Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Michener did not begin writing fiction until he was in his forties. Tales of the South Pacific (1947), his first published fiction, was awarded the 1948 Pulitzer Prize in fiction. Michener continued to write fiction about the Pacific for the next twelve years, as well as studies of Japanese art. Hawaii is the culmination of his works with a Pacific setting, and it also set the pattern for a subsequent series of novels with a similar scope, theme, and structure, such as Caravans (1963), The Source (1965), Centennial (1974), Chesapeake (1978), The Covenant (1980), Space (1982), Poland (1983), and Texas (1985).

Hawaii is indeed a historical novel, not a factual record lightly garbed in fiction. Though Michener, with the aid of Clarice B. Taylor, spent a year in research before beginning to write the novel, the reader should be aware that he invents most of his characters and sometimes takes considerable liberties with the facts. Possibly the most flagrant of these liberties is the election with its sweeping victory for the Democrats. In the novel, it takes place in 1954; the actual Democratic landslide did not occur until 1962. Michener, himself an unsuccessful Democratic candidate for a seat in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in 1962, commented that it was an example of the prescience a writer should have about events. Nevertheless, invented characters and events, including an entire contemporary political structure, work better when set in the distant past rather than in a time that is within recent memory.

The Pulitzer Prize notwithstanding, Michener is not generally regarded as a literary figure of major stature. A. Grove Day, who collaborated with Michener on Rascals in Paradise (1957), observes in his critical study of Michener that he is a novelist in the tradition of muckrakers, combining reportorial skills with social conscience. It is this combination that gives his novels, whatever their flaws, a solidity and substance not usually found in lighter popular fiction.