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.
An enormous bestseller when it was first published in August 1976, Roots achieved a truly extraordinary level of cultural salience when ABC’s television adaption of the book aired on eight consecutive nights in January 1977. Everything about the show was unconventional: its focus on black characters, its involved and often brutal exploration of the institution of slavery, and its presentation on eight consecutive nights (rather than appearing once a week, as earlier miniseries like Rich Man, Poor Man had done). To nearly everyone’s surprise, including its network and its producers, Roots attracted enormous audiences that grew in size over the course of the week. By the time the show concluded on Sunday, January 30, the eight episodes of Roots were each among the thirteen most watched television shows of all time; the others on the list included three Super Bowls and, ironically, Gone With the Wind, whichNBC had shown in two parts in 1976 to record audiences. Gone With the Wind parts I and II were, following Roots, the second and third most watched shows of all time. The finale of Roots would edge out Scarlett and Rhett, becoming the single most watched tv broadcast in US history. An estimated 36,380,000 households and 100,000,000 people tuned in to Roots that Sunday evening, which represented a 51.1% rating and a 71% share. In other words, 51.1% of televisions – and 71% of those in use — were tuned to the final episode of Roots.
Unsurprisingly given this enormous viewership, public attention on Roots did not end on January 30. The show was discussed in schools across the country. Hundreds of colleges and universities built courses around the book and the miniseries. Interest in genealogy exploded, especially, but not only, among African Americans (Haley himself had made a point of paying for someone to research Johnny Carson’s family, so that he could present a family tree to his host as a surprise when the author appeared on the Tonight Show). Haley won a special Pulitzer Prize for the book later in 1977.
Today, Roots is still a familiar work, at least to Americans in their thirties or older. To those of us who were kids when it first aired, the miniseries’ images of slavery were formative. The book remains in print and seems to continue to be read (it has close to three hundred reviews on Amazon.com).
I mention all of this because, given its enormous popularity and cultural significance at the time, Roots has received surprisingly little scholarly attention. Some of this inattention can be attributed to problematic aspects of the book itself. Almost from the moment it appeared in print, scholars began to question aspects of the story Roots tells. Initially, historians complained about some background details in the narrative: Virginia plantations growing cotton as their primary crop in the 1760s or characters talking about Lincoln’s beard in the 1850s (when the future President was clean shaven). But by 1977, questions had emerged about Haley’s genealogy itself, especially his connection to – and portrait of – the book’s most striking and significant character, Kunta Kinte. Haley was also accused of plagiarism by at least three other authors, one of whom – Harold Courlander – eventually settled with Haley for half a million dollars and the admission some some of passages in Roots had been pilfered from Courlander’s novel The African (though Haley admitted to far fewer than Courlander had claimed or, apparently, than may have been taken). Though Haley always referred to the book as something between fiction and non-fiction (he called it “faction,” a portmanteau of “fact” and “fiction”), those questioning the veracity of Roots were often left unsatisfied by Haley’s admissions. And though the book was clearly not a work of history and did not even need to be a work of simple nonfiction, the essential truth of elements of the narrative, especially Haley’s relationship to Kunta Kinte, seemed very important both to the author and to critics who questioned it.
But Roots‘s troubled literary status, while a serious issue, is certainly no good explanation for scholars not paying more attention to the book. We historians seem to have been particularly inattentive. As readers of this blog know, the last several years have produced a steady stream of books that engage the history of the Seventies in fascinating new ways that include serious considerations of both intellectual and cultural history (Roots is, of course, relevant to both). But these books are surprisingly silent about Roots. Roots goes unmentioned in Bruce Shulman’s The Seventies, Judith Stein’s Pivotal Decade, Robert Self’s All in the Family, Jefferson Cowie’s Stayin’ Alive, and Jim Livingston’s The World Turned Inside Out. An exception to this rule is Dan Rodgers’s Age of Fracture, which discusses Roots as the paradigmatic example of the way in which “African Americans took the language of race—with all its stigmas, its social disadvantages, its pains and injuries—and reshaped it as a point of pride” (116-7).
As my thinking about, and working on, Roots suggests, I’m convinced that we ought to be paying more attention to this book, its television adaptation, and the cultural phenomena that blossomed around them in 1976 and 1977. But I remain puzzled that more scholars have not already done so.
 In the decades since Roots, the list of most watched t.v. broadcasts in America has been entirely taken over by Super Bowls, which apparently now account for the top twenty-one most watched broadcasts of all time. But among non-Super Bowl broadcasts, the Roots finale is still in third place, behind the 1983 series finale of M*A*S*H and the “Who Shot J.R.?” episode of Dallas (1980).
 I was in 6th grade at Longfellow School in Berkeley at the time. The school organized a special assembly at which the show was discussed at some length.
 Some of the few articles devoted to Roots discuss the lack of scholarly attention the book has received at some length. See, for example, two pieces by David Chioni Moore, “Routes,” Transition, No. 64 (1994), pp. 4-21 and “Revisiting a Silenced Giant: Alex Haley’s Roots – A Bibliographic Essay, and a Research Report on the Haley Archives at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville,” Resources for American Literary Study, vol. 22, no. 2 (1996), pp. 195-249.
 There is still no good biography of Haley. Haley had designated the singer and activist Anne Romaine, who had worked at the Alex Haley Museum in Henning, Tennessee, to be his official biographer in the early 1980s. But before she could complete her work, she died suddenly of a burst appendix in 1995, just three years after Haley himself passed away. For those interested in the controversies over Roots and Haley’s reactions to them Adam Henig’s short book / long essay Alex Haley’s Roots: An Author’s Odyssey, which was published earlier this year as an Amazon e-book is a solid place to start.