James A. Michener Essay - Michener, James A.

Michener, James A.


James A. Michener 1907–1997

American novelist, short story writer, nonfiction writer, essayist, memoirist, and art historian.

For further information on Michener's life and career, see CLC, Volumes 1, 5, 11, 29, and 60.

With forty best-sellers to his name, Michener was thought to be one of America's most popular and prolific novelists of the twentieth century. Considered a master of epic narrative, he started life as an orphan and did not begin to write in earnest until he was in his forties. Michener became an avid reader as a child Doylestown, Pennsylvania, where he was raised by a poor Quaker widow. He graduated summa cum laude from Swarthmore College in 1929 with a degree in English literature, after which he taught social studies until 1931 when he won a fellowship to study in Europe. In 1940 he served as a visiting professor of history at Harvard's School of Education and published several scholarly articles for professional journals. While in the Navy in World War II, he was assigned as naval historian in the South Pacific. Later he submitted short stories he'd written during the war to Macmillan publishing house. These were published in 1947 as Tales of the South Pacific. Although not a commercial success, the book won a Pulitzer Prize in 1948 and became the basis for the hit musical South Pacific. Michener continued to write travel articles, essays, and novellas, but became best known for monumental sagas that dramatized the social and political development of nations and regions spanning several generations. Critically acclaimed Hawaii (1959), was the first of these, and his first best-seller. The Source (1965), Centennial (1974), and Chesapeake (1978), were just a few of his other blockbuster successes. Michener imbued his protagonists with patriotism, frugality, common sense, and courage, qualities admired by his wide readership but considered trite to some critics. Some of these reviewers criticized his novels for their casual blending of fact and fiction, predictable plots, moralizing, and digression. Other critics, however, praised his ability to transport his readers to another time and place, and to expertly document historical events while entertaining them.

Principal Works

Tales of the South Pacific (short stories) 1947

The Fires of Spring (novel) 1949
The Bridges at Toko-Ri (novel) 1953
Sayonara (novel) 1954
The Bridge at Andau (novel) 1957
Hawaii (novel) 1959
Caravans (novel) 1963
The Source (novel) 1965
The Drifters (novel) 1971
Centennial (novel) 1974
Chesapeake (novel) 1978
The Covenant (novel) 1980
Space (novel) 1982
Poland (novel) 1983
Texas (novel) 1985
Legacy (novel) 1987
Alaska (novel) 1988
Caribbean (novel) 1989
Journey (novel) 1989
Mexico (novel) 1992
The World Is My Home (memoir) 1992
Literary Reflections (nonfiction) 1993
Recessional (novel) 1994


John Omicinski (obituary date 16 October 1997)

SOURCE: "Writer James Michener Dies at 90," in USA Today, October 16, 1997, p. 4A.

[In the following obituary, Omicinski lauds Michener's life and works.]

James Michener's novels are hard to put down.

Indeed, some are difficult to pick up, too.

Michener, who last week ordered doctors to remove him from life-sustaining kidney dialysis, died Thursday in Austin, Texas. He was 90.

Millions who have read Michener's engrossing and best-selling doorstopper sagas like Hawaii, Chesapeake and Poland, find them uplifting as well as arm-testing experiences.

For 50 years the social-studies-teacher-turned-novelist delivered the goods in plot, history, writing and heft. His maze-plotted novels—peopled by dozens of characters in exotic faraway places readers might never see except through his eyes—spilled Niagaras of fact and fable.

One biographer called him "a master reporter of his generation."

Readers loved it, scooping up more than 75 million Micheners.

Having read him, readers felt they understood complex societies like South Africa (The Covenant), Hungary (The Bridge at Andau), Colorado (Centennial) and Israel (The Source).

Michener's secrets were his essential sympathy and a drive to write as if his life depended on it. He never stomped on his characters, even the evil ones, and his unalloyed gee-whiz quality never flagged through more than 40 books and novels.

Michener also didn't intimidate readers.

"I tried to create an ambience that would both entertain and instruct the reader," he said, and "to invent characters who were as real as I could make them," giving them "only such heroics as I myself had experienced or found credible."

That patrician intellectuals berated his plebeian popularity didn't seem to bother Michener; Main Street's adulation and sales more than made up for it.

