On 17 June, 1958, the hardback edition of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart was published by the London-based publishing house William Heinemann. The landmark novel, which follows the life of a fictional clan in pre-colonial Nigeria, has been translated into 60 languages and has sold over 20 million copies worldwide. Ask a person on the street if they have ever read a book by an African author, and they are most likely to answer with Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe.
The 60th anniversary of the publication of Achebe’s masterpiece was celebrated in style with a marathon reading of all 24 chapters at London’s Southbank Centre. Booker Prize winner Ben Okri and our very own James Currey, the man behind Heinemann’s African Writers Series, were in attendance.
To celebrate the upcoming anniversary, we thought we would share some anecdotes from the James Currey imprint archives about the publication of one of the most important books in African Literature.
The importance of Government College, Umuahia
Chinua Achebe attended secondary school with many would-be authors: Christopher Okigbo, Elechi Amadi, and Chike Momah to name just a few. The colonial boy’s school Government College, Umuahia, was modelled along the lines of Eton, and had its pupils reading Charles Dickens, Emily Bronte and Thomas Hardy. Chinua Achebe started his literary career as an editor of one of the school’s magazines, The Eastern Star. The school grounds could have been the inspiration behind the ‘evil forest’ in Things Fall Apart, a former burial ground for outcasts in the backwoods of Umudike-Ibeku.
The road to publication was not smooth
The 1950s represented a time when it was near impossible for an African writer to have their work taken seriously by a London publisher. Chinua Achebe found his work rejected by publishing houses on the grounds that many believed fiction written by an African had no financial prospects. Achebe’s handwritten manuscript could have also been lost forever after he posted it to a typing agency and they refused to return it. Luckily, Angela Beattie, Achebe’s boss at NBC, turned up at the agency’s office demanding that they post back the typed version to its author in Lagos.
Acclaim and Heinemann’s Africa Writers Series
It was when the manuscript reached Alan Hill, a publishing innovator at William Heinemann, that Things Fall Apartfinally took off. The firm’s educational department, which sold books to Africa, decided to publish the book after a glowing eleven-word report from their reader Professor Donald MacRae, which read “This is the best novel I have read since the war”. The hardback edition was published with a print run of 2,000, without the publishers touching a word of it. It was met with critical acclaim from the TLS and The Observer, and launched the Heinemann’s African Writers Series, of which Achebe become the first advisory editor.
- Achebe and Friends at Umuahia, The Making of a Literary Elite by Terri Ochiagha, Paperback £17.99, April 2018
- Reading Chinua Achebe, Language and Ideology in Fiction by Simon Gikandi, Paperback, £17.99
Available from Boydell & Brewer in the UK only
- Chinua Achebe, A Biography by Ezenwa-Ohaeto, Paperback, £16.99
- Africa Writes Back, The African Writers Series and the Launch of African Literature by James Currey, Paperback, £19.99