As with so many things, the success of Nigerian author Chinua Achebe is best understood in reverse. One of the most influential writers of the 20th century began his career at 28 with a novel that was anything but an instant classic

Achebe, who died recently at 82, is best known for the impact he made on the world’s understanding of Africa with his first book, “Things Fall Apart.” In its obituary of Achebe, the Associated Press notes that the novel was rejected multiple times, and that only 2,000 copies of the first edition were printed.

Its initial review in The New York Times ran less than 500 words, but the novel soon became among the most important books of the 20th century, a universally acknowledged starting point for postcolonial, indigenous African fiction, the prophetic union of British letters and African oral culture. …“Things Fall Apart” has sold more than 8 million copies worldwide and has been translated into more than 50 languages. — Read the full AP obituary

The Washington Post’s review was even more succinct, running just over 100 words:

Customs and mores of other cultures are always fascinating. A 28-year-old Nigerian writer, Chinua Achebe, takes us inside his world in his first novel, THINGS FALL APART (McDowell, Obolensky). Mr. Achebe, writing in English, tells us the story of Okonkwo in the deceptively simple language of folklore. Okonkwo, who yearns to be the great man of his tribe, is instead doomed to failure and exile, for he believes that cruelty and suppression of emotion mean strength.
When misfortune befalls him, Okonkwo blames his “chi,” his personal god, but author Achebe’s message is clear – that there is a parallel between Okonkwo in his 19th century Nigerian clan governed by gods and ritualism, and 20th century man in a moon-ridden world. – VIVIAN YUDKIN, Feb. 22, 1959

Achebe himself, profiled by The Post’s Bob Thompson in 2008, said he was astonished by the worldwide success of “Things Fall Apart.”

“I don’t think there was anybody who would have thought that up,” he replies. “If anyone did, I would say they were out of their mind.”
At this, the writer who changed the way the world looked at Africa throws back his head and laughs. Read the full profile

If only we could all be so humble.

Read more: