Alex Haley’s Advice to Ambrose and Goodwin


Mr. Nobile was the first researcher to examine the Alex Haley Collection at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. The result of his investigation ("Alex Haley's Hoax") was published in the Village Voice in 1993 and later turned into a BBC documentary titled "The Roots of Alex Haley," which has never been broadcast in the United States. Mr. Nobile is a contributing editor to HNN.

To: Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin
From: Alex Haley

I know how you feel. Been there, done exactly that. I was demolished in the Sunday Times of London and the New York Times, ridiculed in a BBC documentary, mocked by former Pulitzer Board Chairman Russell Baker, and humiliated in two very nasty lawsuits that cost a million dollars to defend and pay off.

But don't worry, be happy. There is life after literary disgrace. Look at me. They nailed me for copying the main plot and character of Roots from Harold Courlander's slave novel, The African, and for fabricating a family tree stretching back to 18th century Gambia. (Luckily, nobody found out that I relied on a well-paid white ghostwriter, too, the same one who secretly revised The Autobiography of Malcolm X.)

Some days were worse than others. Like the time the judge in the Courlander case threatened a perjury rap: despite 80-plus appropriations, I denied any knowledge of The African.

Or the time the Pulitzer Board, a` la Janice Cooke, put revocation of my special prize on its agenda: I laundered my papers before bequeathing them to the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, but I stupidly left behind incriminating tapes from 1967 showing that I made up Kunta Kinte out of Kente cloth just like Cooke made up her imaginary, six-year-old dope dealer in the Washington Post. Fortunately, the Board didn't dare to rescind my prize, not with its sixty-year record record of excluding blacks from membership. Russell Baker backed off, but not without commenting that"a formal denunciation of Haley [could not] diminish the Jonsonian comedy of so many citizens being so thoroughly hoaxed."

I am the best-selling black author in history, yet you won't find my work in the Norton Anthology of African American Literature, which was edited by my old friend Skip Gates. By the way, he wasn't the only brother to dis me in death. John Hope Franklin, once a director of my foundation, gave me the cold shoulder in Emerge magazine. My Afrocentrist mentor, John Henrik Clarke, called me a"fake" and"a phony." Genealogists white and black dropped me like a ton of tombstones. The Society of Journalists and Authors cancelled their Alex Haley Excellence Award.

Topping off the indignities was Reader's Digest. I was with them for thirty-years. They covered my trips to Africa and bought first serial rights to Roots. I was their guy, their goodwill ambassador, their token. The Digest knew I couldn't write a lick and that my research didn't check out. Still, they played along with Roots for the glory, at least until my passing in 1992. Then they got scared when the Village Voice exposed the skeletons in my archives. Consequently, they cancelled a"Most Unforgettable Character I've Ever Met" tribute.

Nevertheless, I came back, big as ever. So can you. The Coast Guard won't name a cutter after you; your hometown will probably resist erecting a ten-foot bronze in your honor; chances are the President won't appoint one of your siblings ambassador to The Gambia. But if you play your cards right, like I did, you'll be cool. (Did you see NBC's special on the 25th anniversary of the Roots miniseries the other night? Not too shabby for a Norton Anthology dropout, and no mention of the plagiarism or flimflam, if you get my drift.)

So far, according to the newspapers, your instincts are good. Deny, deny, deny. Of course, you didn't deliberately copy unattributed material from another author. What writer would ever do that? It was strictly inadvertant. Their quotes got mixed up with your notes. Months later, years later, in the rush of deadline, when you sat down to pull things together, you didn't realize you were chanelling someone else's work. If surgeons occasionally lope off a wrong leg, why can't writers miss an attribution here or there? You were sloppy, not dishonest. Who won't believe that? The fact that both of you were caught copying in a number of books (Steve is up to a half-dozen by now) only proves how careless your methods were.

The accident excuse didn't exactly pan out for me. Unlike you guys, I didn't cite sources. Roots had no footnotes. When Courlander sued me, I simply stonewalled, insisting I never heard of him or his book. Therefore I couldn't have accidentally mistaken his stuff for mine. Later, during discovery, Courlander found three quotes from The African among my typed notes, the ones I forgot to destroy. I was busted, but I stuck to my story. I swore that I had no idea how The African passages landed in Roots. Still, on the witness stand, I had to come up with some explanation. Boxed into a corner without a plausible story, I said that people were always coming up to me after lectures and sticking nuggets of unattributed Africana in my pockets, and that eighty of them, all from Courlander, don't ask me how, wound up Roots. That was the last straw for the judge. He told my lawyers that I was facing a perjury recommendation. That's why I decided to settle, the day before his decision.

