Harold Courlander

Harold Courlander
Born September 18, 1908
Indianapolis, Indiana, United States
Died March 15, 1996(1996-03-15) (aged 87)
United States
Occupation Novelist, folklorist, anthropologist
Language English
Alma mater University of Michigan
Genre Folklore, non-fiction, fiction

Harold Courlander (September 18, 1908 – March 15, 1996) was an American novelist, folklorist, and anthropologist, an expert in the study of Haitian life. The author of 35 books and plays and numerous scholarly articles, Courlander specialized in the study of African, Caribbean, Afro-American (U.S.), and Native American cultures. He took a special interest in oral literature, cults, and Afro-American cultural connections with Africa.

Life and work

Courlander was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, the son of noted American painter,[1] David Courlander of Detroit, Michigan. Courlander received a B.A. in English from the University of Michigan in 1931. At the University of Michigan, he received three Avery Hopwood Awards (one in drama and two in literary criticism). He attended graduate school at the University of Michigan and Columbia University. He spent time in the 1930s on a farm in Romeo, Michigan. There, he built a one-room log cabin in the woods where he spent much of his time writing.

With the prize money from the Hopwood Awards, Courlander took his first field trip to Haiti, inspired by the writings of William Buehler Seabrook. In 1939, he published his first book about Haitian life entitled Haiti Singing. Over the next 30 years, he traveled to Haiti more than 20 times. His research focused on religious practices, African retentions, oral traditions, folklore, music, and dance. His book, The Drum and the Hoe: Life and Lore of the Haitian People, published in 1960, became a classic text for the study of Haitian culture.

Courlander also took numerous field trips to the southern United States, recording folk music in the 1940s and 1950s. From 1947–1960, he served as a general editor of Ethnic Folkways Library (he actually devised the label name) and recorded more than 30 albums of music from different cultures (e.g., the cultures of Indonesia, Ethiopia, West Africa, Haiti, and Cuba). In 1950, he also did field recordings in Alabama later transcribed by John Benson Brooks.

In the 1960s, Courlander began a series of field trips to the American Southwest to study the oral literature and culture of the Hopi Indians. His collection of folk tales, People of the Short Blue Corn: Tales and Legends of the Hopi Indians, was issued in 1970 and was quickly recognized as an indispensable work in the study of oral literature.

From 1942-43, during World War II, Harold Courlander served as a historian for the Air Transport Command for the Douglas Aircraft Project 19 in Gura, Eritrea.[2] Courlander then worked as a writer and editor for the Office of War Information in New York City and Bombay, India, from 1943-46. From 1946 until 1956, he worked as a news writer and news analyst for the Voice of America in New York City. He was an information specialist and speech writer for the U.S. Mission to the United Nations from 1956–1957. He was a writer and editor for The United Nations Review from 1957–1960. From 1960 until 1974, Courlander was African specialist, Caribbean specialist, feature writer, and senior news analyst for the Voice of America in Washington, D.C.

Always sympathetic to the plight of animals, Courlander, in his later years would write with his rescued, mixed German Shepherd dog, Sandy, at his side. Even in the 1990s, Courlander still used the same Royal typewriter he had purchased in the 1940s. Courlander never learned typing as they teach it in school and always typed his manuscripts using two fingers.

Roots and plagiarism

Courlander wrote seven novels, his most famous being The African, published in 1967. The novel was the story of a slave's capture in Africa, his experiences aboard a slave ship, and his struggle to retain his native culture in a hostile new world. In 1978, Courlander filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, charging that Alex Haley, the author of Roots, had copied 81 passages from his novel.[3] Courlander's pre-trial memorandum in the copyright infringement lawsuit claimed:

"Defendant Haley had access to and substantially copied from The African. Without The African, Roots would have been a very different and less successful novel, and indeed it is doubtful that Mr. Haley could have written Roots without The African.... Mr. Haley copied language, thoughts, attitudes, incidents, situations, plot and character."[4]

The lawsuit did not allege that The African's plot was copied in its entirety, as the two novels differ in many plot points. Courlander's novel depicts a successful revolt on the slave ship, a shipwreck in the French colony of Saint-Domingue, a fugitive life as escaped slaves, recapture by French troops, and then transport to New Orleans in 1802. Haley's novel begins before the American Revolution, depicts disease striking down the slaves before they could revolt, and shows the ship arriving successfully in the British colony of Maryland. The copying in Roots was in the form of specific ideas and passages. For example, strikingly similar language is used to describe an infestation of lice on the slave ship:[5]

