The classic novel by Chinua Achebe, and how it came to be, are legendary African tales
Sixty years ago, 27-year-old Chinua Achebe initiated a publishing sensation when London-based William Heinemann printed 2 000 hardback copies of his debut novel, Things Fall Apart.
Born Albert Chinualumogu Achebe in Ogidi, eastern Nigeria, on November 16 1930, he was in the first set of students admitted to the University College, Ibadan, when it was founded in 1948. Although he was supposed to study medicine on scholarship, he graduated with a BA degree in English, history and religious studies in 1953. Achebe began working at the Nigerian Broadcasting Service (NBS) in Lagos in 1954 and travelled out of Nigeria for the first time in 1956, when he flew to England on a scholarship to attend a course in radio production at the BBC Staff Training School.
Achebe, who brought a manuscript with him, showed it to one of the instructors, British broadcaster, novelist and critic Gilbert Phelps. Phelps recalls: “As it happens I can throw some light on the novel’s genesis. I was working for the BBC staff training department in London when Achebe was attending a course there. Achebe showed me his typescripts and I was immediately struck by their quality. I advised him to divide his material into several separate novels — at that stage Achebe was contemplating one very long one — and when the first part, Things Fall Apart, was finished, I introduced it to his London publisher.”
Having amended his manuscript to reflect the section that would be Things Fall Apart, Achebe sent a handwritten version to a London typing agency in response to an advert, “Authors’ manuscripts typed”, in The Spectator and sent £22 in British postal orders for two copies. The agency failed to contact Achebe and he became concerned. But Achebe’s boss, Angela Beattie, whom he would succeed as head of the NBS’s talks department in 1957, traced and recovered the manuscript from the agency while she was in London on annual leave. One typed copy of the manuscript of Things Fall Apart was eventually sent to Achebe in Lagos.
Having not previously published a novel by an African, the executives at Heinemann were initially reluctant to bring out Achebe’s novel. Then Donald MacRae, a reader in sociology at the London School of Economics and one of Heinemann’s educational advisers, who had just returned from West Africa, read Achebe’s novel and reportedly declared: “This is the best novel I have read since the war.”
Achebe took his title from The Second Coming (1919) by Irish poet WB Yeats: “Turning and turning in the widening gyre/ The falcon cannot hear the falconer;/ Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,/ The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/ The ceremony of innocence is drowned;/ The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.”
Heinemann’s African Writers’ Series (AWS) was founded in 1962 by Alan Hill, who had been a director at Heinemann when he oversaw the publication of Things Fall Apart in 1958, and Evander van Milne, whose career included stints at Thomas Nelson, the Scottish publishing house and Heinemann Educational Books. The AWS made paperback copies (with their trademark orange covers) of African texts available at affordable prices to students in schools and universities in Africa. Things Fall Apart was the first text published in the series, as AWS1. Achebe served as editorial adviser to the AWS from 1962 to 1972.
Since 1958, an estimated