Doris, you made a smart move when you quietly bought off that Kathleen Kennedy biographer after she privately accused you of ripping off some forty passages for The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys. I like your style--first, neglecting to disclose your hush money, and then pretending that you gladly paid up upon a single letter of complaint when, in fact, there were tense legal negotiations. You were smooth as butter on The Newshour Monday night (Jan. 28) when you slipped"intent" into the definition of plagiarism:"There is absolutely no intent to appropriate anyone else's words as my own, which is what plagiarism is," you said. Nice touch. Students everywhere will be grateful.

Steve, you've got to get on the same page with Doris. Turning down The Newshour made you seem guilty. Redefining plagiarism is one thing, but obliterating it is another. What were you drinking when you told the New York Times,"If I am writing up a passage … and part of it is from other people's writing, I just type it up and put it in a footnote"? No wonder Eric Foner spritzed you on the program."I found Mr. Ambrose's response [to the Times] even more damaging," Foner said to Margaret Warner about your openly scavenging technique.

In closing, let me remind you that your best hope in this crisis is your publisher, Simon & Schuster. As long as you crank out best-sellers, they won't ask questions. Publishers are like lawyers, they don't care whether their clients are clean or dirty as long as money is on the table.

No plagiarist has ever had a more loyal publisher than mine. Even after the copying and fakery in Roots had been established beyond any literary or historical doubt, Doubleday refused to recall the book. Instead the company has continued to sell it under"non-fiction" with the original text intact!!!

Like I said, don't worry, be happy. You can count on Simon & Schuster to do the unprincipled thing.

Your faithful correspondent,

Alex Haley

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Kevan Elsby - 2/6/2002

Philip et al, I have sent a detailed elaboration to the editor of the HNN website. This elaboration is too lengthy to be accepted as an email on this comment thread. Best Regards from England Dr. Kevan A. Elsby

Philip Nobile - 2/4/2002

Dr. Elsby's comment confirms the general rule that plagiarism usually goes with other literary sins. So it is no suprise that Ambrose is now accused of cutting historical corners. Perhaps Dr. Elsby could elaborate.

Kevan Elsby - 2/3/2002

Whilst plagiarism continues to be the main concern, I know many veterans who consider Stephen Ambrose's plagiarism to be an aside. Many veterans remain outraged by the historical inaccuracies in Stephen Ambrose's books about WWII, including USAAF pilots and Royal Navy sailors, amongst many others.

The fact is that much of Stephen Ambrose's writing is not only plagiarised, it is historically inaccurate and has done a great deal to dishonour and cause outrage to substantial numbers of veterans.

Several incidents which make good reading in Stephen Ambrose's books did not happen, and it does not take a huge amount of research to come to this conclusion, by returning to some of the original US Military documents / group critique notes made by S Military Historians at the end of WWII.

Whilst it is interesting to debate plagiarism and the ability to popularize history by a more open writing style, which perhaps "naughtily" does not credit sources appropriately, the greater issue for many outraged veterns is the historical inaccuracy of the content, irrespective of the style of writing or any concerns about plagiarism.

The real issue is historical accuracy and the deep offense, dishonour and upset caused to veterans.

Dr. Kevan A. Elsby

Comment - 2/2/2002

The Bucky-Bernstein dialogue needs to be sharpened. In the hands of a
master writer, say like Stephen Jay Gould, the distinction between popular
and academic form dissolves. Excuses should not be made for Ambrose on the
ground of popularity. Theft is theft. You can't borrow another writer's words
without attribution, period. Ambrose was simply lazy.
Philip Nobile

