James A. Michener

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1886

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.

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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 description of the land and the geographic forces that shaped it. He then describes four successive waves of settlement on the island: Polynesians, American missionaries and sailors, Chinese peasants, and Japanese settlers. In an interview during the last years of his life, Michener described the basic message of this novel and those that followed: “I’ve testified to the fact that people of different climates and nationalities and religions and skin color can be delightful people—just like your next door neighbors. And I have never deviated from that.”

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During the 1960’s and 1970’s, novels similar in format to Hawaii continued to pour from Michener. His work regimen was simple, and he stuck to it: He worked each morning from a manual typewriter and read or conducted research every afternoon. He spent much of his time visiting the places he wrote about. In preparation for his novel Poland (1983), for example, Michener journeyed to Poland eight times between 1977 and 1983, visiting and later revisiting sites that he would write about in the novel, consulting with experts in various fields of Polish history, and getting to know many Poles from all walks of life. Moreover, in such novels, which spanned vast periods of time, Michener was also able to explore serious historical themes that resonated with his nonacademic audience. For example, in The Source (1965), which chronicles an archaeological dig at the mythical site of Tell Makor in Israel, Michener brings each of the several levels that the archaeologists excavate to life with interesting stories featuring complex characters and relationships. Each tale, which is centered around a single artifact, develops larger themes: how monotheism and Judaism emerged, why Jews were so often persecuted during this long historical process, and whether the three great religions of the West can ever truly coexist peacefully.

While establishing and extending his literary reputation, Michener was also very politically active. A staunch opponent of communism, he covered the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 for Reader’s Digest and actually helped some Hungarian refugees over the border into Austria. Soon after, his interest in U.S. politics led him to work for the election of John F. Kennedy as president in 1960. Moreover, Michener sought a political career for himself: In 1962, he ran for the U.S. Congress as a Democrat from the conservative eighth district in Pennsylvania. Michener lost, but he remained politically involved, serving as secretary of the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention in 1967 and 1968, investigating and writing about the Kent State shooting in 1970, and serving as a correspondent during President Richard M. Nixon’s historical trips to the Soviet Union and China in 1972.

During the second half of his life, Michener won an increasing number of awards and honors. He was granted honorary degrees by more than thirty colleges and universities. In addition, he was awarded the Medal of Freedom in 1977 by President Gerald Ford and was named Outstanding Philanthropist in 1996 by the National Society of Fund-Raising Executives. During this period, Michener also donated large sums of money to various institutions. These grants included $7.2 million to Swarthmore College, $9.5 million to the James A. Michener Art Museum, and $64.2 million to the University of Texas at Austin. Michener also patronized the visual arts—in 1994, he pledged $5 million each to art museums in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, and Texas.

During the 1980’s, Michener faced a number of physical problems but continued to write prolifically. Indeed, some of Michener’s most popular novels were published in the 1980’s, such as Space (1982) and Caribbean (1989); between 1986 and 1992, he wrote and published eleven books. After the death of his wife Mari in 1994 from cancer, Michener’s own health began to deteriorate. His death eventually came because of renal failure; dependent on kidney dialysis to stay alive, Michener ordered doctors to disconnect him, and he died in Austin, Texas, on October 16, 1997.

Summary

James Michener deserves to be remembered as one of the most prolific and widely read of American novelists in the twentieth century. By the time of his death, his fame as a writer of fiction had been secured by the early success of such works as Tales of the South Pacific and The Bridges at Toko-Ri and by a later series of historical novels in which fact and fiction from the past were blended with contemporary themes and issues. These long and complex novels followed a pattern of development that became familiar and beloved to millions of readers around the world, despite some professional criticism. Michener’s more than forty books sold more than seventy-five million copies.

Despite Michener’s great success as a best-selling novelist, he should also be remembered for many works of nonfiction, which focused on such diverse topics as the role of social studies in public education, the history of Japanese art, the dangers of U.S. electoral politics, the reasons for the killing of students at Kent State University in 1970, and the importance of sports in American life. Moreover, Michener became a major philanthropist, giving away over $100 million to universities, libraries, and museums. Michener’s life experiences were quite varied: a Naval lieutenant during World War II, a journalist, a teacher at every level from elementary to graduate school, and a candidate for the U.S. Congress. Yet through a life packed with so much activity that it might seem incoherent, certain themes remained constant: a concern for America’s young people and a commitment to education, a belief in human dignity and freedom, a recognition of the need for intercultural tolerance and understanding, and a conviction that people everywhere and in all times share basically the same desires, needs, and struggles.

Bibliography

Becker, George J. James A. Michener. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1983. Becker’s book duplicates much of the information contained in Day’s biography of Michener, but it covers the years from 1978 to 1983.

Day, A. Grove. James A. Michener. 2d ed. Boston: Twayne, 1977. This book is written from the point of view of someone who knew and worked with Michener. Its excellent bibliography is limited, naturally, to materials published before 1977.

Hayes, John P. James A. Michener: A Biography. New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1984. Hayes conducted more than twenty-five interviews with Michener, providing rich biographical material for this meticulous work that was ten years in the making. Covers his prolific writings, from Tales of the South Pacific to Space, and praises Centennial, even though it was rejected by the literary community. Most useful for background information and anecdotes on Michener.

Michener, James A. The World Is My Home. New York: Random House, 1992. A memoir of Michener’s life and writing.

Severson, Marilyn S. James A. Michener: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996. Contains critical commentaries on all of Michener’s major works.

Straub, Deborah A., ed. Contemporary Authors. New Revision Series 21. Detroit: Gale Research, 1987. Chronicles the storytelling talents of Michener, the “master” reporter who has gone on to become a brand name author of epic proportions, and mentions his major novels. An excellent source for a variety of extracts of book reviews many of which grudgingly give praise to Michener’s painstaking research. Includes a bibliography.

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