James A. Michener Essay - Michener, James A(lbert) (Vol. 5)

Michener, James A(lbert) (Vol. 5)

Michener, James A(lbert) 1907–

Michener is an American writer of epic-like works of documentary fiction and fictional documentary. He is still best known for Hawaii. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Within this amazing super-novel [The Source], which contains a prodigious variety of narratives comprising an integrated whole, there are stories worthy of the talents of Sholem Asch, I. B. Singer, Bernard Malamud, and other "classic" interpreters of the Jewish experience. There are innumerable philosophical discussions worthy of our most talented moralists. And there is also, of course, a certain amount of trite and contrived storytelling, but this does not by any means obscure the high merits of the book….

True, The Source does not "define the sensibility of an age," as the greatest novels are supposed to do. But it does provide an invaluable examination of the circumstances surrounding the origin and development of Judaism, and it enhances this with an extended consideration of the parallel developments of Christianity and Islam and relations between adherents of the three faiths….

The social and religious (and therefore political) problems of present-day Israel are cunningly dealt with…, but interesting as are some of the dialogues on the what, why, and where of Jews in Israel and the U.S., the portion as a whole does not represent Michener at his best…. Far superior are many of the tales relating to different levels of the dig, each having its own appropriate archeological symbol…. In the later-level sections Michener rises to lyric heights and seems utterly possessed by his story, and as this is transmitted directly to the reader the impact of The Source is enormous….

Throughout The Source Michener, true to form, has been unusually responsive to possibilities for detailing violence and large-scale bloodshed, and the Crusades (in which innumerable Christians were also massacred by the Germanic barbarians) offer him a first-rate opportunity. No summary can do justice to this ghastly but compelling section, nor to what is probably the finest section of all, "The Saintly Men of Safed"…. Here, in his picture of the Spanish Inquisition and the remarkable refugees who came to Safed, a few miles from the site of Makor, Michener has produced a document that might have been written by a Jewish writer of the first rank bent on awakening his people to their glorious heritage.

The crux of Michener's book? Despite all of the age-old persecutions and exterminations of the Jews, in the Galilee and in other parts of the world, Jews hang on somehow and remain attached to their ancient land. "Something was going on here that the history books did not tell us." Related to this is Michener's idea, advanced through Cullinane and debated by Eliav and Tabari, that the Jews' moral right to Israel is based on custodianship. However controversial that might be, it is hard to dispute Eliav's reflective summation, at the conclusion of the book, of the Jewish concept of God:

       We seek God so earnestly, Eliav reflected,
       not to find Him but to discover ourselves.

Samuel Irving Bellman, "Tales of Ancient Israel," in Congress Bi-Weekly, June 14, 1965, p. 18.

Colorado was admitted to the Union in 1876 and therefore is known as the Centennial State. You all know what is going to happen in 1976. Can Mr. Michener's subject and his title [Centennial] be a happenstance? Shall we give him the benefit of the doubt? Or do we sense a certain cunning, does a mote of dust from the fields of Philistia irritate our inner eye?

If you think that Mr. Michener is going to begin with Christopher Columbus or Eric the Red, or with those arrivistes from Europe and the British Isles; even if you think he's going to begin with the buffalo and the Asian hunters who followed them, you have another think coming, and another one, and many more thereafter. No. He begins billions of years before there is hide or hair of homo sapiens. Indeed, he begins at the beginning when the North American continent is still under water….

Many a long year and many a long page later we get down to brass tacks and start winning the West. (p. 1)

We make treaties with Indians and break them; we are scalped by Indians and we scalp them back; we give the Indians Taos lightning and we drink good whiskey ourselves; we go to pow-wows. We bring Texas longhorns to Colorado and Wyoming and we are forever and a day on the trail; we slaughter the buffalo; we trap beaver; we go to Pike's Peak and placer-pan for gold; we mine silver; we learn to irrigate and become truck farmers. We come down with and die of cholera. We die of rattler's bites, of gunshot wounds, of rattler's bites, of amputation of limbs by tomahawk, of rattler's bites. We eat a lot of jerky and sourdough biscuits [for which Michener supplies recipes]. The buffalo stampede; the cattle stampede. There are awful blizzards and awful invasions of locusts.

