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Alex Haley, Best-Selling Author and Embellisher?

By Matt Reimann. Aug 6, 2014. 9:00 AM.

Topics: Pulitzer Prize, American Literature, Literature

Alex Haley was born August 11th, 1921, and grew up in upstate New York and Henning, Tennessee. He withdrew from college at age eighteen and served in World War II and Korea. After working twenty years for the US Coast Guard, Haley changed careers and became the best-selling African-American writer in history. His writing is marked by captivating stories that unite Americans from all backgrounds around the African-American experience, gaining him praise, posterity, and a fair share of critics, too.


Haley began his writing career as a journalist. Although he eventually ascended to Senior Editor at Reader's Digest, his tenure with a different publication is likely his most memorable. Haley conducted the first interview for Playboy magazine, featuring Miles Davis. Davis' interview was notably earnest, and he shared multiple concerns from music to American race relations. Haley conducted many more interviews with the most significant people of the era, such as Muhammed Ali, Johnny Carson, and Sammy Davis, Jr. Haley's interview with Martin Luther King, Jr. at the height of the civil rights movement was monumental, and was the longest interview Martin Luther King granted to any publication. 

Haley's expertise as an interviewer enabled him to create his first major book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X. The book was ghostwritten by Haley and compiled through a series of interviews with the activist from 1963 to his 1965 assassination. Haley initially struggled to get Malcolm X to talk about himself, rather than the Nation of Islam and its goals. But Malcolm finally began to talk about his life, from being a street criminal to social activist, after Haley asked him to talk about his mother. Manning Marable, a biographer of Malcolm X, suggested that Haley had no taste for Malcolm's politics at all, being a liberal Republican and an integrationist, but that Haley knew a good story when he saw one. Manning also insisted that The Autobiography of Malcolm X was more Haley's creation than anyone else's; even if that assertion is true, the work remains a monumental portrait and one of the most influential works of American nonfiction of the century.

Roots: The Saga of an American Family is Haley's most renowned work. With the help of a wildly successful television adaptation, Roots altered American perception of race relations. It's a sprawling novel, beginning with real-life character Kunta Kinte (whom Haley claimed as an ancestor) in his abduction into slavery in the seventeenth century. It follows seven generations, up until the present day. Its scope is enthralling, exploring in emotionally wrenching detail the perseverence and growth of an entire family. Haley, in writing a major work of African-American expression, won a special Pulitzer Prize for Roots.


Unfortunately, Haley's reputation will forever be complicated by accusations of plagiarism surrounding Roots. Two authors claimed that Haley stole from their work to write the bestseller. One lawsuit was dismissed, but Harold Courtlander, author of The African, settled with Haley for $650,000. As part of the settlement, Haley was forced to acknowledge that indeed The African had some degree of influence on Roots. To extend the controversy, some genealogists researched the ancestors Haley laid claim to, and found that the factual Toby, (Kunta Kinte's slave name) had died years before the supposed birthdate of Kizzy, his daughter.

Haley died in 1992, in the middle of writing another family epic about a different side of the family. It was entitled Queen, named after his grandmother, and was completed by author David Stevens.

What is fiction masquerading as truth, or what is plagiarizism masquerading as originality in Haley's work, we may never know. But one thing is certain: Haley's exploration and rendering of his subjects is so emotionally and psychologically compelling that American literature has been unquestionably enhanced by his work.

Browse Alex Haley Books

Matt Reimann
Reader, specializing in Twentieth Century and contemporary fiction. Committed to spreading an infectious passion for literature, language, and stories.


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