceptional, recently-published book-length work of fiction in celebration of the Clarks’ lifelong contributions to, and love for, literature and the arts. Whitehead will be honored April 4, 2018, at the Wittliff Collections in Texas State’s Alkek Library.

The Underground Railroad, which has also won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the National Book Award, chronicles a young slave’s harrowing adventures as she makes a desperate bid for freedom in the antebellum South. In Whitehead’s conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor—engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. The protagonist, Cora, encounters different worlds at each stage of her journey—hers is an odyssey through time as well as space. As Whitehead re-creates the unique terrors for black people in the pre-Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America, from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day.

Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Whitehead is the author of six novels, including Sag Harbor, which was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award; John Henry Days, which was a finalist for the National Book Award; and The Intuitionist, which was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award; as well as two critically-acclaimed works of nonfiction, The Colossus of New York and The Noble Hustle. A recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a MacArthur “Genius Grant,” and the Whiting Award, Whitehead lives in New York.

The 2017 Clark Prize short list included The Last Painting of Sara deVos by Dominic Smith, My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout and Miss Jane by Brad Watson. Nominations of works published in 2016 were solicited from 12 prominent writers on the condition of anonymity. The permanent fiction faculty at Texas State narrowed those nominations down to the short list, and author Karen Russell, Texas State’s University Endowed Chair in Creative Writing 2017-2019, made the final selection.

About the L.D. and LaVerne Harrell Clark Literary Endowment

L.D. and Laverne Harrell Clark donated their home and other property to Texas State in 2009 to create an endowment to support writers-in-residence. The Clark Literary Endowment funds the annual L.D. and Laverne Harrell Clark Fiction Prize, which is among the most generous fiction prizes in the country. It also funds a writers-in-residence program that offers one-year residencies to graduates of the Texas State MFA program at the Clarks’ historic home on Main Street in Smithville, 55 miles east of the Texas State campus. The writers-in-residence program is sponsored by the Department of English and MFA Program in Creative Writing within the College of Liberal Arts. The endowment also funds numerous scholarships for Texas State MFA students.

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About Texas State University

Founded in 1899, Texas State University is among the largest universities in Texas with an enrollment of 38,694 students on campuses in San Marcos and Round Rock. Texas State’s 181,000-plus alumni are a powerful force in serving the economic workforce needs of Texas and throughout the world. Designated an Emerging Research University by the State of Texas, Texas State is classified under “Doctoral Universities: Higher Research Activity,” the second-highest designation for research institutions under the Carnegie classification system.

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