James A. Michener Essay - Michener, James A(lbert) (Vol. 1)

Michener, James A(lbert) (Vol. 1)

Michener, James A(lbert) 1907?–

American novelist, best known for Tales of the South Pacific, Sayonara, Hawaii, and The Source. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Perhaps the most enduring value of Tales of the South Pacific is the use of setting. Michener's first-hand knowledge of almost all his scenes and his deep understanding of the history of the region enable him to utilize local color as a motivating force in the evolution of character. Dealing with the earlier years of the war, when all the native glamor and jungle riot had not been leveled by the bulldozers, Michener was freer to depict the effect of the environment on Americans. He reveals also that he is aware of the provincialism both of the natives and of the Americans; and he uses it for plot purposes. Preoccupation with the exotic might open him to the charge of being a naïve romanticist. However, his reportorial eye was so keen that through it we see the Pacific with a wealth of sharp detail. (pp. 53-4)

Michener's usual style is deliberately clear and simple, although he has a wide technical vocabulary for the discussion of literature. For building a strong style, he recommends reading widely in contrasting authors like Balzac and Henry James, John Hersey and Truman Capote, or Dreiser and John Galsworthy, stopping frequently and trying to analyze what the man's style is accomplishing. (p. 137)

Michener's idea of his function … is to report the world, factually or imaginatively, but also emotionally and even poetically. And the act of writing implies the taking of some moral stand as well, even though "morality" is today an unmodish word…. His scholarliness often endangers his popular appeal, and there is a strong didactic strain throughout his work. His theme again and again is a variation on the Quaker belief in the literal brotherhood of man. Even in his fiction, from Tales of the South Pacific through Caravans, the main intention of the author is the exposure of unbrotherly prejudices—social, political, racial, religious. In book after book—even on such abstruse subjects as Japanese engravings—his interest seems to center on freeing mankind from illiberal attitudes. He is the friend always of the underdog; he is the foe of snobbishness, segregation, reaction, and bigotry. (pp. 146-47)

[Perhaps Michener] is most of all the contemporary reporter, in fiction as well as fact—one of the noble, articulate band of rovers that keep showing our generation what we are really like. After all, John Steinbeck and John Hersey have made literature of suffering and injustice and prejudice and courage; and all of his life Ernest Hemingway never disdained the proud title of reporter. So long as modern Americans need to know who they are, in a world of wars hot and cold, so long will Michener's books be read. (p. 150)

A. Grove Day, in his James A. Michener, Twayne, 1964.

Altogether [Kent State] is one of the very best examples of American 'faction', or nonfiction fiction, and Michener has made a dramatic and enthralling story out of the mass of material he has gathered. He recreates the events at Kent State which led up to the final confrontation on the campus, illustrated by a series of dramatic photographs which show the helmeted, gas-masked guardsmen moving in on the unarmed students, and showing conclusively that there was no one harrassing them from behind, as they claimed.

Michener makes a neat contrast between the frenzy with which the authorities and people of Ohio reacted to the demonstration at Kent, and the way they took in their stride a riot at Ohio State University which really did cause massive damage, but was over a football victory, with participants who were conformist in their dress and hair-style. Above all he shows the importance in the Kent State affair of the confrontation between the different life styles of young people and their parents, and presents a vivid analysis of the virulent outpouring of hatred which he sums up as giving 'a portrait of Middle Ameica at the beginning of the 1970's that is frightening'.

Konstantin Bazarov, in Books and Bookmen, December, 1971, p. 73.