James A. Michener American Literature Analysis
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5898
Michener is certainly one of the most successful and unique writers of fiction of the twentieth century. Unlike many best-selling authors, Michener amassed a huge following, not by filling his novels with gratuitous sex and violence, but by writing huge, carefully researched books that create their own universes. Each of his epic novels gives the reader a Weltanschauung, or a view of life, through the myriad details he presents pertaining to the history, archaeology, religion, language, geology, wildlife, agriculture, and social and economic lore of a region. Michener’s background as an educator is reflected in this factual quality of his books, which has made each one a “history course” for the average American, many of whom have little time or interest to delve into history books. By reading Michener’s novels, one can learn a great deal without much effort.
It is the epic quality of Michener’s fiction, however, that has brought him under fire from the critics. His desire to involve his characters in as many historical events as possible results in what many perceive to be contrived situations. In addition, the vast time frames that his novels span give Michener little room for character development. Thus, his characters are often stereotypes or one-dimensional beings who converse in somewhat stilted dialogue. Even though Michener has never claimed to be a stylist such as John Updike or Saul Bellow, critics have lambasted his workmanlike prose, which is devoid of paradox, irony, or ambiguity. Moreover, because Michener interprets facts as he gives them, he has been accused of preaching to his readers, telling them how to think about historical events.
Michener’s mass appeal, however, indicates that the general public has overlooked these shortcomings. Not only do many people feel enlightened by his facts, but they are also enthralled by his themes. The fact that Michener possessed a blend of liberal and conservative tendencies helped him reach out to a broad audience.
Racial discrimination is a moral issue in all of Michener’s novels except for The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1953) and The Drifters. In Hawaii (1959), Michener attributes the zeal of the missionaries and their descendants in Hawaii to an implicit belief in the superiority of white Christianity and the ways of the Western world. This ideological conflict intensifies with the arrival of Chinese, Japanese, and Polynesian immigrants to Japan. In The Source (1965), Michener points out that the Hebrews’ faith in their status as God’s Chosen People bolstered their spirits and prevented them from capitulating in the face of overwhelming opposition; however, in the modern world, Michener argues, this archaic (even egotistical) way of thinking is still nurturing ancient antagonism between the Jews and the Arabs. Centennial (1974) dramatizes the decimation of the Indians in nineteenth century America and the exploitation of the Japanese and Mexican field laborers in the twentieth century to demonstrate the bigotry that accompanied the winning of the West. In these novels and others, Michener demonstrates that because discrimination diminishes the potential of a large segment of a society, the society as a whole suffers for it.
The environmental issue is another major target of Michener. In many of his novels, he discusses the fragile bond that exists between the land and the people who live on it. Hawaii dramatizes the drastic changes that take place in the lives of the inhabitants through the depletion of the islands’ only natural commodity, sandalwood. Arrogance, Michener says, is primarily responsible for the failed promise of paradise in The Source, The Covenant (1980), and Texas. Although the environmental crisis is only one of several issues in these novels, it is at the core of Centennial. Throughout that novel, Michener demonstrates that respect for the land is essential if humans expect it to support them in the twenty-first century.
Michener’s conservative leanings manifest themselves in his solid belief in the Puritan work ethic. The slothful natives in Hawaii lose control of their islands to the more industrious Chinese and Japanese. In Centennial, Michener applauds the resourcefulness and ingenuity of immigrants such as Potato Brurnbaugh and his Japanese and Mexican workers who are able to coax productivity out of a barren land. In fact, Michener is so convinced of the enabling power of hard work that even some of his villains, such as the soldier Skimmerhorn in Centennial and the pirate Bonfleur in Chesapeake (1978), command respect because they are men who are able to achieve their goals through the sheer force of their own will. If a society such as those that existed in Virginia (Chesapeake) and Hawaii (Hawaii) begins using slaves to do all the work, moral and economic bankruptcy soon follow. Michener clearly admires the self-made millionaires in Hawaii and Centennial who, he argues, are entitled to their vast riches because they, like Michener himself, pulled themselves up from humble beginnings.