"I have always remained out of the literary mainstream," he once wrote, "… as an act of conscious policy."

Michener was harsh in his judgments of himself.

He once called himself no example for young writers. "I certainly do not recommend either my behavior or my writing to them. I am a loner to an extent that would frighten most men," indicating he paid a penalty for his wealth and fame in hard work and enforced solitude.

Michener admitted, too, that his understated, often elliptical writing often missed its mark.

"I … am aware," he wrote in a personal memoir titled The World Is My Home, "that I frequently fail to make my point with the average reader. Thousands of people read Hawaii without recognizing it as a strong statement on race relations, and this same failure to understand has happened with several of my other books, notably The Source and The Covenant."

Yet reviewers credited him with "perfect best-seller pitch: enough intrigue to make life exciting, enough chronological and geographical distance to make the thrills thrilling, not threatening."

Perhaps equally as important, Michener never talked down to his audience.

His sweeping literary dioramas took readers from primordial time to the day before yesterday. One critic called Michener's work "more truth than fact" with history slightly skewed to fit plots.

Hawaii is about imperialism, noted one reviewer, but the reader never noticed or cared while turning 1,140 pages that held down many beach towels in 1959. No matter what the formula was, Michener stories were simply too good to put down.

If they didn't remember many of Michener's characters after South Pacific, readers remembered that they liked the books.

But Michener—though a teacher at heart—didn't get lost in ancient history.

Several books—notably his 1961 Report of the County Chairman and his 1971 Kent State: What Happened and Why—were literally deadline reports on contemporaneous events. His 1971 The Drifters, a novel concerning six disenchanted young people touring Spain, was one of the first serious efforts to examine the '60s counterculture.

Whether they knew it or not, readers also were getting from Michener a not-so-subtle sociological education—which he once taught at Harvard—as well as a ratification of the Christian ethic, wrapped up in richly painted characters and cliffhanging plots.

James Albert Michener wrote superlong. His manuscripts were so beefy there usually was enough surplus to make another book or two.

Leftovers from the 1,000-page Alaska of 1988 became Journey, a tale of the 19th-century gold rush to the Klondike. Notes from the 1985 blockbuster Texas were enough to write the 1990 The Eagle and the Raven, which was essentially twin portraits of General Santa Anna and Sam Houston.

One reviewer called him the "literary world's Cecil B. DeMille."

Michener was the consummate showman who knew what his audience of middle-class Americans wanted to see, hear and feel, and who gave them plenty of it. Teams of researchers helped him write his books in projects as well-organized as military operations. He used 15 local researchers on the 1983 Poland and made eight visits behind the Iron Curtain himself.

If his work resembled DeMille, Michener's personal life was more like Huckleberry Finn's.

An adopted orphan who spent time in poorhouses when his mother ran out of food, he once told an interviewer "We never had a sled, never had baseball gloves, never had a bicycle, never had a wagon. Nothing."

Friends remembered him as the brightest boy in grade school, and that his toes stuck out of his threadbare sneakers. Like Huck, he lit out for the territory at 14 from Doylestown, Pa., got a job in a traveling show and never looked back, hitchhiking through 45 states.

After Swarthmore College and teaching—including a 1939 stint as a Harvard lecturer in sociology—Michener's first effort at writing was a professional study called The Future of Social Studies.

Like so many men and women of his time, Michener's life was transformed by World War II. It was as a naval historian, gathering data on Pacific sea operations from an island in the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) named Espiritu Santo, that Michener turned into a writer of fiction.

Michener's wartime scribblings in damp little notebooks became post-war short stories in The Saturday Evening Post, then a small 1947 book called Tales of the South Pacific.

Those stories, hammered out in a Pacific island quonset hut, won the 1948 Pulitzer Prize. They became the script for the landmark Broadway musical that gave the world All-American nurse Nellie Forbush, scam artist Luther Billis, matchmaker Bloody Mary and unforgettable songs like There is Nothin' Like a Dame and I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair.

The author said he never wrote a better character than Nellie.

Michener visited 49 islands while working on naval histories, discovering in the French owner of a copra plantation named Aubert Ratard the makings of Emile De Becque of South Pacific's "Some Enchanted Evening."

On the island, as well, was an overweight worker nicknamed "Bloody Mary."

