It is difficult to think of two twentieth century books by one author that have had as much influence on American culture when they were published as Alex Haley's monumental bestsellers, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965), and Roots (1976). They changed the way white and black America viewed each other and the country's history. This first biography of Haley follows him from his childhood in relative privilege in deeply segregated small town Tennessee to fame and fortune in high powered New York City. It was in the Navy, that Haley discovered himself as a writer, which eventually led his rise as a star journalist in the heyday of magazine personality profiles. At Playboy Magazine, Haley profiled everyone from Martin Luther King and Miles Davis to Johnny Carson and Malcolm X, leading to their collaboration on The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Roots was for Haley a deeper, more personal reach. The subsequent book and miniseries ignited an ongoing craze for family history, and made Haley one of the most famous writers in the country. Roots sold half a million copies in the first two months of publication, and the original television miniseries was viewed by 130 million people.
Haley died in 1992. This deeply researched and compelling book by Robert J. Norrell offers the perfect opportunity to revisit his authorship, his career as one of the first African American star journalists, as well as an especially dramatic time of change in American history.
About the Author
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.
**A New York Times Sunday Book Review Editors' Choice**
"A first-rate portrait of [Alex Haley]...fast-paced and infinitely readable." —Patrik Bass, Essence
"Briskly paced...The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Roots helped to fundamentally transform American race relations and understanding of black history for successive generations." —The New York Times Book Review
"If you’re up for a well-told, warts-and-all bio, this one will have you rooted to your seat" —Times Record
"Sympathetic and mostly clear-eyed...[Haley] produced two of the most acclaimed and top-selling books of the second half of the 20th century." —The Wall Street Journal
"With sensitivity and careful study, Norrell examines Haley's embattled life and extraordinary achievements. ... History and literary criticism enrich the first biography of Alex Haley, author of Roots and Malcolm X's Autobiography." —Shelf Awareness
"This is the first biography of Haley (1921-1992), and as such it is long overdue...the pages seem to turn themselves." —Dwight Garner, The New York Times
"Norrell makes a convincing case that Haley increased, for good, the variety and quality of stories that can be told about its African-American citizens." —Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
"As Norrell notes, Haley would play a major role in shaping the way blacks and whites viewed race during the tumultuous years of the civil rights movement and beyond...the arc of Haley’s career is absorbing, from his discovery that he could make a living as a writer while serving in the Coast Guard to his hardscrabble existence trying to sell freelance pieces." --Booklist
“As this fascinating biography reveals, Alex Haley was an unlikely griot of the African American experience. A lackadaisical student and a hustling journalist whose closest connections were with some of the stodgiest publishing houses and magazines of the day, Haley hardly seemed a likely candidate to create with Malcolm X one of the signal autobiographies of the twentieth century or to write Roots, a family history that literally captivated a generation. More than just a scrupulously fair portrait of this master raconteur, Norrell has produced a book that compels us to reflect on the combination of talents and artifice that enabled Haley to leave an indelible mark on modern American culture.” —W. Fitzhugh Brundage, Chair, Department of History, UNC-Chapel Hill
“Norrell brings a broad background in African-American history to this well-researched portrait of a controversial writer,...Alex Haley... who changed Americans' perceptions of racial history.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Robert J. Norrell's fascinating new look at the life of Alex Haley claims in its subtitle that Haley wrote books that "changed a nation." That lofty claim is backed up by Norrell's research and command of his subject. But what is most surprising is learning just how those books changed the affable, ambitious, and strikingly enigmatic Haley. Norrell's "Haley" gives us the man behind the Malcolm X of The Autobiography, and the one behind Roots' Kunta Kinte. It is a powerful look at America as Haley saw it - and at times - how he dreamed it.” —Saladin Ambar, author of MALCOLM X AT OXFORD UNION: Racial Politics in a Global Era
“Robert J. Norrell's Alex Haley is an essential read for anyone interested in race and culture in twentieth-century America.” —Clarence E. Walker, Distinguished Professor of History Emeritus, University of California, Davis
“Highly readable...Norrell's even-handed treatment of Haley, including a dissection of the accusations of plagiarism and fictionalization that dogged the author, reveals a multidimensional and sympathetic human being. .. Anyone with fond memories of reading Roots (or watching the ABC miniseries based on it) should enjoy learning about Haley.” —Publisher's Weekly