At 50 Years Old, A Classic Still Packs a Punch

By Miller, James A. | The Crisis, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview
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At 50 Years Old, A Classic Still Packs a Punch


Miller, James A., The Crisis


BOOKS At 50 Years Old, A Classic Still Packs a Punch Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (Anchor Books, $10.95)

Irving Howe, the noted social and literary critic, once commented about Richard Wright's first novel, "the day Native Son appeared, American culture was changed forever." A comparable claim can be made for Chinua Achebe's debut, Things Fall Apart - a novel that has left its indelible imprint upon the way successive generations of readers have come to apprehend a key moment in African history.

When Things Fall Apart was published by Heinemann in 1958, Ghana had just achieved political independence in the preceding year; Nigeria would follow in 1960, along with the Congo and a number of former French colonies. Even though the pace of African political independence movements was quickening, the literary representation of Africa and Africans had remained firmly in the hands of Europeans. Notably Joseph Conrad, whose Heart of Darkness (1899) ultimately became the target of Achebe's ferocious attack (he also denounced Conrad as a 'thoroughgoing racist') in his controversial 1975 essay, "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness'"; and Joyce Cary, whose experiences as a colonial officer in Nigeria in the early twentieth century provided the basis for such novels as Aissa Saved (1932), The African Witch (1936), and, most notably, Mister Johnson (1939).

Both Heart of Darkness and Mister Johnson had become standard fare for educated readers, both in England and in its former colonies, by the time Achebe began studying literature at the University of Ibadan in the late 1940s.

To be sure, Things Fall Apart was not the first novel to be published by an African in English in the mid-twentieth century; Achebe's debut had been preceded in 1952 by the remarkable success of his Yoruba countryman, Amos Tutuola, whose Palm Wine Drinkard had been greeted with ecstatic applause by the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. Tutuola, however, was received by many Western literati as an exotic primitive and regarded by many educated Nigerian readers as an embarrassment whose "ungrammatical" English reflected badly upon Africans.

This was the cultural and political vacuum into which Achebe stepped in 1958, and some of his early Western critics were only slightly less condescending than they had been towards Tutuola. Things Fall Apart was applauded for the intricate richness of its portrayal of Ibo customs and society, but not for its literary qualities; Achebe was hailed for his powers as an ethnographer, but not for his considerable skills as a novelist.

Writing for the Saturday Review, David Hassoldt observed: "No European ethnologist could so intimately present this medley of mores of the Ibo tribe, nor detail the intricate formalities of life in the clan." He concluded: "As an objective view of the Ibo customs it is of both interest and value." In other words, this was a novel that would be of more interest to students of anthropology than to those interested in literature.

Things Fall Apart describes the rise and fall of Okonkwo, a man who achieves the heights of power and prestige in his society through his own efforts but plunges to the lowest depths because of his inability to adapt to the changes imposed by British colonial rule. Many of Achebe's early critics were simply wrong, or merely skimmed the surface of Things Fall Apart, failing to grasp the intricate architecture, the skill with which Achebe interwove the dynamics of culture and character, geography and history that give the novel its enduring appeal.

Set in the late nineteenth century among the Ibo people of eastern Nigeria in the federation of villages that constitute the clan of Umuofia, Things Fall Apart unfolds like a tragedy in two acts.

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