Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Book Review: “Alex Haley’s Roots: An Author’s Odyssey,” by Adam Henig (2014)

The cover of "Alex Haley's Roots: An Author's Odyssey," by Adam Henig.

I just finished reading Adam Henig’s newly published e-book “Alex Haley’s Roots: An Author’s Odyssey.” Henig takes us on a fascinating journey through Alex Haley’s life after his book Roots: The Saga of an American Family was published and turned into a highly successful television miniseries. Henig shows us how Haley’s life was turned upside down by the sudden and overwhelming success of both the book and the miniseries. 

Henig begins the book in January of 1977, with Haley watching the first episode of “Roots” with Warren Beatty at Beatty’s suite at the Pierre Hotel in New York City. Beatty turns to Haley after the episode is finished and tells him, “Your life will never be the same again.” Beatty was certainly correct about that. As a big Warren Beatty fan, I found this anecdote very interesting, and it was an attention-getting way to begin the book.

Alex Haley first became well-known as a writer during the 1960’s when he interviewed many celebrities for Playboy, and Haley was the co-author of Malcolm X’s Autobiography of Malcolm X. (Haley finished the Autobiography after Malcolm was assassinated.) But Haley’s previous success as an author did not prepare him for the worldwide phenomenon that Roots would become. Roots was published in late 1976, and it became an immediate best-seller. Once the miniseries starting airing in January of 1977, Roots became even more successful, eventually spending 22 weeks in the number one spot on the New York Times best-seller list. When the miniseries had finished airing, seven of the eight episodes of “Roots” were among the top ten most watched television shows ever. Haley became a celebrity overnight, with crowds mobbing his lectures and book signings. 

Roots told the story of Haley’s ancestors, and specifically, Haley’s ancestor Kunta Kinte, who had been sold into slavery in Africa and crossed the Atlantic on a slave ship. Haley called Roots a book of “faction,” as he acknowledged that he had, out of necessity, invented dialogue and events in order to create a narrative. But Haley claimed that all of the genealogical research in the book was completely true. And since Haley had spent a decade writing and researching the book, most people took him at his word. But once reporters began digging into Haley’s sources, they discovered multiple discrepancies. And other authors noticed similarities in Roots to their own novels. Margaret Walker, author of the novel Jubilee, and Harold Courlander, author of the novel The African, both sued Haley for plagiarism, noting many similarities in Roots to their own novels. Haley claimed that he had never read either book. At the trials, it became obvious that regardless of whether or not Haley’s plagiarism was intentional, his working methods left a lot to be desired, as he carried on his research blithely unconcerned with the fact that the words in his notebooks might have been copied from other sources. Haley won the trial against Walker, but when it became evident that he might lose the Courlander trial, he settled out of court with Courlander, paying him the tidy sum of $650,000, and acknowledging that somehow passages from The African had made their way into Roots.

Henig does a good job of showing how Courlander, a white man, was accused by others of racism in suing an African-American author who was writing about slavery and the black experience in America. Courlander wasn’t pursuing his lawsuit for racial reasons, but it was inevitable that it would appear that way to some onlookers. 

Henig shows us how Haley’s life after Roots became a treadmill of speeches, public appearances, and very little writing. Haley was a public celebrity, but he didn’t have much time to devote to writing anymore, which is the double-edged sword of becoming a celebrity. As John Updike once said, “Celebrity is a mask that eats into the face.” Roots made Haley world-famous, but it was also the only thing people wanted Haley to talk about. 

Haley’s fundamental problem with Roots was one of authenticity. Because Haley didn’t cite any sources for his research, it’s impossible to know what’s really true and what’s not. It’s the same problem he had with The Autobiography of Malcolm X, because Malcolm died before the book was published, we don’t really know how much of it was Malcolm’s, and how much of it was Haley’s. We just have to take Haley’s word for it.

Henig does an excellent job in showing us the turmoil that Roots caused in Alex Haley’s life. It was of course his most famous book, but it also caused him a lot of grief as well. Throughout the book, I was reminded of parallels to one of my favorite authors, Truman Capote, whose life started unraveling shortly after his masterpiece In Cold Blood was published. Much like Haley, Capote was an author who had worked enormously hard for his success, and yet when it came it did not bring the happiness it should have. For both Haley and Capote, once the peak was reached, the journey downward began immediately. Sometimes what you wish for isn’t really what you want. Or, to use a quote that inspired the title of Capote’s famously unfinished novel, “More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.”  

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