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...
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