In writing a biography of Alex Haley, I learned some surprising things about him and his career as a writer.
1. Haley sold more books in one day in February 1977 than I have sold in my whole career of publishing fourteen books. Both his two main works, The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Roots, sold in the neighborhood of six million books. That is mind-boggling success to me. I have never experienced celebrity, and Haley lived with it most of his adult life, with all its pleasures and its pitfalls.
2. But I found that Haley and I had some things in common. We each spent our adolescence near Huntsville, Alabama, Haley a generation before I came along. We both were born to a southern storytelling tradition, and each of us loved the act of spinning a yarn. We both felt most comfortable in the South even though each of rejected much about it. Each of us was shaped by a maternal grandmother who had made it her responsibility to pass to her grandson the family history. I followed the advice to write about what I knew, which in my case was the turmoil of the South in the 1960s. Haley’s entire writing life was in essence an exploration of his autobiography, even when on the surface he was addressing some other life, even Malcolm X’s.
3. Haley had only a little college education before he went into the military in 1939, where he had a two-decade-long apprenticeship as a free-lance writer. He was not a natural or even talented prose stylist, but he worked on his craft diligently for decades. He benefitted from excellent editing from such magazines as Reader’s Digest, Saturday Evening Post, and Playboy. His writing efforts were also guided for years by his agent Paul Reynolds and his editors at Doubleday, Ken McCormick and Lisa Drew. I was astonished at the sustained and detailed critiques they gave Haley over many long years—feats of endurance and patience I have never known and I hope never needed from either an editor or agent. Over the course of the twelve years it took him to finish Roots, Haley frequently wrote Reynolds and McCormick five-to-seven-page, single-spaced letters about his progress on the book. I was amazed that they didn’t answer, “enough with interminable missives, write the damn book!” That was certainly what I was thinking when I read the letters.
4. Roots the book appeared in September 1976 and the mini-series based on it, seen by 130 million people, in January 1977. All of a sudden Haley was among the biggest celebrities in the United States and the world. Fame of that magnitude sparked envy, and various people began to criticize him. A British journalist claimed that Haley had fabricated the African background of his ancestor Kunta Kinte, and two American genealogists insisted that he had gotten all wrong the Haley family lineagein the United States. Haley and his publisher had made the mistake of promoting the book as true and factual, rather than calling it an historical novel that adhered asfaithfully as possible to known facts. At the same moment, two writers sued Haley claiming that he had plagiarized their books. One of the claims was specious but the other proved that several passages of Roots were virtually identical to some in a novel called The African. Haley won the first suit and settled the second. Both brought negative publicity that undermined Haley’s heroic status to many Americans who had admired his work.
5. All this controversy surprised me because, though I was around when it occurred, I had somehow missed it. What I remembered was that Roots revised how the popular mind in America understood slavery, changing it from being the romanticized institution depicted in “Gone with the Wind” to a realistic understanding of its violent, inhumane nature. To me, Roots remains the most important book on American slavery, and I think it should be recognized as that. That is why I wrote a biography of Alex Haley.
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