The sheepmen come in; they and the cattlemen start a-feuding and a-killing. The Iron Horse comes in. Dudes from Europe shoot the buffalo from train windows. Paleontologists arrive to look at fossils and prehistoric bones. The bones of the now nearly extinct buffalo are collected for fertilizer. Mexicans lounge around in saloons in Denver during the winter and eat hot tamales. Cowboys driving the cattle up from Texas sit around the campfire at night and sing cowboy songs and tell tall tales. Colorado is admitted to the Union…. We scrounge our way through the Depression and through the devastating dust storms of the early 1930s. We enter World War II.

Now in the 1970s, we have ski resorts; we have a western movie festival in Cheyenne, Wyoming, showing John Wayne in his finest roles. We are concerned about endangered species….

Mr. Michener has written another book [a pamphlet, actually,] which, however, is not for sale [but is available free to libraries and schools]. It is called About Centennial: Some Notes on the Novel. In it, he tells us about his writing devices. Sometimes he is asked whether he ever uses himself as the model for a character. "Not really. But in this novel the grizzled old bison Rufous comes rather close to representing the author." Now when Rufous was in his prime during one rutting season, "for no apparent reason, (he) began suddenly charging at cottonwood trees along the riverbank…. The next day as he was walking idly toward the herd he felt an uncontrollable compulsion to throw himself on the ground, twisting and turning in the dust a dozen times until he was laden with sand. Then he rose, urinated heavily in the wallow and threw himself into it again, smearing the muddy urine over his head and body as if to announce to the world, 'When you smell that smell, remember. It belongs to Rufous.'" What an extraordinary self-portrait!

Ars longa, vita brevis est. In the case of Centennial, the opposite obtains. (p. 2)

Jean Stafford, "How the West Was Lost," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), September 1, 1974, pp. 1-2.

Michener and monumentalism are no strangers; in size, scope, and chutzpah, Centennial is every bit the equal of his previous blockbusters, Hawaii and The Source, not to mention Mt. Rushmore. (How long ago and far away that fresh and lively first novel out of World War II, Tales of the South Pacific, now seems.) …

Counting animals (a dinosaur, a prehistoric horse, bison, sheep, locusts), vegetables (grass, corn, wheat) and minerals (the Rockies, gold and silver, and, if one employs the term loosely to include elemental forces, the river, glaciers, blizzard, drought, even mass migration urgings to Siberia and back), the book's characters number in the hundreds. Among the many things Michener is not hesitant about is anthropomorphism. My own favorite character is an aging but sweet-natured female diplodocus, who, lacking proper molars and strong digestive juices, swallows large round stones to help churn and grind the food in her stomach. Her exact location in time, however, is uncertain even to Michener; she lived 136 million years ago on one page, 140 million on another, and 160 million according to the flap copy. Humans, each with a story—there are about 120 identifiable plots in Centennial—appear very late in time but fairly early in the book. (There is a limit, after all, to how much a best seller can focus on other species.) So, following Lame Beaver, come, in fairly quick succession, white trappers, mountain men, Oregon trail homesteaders like the Zendts, cattle-ranchers and cowboys, fortune hunters, actors, politicians, industrialists, real-estate operators, ecologists, and our professor. It is all quite neatly done: one sinks into this book in the same way that it sinks into the history of a small patch of ground. One can also pop back out of it at any time; the prose is stolid and solid, and not what you'd call entrapping or bewitching.

