Famous First Words: Things Fall Apart
Chinua Achebe was born in Nigeria in 1930, and he grew up reading the same version of Africa that was handed down to children everywhere else on the planet—a detached, reductionist anthropological assessment that had been reinforced through the centuries, generally by authors from a colonial perspective. That “dark continent” interpretation of Africa amounted to the official canon record when Achebe was making his way through mission primary schools and then boarding schools during his youth. As he moved on to the University of Ibadan in 1948, though, he was beginning to formulate an alternate message.
Dropping his medical school plans soon after arriving, he began studying literature, history, and philosophy instead. He signed on as editor of the University Herald at Ibadan and was a contributing writer for the Herald and other student publications before graduating in 1953. The following year, Achebe got a job as a radio producer for the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation, editing scripts, speeches, and short stories. He then started work on a novel—something of an anomaly in itself during a time when few Nigerians were writing fiction—and had most of a draft completed when he was awarded a scholarship in 1957 to study for a few months in London at the BBC.
Achebe finished the manuscript during his stay, and although he didn’t hold out much hope for it, he showed it to a friend in London, a fellow Nigerian student, who encouraged him to send it to one of their instructors at the BBC school. The instructor, Gilbert Phelps, was also a novelist, and after some prodding, Achebe was finally persuaded to go and talk to him. Graciously, Phelps agreed to take a look.
While on a trip outside of London, Achebe was taken aback one day when he came to his hotel room and discovered that Phelps had called and left a message. He was even less prepared for the response he got when he returned the call: Phelps wanted to show the manuscript to his publishers at Heinemann. Somehow, Achebe managed to collect himself enough to tell Phelps that the story, which had attempted to follow three different families and had produced a somewhat unwieldy first draft as a result, needed to be worked on a bit more.
He went back to Nigeria, and once all the renovations were completed, Achebe decided that he should get his handwritten manuscript cleaned up for presentation to a publisher, so he mailed it to a typing agency in England that he had seen advertised in The Spectator. The agency replied promptly, informing him that they would need thirty-two pounds in advance for two typed manuscripts. Achebe sent the money—and didn’t hear from them again. He wrote to them, and waited, for weeks and then months, and continued writing. No word came back. Panic set in. He became “thinner and thinner and thinner.” Achebe was now faced with the possibility that his story would be dead on arrival at a clearly disinterested typing agency some 3,000 miles away. In his haste to put the finishing touches on the book, he had sent off his only copy.
Cue Angela Beattie, Achebe’s boss at the the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation, who happened to be scheduled to depart for London on her annual leave. When she arrived there, she went directly to the agency, where she was greeted by a crew that was most certainly not expecting anyone to drop by and inquire about the status of a manuscript from Nigeria. Completely rattled, they told her that, yes, they had indeed received the manuscript, but that it was sent back by customs. Beattie called their bluff, asking to see their dispatch book, and they couldn’t produce one. Take care of it, she told them. A week later, Achebe received a typed copy of Things Fall Apart. He forwarded it straight to Heinemann.
Given that Heinemann had never seen an African novel before and were unsure about how to actually market the thing or who, exactly, would be interested in reading it, the book wasn’t an easy sell. But it got one last boost from a professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science named Don MacRae, an advisor to the publisher’s educational books division. MacRae read the manuscript and wrote them a seven-word report: “The best first novel since the war.”
If you were looking to make your living as an author, I suppose you could do worse than to be proclaimed the modern progenitor of the novel from your continent of origin. All things considered, that’s a solid accreditation to carry around. You might be willing, then, to tolerate the burden of serving as the universal reference point for an entire tradition of novelists who took up the form after you at least in part because you managed to get your story in print. And if that novel sold millions of copies in the process, if it was translated into more than fifty languages and immediately added to the curriculum (often as a textbook) in high school and university classrooms, without even having to wait for a posthumous critical renaissance to do so? Well, all the better.
Of course, maybe you’d just be happy that the book survived at all.