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Jonathan Eig, author of “The King”


The Chicago literary scene is surely good for a great book or two every year.

Or three or four.

But this year was so rich with memorable works by locals, foreigners, or just Chicago enthusiasts that you could spend 12 months reading only Chicago-centric books and come away sated. Ambitious contemporary novels (Catherine Lacey’s “Book of X,” Gabriel Bump’s “The New Naturals”). Unfortunately, journalism is underrated (Ben Austen’s “Correction”, Alejandra Oliva’s “Rivermouth”). High-voltage movies (“Whalefall” by Daniel Kraus, “I Have Some Questions for You” by Rebecca Makkai). Smart historical fiction (“Good Night, Irene” by Luis Alberto Urrea, “From Dust to Stardust” by Kathleen Rooney). Surrealist dystopias (Daniel Clowes’s “Monica,” James Kennedy’s “The Hurricane’s Bride”). Folk horror film (“The Shoemaker’s Wizard” by Cynthia Pelayo).

Then there was Jonathan Eig.

It’s one thing to have a book that is universally liked and sells; It’s another thing for this book to change perceptions of worn-out American history, seemingly in real time. Eig’s book, “King: A Life,” was published in May, and within weeks columnists and reporters were reporting that the Lakeview author was referring to Martin Luther King Jr. He set out to check out whether his epic biography about him was transformative. It was the first major King biopic in decades and, according to the New York Times, the “definitive” one. Here was a King who admired Malcolm X (contrary to the textbooks) and was seriously feared by the United States government. Eig writes that he is the neutered, benevolent figure of national holidays and bipartisan platitudes—historical support calcified in the “gray fog of hagiography”—but a shrewd tactician with “demands, not wishes.” As Eig told me recently, “Even at Moorehouse College (King’s alma mater), where I assumed everyone knew the deeper story, after talking to 1,500 undergraduates, I would have these 20- and 21-year-old students come up and say: King’s “They had no idea what he was going through, that he was plagiarizing in college, or how vulnerable and difficult he could be.”

In the book’s opening pages, Eig fears that his portrait “might offend some people.”

“I was rightfully concerned,” he said. “And looking back, I see that my fears were not justified. Many people I heard from were too numbed by the Hallmark King and the ‘I Have a Dream’ King to be interested in him as a person, and they seemed to admire him even more.”

Seven months later, “King: A Life” reached its ninth printing, selling 60,000 copies, according to publishers Farrar, Straus and Giroux; This is an impressive figure for a history of nearly 700 pages. It was also nominated for a National Book Award and looks likely to be nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in the spring. That’s not all: Universal Pictures has acquired the rights to the film, which will be produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by Chris Rock.

Eig, who spent much of the year traveling the country discussing King at colleges and churches (including the Baptist church King attended in Pennsylvania), said the success of “King: A Life” was life-changing. Although he’s a respected biographer who finds new things to say about long-established historical figures (Al Capone, Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali), Eig, who’s already working on a follow-up, doubts everything he thinks. He writes that the next article will be this big.

“I don’t tend to be dramatic about these things, but look, I was in New York last Monday and had lunch with eight Episcopal priests and two bishops. And I am Jewish. I’m booked to perform at the Apollo next month!”

Are you playing at the Apollo Theater in Harlem?

“Certainly! So James Brown, Ella Fitzgerald, and now… Jonathan Eig?”



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