Three important things are going for this book, and make peripheral and impertinent both serious fault-finding and incipient giggles. One is the momentum of the vast conception; it does carry one along. (The movement of the book is both vertical, into and up from the past, and horizontal—the endless changes on the face of the land, the travels and migrations of people and animals, passing through, staying awhile, settling, moving on.) Another is the sheer bulk of information that the book imparts—once upon a time a central purpose of the novel. The third is the sense of sharing that Michener constantly evokes. The subject of Centennial is our country, our history. If nobody else will throw it a party, Michener will, and everybody's invited in for a piece of the cake. You don't throw stones at this kind of book—though some grinding of same might have helped the old digestion.

Eliot Fremont-Smith, "A Piece of Cake," in New York Magazine (© 1974 by NYM Corp.; reprinted by permission of New York Magazine and Eliot Fremont-Smith), September 2, 1974, p. 62.

James A. Michener is the literary world's Cecil B. DeMille, a popular novelist with an awesome audience for his epic narratives, an unpretentious, solid craftsman….

As with his previous best-sellers "Hawaii" and "The Source," Michener burrows back into prehistory to build a story that unfolds with the inevitability of geologic strata. [In Centennial] his theme is the settlement of the American West as focused in the fictional town of Centennial, Colo., whose growth is researched by a college history professor, for a special issue of US magazine.

Like DeMille, Michener stocks his horse-cum-soap-opera with scores of characters, some of them believable…, others as thin as the air at the summit of the Rockies. (p. 82)

Michener is one of the most didactic of novelists, cramming his books full of lessons in geology, anthropology, history and sociology. The novel's stated theme may be the settling of the West, but its underlying concerns are the relationships of men to the land—and to each other. (pp. 82-3)

The book has its flaws and is swollen like a river in spring. Yet Michener manages to make his new novel readable and, yes, likable even while he dispenses a sugar-coated historical pill…. (p. 83)

Arthur Cooper, "Eohippus Opera," in Newsweek (copyright 1974 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), September 16, 1974, pp. 82-6.

As a writer Michener has many attributes. He tells a good story. The massiveness of his research is impressive. His reportage of history is lively and often persuasive. He holds dear, as he made explicit in his Kent State, all the more generous, the more commendable liberal attitudes. We find him sharply opposed to the prejudicial rigidities so prevalent in what he calls, in Kent State, Middle America, of which, as he suggests, the West has its full share. The hospitality of his mind, his genuine sympathy for history's victims of prejudice and bigotry emerge clearly in Centennial.

But somehow Michener fails short. His weakness, as I see it, and sadly enough, is his art. He is history's journalist; he is not an artist. For all his recording of the Western scene he fails to evoke in his reader any sense, any genuine feel for this most dramatic of countrysides. His style is bereft of nuance, his diction shorn of any fringes of suggestiveness. He has no verbal equivalents for states of mind and feeling. He favors his character Elly Zendt who keeps a journal on her way west and who is admittedly one of Michener's better creations, yet he sees her coming close to the ideal of unimaginative Germanic historians, "reporting things as they actually happened." A general lack of subtlety of imagination is manifest, too, in his characterization that often sheers toward types and the melodramatic. There are no truly memorable characters in Michener because he makes no plunges into the recesses of the mind; he never explores nor brings to light the myriad paradoxes of human personality. Perhaps his scope is too vast; his effort is horizontal and hence clings to the flat. Or perhaps his self-admitted tendency toward didacticism forces him to say it out straight rather than depend on the obliqueness of dramatization. The last chapter in Centennial is a tract, a polemic, undoubtedly deserved, against small-mindedness and vulgarity but a polemic nevertheless, and Paul Garrett a poorly disguised spokesman for the author. (pp. 21-2)

Stuart James, "Stately American Novel," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), September 21, 1974, pp. 21-2.

Michener's manifest love of the land he writes about can be moving. The almost hubristic sweep of his conception is impressive. He has a busy curiosity about family dynasties and bloodlines. He writes especially well about the technique of things: how Indians chipped their arrowheads, what breeds of grass and cattle best survived in the inhospitable prairie. He is also one of the few modern novelists who order their works with a sense of civic conscience, here notably in his discussion of Indians and of the depradations of commerce…. Centennial is indeed a monumental birthday present and in its way, a generously entertaining one. As an epic vision of America, however, it may suffer from a familiar Michener mistake—erring on the side of the grandiose.

