Harold Courlander

Harold Courlander

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 American Indian 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, 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 would spend 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, "", 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, "", 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. Courlander then worked as a writer and editor for the Office of War Information in New York 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.

Awards, grants and honors

Courlander received numerous awards, grants, and fellowships during his lifetime, including:
* Guggenheim Fellowships and Grants in 1948, 1953, and 1958;
* Wenner-Gren Foundation Grants for Anthropological Research in 1956, 1960, 1962, and 1970;
* Franz Boas Fund Grant, 1939;
* Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal Nomination for Contributions to Children's Literature in 1979;
* American Library Association "Best Books for Young Adults" list in 1969 for his book, "The African";
* Parents' Choice "Remarkable" Award in 1982 for his book, "The Crest and The Hide";
* The Newbery Honor Book Award in 1948 for his book, "The Cow-Tail Switch and Other West African Stories" (with George Herzog).

Courlander received the Outstanding Achievement Award from the University of Michigan in 1984.

Family life

Courlander married Ella Schneideman in 1939. They had only one child, Erika Courlander. Then they later divorced. Courlander married Emma Meltzer June 18, 1949. They had two children, Michael Courlander and Susan Jean Courlander.

"Roots" and the Issue of 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 went to the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of New York, charging Alex Haley of "" with plagiarism of "The African". Citing appropriation of more than 80 passages from "The African", Courlander's pre-trial memorandum in the copyright infringement lawsuit stated: "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."

In his report submitted to the court in this lawsuit, Professor of English and expert witness on plagiarism, 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 of 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."

After a five-week trial in federal district court, Courlander and Haley settled the case [cite news | author=Fein, Esther B. | title=Book Notes | work=The New York Times | url=http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F00613FC3E580C708CDDAA0894DB494D81 | date=March 3, 1993] , with Haley making a financial settlement 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"." [cite news | author=Crowley, Anne S. | title=Research Help Supplies Backbone for Haley's Book | work=Chicago Tribune | url=http://pqasb.pqarchiver.com/chicagotribune/access/25059144.html?dids=25059144:25059144&FMT=ABS&FMTS=ABS:FT&type=current&date=Oct+24%2C+1985&author=Anne+S+Crowley%2C+Associated+Press&pub=Chicago+Tribune+(pre-1997+Fulltext)&edition=&startpage=10.H&desc=RESEARCH+HELP+SUPPLIES+BACKBONE+FOR+HALEY%27S+BOOK | date=October 24, 1985]

During the trial, presiding U.S. District Court Judge Robert J. Ward stated, "Copying there is, period." In a later interview with BBC Television, Judge Ward stated, "Alex Haley perpetrated a hoax on the public."

During the trial, Alex Haley had maintained that he had not read "The African" before writing "Roots". Shortly after the trial, however, Joseph Bruchac, an instructor of black literature at Skidmore College, came forward to swear in an affidavit that in 1970 or 1971 (five or six years before the publication of "Roots") he had discussed "The African" with Haley and had, in fact, given his "own personal copy of "The African" to Mr. Haley."


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