Chances are that you’ve read or at least seen the adaptation of Alex Haley’s Roots: The Saga of an American Family. It’s considered one of the most important works of the 20th century and it launched Haley into stardom. While you’re likely familiar with the story, you may not know much about the author himself. Biographer Robert J. Norrell can help with that. His latest work, Alex Haley: And the Books That Changed a Nation, explores Haley’s life and uncovers facts that readers may not know. Even Norrell was surprised at what his research turned up! Here, he talks about four things he learned when writing Alex Haley.
In writing a biography of Alex Haley, I learned some surprising things about him and his career as a writer.
He was a phenomenal bestseller
Alex Haley sold more books in one day in February 1977 than I have sold in my whole career, and I’ve published fourteen books. Both of 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 it with for most of his adult life, with all of its pleasures and its pitfalls.
He and I had a few things in common
We each spent our adolescence near Huntsville, Alabama, Haley a generation before I came along. We were both 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 us rejected much about it. We were each shaped by a maternal grandmother who had made it her responsibility to pass the family history on to her grandson. I followed the advice, “write what you know,” which in my case was the turmoil of the South in the 1960s. And 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.
He wasn’t a natural writer
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 freelance 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. Over the course of the 12 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.
Roots was first met with controversy and plagiarism accusations
Roots the book was first published in September 1976 and the mini-series based on it, seen by 130 million people, debuted in January 1977. All of a sudden Haley was one of 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 the Haley family lineage in the United States all wrong. Haley and his publisher had made the mistake of promoting the book as true and factual, rather than calling it a historical novel that adhered as faithfully as possible to known facts. Around the same time, 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.
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 books on American slavery, and I think it should be recognized as that. That is why I wrote a biography of Alex Haley.
Robert J. Norrell is the author of several books including his first novel, Eden Rise; his 2009 biography, Up from History: The Life of Booker T. Washington; The House I Live In: Race in the American Century; and Reaping the Whirlwind: The Civil Rights Movement in Tuskegee won the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award in 1986. A professor at the University of Tennessee, he lives in Asheville, NC.