Lance Morrow, "Happy Birthday, America," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), September 23, 1974, p. 96.

Like a modern Noah, James Michener has not so much written as constructed Centennial, a vast and overcrowded Ark of a book designed to preserve for posterity representative forms of life from the American past that Mr. Michener believes are worth saving. A commendable motive and especially welcome in an age devoted to perfecting disposability. The results are another matter, since Mr. Michener has felt compelled to supply not merely the Ark but the Deluge as well. Whatever strengths Centennial may have as a novel are washed away in a surging torrent of information and instruction which ultimately drowns the interest of even the most determined and sympathetic of readers.

Good storytelling commands the narrator to begin at the beginning. Mr. Michener, in a burst of literal-mindedness, takes this to mean somewhere just this side of Genesis as he lectures lengthily and learnedly on the geochronology of the mythical town of Centennial…. So lavishly is Centennial's geohistory detailed that it is page 112 before the year 9268 B.C. is reached and the first human character, prehistoric man in the form of a flint-knapper, makes his appearance. Meanwhile, however, the knapper has been preceded by prototypical specimens, in their correct evolutionary order, of the diplodocus, the eohippus, the bison, the beaver, the rattlesnake, and the eagle, all anthropomorphized to a degree that would make Uncle Remus wince….

Michener tries to systematize history by projecting prototypes. Unfortunately for his purposes, while the technique may work for geologic time and zoologic evolution, it is not applicable to human beings in all their rich contrariety and never-duplicating complexity. In short, Michener's characters are victims of his urge to instruct. They are cartoon-strip figures whose effect is to illustrate rather than illuminate, and it is on this fundamental weakness that Centennial founders. When it is impossible to tell one good guy from the next; when the bad guys are equally indistinguishable one from another; and when both could be beavers or bison for that matter, it is plain that as fine fiction, Centennial offers bulk but not much nourishment….

If Centennial was intended to convey anything beyond [a] stupefying mass of incidental information, it is that the forces which shaped the contours and the character of the land it celebrates, and the values and skills developed by the men who first knew it, merit our respectful attention. True and unarguable. But half a million words seems an ironically excessive number for what is essentially a conservationist's message.

Rene Kuhn Bryant, "Michener's Deluge," in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1974; 150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), November 22, 1974, p. 1365.

James Michener's whole interest is in straightforward narrative, and Centennial takes up so much shelf space because it is nearly an anthology of a dozen separate but related novels. Each of them has convincing characters, well visualised action scenes, thematic concerns. A third of the way into it, the idea of reading a novel about activities from four billion BC to 1974 on a portion of the earth's surface now housing a small Colorado town actually seems plausible. The early chapters—mini-novels, really—about dinosaurs and bison tend to be overcute in that almost unavoidable way which emerges from conflating animal 'personalities' with strong story lines. But after these chapters, Lame Beaver strolls onstage, and the whole long story of Indians and settlers and hunters and cattlemen unreels.

To make this preposterous venture work (and much more, to make it actually engrossing) requires narrative skills of the highest order. Michener is an easy target, and his huge popularity makes him an almost embarrassing author to like—he's always been the epitome of the serious-minded, rather plodding middlebrow novelist. But I would argue that he has a deep, nearly infallible instinct for the mechanics of fiction, and something like a genius for skating near enough to sentimentality to tap wide areas of emotion, without ever falling in. (pp. 794-95)

Michener [has] kept his integrity by virtue of his great curiosity about human beings, his moral liveliness and his felt responsibility to his own fantasies. If those virtues seem elephantine, well, Centennial is a very friendly elephant of a book. (p. 795)

Peter Straub, in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), November 29, 1974.