He found the intriguing name "Bali Ha'i" on a signboard in "the most miserable Melanesian village I would ever see" and transformed it into a synonym for earthly paradise.

His own Bali Ha'i, he said, was Bora Bora, calling it the most beautiful island on Earth.

He recast the story for children in a 1992 book called South Pacific, as told by James A. Michener. Later in life he had this advice for aspiring writers: "Be sure your novel is read by (Richard) Rodgers and (Oscar) Hammerstein," who wrote the musical.

Dirt-poor Michener was supposed to get a measly 1% of the profits from the Broadway show, but on opening night—when it was obviously going to be one of the biggest hits of all time—Hammerstein loaned him $5,000 to invest in the show on the spot.

The $5,000 helped make him a fortune.

The Pacific tales and South Pacific royalties launched former Pennsylvania poor boy Michener on an author's life. A literary King Midas, virtually everything he wrote turned to gold and allowed Michener to give more than $100 million to charities and museums.

Pacific led him into a series of books and novels on Asia—The Voice of Asia, The Floating World, Sayonara, The Bridges at Toko-Ri, Hawaii and Caravans, the latter a romance-adventure set in Afghanistan.

From there, his novels toured the globe with special attention to North America, where he set six blockbusters including the 1978 Chesapeake, which sold 900,000 books.

Michener regarded 1965's The Source as his best-written book because the story was so complicated. But some reviewers saw Michener's 1974 Centennial—a story of Colorado—as his most accomplished.

Toward the end of his life, Michener said he regretted producing no short stories and failing to write a South American historical saga. (A short story for Michener may have been anything less than 500 pages.)

A man who had literally seen every nook and cranny on the globe, Michener said the Incan ruins of Peru's Machu Picchu was the one locale that had somehow eluded him for his 90 years.

Tightly wrapped and dedicated to work, Michener married three times but said few people really knew him. "I doubt it," he ruefully told an interviewer.

Michener, soaking up as much of a place as he could, usually lived in areas he was writing about.

Perhaps echoing Thomas Wolfe's "You can't go home again," Michener never wrote a big novel about his boyhood home of Doylestown or surrounding Bucks County. That was an area well-mined by John O'Hara, a novelist who Michener admired and who also cranked out big mass-market novels loved by readers but snubbed by Fifth Avenue literati.

To write about Bucks County, he said, he would have to go back and live there, read the newspapers, watch the sun set, attend meetings and interview parsons and principals.

Bart Barnes (obituary date 17 October 1997)

SOURCE: "Epic Novelist James Michener Is Dead at 90," in The Washington Post, October 17, 1997, p. A01.

[In the following obituary, Barnes gives an overview of the author's works, calling him a "gifted storyteller, with a panoramic vision."]

James A. Michener, a prolific author whose best-selling works ranged from poignant and compassionate stories of men and women in love and war to weighty novels spanning centuries and millennia while combining fiction and historical fact, died yesterday of kidney failure at his home in Austin. He was 90.

Michener was 40 before he wrote his first book, Tales of the South Pacific, but it made an immediate and lasting impact. It won the 1948 Pulitzer Prize for literature and became the basis for the hit musical South Pacific, by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. The show, starring Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza, ran on Broadway for more than five years beginning in 1949, and it included some of the most popular music of the post-World War II era.

Michener also wrote travel articles, essays, novellas and short stories. But he became best known as a specialist in narrative epics that dramatized the social and political evolution of nations and regions as experienced over generations by real and imaginary participants, a technique he first developed with his 1959 bestseller, Hawaii.

In that novel, Michener traced the history of the Hawaiian islands from their earliest geological formations through the arrivals of diverse immigrants from Polynesia, Japan, the Philippines, the Asian mainland and the United States.

Published only months after Hawaii was granted statehood in August 1959, the book was praised by reviewers as a superlative account of the amalgamation of dissimilar people into an integrated society. It also provided Michener with a formula that he followed to varying degrees with such subsequent bestsellers as The Source, a 1965 novel covering 12,000 years of successive civilizations in Israel; Centennial, a 1974 novel about Colorado; Chesapeake (1978); Poland (1983); Texas (1986); Alaska (1988); and Caribbean (1989).

