Centennial Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Published two years after his nonfiction examination of the Kent State University shootings—Kent State: What Happened and Why (1971)—Centennial returns to the genre upon which Michener’s reputation rests. Like Hawaii and The Source, Centennial is a fascinating blend of historical fact and fiction. Unlike his previous novels, though, which are set in exotic lands, Centennial takes place in the continental United States.

In Centennial, Michener employs the same type of narrative artifice that he used in The Source, but which he believed was unnecessary in Chesapeake, The Covenant, and Space (1982). The contemporary presenter of the historical episodes in this novel is the fictional Professor Lewis Vernor, who is commissioned by US magazine to validate a series of articles on a town in Colorado called Centennial.

As in Hawaii, Michener provides a dramatic and historically verifiable explanation of how the land was created and populated. It is in his exposition of the prehistory of Colorado that Michener introduces two themes that run through the entire novel: the survival of the fittest and the persistence of the past into the present. The first human inhabitants of Colorado followed the woolly mammoths across a land bridge from Asia to Alaska thirteen thousand years ago. Michener then moves to the second half of the eighteenth century to introduce the progenitor of many of the characters in the novel, Lame Beaver, who inadvertently makes the area attractive to white men when his golden bullet falls into their hands.

Despite the plethora of Indian lore that Michener provides, Lame Beaver’s story is strangely uninteresting. The thrilling exploits of the first two white men who come on the scene, however—Jacques Pasquinel, a trapper, and Alexander McKeag, a fugitive from Scotland—help to bring the novel alive in chapter 5. McKeag, Pasquinel’s fellow trapper, is a much more complex character; he breaks with Pasquinel after a knife fight with Pasquinel’s half-breed son, Jake. This dispute foreshadows the racial tensions that permeate the remainder of the novel.

The following two chapters document the two forces that contributed to the vanquishing of the culture of the American Indians: the settlers and the United States government. The central character of chapter 7 is Levi Zendt, a former member of a Pennsylvania Dutch community who is ostracized for flirting with his brother’s girlfriend. In his flight from injustice, Levi bears an ironic resemblance to the Indians in chapter 8 who are forced to leave their homeland after their treaties are broken. The courage of Levi and his sixteen-year-old bride, Elly, is underscored by their naïveté, which is revealed...

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Centennial Bibliography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Anthony, Arthur. “Avoiding Nostalgia: James Michener’s The Bridge at Andau.” Literature and the Arts 5, no. 1 (Spring/Summer, 1993): 47-53.

Becker, George. James A. Michener. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1983.

Beidler, Philip D. “South Pacific and American Remembering: Or, ’Josh, We’re Going to Buy This Son of a Bitch!’” Journal of American Studies 27, no. 2 (August, 1993): 207-222.

Bell, Pearl K. “James Michener’s Docudramas.” Commentary 71 (April, 1981): 71-73.

Grobel, Lawrence. Talking with Michener. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1999.

Hayes, John P. James Michener: A Biography. New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1984.

Hines, Samuel M., Jr. “Political Change in America: Perspectives from the Popular Historical Novels of Michener and Vidal.” In Political Mythology and Popular Fiction, edited by Ernest J. Yanarella and Lee Seligman. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988.

Michener, James. “Historical Fiction.” American Heritage 33 (April/May, 1982): 44-48.

Osterholm, J. Roger. “Michener’s Space, the Novel and Miniseries: A Study in Popular Culture.” Journal of Popular Culture 23, no. 3 (Winter, 1989): 51-64.

Severson, Marilyn S. James A. Michener: A Critical Companion. New York: Greenwood Press, 1996.