Finally, Michener’s emphasis on the wisdom and courage of the young reflects his acceptance of change as a fact of life. Adherence to tradition is commendable, Michener says, but such behavior also impedes progress, causing rigid societies to stagnate and die. It is the freethinkers, such as the children of the Japanese immigrants in Hawaii, who revitalize their culture by changing with the times. Such changes, Michener warns, must not be made impulsively; many of his heroes and heroines reach a point where they have to decide which values are worthy of preservation.
Tales of the South Pacific
First published: 1947
Type of work: Novel
In the face of overwhelming odds, American military personnel display amazing courage before and during combat.
Michener’s first novel, Tales of the South Pacific, appears at first to be a collection of nineteen casually related episodes. Upon closer inspection, however, a coherence becomes apparent, produced by a chorus of common themes and characters that resonate throughout the work. In this way, Michener’s novel is reminiscent of William Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses (1942), which achieves unity through the same devices. The classification of the book, though, is still so nebulous that the Pulitzer Prize authorities felt compelled to change the category of “novel” to “fiction in book form” before awarding it the Pulitzer Prize in 1948.
Michener is more successful at attaining narrative unity in this book than he is in most of the others, largely because Tales of the South Pacific is so much shorter. The unidentified first-person narrator describes himself as a “paper-work sailor.” The observations that he makes in the first two tales, “The South Pacific” and “Coral Sea,” reveal Michener’s primary goal, which is to discuss the human side of World War II.
Although several stories, such as the first two, are no more than journalistic sketches, “Mutiny” has true literary merit. The narrator has been sent to Norfolk Island to oversee the cutting down of a strip of pine trees so that an airstrip can be built. The title refers both to Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall’s Mutiny on the Bounty (1932) and to the resistance of an old lady named Teta Christian and a retarded fifteen-year-old girl; both of their ancestors migrated to Norfolk Island from Pitcairn Island in 1856 and planted most of the pines. The organic symbol of the trees, a “cathedral of pines,” is contrasted with the cold, heartless, mechanistic symbol, the bulldozers, one of which is blown up by the two women. Through Tony Fry, a sympathetic Navy lieutenant, Michener is saying that victory is hollow if the spirit of free individuals is trampled.
“Our Heroine” is one of two stories on which the musical South Pacific was based. Nellie Forbush is attracted to a wealthy French planter named Emile DeBecque. Although she is enchanted by the bright hues of the foliage on the island, however, she has trouble accepting the same variations in DeBecque’s eight illegitimate children. This is the first appearance of what was to become a major theme in Michener’s later novels: the need for racial tolerance.
The effects of long periods of inaction on virile young men are demonstrated in the next three stories. In “Dry Rot,” eight hundred men who are afflicted with a fungus growth also “itch” for action with the enemy and, in a different sense, with women. “Fo’ Dollar” is the second story that inspired South Pacific. After the young woman he had been writing to in “Dry Rot” dies, the frustrated Joe Cable falls in love with a beautiful Tonkinese woman named Liat; however, he cannot marry her because he is to be part of the invasion of Kuralei. The theme of racial intolerance resurfaces in Cable’s reluctance to bring Liat back to the United States and in the way Liat is ridiculed by the young French women at the convent.
Bus Adams is the narrator of “A Boar’s Tooth” and “Those Who Fraternize” and is the main character in “Wine for the Mess at Segi.” In “A Boar’s Tooth,” a gruesome native ritual reminds Dr. Benoway of the revolting emphasis that all religions place on appurtenances, such as the importance some American churches place on the height of a church steeple. In “Wine for the Mess at Segi,” the dangers that the men encounter in their search for whiskey provide as much relief from boredom as does the whiskey itself. “Those Who Fraternize,” which is narrated by Bus Adams, focuses on the desperate attempts of four of the half-caste DeBecque sisters to attain security by marrying sailors. The futility of trying to establish permanent, meaningful relationships during wartime is underscored by the fact that all the girls’ lovers are killed in battle.
