Tales of the South Pacific Essay - Critical Essays

James Michener

Critical Evaluation

James A. Michener, one of the United States’ most prolific writers, began his career with the publication of Tales of the South Pacific in 1947. Although raised as a Quaker, he had a strong love of his country and joined the U.S. Navy in 1942. He was stationed in the South Pacific from 1944 to 1945. There, he observed and wrote about the natives, the islands, the fighting men, the romances, the prejudices, the battles, and the intrigues he witnessed.

While the book consists of nineteen short stories, the author deemed it a novel because of its continuity of characters, setting, and themes, particularly its focus on the ravages of prejudice. The Pulitzer Prize committee sidestepped the question and awarded Michener the five-hundred-dollar Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 1947.

Michener, an orphan, was taken in at about age three by Mabel Michener and raised with as many as eight other orphans. At one point, Michener lived in a poorhouse, and at fourteen he began hitchhiking across the United States, meeting people of all backgrounds. He never learned who his parents were, but he was accepted as a Michener and used that name and a false birth certificate to enlist in the Navy. After graduating from Swarthmore College and doing graduate research at numerous universities, Michener taught in Pennsylvania and Colorado. He then became an associate editor for the Macmillan Company.

It was World War II that changed Michener’s life. Having been assigned to the Solomon Islands as a Navy lieutenant, he determined to bring his observations of courage, humor, and tragedy to the reading public. After Tales of the South Pacific was published to favorable—albeit few—reviews, composer Richard Rogers, lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, director Josh Logan, and producer Leland Hayward offered the author five hundred dollars for the rights to produce a musical based on two of the tales. Michener refused the initial offer but settled, prophetically, for royalties from the play. South Pacific (pr., pb. 1949) was a...

(The entire section is 840 words.)