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Mess to the Press: Navigating Alex Haley's Journalistic Roots

Ogg, Mariette

Mess to the Press is a narrative of the life of Alexander Murray Palmer Haley (Alex Haley), the author and twenty-year United States Coast Guard veteran who wrote his way into annals of the nation’s literary, journalistic, and military histories. While the Pulitzer Prize-winning Haley is best known for authoring The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965) and the genealogical epic Roots (1976), this study archives and considers over two decades of writerly practices that precede publication of these seminal texts. More specifically, the narrative history presented here—charted from a complex network of archival materials and oral histories that span oceans and continents—critically examines Haley’s origins as a master storyteller, a griot of sorts, whose literary and journalistic contributions subverted the forms, functions, and outlets of traditional narrative accounts for his mid-twentieth-century audiences. Drawing on stories told within and across government documents, special collections, oral histories, periodicals, physical artifacts, and retired Coast Guard members’ personal letters and photographs, the researcher employed historiographical methods to examine the following questions: (1) How does Haley become a writer? (2) How does Haley come to recognize, develop, hone, and share his writing as an active duty Coast Guard member (1939-1959) at a time when African American service members endured the realities of a segregated service while fighting for Democracy and Civil Rights on both home and warfronts? and (3) To what extent do literacy practices, skills, and experiences from Haley’s Coast Guard service emerge in his early post-Coast Guard retirement research, writing, and journalism?
As this study traces Haley’s journey from scrubbing pots in a shipboard galley to composing galley proofs for some of the country’s best-selling periodicals, the reader is asked to consider how this revisionist account is less of a traditional critical literary biography and more of an autobiographical assemblage. Textual and material analysis of periodicals, special collections holdings, and oral histories navigated by its female, active-duty Coast Guard author works to navigate and expose the roots of Haley’s early writing life and journalistic journey.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
English Education
Thesis Advisors
Blau, Sheridan
Degree
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
February 7, 2019
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