James A. Michener Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)
0111200972-Michener.jpg (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Michener was a prolific writer who became known for his epic novels that explored the landscape, history, and culture of specific geographic regions in the United States and around the world.

Early Life

James Albert Michener was born in 1907. His place of birth is unknown but was probably New York City or Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Very little is known of his early life since he was an orphan raised by a Quaker widow from Doylestown named Mabel Michener. He never discovered the identity of his biological mother and father. His family was poor, but Michener managed to expand his horizons by traveling through forty-five states during the summer of 1921. That fall, he enrolled in Doylestown High School, where, according to at least one teacher, he did not work very hard because he did not have to, being brighter than most students. He became a good basketball player for Doylestown High and later gained scholarship to play on the basketball team of Swarthmore College. Besides playing basketball at Swarthmore, Michener focused on English, history, and philosophy in a rigorous honors program.

After his graduation from Swarthmore College with a bachelor of arts in English and history, Michener taught English at the Hill School in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, from 1929 to 1931. From 1931 to 1933, he studied at St. Andrews in Scotland on a Lippincott Fellowship, visited London and Italy, toured part of Spain, and served for a time in the British Merchant Marine. In 1935, he married his first wife, Patti Koon, and from 1936 to 1939, he taught English at the George School, a Quaker institution in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. From 1936 to 1939, Michener taught at the Colorado State College of Education, where he completed a master of arts degree in 1937. He then taught education at the Harvard Graduate School as a visiting lecturer in 1939 and 1940. In 1940, Michener joined the Macmillan Publishing Company as the social studies editor, a position he held until 1949.

His editorship, however, was interrupted by World War II, and despite both his age and his Quaker background, Michener joined the U.S. Navy in 1942, arriving in the South Pacific as a lieutenant in the spring of 1944. His position as an aviations inspector and publications director led him to visit some fifty islands, an experience that he translated into Tales of the South Pacific, which he began writing during his term of service. In late 1945, Michener returned to his position at Macmillan. Tales of the South Pacific was published in 1947, and the book won Michener the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 1948. It was turned into a very popular Broadway musical in 1949 and a film in 1958, both titled South Pacific. In 1949, having achieved financial independence, Michener left his job at Macmillan and embraced writing full time.

Life’s Work

During the 1950’s, Michener continued to write about the world of the Pacific. These works included Return to Paradise (1951), a collection of essays coupled with stories about the islands of the South Pacific, Australia, and New Zealand. In 1953 he published The Bridges at Toko-Ri, a novel featuring an American pilot and set during the Korean War. Michener then took up the theme of interracial relationships in the novel Sayonara (1954), in which two American servicemen who develop relationships with Japanese women face official and unofficial obstacles. By this time, Michener had been married and divorced twice: His first marriage, to Patti Koon, ended in 1948; his second marriage, to Vange Nord, lasted from 1948 to 1955. He then met Mari Yoriko, a Japanese American who had been held in a U.S. internment camp with her parents during World War II. They were married in 1955, a union that lasted until Mari’s death in 1994. Her influence led Michener toward a greater emphasis on the need for tolerance, and the order she gave to his personal life was an indispensable aid in the production of his many books.

A decade of writing about the world of the Pacific culminated in 1959 with Michener’s massive novel Hawaii. In it, he established the basic pattern for later historical novels, each centered on the geography, history, and people of places that he visited and studied: Hawaii, Afghanistan, Israel, Spain, Poland, and others. Michener also turned to his own nation’s development in novels such as Centennial (1974), Chesapeake (1978), Texas (1985), and Legacy (1987). In Hawaii, Michener begins with a...

(The entire section is 1886 words.)

James A. Michener Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)
ph_0111200959-Michener.jpg James A. Michener Published by Salem Press, Inc.

James Albert Michener claimed to have been born in New York City on February 3, 1907, although the actual history of his birth is obscure. Abandoned as an infant in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, he was adopted by a Quaker woman, Mabel Michener, who boarded children and who may have been his birth mother. She supported the children in her care by taking in laundry and by sewing buttonholes; James helped make ends meet as a child by working as a soda boy, paperboy, and hotel watchman. Nevertheless, the Michener family was evicted frequently, and James spent four months in the poorhouse. Mabel made these bad times bearable for James by instilling in her adopted son a love for books and music. He also acquired a sympathy for poor people and an admiration for hard work that resurfaced years later in his novels.

Michener was enrolled in Doylestown Grammar School but was overcome with wanderlust at the age of fourteen, an impulse that would remain with him. After bumming his way across forty-five states and staying with more than fifty families, Michener returned to high school and became a sports columnist and an amusement-park spotter at fifteen. Even though he was very active in basketball, baseball, tennis, and acting, Michener graduated first in his class and was awarded a scholarship to Swarthmore College; he graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa in 1929.

Michener continued to pursue his intellectual goals after college. A traveling scholarship, the Lippincott Award, sent him to St. Andrew’s University in Scotland. While in Europe, he also found time to collect rare songs in the Hebrides, study painting in Siena, Italy, tour Spain, and ship out as a seaman in the British merchant marine. Returning to the United States in 1933, Michener taught English for three years at a Quaker institution called George School near Philadelphia. After marrying Patti Koon in 1935, he became a professor at Colorado State Teachers College in Greeley. In 1936, he began his six-year tenure with the educational press, which marked the beginning of his writing career. In 1940, he became a visiting history professor at Harvard University and then a textbook editor at Macmillan in New York.

Michener’s promising career at Macmillan was interrupted by the bombing of Pearl Harbor. After he enlisted in the Navy, Michener’s ability as a writer came to the attention of his superiors, and he was sent to officers’ school, where he was trained for service in the Mediterranean theater. Ironically, though, when Michener requested...

(The entire section is 1040 words.)

James A. Michener Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

In terms of book sales, Michener was one of the most successful American writers of the twentieth century. The immense popularity of his novels is made all the more amazing by the fact that the subjects of his novels are not in tune with what the public generally seemed to want. People read Michener’s novels not only to escape but also to learn. Each of his massive, epic novels reflects his obsession with geographic and historical detail.

Although his characters are, for the most part, stereotyped representatives of certain types of people, his most heroic characters embody those virtues that Michener has tried to cultivate in himself: hard work, courage, resourcefulness, and independence.

James A. Michener Biography

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Although standard references state that James Albert Michener was born on February 3, 1907, in New York City to Edwin and Mabel Michener, the facts of his birth are unknown; he was a foundling whom Mabel Michener reared from birth, moving at times to the county poorhouse to help the family through poverty and illness. On a scholarship, he attended Swarthmore College, from which he graduated summa cum laude in 1929. For ten years, he taught at a variety of schools and universities, including the School of Education at Harvard, and in the early 1940’s he became an editor at Macmillan. He was a practicing member of the Society of Friends (Quakers) and might have been exempted from combat, but in 1942 he volunteered for active duty...

(The entire section is 515 words.)

James A. Michener Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)
ph_0111200972-Michener.jpg James A. Michener Published by Salem Press, Inc.

James Albert Michener (MIHCH-nur), although best known for his epic historical novels, also produced an impressive body of works on art, the social sciences, American politics, and international travel. Michener, who was a foundling, was born in either New York City or Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Taken in by Mabel Michener, a Doylestown widow, he was reared in poverty, at times being forced to live temporarily in the county poorhouse to relieve the financial pressure on his seamstress foster mother.

During the summer of 1921, Michener set out on a hitchhiking tour that took him through forty-five states. That fall he entered Doylestown High School, where his principal interest was sports. From 1925 until 1929, he...

(The entire section is 1084 words.)