Robert J. Norrell, Alex Haley And The Books That Changed A Nation


When I was young, and I cannot remember exactly how young, my parents allowed us to watch the TV mini-series called “Roots” (“Racines”, in French). The series was shown in the US in 1977 and dubbed in French a year later, so I might have been 11 or 12 when I saw it. Everybody was talking about it at school and it seemed to be something not to miss. While it had a fair bit of violence, it served as a good basis for discussions about US history and slavery at our house. I had read Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin around that time as well. I read the book version of Roots a couple of years later, still in French.

Given that my exposure to the race debate in the US was negligible apart from the above, one can say that Roots coloured my perception of the history of slavery. I did not however question where the material came from and did not wonder who the author was. As a child one often takes the cultural products one is exposed to for granted and does not see them as interpretation from a specific point of view.

Reading this biography of Alex Haley was quite enlightening given my background and the fact that I knew very little about the author and the rest of his work apart from Roots. For one thing, I had no idea that he was involved in the writing of The Autobiography of Malcolm X. The whole process by which the material for the book was elicited is described as well as the relationships between Malcolm X, his family and Alex Haley. The book came out after the assassination of Malcolm X, and Alex Haley gave a substantial percentage of the royalties from book sales to his widow.

The book describes at great length the early life of Alex Haley, from his refusal to go to college despite his father’s insistence and his joining the Coast Guard, to becoming a communications office for the Coast Guard given his ability to write. The author also tells of his early attempts to become a journalist and professional magazine writer.

The most fascinating part of the book describes the twelve or so years spent researching Roots, negotiations with publishers for rights, as well as relationships with agents and editors. Many others were also involved in helping him create this work; a lot of editing and re-writing was done by associates. Despite all this assistance, Haley took a long time producing the book and frequently missed deadlines despite making promises to the contrary.

While I had heard about one copyright infringement lawsuit from reading Margaret Walker’s biography, I was surprised to find out there were many more… This was part of the price that Alex Haley paid for becoming famous.

This biography gives a comprehensive overview of his life and the times in which he lived. Notes regarding sources are kept to the end and do not hamper reading, while lending the book credibility. I recommend this book to anyone interested in Alex Haley, the lives of writers in general and the business of book publishing especially through the 1960s and 1970s.

Robert J. Norrell is a history professor from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. He has also written about Booker T. Washington and is a specialist of Southern history. This book was published in November 2015 and I was given access to an electronic copy by NetGalley.


Norrell, Robert J., Alex Haley And The Books That Changed A Nation. St. Martin’s Press, 2015.

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