Amos Tutuola Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The reputation of Amos Tutuola (tew-tew-OH-lah) has been the subject of much controversy. Unlike the majority of African writers, who are not only university educated (and therefore well versed in and influenced by the formal structures of Western literature) but also often employ their second language with as much skill as a native speaker, Tutuola had none of this academic preparation. He began school at the age of twelve, was trained as a blacksmith, and, finding no opportunity for plying his trade, became a government messenger in Lagos. It could hardly be imagined that he might become a recognized author as a result of his daily habit of scribbling down stories on scraps of paper to abate his boredom while awaiting errand jobs as a messenger. Yet, perhaps by sheer accident of discovery and with some luck, Tutuola, an apprentice craftsman with no formal education beyond six years in missionary primary schools, is given the distinction of having written the first major modern African novel in English. Tutuola’s rise to international fame is marked by the publication of The Palm-Wine Drinkard in 1952.

The history of his achievement is extraordinary. Attracted by an advertisement from the United Society for Christian Literature, Tutuola worked feverishly on a draft of The Palm-Wine Drinkard. Clearly, the novel was unsuitable for this group. Yet it was provocative, and an intelligent reader saw its potential; it was sent to publishers Faber and Faber in London, whose editors agreed to publish it. The result established Tutuola’s career at the cost of much debate, which generally separated British and African critics. While Tutuola was heralded abroad as a naïve native genius (partly as a result of Dylan Thomas’s enthusiastic review in the Observer in 1952), African critics at home viewed the untutored bard as a literary burglar with little or no imagination. The basic argument was whether Tutuola’s natural style was brilliantly innovative or...

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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

There was little in Amos Tutuola’s early life to indicate that he would be a world-famous author. Born in 1920, in Abeokuta, Nigeria, in the township of Iporo-Ake, he eagerly listened to the folktales told to him in the evenings by his mother and his aunt. At the age of ten, he was enrolled in the nearby Salvation Army school, where he first began to study English. English is the official language of Nigeria (whose people speak many different African languages), but Tutuola’s first language was Yoruba. Furthermore, the everyday English spoken by uneducated Nigerians is either pidgin or affected by West African idiom. Like many other Nigerians, Tutuola combined the deep grammar of his native language with English surface grammar. “I had no other work more than to drink,” for example, the statement made by the Palm-Wine Drinkard at the start of his story, is typical Yoruba syntax.

When his family could no longer afford to send him to school, Tutuola began to work as a houseboy for a government clerk. In return for his services, the clerk enrolled Tutuola in Ake Central School and, later, in Lagos High School. There, Tutuola became familiar with the Yoruba writings of Fagunwa and simplified versions of such classics as John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678, 1684). Apparently he was not an outstanding student, for he decided to leave school and learn the trade of blacksmith, finding a job as a metalworker for the Royal Air Force at Oshodi. When this job ended, the only work Tutuola could find was as a junior messenger for the labor department in Lagos in 1946. Much of his time was spent sitting in the offices, waiting for messages to carry. To combat his boredom, he began scribbling down stories on scraps of paper. Around 1948, he sent his first completed manuscript, The Wild Hunter in the Bush of Ghosts, to a photography publisher in London, the Focal Press. The book, he explained to them in a letter, was written to accompany a collection of photographs of ghosts. Those photographs, he said, would follow shortly. The photographs turned out to be of drawings of ghosts, and Focal Press dumped both text and “ghost photos” into their files. There they remained for more than thirty years.

Although Tutuola may have been discouraged by that early failure (which he did not mention to anyone for decades), he continued to write. Upon seeing an advertisement for books from the United Society for Christian Literature in a newspaper, he decided to send to that organization a manuscript, the first draft of which had been written in lead pencil over the course of several days. After three months of enlarging the story, he made a copy of it in ink and sent it off. The...

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