Skip to content Skip to footer

Book review: “King: A Life” by Jonathan Eig

At the end of 2023, Jonathan Eig’s King: A Life was prominent on many best-of-the-year lists, but not on mine.

This may be evidence of my wrong-headedness.  Still, I can’t honestly say I liked the book.

Eig is a prodigious researcher, and I came away from his book feeling that he devoted such a great amount of space to his research discoveries that Martin Luther King Jr., the man and the leader, had gotten lost.

For instance, in the first hundred pages of the book, Eig spends a good deal of space on King’s plagiarism in a contest entry, a sermon, a college paper and his dissertation.  Similarly, in later sections of the book, Eig seems to be attempting to document as many of King’s extramarital affairs as possible.

Don’t get me wrong.  Any biographer of King needs to address his tendency early in life to plagiarize as well as, later, his marital infidelity.  Eig lists a lot of these occurrences but doesn’t synthesize them into his portrait of King.  However, that is the job of a biographer, it seems to me.

Context?

Eig never steps back and thinks about what it means that a great religious leader was also a plagiarizer and a philanderer.  Nor does he put such “sins” in context, such as addressing how common in academia and the church world was plagiarism at the time and how many other public figures were also unfaithful to their wives.

In fact, King: A Life is short on synthesis and analysis and long on putting down a lot of facts.

In Eig’s first chapters detailing the early years of King, he quotes heavily from an unpublished memoir of King’s father.  This is one of Eig’s research coups.  But he doesn’t integrate the memoir into the other sources of those years.  He pushes it to the fore of his narrative, more than it deserves, it seems to me.

To show he had found it

Other coups include a great deal of internal documents from the FBI that show the agency and its director J. Edgar Hoover were out to get King as well as many presidential recordings of conversations between Lyndon Johnson and King and others.

Often, it appeared that Eig was quoting an FBI memo or an LBJ tape transcript at length in order to show he had found it when, in the hands of another biographer, a small section of the document might be used in the context of other information.  And, really, does the reader need to know every little earnest FBI field report and snide Hoover comment?

Lets the reader analyze and synthesize

Eig’s approach to presenting King’s life, especially after he became an acknowledged civil rights leader, is to follow his subject on an almost day-by-day basis.  At times, the story seems to become simply a list of cities that King is traveling to.

Here and there in the book, Eig will quote someone who has something to say about King and his motivations, such as his close advisor Stanley Levison:

In an interview years later, Levison would describe King as a deeply guilt-ridden man, overwhelmed by a sense of responsibility and depressed by feelings of inadequacy.

To which, I wrote a note to myself: “What does Eig think?”

This is a book in which Eig gathers a great amount of information and puts it onto the page and lets it sit there for the reader to analyze and synthesize. 

The book Eig wrote

That’s a legitimate approach to biography-writing, I guess.  In this case, however, it left me with a chaotic flood of impressions.

That might, in fact, mirror the experience of King himself as he tried to run herd on the civil rights movement.  Yet, chaos is just chaos, and it doesn’t help me get much of a sense of the man who was trying to deal with the chaos.

I would have preferred a more insightful book, a book in which Eig had taken all the chaos of King’s life and shaped it into a portrait of the man.  That isn’t the book Eig wrote.

Patrick T. Reardon

1.11.24

Leave a comment