The Source Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Of all Michener’s novels, The Source is certainly the most ambitious and complex. Conceived while Michener was on a visit to Israel, the novel traces the history of the Jews from their primitive origins thousands of years ago to the establishment of Israel in 1948. The chapters in each stage of the history illustrated are, for the most part, independent narratives; however, like Hawaii, partial continuity is achieved through the repetition of familiar family names.

In The Source, Michener employs a variation on the narrative technique that he used in Hawaii. The historical events in The Source are put into contemporary perspective by a frame story that is set in 1964. In the frame story, a team of three archaeologists is excavating a Tell, or mound, at the site of the fictional crossroads of the ancient world called Makor, or the Source, because of its spring. The narratives correspond with the unearthing of each successive level of human habitation, beginning with the earliest level—Level XV. At the end of each chapter, the archaeologists evaluate the finds that correspond to the events that have previously been related.

The chapter titled “The Bee Eater” begins in 9831 b.c.e. and introduces Ur, the progenitor of the Family of Ur that appears in the following four chapters. Ur is primarily a hunter, but his son’s experiments with planting presage a new way of life for Ur’s descendants. When his son-in-law is killed by a wild boar, Ur begins probing the mysteries of life and death by asking himself questions such as “Why do I live?” By the year 2202 b.c.e., the people of Makor have attempted to answer those questions by creating gods, in “Of Death and Life.” When the time comes for Urbaal to sacrifice his first-born son to the Canaanite god of Death, he does so willingly in spite of the protests of his wife.

“An Old Man and His God” introduces the Haibiru, who are the forerunners of the Hebrews. After arriving in Makor, the Haibiru diplomatically respect the local gods but cling to the belief that El Shaddai is the most powerful god. This theological conflict is dramatized in the dilemma faced by the leader of the Haibiru, Zadok, whose granddaughter is impregnated by Zibeon, the son of the Canaanite leader.

The third historical chapter, “Psalm of the Hoopoe Bird,” takes place during the reign of David. By this time, El Shaddai has been replaced by Yaweh, who controls the heavens and the hearts of humanity. A descendant of Zibeon named Jabaal is an engineer who builds a massive tunnel that King David places below the more abstract accomplishment of a psalmist named Gershon. In 1964, though, the rediscovered tunnel is itself hailed as a...

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The Source Summary (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The principal action of The Source takes place on the Tell of Makor, an imaginary archaeological site undergoing excavation in 1964 under the direction of Dr. John Cullinane. This tell, or mound, which has been uninhabited for nearly seven hundred years, has a history reaching back some twelve thousand years to 9831 b.c.e. The Hebrew name “Makor” means “source,” indicating the existence of a well or natural water supply nearby, while the settlement itself represents “the patiently accumulated residue of one abandoned settlement after another, each resting on the ruins of its predecessor, reaching endlessly back into history.” It is to this mound that Cullinane has come to excavate the various layers (fifteen in all) of civilization that settled Makor. Three other archaeologists join him: Jemail Tabari, Dr. Ilan Eliav, and Dr. Vered Bar-El, a Muslim and two Jews respectively. Cullinane is a Catholic, and the obvious tripartite religious significance of this group should not be overlooked. The excavation is financed by Paul J. Zodman, a Jew from Chicago, whom Cullinane must keep happy if he wants to continue working at Makor for more than five years.

In the opening chapter, the three archaeologists meet at Makor to begin their work (aided by a group of local kibbutzniks). As they excavate the two main shafts, or tunnels, down through seventy-one feet of debris that comprise the tell, they discover fifteen objects from fifteen different historical levels. The objects are recorded and diagramed by Cullinane and each offers the basis for a dramatized episode of the people and events that successively built and destroyed Makor throughout its history. In this way, the true focus of the novel starts taking shape and the dig becomes a structural vehicle. Interspersed throughout the historical narratives, the novel returns to the present, giving Cullinane and his colleagues a chance to discuss various historical and philosophical questions regarding the formation of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim religions, and their oftentimes stormy relationship in the past and present.

The greater part of the novel is devoted to the historical flashbacks that form the backdrop of the story. The present-day team discovers at the bottom level evidence of the family of Ur who helped to formulate the first organized society at Makor in 9831 b.c.e. It is here that man first learned to cultivate and harvest wheat. As a result of this discovery comes the vague realization that man is at the mercy of the rains and winds. Unclear notions of religion creep into their lives, and they erect a nameless monolith which they hope will placate nature’s wrath and ensure their crops’ survival. Thus man’s first notion of religion springs forth, but with it comes a new fear: “the mystery of death, the triumph of evil, the terrible loneliness of being alone, the discovery that self of itself is insufficient.” It is an anxiety that will haunt humankind forever.

Eight thousand years pass, and Ur’s descendant, Urbaal, is the leading figure of Makor, and the nameless monolith has been christened El. The religious practices of the people are rooted in the fertility of the earth, and it is into this “corrupting” atmosphere that Joktan, leader of a nomadic tribe called the Habiru (forerunners of the Hebrews and reminiscent of Moses), and his followers enter Makor. The tribe and their one God are quickly absorbed by the lusty rituals and gods of the townspeople, yet the seeds of monotheism have been sown and begin to grow.

After a span of eight hundred years, another descendant of Ur, Uriel, and another leader of another nomadic Hebrew tribe, Zadok, meet and...

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The Source Bibliography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Day, A. Grove. James Michener. New York: Twayne, 1964. Day provides a critical and interpretive study of Michener’s earlier works, with a close reading of his major novels, a solid bibliography, and complete notes and references.

Groseclose, David A. James A. Michener: A Bibliography. Austin, Tex.: State House Press, 1996. An annotated bibliography of works by and about James Michener from 1923 to 1995.

Hayes, John P. James A. Michener: A Biography. Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill, 1984. A biography spanning Michener’s childhood through the 1980’s. Valuable for background on influences in Michener’s development as a writer.

Michener, James. Literary Reflections: Michener on Michener, Hemingway, Capote, and Others. Austin, Tex.: State House Press, 1993. Michener reflects on his life as a writer and on his work. He also shares his memories of his era’s most influential writers. The collection of essays gives important insights into Michener’s views on literature and into his evaluations of his own works.

Roberts, F. X., and C. D. Rhine, comps. James A. Michener: A Checklist of His Works, With a Selected, Annotated Bibliography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995. A comprehensive bibliography of Michener’s books, stories, and articles by and about him.

Severson, Marilyn S. James A. Michener: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996. Severson give an overview of Michener’s life and examines the characteristics and themes of his fiction. His major historical novels are discussed and analyzed for plot, structure, and theme.

Shahin, Jim. “The Continuing Saga of James A. Michener.” Saturday Evening Post 262 (March, 1990): 66-71. Shahin gives an overview of the life and career of Michener.