The Harold Courlanders might have posed for a Norman Rockwell canvas, fixed expressions on weathered faces. Only the eyes, with the faintest glisten of excitement, tell something special has happened. Yesterday morning the telephone was ringing off the hook but they didn't give any outward indication that it was anything but an ordinary day. The dog, Sandy, barked at all the footsteps outside the small, two-story home in Bethesda. Emma Courlander, an apron tied around her waist, seved coffee from an old-fashioned aluminum precolator. Michael Courlander, 27, lounged on the dining room rug. And Harold Courlander walked around in his brown ankle-high boots, gray plaid pants and gray leisure jacket.
However, it wasn't an ordinary day. The afternoon before, Courlander, a writer and folklorist for 40 years, had settled a copyright infringement suit against Alex Haley.
Courlander had slain the dragon, so to speak, gaining a reported $500,000 and an acknowledgement from Haley that three portions of his family's saga, "Roots" had come from Courlander's work "The African."
Most of the calls were from the press. Some were not. And some of those Courlander, almost hesitant to categorize them, called "nasty."
"In a way I had anticipated it. But my writing life has been devoted to explaining back culture to people," said Courtlander, 70, slowly. "I don't feel I have taken anything away from someone."
Almost 10 years after Harold Courlander's 23rd book. "The African," was published, "Roots" came out. Initially, Courlander insisted, he didn't pay much attention to the poignant story of Alex Haley's search for his ancestors. Nor did he give the publicity hype or readers' reaction, both of them saturating and emotional, a second thought.
Then Courlander, like millions of other Americans, put his feet up on his green leather hassock one cold January evening in 1977 and watched the television adaptation of Haley's best seller. At firs tCourlander was entertained, then curious about similarities to his own work, then shocked. (SECTION) omething was definitely amiss," says Courlander.
He bought a copy of "Roots" Five months later, Courlander filed a suit charging Haley with copyright infringement. Earlier this week, after six weeks of arduous court testimony in New York, Courlander won an out-of-court settlement and Haley admitted that some of "The African," in his words, "found their way" into "Roots".
"My judgment is vindicated," says Courlander, his voice high of volume but spare of sentiment. "I use the old English common-law phrase 'right was done.' It's literary justice. I am not talking about justice for the whole world but about something creative I had worked on. Something I created is the most valuable possession I have. The problem for me, with all of this, is gaining creative retribution with dollars."
That's Harold Courlander's manner, perhaps self-righteous for some, but the philosophy of a writer who produced 30 books simply because he enjoyed it, of a craftsman who feels money corrupts the art, and of a man who feels publicity is an intrusion.
"The African" and "Roots" do have gneric similarities. They both start in an African village, where the life is simple and cohesive. A young man gains his manhood status, then is captured by the slave hunters, and struggles to keep his African identity in his unchosen land.
"The African," just under 300 pages, doesn't have a saga of research similar to Haley's 12-year history of uncovering records and writing. Also, Courlander has earned $28,000 from the two editions of his book and Haley earned a reported $2.6 million on hardback royalties alone. "It was an accumulation of things I knew. That's how I usually write. I sit down at the typewriter and let spill with all the infromation that's trying to get out of me," says Courlander.
Getting his book published, even in the mid-1960s when black materials were a cashbox commodity for booksellers, wasn't as easy as the writing. "I felt very good about the book because it had a new and fresh point of view. The African told his story. But I had some trouble convinving people, my agent for one, who said 'all this African stuff, maybe you should eliminate it.' It took me six to eight months to find a home for that book," Courlander recalls. After a dozen rejections, Crown picked it up.
"The African," his most successful book, is only one of the many books about black culture that Courlander has produced. A native of Indianapolis, Ind., Courlander grew up in Detroit, Mich., always wanted to be a writer and always gravitated toward this country's minority folklore. At the University of Michigan at An Arbor, Courlander wrote a play about a rural southern chain gang. It was his first published work.
Off he went to New York, sharing an apartmet on 10th Street with two aspiring actors, "eating an awful lot of oatmeal," and waiting for an editor like Maxwell Perkins to discover him. Instead, he found a literary agent at Leland Hayward's firm and a part-time job in Macy's toy department. His career was pushed by a Guggenheim fellowship, and he studied in Haiti for a year. In 1939, his first book, "Haiti Singing," was published, followed the next year by a novel "The Caballero."
Since his books (some other titles are "The Fourth World of the Hopis" and "The Big Old World of Richard Creeks,") didn't pay the rent, Courlander joined the 9 tp 5 crowd. For 20 years he worked as a newswriter and analyat for the Voice of America, three years at the United Nations, and briefly during World War II, for Douglass Aircraft in East Africa.
When the "Roots" fever was spreading in the fall of 1976, Courlander was sitting down to start a novel on the Arizona natvie Americans. His last published work, "The Mesa of Flowers" was based on American Indian folklore.
Then, completely immersed in his suit against Haley, Courlander kept comiling similarities of words and passages. 'My attitude varied, sometimes I got irritated, and honestly, resentful," Courlander says. He takes off his glasses and rubs his eyes. The six weeks of testimony were clearly draining. "Sometimes I was amused at some of the material Haley wanted use."
Yet, as Haley garnered international fame and literary honors, Courlander says he wa "never jealous." The pipe has gone out and he doesn't bother to relight it. "Every year someone makes it big. I don't begrudge Haley his success."