Tutuola was born in Abeokuta, Nigeria, in 1920, where his parents Charles and Esther were Yoruba Christian cocoa farmers. When about seven years old, he became a servant for F. O. Monu, an Igbo man, who sent Tutuola to the Salvation Army primary school in lieu of wages. At age 12 he attended the Anglican Central School in Abeokuta. His brief education was limited to six years (from 1934 to 1939). When his father died in 1939, Tutuola left school to train as a blacksmith, which trade he practised from 1942 to 1945 for the Royal Air Force in Nigeria. He subsequently tried a number of other vocations, including selling bread and acting as messenger for the Nigerian Department of Labor. In 1946, Tutuola completed his first full-length book, The Palm-Wine Drinkard, within a few days. In 1947 he married Victoria Alake, with whom he had four sons and four daughters.
Despite his short formal education, Tutuola wrote his novels in English. After he had written his first three books and become internationally famous, he joined the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation in 1956 as a storekeeper in Ibadan, Western Nigeria. Tutuola also became one of the founders of the Mbari Club, the writers' and publishers' organization. In 1979, he held a visiting research fellowship at the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) at Ile-Ife, Nigeria, and in 1983 he was an associate of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. In retirement he divided his time between residences at Ibadan and Ago-Odo.
Tutuola died at the age of 77 on 8 June 1997 from hypertension and diabetes.
Many of his papers, letters, and holographic manuscripts have been collected at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas, Austin.
Tutuola's most famous novel, The Palm-Wine Drinkard and his Dead Palm-Wine Tapster in the Deads' Town, was written in 1946, first published in 1952 in London by Faber and Faber, then translated and published in Paris as L'Ivrogne dans la brousse by Raymond Queneau in 1953. The noted poet Dylan Thomas brought it to wide attention, calling it "brief, thronged, grisly and bewitching". Although the book was praised in England and the United States, it faced severe criticism in Tutuola's native Nigeria. Part of this criticism was due to his use of "broken English" and primitive style, which supposedly promoted the Western stereotype of "African backwardness". This line of criticism has, however, lost steam. In the opinion of Taban Lo Liyong:
Now, in all that he has done, Amos Tutuola is not sui generis. Is he ungrammatical? Yes. But James Joyce is more ungrammatical than Tutuola. Ezekiel Mphahlele has often said and written that African writers are doing violence to English. Violence? Has Joyce not done more violence to the English Language? Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn is written in seven dialects, he tells us. It is acknowledged a classic. We accept it, forget that it has no "grammar", and go ahead to learn his "grammar" and what he has to tell us. Let Tutuola write "no grammar" and the hyenas and jackals whine and growl. Let Gabriel Okara write a "no grammar" Okolo. They are mum. Why? Education drives out of the mind superstition, daydreaming, building of castles in the air, cultivation of yarns, and replaces them with a rational practical mind, almost devoid of imagination. Some of these minds having failed to write imaginative stories, turn to that aristocratic type of criticism which magnifies trivialities beyond their real size. They fail to touch other virtues in a work because they do not have the imagination to perceive these mysteries. Art is arbitrary. Anybody can begin his own style. Having begun it arbitrarily, if he persists to produce in that particular mode, he can enlarge and elevate it to something permanent, to something other artists will come to learn and copy, to something the critics will catch up with and appreciate.
Professor Omolara Ogundipe-Leslie in her own reassessment wrote in The Journal of Commonwealth Studies:
What commands acclaim is Tutuola's use of his materials, chosen from all and sundry, and minted to make something beautiful, new and undeniably his own. He has handled his material with all of the skill of the good story teller and he has been able to endow it with the qualities of a "well-told-tale". His denigrators who think it devastating to name him a mere folktale-teller must realize that not all folktale-tellers are necessarily good. In The Palm-Wine Drinkard, Tutuola has infused the life of his hybrid with the energies of a well-wrought tale. There is the urgency in the telling, the rapidity, indispensable to the Quest-motif, with which life unrolls itself; the fertility of incidents; the successful maintenance of our interest through the varying scenes. And the good-story teller is ever present in The Palm-Wine Drinkard, speaking to us in warm human tones, genial, good-natured and unpretentious.
O. R. Dathorne additionally said:
Tutuola deserves to be considered seriously because his work represents an intentional attempt to fuse folklore with modern life. In this way he is unique, not only in Africa, where the sophisticated African writer is incapable of this tenuous and yet controlled connection, but in Europe as well, where this kind of writing is impossible.
J. P. Sartre, contrasting poetry in French by Frenchmen and Africans, had this to say:
It is almost impossible for our poets to realign themselves with popular tradition. Ten centuries of erudite poetry separate them from it. And, further, the folkloric inspiration is dried up: at most we could merely contrive a sterile facsimile.
The more Westernized African is placed in the same position. When he does introduce folklore into his writing it is more in the nature of a gloss; in Tutuola it is intrinsic.
Professor Wole Soyinka wrote in 1963:
Of all his novels, The Palm-Wine Drinkard remains his best and the least impeachable. This book, apart from the work of D. O. Fagunwa, who writes in Yoruba, is the earliest instance of the new Nigerian writer gathering multifarious experience under, if you like, the two cultures, and exploiting them in one extravagant, confident whole.
The Palm-Wine Drinkard was followed up by My Life in the Bush of Ghosts in 1954 and then several other books in which Tutuola continued to explore Yoruba traditions and folklore. Strangely, the narrative of The Palm-Wine Drinkard refers back to The Bush of Ghosts several times, even though the latter was written and published later. However, none of the subsequent works managed to match the success of The Palm Wine Drinkard.
The name of a detective on the television show Law & Order: Special Victims Unit is Odafin Tutuola. In the first pages of the introduction of The Palm Wine Drinkard, Michael Thelwell writes that the author's grandfather was an odafin, a spiritual leader, and Tutuola was the given name of Amos Tutuola's father.
Brian Eno and David Byrne took the title of the novel My Life in the Bush of Ghosts for their 1981 album.
One of the characters of the gamebook The Race Forever, from the Choose Your Own Adventure collection, is named after Amos Tutuola.
In 2015 Society of Young Nigerian Writers under the leadership of Wole Adedoyin founded Amos Tutuola Literary Society (www.amostutuolaliterarysociety.blogspot.com) aim at promoting and reading the works of Amos Tutuola