James A. Michener Essay - Critical Essays

James A. Michener American Literature Analysis

Michener is certainly one of the most successful and unique writers of fiction of the twentieth century. Unlike many best-selling authors, Michener amassed a huge following, not by filling his novels with gratuitous sex and violence, but by writing huge, carefully researched books that create their own universes. Each of his epic novels gives the reader a Weltanschauung, or a view of life, through the myriad details he presents pertaining to the history, archaeology, religion, language, geology, wildlife, agriculture, and social and economic lore of a region. Michener’s background as an educator is reflected in this factual quality of his books, which has made each one a “history course” for the average American, many of whom have little time or interest to delve into history books. By reading Michener’s novels, one can learn a great deal without much effort.

It is the epic quality of Michener’s fiction, however, that has brought him under fire from the critics. His desire to involve his characters in as many historical events as possible results in what many perceive to be contrived situations. In addition, the vast time frames that his novels span give Michener little room for character development. Thus, his characters are often stereotypes or one-dimensional beings who converse in somewhat stilted dialogue. Even though Michener has never claimed to be a stylist such as John Updike or Saul Bellow, critics have lambasted his workmanlike prose, which is devoid of paradox, irony, or ambiguity. Moreover, because Michener interprets facts as he gives them, he has been accused of preaching to his readers, telling them how to think about historical events.

Michener’s mass appeal, however, indicates that the general public has overlooked these shortcomings. Not only do many people feel enlightened by his facts, but they are also enthralled by his themes. The fact that Michener possessed a blend of liberal and conservative tendencies helped him reach out to a broad audience.

Racial discrimination is a moral issue in all of Michener’s novels except for The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1953) and The Drifters. In Hawaii (1959), Michener attributes the zeal of the missionaries and their descendants in Hawaii to an implicit belief in the superiority of white Christianity and the ways of the Western world. This ideological conflict intensifies with the arrival of Chinese, Japanese, and Polynesian immigrants to Japan. In The Source (1965), Michener points out that the Hebrews’ faith in their status as God’s Chosen People bolstered their spirits and prevented them from capitulating in the face of overwhelming opposition; however, in the modern world, Michener argues, this archaic (even egotistical) way of thinking is still nurturing ancient antagonism between the Jews and the Arabs. Centennial (1974) dramatizes the decimation of the Indians in nineteenth century America and the exploitation of the Japanese and Mexican field laborers in the twentieth century to demonstrate the bigotry that accompanied the winning of the West. In these novels and others, Michener demonstrates that because discrimination diminishes the potential of a large segment of a society, the society as a whole suffers for it.

The environmental issue is another major target of Michener. In many of his novels, he discusses the fragile bond that exists between the land and the people who live on it. Hawaii dramatizes the drastic changes that take place in the lives of the inhabitants through the depletion of the islands’ only natural commodity, sandalwood. Arrogance, Michener says, is primarily responsible for the failed promise of paradise in The Source, The Covenant (1980), and Texas. Although the environmental crisis is only one of several issues in these novels, it is at the core of Centennial. Throughout that novel, Michener demonstrates that respect for the land is essential if humans expect it to support them in the twenty-first century.

Michener’s conservative leanings manifest themselves in his solid belief in the Puritan work ethic. The slothful natives in Hawaii lose control of their islands to the more industrious Chinese and Japanese. In Centennial, Michener applauds the resourcefulness and ingenuity of immigrants such as Potato Brurnbaugh and his Japanese and Mexican workers who are able to coax productivity out of a barren land. In fact, Michener is so convinced of the enabling power of hard work that even some of his villains, such as the soldier Skimmerhorn in Centennial and the pirate Bonfleur in Chesapeake (1978), command respect because they are men who are able to achieve their goals through the sheer force of their own will. If a society such as those that existed in Virginia (Chesapeake) and Hawaii (Hawaii) begins using slaves to do all the work, moral and economic bankruptcy soon follow. Michener clearly admires the self-made millionaires in Hawaii and Centennial who, he argues, are entitled to their vast riches because they, like Michener himself, pulled themselves up from humble beginnings.

Finally, Michener’s emphasis on the wisdom and courage of the young reflects his acceptance of change as a fact of life. Adherence to tradition is commendable, Michener says, but such behavior also impedes progress, causing rigid societies to stagnate and die. It is the freethinkers, such as the children of the Japanese immigrants in Hawaii, who revitalize their culture by changing with the times. Such changes, Michener warns, must not be made impulsively; many of his heroes and heroines reach a point where they have to decide which values are worthy of preservation.

Tales of the South Pacific

First published: 1947

Type of work: Novel

In the face of overwhelming odds, American military personnel display amazing courage before and during combat.

Michener’s first novel, Tales of the South Pacific, appears at first to be a collection of nineteen casually related episodes. Upon closer inspection, however, a coherence becomes apparent, produced by a chorus of common themes and characters that resonate throughout the work. In this way, Michener’s novel is reminiscent of William Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses (1942), which achieves unity through the same devices. The classification of the book, though, is still so nebulous that the Pulitzer Prize authorities felt compelled to change the category of “novel” to “fiction in book form” before awarding it the Pulitzer Prize in 1948.

Michener is more successful at attaining narrative unity in this book than he is in most of the others, largely because Tales of the South Pacific is so much shorter. The unidentified first-person narrator describes himself as a “paper-work sailor.” The observations that he makes in the first two tales, “The South Pacific” and “Coral Sea,” reveal Michener’s primary goal, which is to discuss the human side of World War II.

