Late last year, I asked what makes a book fall into obscurity. I had in mind F.S.C. Northrop’s The Meeting of East and West, which was, briefly, a sensation when it first appeared in 1946, but quickly became unknown, kept alive in a fairly obscure corner of public (and scholarly) memory largely by the fact that it was a major influence on Robert Pirsig, who mentions the book by name in his enormously popular philosophical novel, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974). I was particularly interested in the fact that intellectual historians don’t much discuss Northrop and his book when we think about the mid-1940s (though I was delighted to discover in comments that some people are now thinking about Northrop some more).
I have just returned from spending four days working at the Alex Haley Papers at the University of Tennessee. Unlike F.S.C. Northrop, Alex Haley is a name that is almost certainly familiar to readers of this blog. My guess is that most of you could identify what are generally considered to be Haley’s two most significant works: The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965) and Roots (1976). For years, The Autobiography was far and away the most accessible entrée into Malcolm’s thoughts. Not surprisingly it’s been written about a fair bit as a result. Interest in The Autobiography seemed to increase following the great success of Spike Lee’s Malcolm X (1992), which formally presented itself as an adaptation of Haley’s book. Later in the 1990s, Harold Bloom produced a book in his Bloom’s Reviews series on The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Manning Marable’s recent biography of Malcolm – Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention (2011)—discusses The Autobiography‘s creation in great detail.
But the popular success of The Autobiography of Malcolm X pales in comparison to that enjoyed by Roots, Haley’s story of his family’s history starting with Kunta Kinte, a Mandingo from the village of Juffure in what is now the Gambia, who was kidnapped into slavery in 1767 and eventually became Haley’s great great great great great grandfather. Continue reading