Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
Jonathan Eig is primarily known for writing about sports figures, but in his most recent book, titled King: A Life, he veers off the familiar path to explore the life of Martin Luther King Jr. The first major biography of the man written in decades, it explores his personal, political and religious life, the many demons he had to wrestle with, and even includes new information from recently-declassified FBI documents.
Table of contents
Jonathan Eig Recreates an Immortal Journey
Many are the factors which move history along its path, and one of the more prominent ones is the existence of powerful people, leaders capable of rallying millions to their causes, directing their actions and ambitions. In some cases those people turned out to be for the worst, but in others they elevated humanity as a whole, and Jonathan Eig examines the life of such a person in King: A Life.
Though perhaps the style of the narration might lead one to believe otherwise (more on this topic further down below), this is a non-fiction book, a biography detailing the life of Martin Luther King Jr. as well as various members of his family. It is the first major biographical work of the man written in decades, and has much to give a new generation of readers.
Essentially treating King‘s life as a grand odyssey, Jonathan Eig explores it inside out, starting with his formative years, with special attention paid to the people who surrounded him and the demons they themselves had to struggle with. From there on out we see him growing into a man, bearing witness and being victim to many injustices along the way, inevitably shaping him into the civil rights icon he is today.
Naturally, King‘s political activism is put under the spotlight and steals the show from the moment it is introduced, and the author takes his time in making the reader understand not only what happened, but perhaps more importantly, why it took place the way it did. From the many peaceful protests and timeless speeches to his tragic assassination by James Earl Ray, the author aims to leave no stone unturned.
Taking a step further than many biographies and school textbooks, Jonathan Eig also dedicates a good part of the book to piercing the troubled and enigmatic and inner world of King. He aims to understand what he was truly like as a person, what drove him to unprecedented heights, and what darkness nibbled away at him when nobody else was looking.
The Authenticity and Honesty of King: A Life
There is a tendency to curate history, to beautify and polish up our icons while vilifying and dehumanizing those who stood against common values. Though perhaps there is a school of thought to justify such an approach, I don’t think it can be argued that it prevents a real and accurate picture of the past from being projected into the present.
When it comes to Martin Luther King Jr., I think it’s apparent that many have bestowed upon him some sort of divine aura, almost treating him like a saint who ate, drank and breathed justice. In King: A Life, Jonathan Eig does a lot to remove the halo from his head, instead aiming to show him as the real human being he was.
I think the author succeeds at communicating just how deeply mired in self-doubt King really was, how his insecurities were constantly chipping away at him, and how his bouts of depression made his life into a living hell (in addition to everything else happening). Ultimately, we get to see him not as a larger-than-life angel who descended from the Heavens for the sake of civil rights, but as a human being like you and I, with his share of the struggle to contend with.
Now, why exactly does he take this approach? What is the point of showing the man’s darker side (as well as his numerous extramarital affairs)? In my opinion, the reason is twofold. For one, history deserves to be told in as truthful a way as possible, with no details passed over for the sake of convenience.
Second, it adds an authenticity to King‘s life story, to see it laid bare before us in all honesty, the good, bad, and the ugly. In turn, seeing the tremendous amount of flaws which coloured his personality makes him a much more relatable figure, at least, that’s the case for me compared to when I was learning about him in school. In his book, Jonathan Eig shows him as a regular human being who, in spite of it all, accomplished something extraordinary, and in my opinion this is perhaps the most heroic and inspiring portrayal which can be done of any great person, staying true to reality.
Living in a Thriller
With boring and monotone history books having fallen out of style ages ago, pretty much any author dipping his foot in the genre must have strong narrative capabilities. They need to have the often under-valued ability of telling the truth in an exciting way, without ever compromising the accuracy of the events they are recounting.
Jonathan Eig certainly belongs to the exclusive club of authors who have mastered the art of narrating historical books, which perhaps isn’t too surprising considering his entire body of work. From the very first pages I found myself gripped, with even the most innocuous details and unimportant people made interesting through perceptive observations and ruminations.
The sheer amount of people surrounding King as well as the hectic nature of his life made it a fairly fast-paced and highly-condensed affair, which from a writer’s perspective, translates fairly well into a book, especially one narrated like a thriller. Indeed, there were many instances where developments were unfolding so quickly and dramatically I actually forgot I was reading a work of non-fiction, and not the latest and greatest suspense thriller around.
The further we get into the book, the more it feels like the pace ramps up and the stakes increase, especially when we start getting to his later campaigns and being targeted by J. Edgar Hoover‘s FBI in a campaign of harassment and endless vilification. Even though we all already know how his real story ends, Jonathan Eig manages to make the journey there an unforgettable heart-pounding ride.
What I ultimately took away from it, is that King: A Life isn’t just the story of a man and his deeds, but a story which extends beyond that, an account of human courage in the face of unimaginably overwhelming odds. In the face of death threats, bomb threats, assassination attempts, and endless harassment, he stood tall and brazenly spoke out against injustice, all while waging a secret war against the darkness within. However one might choose to remember him, the facts about his life might have very well earned him the moniker of a modern founding father.
|Farrar, Straus and Giroux
|May 16 2023
The Final Verdict
King: A Life by Jonathan Eig is, in every sense of the word, a superb biography of an icon many know of, but actually know little about (like myself, before I read the book). This history book reads like a thriller, stays true to reality without following an agenda, and contains a veritable wealth of information, including recently-declassified FBI documents.
If you’ve ever wanted to know more about Martin Luther King Jr.‘s life and the mountains he managed to move in spite of himself and the world around him, then I honestly think this is the all-around best biography ever written of the man.
Jonathan Eig is an American journalist and biographer who has, so far, authored six books, with the most recent of them being King: A Life, published in 2023, detailing the life of Martin Luther King Jr. His other books have won him numerous awards, including the 2005 Casey Award for Luckiest Man, the 2018 PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sports Writing for Ali: A Life, a book which was also named the 2018 Sports Book of the Year by the British Sports Book Awards.