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Alex Haley’s Advice to Ambrose and Goodwin

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