R. B. Bernstein - 2/1/2002

There seems to be an assumption that general readers somehow deserve less than academic readers -- or maybe it's the assumption that they want less than academic readers. I'm not so sure of that. I do think that they want to feel that the book they're reading and enjoying is actually written by the author that they admire and not simply patched together. I also do think that they would like a fresh take on a given subject and not a recycled one. And yet I also am aware that many general readers flee like scalded cats from any book that (let's see -- how do the pejoratives go?) "bristles with all the paraphernalia of pedantic scholarly research." There has to be some sort of middle ground, in which historians can and do write for both the general reader and one another, and general readers can read a work of cutting-edge scholarship with enjoyment and not be intimidated by the notes.

james mcswain - 2/1/2002

The article on Alex Haley was interesting, but in the end pointless. ROOTS was written as propaganda, one of many weapons in a political war for power and recognition. The crucial psychological element in this conflict was guilt; the goal was to fix upon "white"/establishment/bourgeois America a permenant (sp?) mentality of guilt over responsibility for slavery. This draws attention away from the criminalality, incompetence, self-serving hunger for power that reigned among many community leaders and self-appointed prophets, sages, and activists. Guilt attacks one's worth, self-assurance, and ultimately culture. It is a potent weapon in a society dominated by a cult of experience, combined with historical ignorance, an inability to distinguish propaganda from scholarship or serious thinking (for which there is no distinction if some in the academic world are to be believed), and the constant barrage of lies, rhetorical nonsense, abuse of plain meaning, and the other forms of misrepresentation for which our government and many public figures and media personalities have become famous (or notorious). ROOTS made it to tv, the ultimate purveyor of how one should "feel" and respond to events. Its broadcast as a movie certified that it was to be taken seriously. Many of my past students regard it as the preminent political act of the 20th c. in film and literature. For them, it exposed a deep wound that demanded some widespread social response. That it only exposes their profound credulity and ignorance, and the disingenuous outlook of many prominent social, religious and political leaders is irrelevant. It celebrates a hurt, and allows many immature people to continue to confuse personal disappointments with political or racial situations, and since most of us are equally anxious to avoid responsibility for our behavior and decisions, how can we criticize such an accomplishment?
James McSwain

Bucky - 1/31/2002

I should clarify myself. I don't think anything is ok with what Ambrose did. But we should be mindful of who his readers are and, thus, what his audience's tastes will run to. Had he diligently applied professional standards of citation and creditation to his works, he would have also jeopardized the engagement in his works of his reading public, who are amatuers (in the literal sense of the word, meaning they study history for the love of doing so).

He's not a scholar. From the review of his works in the other article accompanying this peice, it should be clear that he is not doing original research or fresh analysis. He's a popularizer, a story teller, a mass marketed lean mean pop-hist-lit crankin'-out machine. I agree as a story teller he should be more respectful of the work of more professional historians and give them their props. But I can't check into a Motel 6 and bitch that the painting on the wall is ugly.

Of course now all his past works are, somewhere, getting scoured for other literary thefts. No doubt Ambrose will continue to bleed. I suspect a similar level of attention given to more pop authors would produce more such "stunning" revelations. I've also been a teacher in both the college and secondary level and have had the unpleasant task of busting my students for plagiarism. It's not fun and I sympathize with your experience. It's a rampant problem in all corners of the world and violators should be prosecuted. But I thought I should add that what I gained from what he wrote and "wrote" is not diminished by the deceptions in the points of origin of his words.

R. B. Bernstein - 1/31/2002

Unlike Bucky, I'm afraid that the knowledge that I was hoaxed by a plagiarist at best erodes my enjoyment of the work in question. This is all painful in the extreme, and what puzzles me is that so many people seem willing to apologize for and to excuse Stephen Ambrose's misappropriations. I had a student who pulled stuff like that back in 1988, when I was visiting at Rutgers University -- Newark; I bawled him out and severely lowered his grade. The only reason that I did not go further is that, on questioning him, it was clear to me that somehow he simply had never learned that you just don't provide slabs of unmarked quoted material in text and a footnote; he thought that the footnote covered him completely, because it told me where the stuff in text came from.

R. B. Bernstein, Adjunct Professor of Law, New York Law School

Bucky - 1/30/2002

Bravo! And how fitting for a memo attributed to Alex Haley to have been written by someone else.

I refuse to take back my enjoyment of either Haley or Ambrose's works--even tho it turns out the work wasn't actually theirs. It's good to see justice done and the mighty brought low every now and then, but let's not forget all the joy their acts of theft and dishonesty have brought us.