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Scholar of the Week

Robert J. Norrell

Robert J. Norrell

Robert J. Norrell, professor and Bernadotte Schmitt Chair of Excellence in the Department of History, is publishing three books in the fall of 2015. One that will be of particularly interest in Tennessee is a biography, Alex Haley and the Books that Changed a Nation, which covers the rise to national celebrity and great literary influence of Haley. It will be released November 10. Haley was born in Henning, Tennessee and died in 1992 while living in Knoxville. He wrote The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Roots, each of which sold six million books. Norrell argues that Haley’s books were the most influential and widely read works of African-American history in the twentieth century. Together they changed the way Americans, black and white, understood the black experience. Norrell will be featured in a forthcoming profile in Publisher’s Weekly for the Haley book and his other writing.

A second work, Tuckeleechee Cove: Faces of the Past, co-written with the anthropologist Boyce Driskell and just out from the University of Tennessee Press, is the history of an Appalachian community over several millennia. Those familiar with the village of Townsend and the “peaceful side of the Smokies” will appreciate this combination of history and anthropology.

Norrell’s third book will be of most interest to professional historians of American race relations and European colonialism in Africa. It is entitled A Scholarly Analysis of Andrew Zimmerman’s Alabama in Africa, A Major Work of Transnational History: How Ideological Commitments Corrupt Understanding.

Norrell is often asked to speak on issues of civil rights. During the fall of 2015, he will speak at the Pioneer Institute in Boston, Varick Memorial Church in New Haven, Connecticut, and Tuskegee University on the life and philosophy of Booker Washington.

Since appointed to the Bernadotte Schmitt Chair of Excellence in 1998, Norrell published The House I Live In: Race in the American Century, which received wide praise in 2005. His 2009 biography, Up from History: the Life of Booker T. Washington, won national acclaim. He is the author of eight other books and twenty-six scholarly articles.

In 2012 Norrell published his first historical novel, Eden Rise. Allen Wier, University of Tennessee novelist in residence emeritus, wrote about Norrell and Eden Rise: “A noted scholar of Southern history…Norrell is also a fine fiction writer. His keen sense of place and the nuances of character take the reader vividly back to the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s.” The South Carolina novelist George Singleton said Norrell “summoned the exemplary storytelling voices of both Harper Lee and John Grisham, then swirled them into one of the best Civil Rights-era novels…Norrell knows the landscape, the people, and the inexorable beliefs of 1960s Alabama. I guarantee that anyone who reads the first chapter will postpone whatever he or she has planned–childbirth, major surgery, a family reunion–in order to find out what happens to Tom McKee.”

Norrell has won prestigious awards. His Reaping the Whirlwind: The Civil Rights Movement in Tuskegee won the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award in 1986. He held the Mellon Research Fellowship in American History in 1984-85 at the University of Cambridge and the Fulbright Distinguished Chair in American Studies at the University of Tuebingen, Germany, in 2010-11. He has received two writing fellowships from the Social Philosophy and Policy Center at Bowling Green University. The Heartland Institute and the Booker T. Washington Society have given him special awards for his contributions to the understanding and appreciation of the Tuskegee leader.

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