Wall Street Journal, December 27, 2015
Myths That Changed America: Haley produced two of the top-selling books of the second half of the 20th century. Was he a flawed artist or a ruthless hustler?
By Edward Kosner
December 27, 2015
Alex Haley was once a commanding figure in American popular culture, but his name is now in eclipse. He sold six million copies each of “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” and “Roots,” his epic of slavery and black survival in America. Eighty million people watched individual episodes of the 1977 TV miniseries of the book he called “a saga.” But his career ended in charges that “Roots” was both fraudulent and plagiarized—a neat trick—and his reputation never recovered.
More than two decades after his death at 70 in 1992, Haley is the subject of a sympathetic and mostly clear-eyed biography by Robert J. Norrell, a professor at the University of Tennessee. The book doesn’t dispel the cloud hanging over Haley, but it does portray him as an earnest, striving writer who overpaid his dues as an African-American freelancer desperate to break into the big time. In the darkest days, he papered a wall of his basement flat with rejection letters, the most encouraging a postcard from an editor that said: “Nice try.”
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