Chinua Achebe, who has died at the age of 82, was more than a novelist. He was a total man of letters, who wrote poetry and essays and oversaw a trailblazing series of books by African writers. But he will probably always be most famous for his career-making, legacy-defining debut novel, Things Fall Apart, which tells the story of Okonkwo, an Igbo man who kills a white colonialist in the 1890s, and who, at the end of the book, hangs himself rather than be tried for that murder.
The book was informed by European literature—the title comes from a poem by William Butler Yeats—but tells an African story from an African perspective. Achebe explained many times that his novel was partly a rebuke to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a book that reduced “Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind,” as he argued in a famous essay, “An Image of Africa.” Conrad was “undoubtedly one of the great stylists of modern fiction and a good storyteller into the bargain,” Achebe wrote, but he was also, Achebe said, “a thoroughgoing racist.”
Remarkably—if not, perhaps, surprisingly—the publication history of Things Fall Apart itself helped to demonstrate the persistence of English colonial attitudes to Africa. As the Wall Street Journal notes in its obituary for Achebe, the English typists to whom the author sent his manuscript in the late 1950s dismissed it “as a joke.” But the full story, which I heard Achebe tell in 2008, is even more incredible—and illuminating.
It’s important to remember that that manuscript, which was handwritten, was “the only manuscript in the entire world,” as Achebe put it five years ago. He had shown it to an English novelist, Gilbert Phelps, while in London on scholarship. Phelps was enthusiastic and encouraging, but Achebe wanted to revise it further. So he took it home to Nigeria. Once it was ready, he went to a post office in Lagos, where he was living, and mailed it to a typing agency in London that he had seen advertised in the Spectator, because he “had learned that if you really want to make a good impression, you should have your manuscript well typed.” The agency wrote back saying they had received the manuscript, and that it would cost 32 pounds for two typed copies. Achebe sent the money, and waited. And waited.
“Weeks passed, and months,” Achebe said. He began to lose weight, he was so anxious. Fortunately, he mentioned what was going on to his boss at the NBS, the Nigerian radio service where he worked. Her name was Angela Beattie, and she was, Achebe said, a “no-nonsense woman.” She was also from England, and was headed back there shortly on leave. She agreed to stop by the typing agency. When she showed up there, she demanded to know what was going on. “And when they saw a real person come out of the vague mess of the British colonies,” Achebe said, “they knew it was no longer a joke.”
Beattie demanded that they mail a typed copy to Achebe “in the next week,” which they did. (He never did receive the second copy he paid for.) He sent it on to the British publisher Phelps had recommended, and the publisher sought the advice of Donald Macrae, a professor in London who had just returned from a trip to west Africa. Macrae, Achebe told the Paris Review, wrote what the publisher “said was the shortest report they ever had on any novel—seven words: ‘The best first novel since the war.’ ”
When Achebe told this story in New York five years ago, he mentioned that people have since asked him what he would have done if his one and only copy of Things Fall Apart had been discarded by the typing agency, never to be seen again. “I would have followed Okonkwo’s example,” he said.