Robert J. Norrell. Alex Haley and the Books That Changed a Nation. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2015. x, 251p., ill. ISBN 9781137279606. US $27.00 (hardback).
It is difficult to believe that this is the first biography of Alex Haley, the author who wrote perhaps the two most influential books on African-American history in the twentieth century. Robert Norrell skillfully examines the extraordinary achievements of the enigmatic man behind Roots (1976) and The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965), books that transformed Americans’ understanding of race.
Norrell devotes a small section of the first chapter to Haley’s childhood in Henning, Tennessee. Despite the fact that both of his parents were professors, Haley was a mediocre student and had no academic ambitions. He wanted to be a writer, but it was not until he enlisted in the Coast Guard (working as a cook) that he began to hone his storytelling skills. In the next few chapters, Norrell skillfully weaves together Haley’s struggles to make a living as a hustling journalist with the development of his collaboration with Malcolm X. Haley eventually became a star journalist interviewing celebrities, but it was the publication of The Autobiography of Malcolm X that put him on the map in academia, where he became a well-paid lecturer at various colleges. Norrell’s rich, detailed research on Haley’s professional and personal relationship with Malcolm X presents a fascinating and fast-paced read.
Haley’s propensity to start another project before finishing the project at hand perpetually placed him in financial trouble. One of those projects was Roots (originally titled Before This Anger), which he began while still working on The Autobiography. Norrell devotes the remaining chapters to Haley’s research and development of Roots and the controversies surrounding it. Haley spent more than eleven years completing Roots, including multiple trips to Africa and various national archives. Roots was a personal journey for Haley, who sought to trace his ancestors back to their African origins and tell their stories.
Norrell presents Haley as a great storyteller who always struggled to get the words on paper. This may explain Haley’s dependence on Murray Fisher, who became Haley’s personal editor. In Norrell’s account, Fisher played a major role in making Haley one of the most famous writers in the country.
Despite immense book sales and the popularity of the television miniseries of Roots, Haley became the center of a legal battle brought by Harold Courlander, who claimed Haley plagiarized from his earlier published book, The African. Haley settled the case out of court by paying Courlander an unspecified amount. Although Haley claimed to have settled out of fear of what a long legal battle would do to his reputation, the settlement was widely interpreted as an admission of guilt. The onslaught of attacks on the authenticity of Roots endured, but Haley moved on to produce another successful television miniseries, Roots: The Next Generations. However, many of his later productions had only limited success.
Despite the accusations of plagiarism that may have hurt Haley’s legacy, Norrell’s plea for the public to remember Haley’s great contribution to American culture is genuine and heartfelt. This is a compelling biography of an author who played a major role in changing American race relations, and Norrell presents Haley’s life with sensitivity and sympathy. The book provides both a multidimensional portrait of the author and a well-supported argument about the power of his texts as “books that changed a nation.”
University of Miami