The Autobiography of Malcolm X

by Malcolm X, Alex Haley

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Critical Overview

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Many reviewers of The Autobiography of Malcolm X agree about the power and desire evident in the book. Truman Nelson, writing in the Nation soon after the release of the book, lauds it for its "dead-level honesty, its passion, its exalted purpose.’’ And, according to Warner Berthoff in New Literary History, the way Malcolm X blends "his own life story with the full collective history of his milieu ... gives Malcolm's testimony its strength and large authority.’’

Malcolm X' s conversion to Islam and how that is relayed in the book is a commonly addressed subject in both the book's early and recent reviews. I. F. Stone, in an article for the New York Review of Books soon after the book's publication, notes, "To understand Malcolm's experience, one must go to the literature of conversion,'' such as William James's classic examination Varieties of Religious Experience. Berthoff agrees, commenting, ‘‘Above all, the book is the story of a conversion and its consequences.’’

However full of praise the reviewers were after the book's release, though, discussions soon appeared over how much of an impact Alex Haley, Malcolm X's collaborator, had on the final project. The book was published not long after Malcolm X's death, and critics such as David Demarest, Jr., in CLA Journal have acknowledged Haley's strong role. Demarest notes, "One is tempted to feel that had the book been entirely Malcolm's, ... the book would have revealed less of Malcolm than it now does.'' But Nelson urges readers to "put aside'' any misgivings they might have ‘‘about a book 'as told to' someone.’’ Haley, according to Nelson, did a marvelous job of revealing the true sense of Malcolm X in the work's tone and words.

Many critics have noted the book's similarities to other famous autobiographies. Carol Ohmann, in the journal American Quarterly, compares Malcolm X's autobiography with Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography, noting that the two books ‘‘resemble each other in the conceptions of the self they convey, ... and in the ways, looking backwards as autobiographers do, they pattern or structure the raw materials of their own lives.’’ Barrett John Mandel, in the journal Afro-American Studies, compares Malcolm X's autobiography to those written by Saint Augustine, John Bunyan, and Jonathan Edwards.

Some have criticized Malcolm's ideologies and philosophies as set forth in his autobiography. Stone, for example, notes that in some passages Malcolm ‘‘sounds like a southern white supremacist in reverse, vibrating with anger and sexual obsession over the horrors of race pollution.’’ And James Craig Holte, in the journal MELUS, argues that Malcolm X's conversion to Elijah Muhammad's form of Islam is a ‘‘simple, single-minded vision,’’ especially when contrasted against his later "more complex self-examination’’ during his pilgrimage to Mecca.

For all of Malcolm X's fiery rhetoric, many reviewers have seen in his autobiography evidence of a man who simply wanted to be accepted into the mainstream of American life. Robert Penn Warren, famed novelist, comments in the Yale Review that the activist was ultimately seeking respectability. ‘‘In the midst of the gospel of violence and the repudiation of the white world, even in the Black Muslim phase, there appears now and then the note of yearning,’’ he writes. The sense that Malcolm X's philosophy was changing by the end of the book underlines his desire to be understood; in fact, the trip to Mecca gives him a sort of authority and propriety, according to Warren. However, Stone believes that Elijah Muhammad's interest in ‘‘the virtues of bourgeois America,’’ with Malcolm X rejecting those more quiet "virtues," was the basis for his and Malcolm X's split.

Ultimately, though, most reviewers agree that The Autobiography of Malcolm X is a classic of American literature. Stone believes that the book has "a permanent place in the literature of the Afro-American struggle,’’ and Warren sees it as ‘‘an American story bound to be remembered.’’ In fact, in a moment of impressive prescience, Warren states in his 1966 article that the book will no doubt "reappear someday in a novel, on the stage, or on the screen’’—predating Spike Lee's movie interpretation of the book by nearly thirty years.

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