Those books and others earned Michener a reputation as a gifted storyteller with a panoramic vision, an eye for detail and a capacity for painstaking research. He was a solid craftsman but not an eloquent literary stylist, and some critics said his characters lacked dimension. He was, nevertheless, one of America's all-time best-selling authors, with more than 50 million books in print.

It was his World War II experience in the Navy that gave Michener the idea for Tales of the South Pacific, a collection of 18 loosely linked stories about U.S. Marines, Seabees, nurses and native islanders of the South Pacific during the war. Royalties from the Broadway musical and a 1958 film adaptation of his story made him independently wealthy and permitted him to devote himself full time to writing.

"I have only one bit of advice to the beginning writer: Be sure your novel is read by Rodgers and Hammerstein," he later told a friend and colleague, A. Grove Day.

His second novel, The Fires of Spring, published in 1949, was a critical disappointment, partly because of the high level of expectation after Tales of the South Pacific. It told the story of a creative artist's search for identity and included many autobiographical details, including attendance at a Quaker College and traveling with a tent show.

After a series of short stories and essays combined in a 1951 book, Return to Paradise, as well as travel articles and features about the Pacific and Far East, Michener wrote an immensely popular novella, The Bridges at Toko-Ri, which later became a hit movie starring William Holden. Initially, the story appeared in Life magazine in the summer of 1953, and it later was released in book form. It was about a Navy jet pilot and his family during the Korean War. The pilot is killed after completing a mission to destroy four vital bridges.

Michener's next book, Sayonara, published in 1954, was a tender and compassionate story of the ill-fated love of a U.S. Air Force officer for a beautiful young Japanese woman during the Korean War. It, too, became a popular movie, starring Marlon Brando.

Among Michener's other works adapted for film were the short stories "Until They Sail" and "Mr. Morgan" (from Return to Paradise). His novel Hawaii was made into two films, Hawaii, and Hawaiians, both released by United Artists. Centennial was adapted for television in the 1978–79 season. Space, Michener's best-selling 1982 novel about the U.S. space program, became a television miniseries in 1985.

Born on Feb. 3, 1907, in New York, Michener was taken as an infant to an orphanage in Bucks County, Pa., where he later was raised by Quaker foster parents, Edwin and Mabel Michener, whose surname he took. He was an avid reader as a youth, and at the age of 15, he hitchhiked and rode boxcars across the United States.

He won a $2,000 scholarship to Swarthmore College, where he graduated summa cum laude in 1929 with a degree in English literature. In 1984, declaring that he had always considered the scholarship "a loan against future earnings," Michener gave Swarthmore $2 million as repayment.

After college, he taught for two years at the Hill School in Pottstown, Pa., then in 1931 won a fellowship to study and travel in Europe. In this period, he worked as a chart corrector aboard a coal carrier in the Mediterranean, studied at St. Andrews University in Scotland, spent a winter in the Outer Hebrides collecting folk songs and studied Italian art in Siena and at the British Museum in London.

In 1933, Michener returned to the United States, taught three years at the George School in Newtown, Pa., then taught for five years at Colorado State College of Education at Greeley. In 1940, he served as a visiting professor of history at Harvard's School of Education.

He wrote several scholarly articles for professional journals, work that he found unrewarding, he would later say, except that it taught him what many authors never learn, "how to explain something so that somebody else can understand it."

When the United States entered World War II, Michener was working as an editor in the education division of the Macmillan publishing house in New York. He enlisted in the Navy and was assigned to the South Pacific, initially as a keeper of records on naval aircraft maintenance and later as a naval historian. Both assignments required travel from island to island, and he recorded his impressions as he went.

Near the end of the war, Michener went off by himself to one of the smaller islands, where he began writing fictional vignettes based on his experiences. He offered his manuscript to Macmillan after leaving the Navy, and the stories were published as Tales of the South Pacific in 1947.

During the 1950s and into the early 1960s, Michener continued to set much of his writing in the Pacific and Far East. He lived in Hawaii for much of this time, accumulating material for Hawaii, but he also traveled extensively. He went to Europe at the time of the Hungarian uprising in the fall of 1956, and a year later, he published The Bridge at Andau, a dramatic account of the escape of 20,000 Hungarian refugees across the bridge at Andau, Austria, during the uprising.