Courlander, The African Haley, Roots
To the damp sick foulness in the belly of the ship there came to be added another torture—lice. ... They crawled on the face and drank at the corners of the eyes. ... If the fingers caught the predator, it was killed between the fingernails.[6]:23 But the lice preferred to bite him on the face, and they would suck at the liquids in the corners of Kunta's eyes, or the snot draining from his nostrils. He would squirm his body, with his fingers darting and pinching to crush any lice that he might trap between his nails.[7]:226

In his Expert Witness Report submitted to federal court, Professor of English Michael Wood of Columbia University stated:

"The evidence of copying from The African in both the novel and the television dramatization of Roots is clear and irrefutable. The copying is significant and extensive. ... Roots... plainly uses The African as a model: as something to be copied at some times, and at other times to be modified, but always it seems, to be consulted. ... Roots takes from The African phrases, situations, ideas, aspects of style and plot. Roots finds in The African essential elements for its depiction of such things as a slave's thoughts of escape, the psychology of an old slave, the habits of mind of the hero, and the whole sense of life on an infamous slave ship. Such things are the life of a novel; and when they appear in Roots, they are the life of someone else's novel."[8]

During a five-week trial in federal district court, presiding U.S. District Court Judge Robert J. Ward stated, "Copying there is, period."[9] Passages from The African were found stapled to a manuscript page from Roots. However, Alex Haley maintained throughout the trial that he had not even heard of The African until the year after Roots was published, and speculated that someone else had given him the photocopied passages. After the trial, Joseph Bruchac, an instructor in black and African history at Skidmore College, stated that he had recommended Courlander's novel to Haley when he visited Skidmore in 1970. Bruchac remembered driving home three miles to fetch his own copy of The African and give it to Haley, who promised to read it "on the plane."[5]

Courlander and Haley settled the case out of court for $650,000 and a statement that "Alex Haley acknowledges and regrets that various materials from The African by Harold Courlander found their way into his book, Roots." [5]

Family life

Courlander married Ella Schneideman in 1939. They had one child, Erika Courlander. They later divorced.

Courlander married Emma Meltzer June 18, 1949. They had two children, Michael Courlander and Susan Jean Courlander.

Selected bibliography and discography



Folklore and folktales





Courlander produced numerous albums which were released on Folkways Records.

Awards, grants, fellowships, and honors

Courlander received numerous awards, grants, and fellowships during his lifetime, including:


  1. Americanart.si.edu
  2. "Chapter VII Aircraft Assembly and Delivery". History.army.mil. Archived from the original on 2012-04-12. The Douglas Aircraft Company had been selected in October 1941 to operate a British-aid air depot as contractor for the Air Corps within the framework of the North African Mission.
  3. Lescaze, Lee; Saperstein, Sandra (December 15, 1978). "Bethesda Author Settles Roots Suit". The Washington Post. p. A1.
  4. Kaplan, Robert; Buckman, Harry; Kilsheimer, Richard (October 17, 1978). "Plaintiffs' Pre-Trial Memorandum and Proposed Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law". United States District Court, Southern District of New York; Harold Courlander, et ano., v. Alex Haley, et al. p. 1, Vol. I.
  5. 1 2 3 Stanford, Phil (April 8, 1979). "Roots and Grafts on the Haley Story". The Washington Star. pp. F1, F4.
  6. Courlander, Harold (1993). The African (1st Owl Book ed.). New York: Holt. ISBN 9780805030006.
  7. Haley, Alex (2007). Roots : the saga of an American family (The 30th anniversary ed.). New York: Vanguard Books. ISBN 9781593154493.
  8. Kaplan, Robert; Buckman, Harry; Kilsheimer, Richard (October 17, 1978). "Plaintiffs' Pre-Trial Memorandum and Proposed Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law". United States District Court, Southern District of New York; Harold Courlander, et ano., v. Alex Haley, et al. p. Woods 13, Vol. III.
  9. "Trial Transcript, United States District Court, Southern District of New York; Harold Courlander, et ano., v. Alex Haley, et al". 1978. p. 1327.

External links

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