Although several stories, such as the first two, are no more than journalistic sketches, “Mutiny” has true literary merit. The narrator has been sent to Norfolk Island to oversee the cutting down of a strip of pine trees so that an airstrip can be built. The title refers both to Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall’s Mutiny on the Bounty (1932) and to the resistance of an old lady named Teta Christian and a retarded fifteen-year-old girl; both of their ancestors migrated to Norfolk Island from Pitcairn Island in 1856 and planted most of the pines. The organic symbol of the trees, a “cathedral of pines,” is contrasted with the cold, heartless, mechanistic symbol, the bulldozers, one of which is blown up by the two women. Through Tony Fry, a sympathetic Navy lieutenant, Michener is saying that victory is hollow if the spirit of free individuals is trampled.

“Our Heroine” is one of two stories on which the musical South Pacific was based. Nellie Forbush is attracted to a wealthy French planter named Emile DeBecque. Although she is enchanted by the bright hues of the foliage on the island, however, she has trouble accepting the same variations in DeBecque’s eight illegitimate children. This is the first appearance of what was to become a major theme in Michener’s later novels: the need for racial tolerance.

The effects of long periods of inaction on virile young men are demonstrated in the next three stories. In “Dry Rot,” eight hundred men who are afflicted with a fungus growth also “itch” for action with the enemy and, in a different sense, with women. “Fo’ Dollar” is the second story that inspired South Pacific. After the young woman he had been writing to in “Dry Rot” dies, the frustrated Joe Cable falls in love with a beautiful Tonkinese woman named Liat; however, he cannot marry her because he is to be part of the invasion of Kuralei. The theme of racial intolerance resurfaces in Cable’s reluctance to bring Liat back to the United States and in the way Liat is ridiculed by the young French women at the convent.

Bus Adams is the narrator of “A Boar’s Tooth” and “Those Who Fraternize” and is the main character in “Wine for the Mess at Segi.” In “A Boar’s Tooth,” a gruesome native ritual reminds Dr. Benoway of the revolting emphasis that all religions place on appurtenances, such as the importance some American churches place on the height of a church steeple. In “Wine for the Mess at Segi,” the dangers that the men encounter in their search for whiskey provide as much relief from boredom as does the whiskey itself. “Those Who Fraternize,” which is narrated by Bus Adams, focuses on the desperate attempts of four of the half-caste DeBecque sisters to attain security by marrying sailors. The futility of trying to establish permanent, meaningful relationships during wartime is underscored by the fact that all the girls’ lovers are killed in battle.

The stir-crazy sailors finally encounter the enemy in the last four stories—“The Strike,” “Frisco,” “The Landing on Kuralei,” and “The Cemetery at Hoga Point.” Even though the narrator is personally involved, his commentary is oddly restrained. The commander of the Navy Supply Depot in “The Strike” is Captain Kelley, a no-nonsense officer who likes to imitate Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty. Unlike the descendants of the mutineers in “The Mutiny,” sailors such as Polikopf rebel against authority by burlesquing naval life.

In “Frisco,” the crew of a landing craft headed for Kuralei form a loose bond through their shared memories of the last American city in which they spent time. “The Landing on Kuralei” is a minute-by-minute account of the American assault, during which more than nine hundred Japanese and more than two hundred American soldiers are killed. The narrator fully comprehends the senselessness of war when he discovers that the courageous Tony Fry is killed during the landing and that the cowardly Bill Harbison has avoided the conflict altogether. The elegiac tone of “A Cemetery at Hoga Point” is tempered by the assertions of the narrator and the two black gravediggers that there will never be a shortage of good men when duty calls.

Even though Tales of the South Pacific was considered by many critics to be a poor choice for the Pulitzer Prize in 1947, the novel is noteworthy for its small-scale approach to an epic conflict. The Pacific theater of war as recorded in this book is a learning experience for both the readers and the military personnel. Michener implies that people such as Nellie Forbush and Joe Cable survive by questioning the values that they brought with them and adapting to their new circumstances.


First published: 1959

Type of work: Novel

The history of Hawaii illustrates Michener’s belief that all civilizations advance at racial crossroads.

Hawaii, the first of Michener’s “blockbuster” novels, was also the first of a new type of historical novel. Although Honoré de Balzac, Émile Zola, and John Dos Passos had all written novels that span several decades, none of their works had the epic scope of Hawaii, which covered several hundred years of human history. Another innovation was the attention that Michener paid to historical accuracy, which makes the novel as instructional as it is entertaining.

The novel begins with the birth of the Hawaiian islands in a section titled “From the Boundless Deep.” These “new” lands, totally devoid of life, can be tamed only by the arrival of what the narrator terms a “new breed” of people. This first-person narrator, whose identity is unknown until the end of the novel, is Hoxworth Hale, a direct descendant of several of the families depicted in the novel.

The second section, “From the Sun-Swept Lagoon,” deals with the first human inhabitants. In the ninth century, King Tamatoa and his younger brother flee Bora Bora in the middle of the night for fear that they will be sacrificed to a new god, Oro. Blown off course by a terrible storm, they land on a mountainous island that appears to be habitable. Many of the rituals that the missionaries will confront hundreds of years later are introduced in this section.

The narrator then jumps forward one thousand years to document the arrival of the first Caucasians—missionaries from Yale University. The title of this section, “From the Farms of Bitterness,” refers to the “fire and brimstone” that Abner Hale, the stereotyped embodiment of Calvinistic Congregationalism, preaches as he converts the natives. Hale’s preaching also makes subtle references to the inherent superiority of the white race and Western culture. By contrast, Hale’s wife, Jerusha, preaches a message of love in the school which she sets up to bring literacy to the islands. In a few short years, Jerusha dies from overwork, a fitting death for the woman from whose body would spring a line of men and women who would devote their lives to bringing “civilization” to the islands.

To introduce the arrival of the Chinese immigrants in “From the Starving Village,” Michener...

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