He became involved in national politics during the 1960 presidential campaign of John F. Kennedy, then wrote about his experience in Report of the County Chairman, an account of national politics at the local level and of Michener's work as manager of the Kennedy campaign in Bucks County, Pa.

Americans and their experiences in far-off and exotic lands were among Michener's favorite subjects. He wrote about them in Caravans, a 1963 novel based on a trip to Afghanistan several years earlier; The Drifters, a 1971 novel about the wanderings and lifestyles of six alienated young people, three of them from the United States; and Iberia: Spanish Travels and Reflections, a 1968 book based upon Michener's own many visits to Spain since his student days of the 1930s.

With the aid of a large staff from Reader's Digest, he wrote about the killing of four students by Ohio National Guardsmen during a 1970 anti-war protest, Kent State: What Happened and Why (1971). A 1980 novel about the history and development of race relations in South Africa, The Covenant, was criticized as lacking the crispness of some of his earlier work.

"I don't think the way I write books is the best or even second best," Michener once said. "The really great writers are people like Emily Bronte, who sit in a room and write out of their limited experience and unlimited imagination. But people in my position also do some very good work."

Michener's marriages to the former Patti Koon and Vange Nord ended in divorce. In 1955, he married Mari Yoriko Sabusawa. She died in 1994.

Juan B. Elizondo Jr. (obituary date 17 October 1997)

SOURCE: "Writer James Michener Dies at 90," in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, October 17, 1997, p. A16.

[In the following obituary, Elizondo calls Michener's works entertaining and inspiring.]

James Michener's second novel tells of a poor Pennsylvania boy who becomes a writer—an autobiographical touch from the Pulitzer Prize-winning author who went from the Bucks County Poorhouse to the far reaches of the globe.

He spent decades wandering from Japan and Korea to Hungary, Hawaii, Afghanistan, Spain, South Africa, Colorado, Israel, Chesapeake Bay, Poland, Texas, Alaska and the Caribbean.

Every step of the way, through 40 best-selling novels, Michener's readers were entertained and inspired as he argued for universal ideals: religious and racial tolerance, hard work and self-reliance.

Michener, who once admitted that he wasn't very good at composing dialogue but he sure knew how to hold the reader's interest with a good narrative, died of kidney failure Thursday at age 90.

"Jim Michener was America's storyteller," said Harold Evans, president and publisher of the Random House Trade Publishing Group. "He enlightened millions of people around the globe with the fruits of his labor during his stunning 50-year writing career."

His death came less than a week after he ordered doctors to disconnect him from life-sustaining dialysis treatments.

Michener was born Feb. 3, 1907, in New York City, and was taken as an orphan to the poorhouse in Doylestown, Pa., where he was adopted by a Quaker widow, Mabel Michener.

His childhood was not one of privilege, "so that accounts for my social attitude—I'm a fiery liberal," he once said.

"I've never felt in a position to reject anybody," he said in a 1972 interview. "I could be Jewish, part Negro, probably not Oriental, but almost anything else. This has loomed large in my thoughts."

Michener's heralded writing career began in 1947 when he was 40,...

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Reviews Of Michener's Recent Works

Bill Barich (review date 12 January 1992)

SOURCE: "Sing along with Michener," in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 12, 1992, p. 4.

[In the following review, Barich praises Michener's memoir, The World Is My Home, as a "Horatio Alger story," both entertaining and touching.]

In his new memoir, The World Is My Home, James Michener puts to rest the idea that there are no second acts in American lives. As the old saying goes, his life really began at 40, when, during World War II, he sat down in a Quonset hut on Espiritu Santo Island, lit a smoky lantern, and turned out the linked stories that became Tales of the South...

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Further Reading


Groseclose, Karen and David A. James A. Michener, A Bibliography. State House Press: Austin, 1996.

Provides a detailed chronology of Michener's life and career.


Baker, John. "A Novel Approach." Chicago Tribune Book Review (21 April 1991): 3, 5.

Praises Michener's The Novel for its candid look at writing and the publishing industry, but gives mixed reviews of its artistry.

Galloway, Paul. "Author James A. Michener, 90, Dies After 50-Year Writing Saga." Chicago Tribune (17...

(The entire section is 203 words.)