The stir-crazy sailors finally encounter the enemy in the last four stories—“The Strike,” “Frisco,” “The Landing on Kuralei,” and “The Cemetery at Hoga Point.” Even though the narrator is personally involved, his commentary is oddly restrained. The commander of the Navy Supply Depot in “The Strike” is Captain Kelley, a no-nonsense officer who likes to imitate Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty. Unlike the descendants of the mutineers in “The Mutiny,” sailors such as Polikopf rebel against authority by burlesquing naval life.
In “Frisco,” the crew of a landing craft headed for Kuralei form a loose bond through their shared memories of the last American city in which they spent time. “The Landing on Kuralei” is a minute-by-minute account of the American assault, during which more than nine hundred Japanese and more than two hundred American soldiers are killed. The narrator fully comprehends the senselessness of war when he discovers that the courageous Tony Fry is killed during the landing and that the cowardly Bill Harbison has avoided the conflict altogether. The elegiac tone of “A Cemetery at Hoga Point” is tempered by the assertions of the narrator and the two black gravediggers that there will never be a shortage of good men when duty calls.
Even though Tales of the South Pacific was considered by many critics to be a poor choice for the Pulitzer Prize in 1947, the novel is noteworthy for its small-scale approach to an epic conflict. The Pacific theater of war as recorded in this book is a learning experience for both the readers and the military personnel. Michener implies that people such as Nellie Forbush and Joe Cable survive by questioning the values that they brought with them and adapting to their new circumstances.
First published: 1959
Type of work: Novel
The history of Hawaii illustrates Michener’s belief that all civilizations advance at racial crossroads.
Hawaii, the first of Michener’s “blockbuster” novels, was also the first of a new type of historical novel. Although Honoré de Balzac, Émile Zola, and John Dos Passos had all written novels that span several decades, none of their works had the epic scope of Hawaii, which covered several hundred years of human history. Another innovation was the attention that Michener paid to historical accuracy, which makes the novel as instructional as it is entertaining.
The novel begins with the birth of the Hawaiian islands in a section titled “From the Boundless Deep.” These “new” lands, totally devoid of life, can be tamed only by the arrival of what the narrator terms a “new breed” of people. This first-person narrator, whose identity is unknown until the end of the novel, is Hoxworth Hale, a direct descendant of several of the families depicted in the novel.
The second section, “From the Sun-Swept Lagoon,” deals with the first human inhabitants. In the ninth century, King Tamatoa and his younger brother flee Bora Bora in the middle of the night for fear that they will be sacrificed to a new god, Oro. Blown off course by a terrible storm, they land on a mountainous island that appears to be habitable. Many of the rituals that the missionaries will confront hundreds of years later are introduced in this section.
The narrator then jumps forward one thousand years to document the arrival of the first Caucasians—missionaries from Yale University. The title of this section, “From the Farms of Bitterness,” refers to the “fire and brimstone” that Abner Hale, the stereotyped embodiment of Calvinistic Congregationalism, preaches as he converts the natives. Hale’s preaching also makes subtle references to the inherent superiority of the white race and Western culture. By contrast, Hale’s wife, Jerusha, preaches a message of love in the school which she sets up to bring literacy to the islands. In a few short years, Jerusha dies from overwork, a fitting death for the woman from whose body would spring a line of men and women who would devote their lives to bringing “civilization” to the islands.
To introduce the arrival of the Chinese immigrants in “From the Starving Village,” Michener begins with the birth in 1847 of one of the most fascinating characters in the novel, Nyuk Tsin. In 1865, her parents are killed by the invading Tartars; soon thereafter, Nyuk is abducted. A Punti cook named Mun Ki, who works at the brothel where Nyuk has been sold into prostitution, decides to take her with him to Hawaii, where he intends to sell her. During the ocean voyage that Mun Ki and Nyuk share with three hundred other conscripted Chinese, Mun Ki appreciates Nyuk’s potential as a good wife, even though she is a Haaku. Both people, Michener says, are victims of tradition.
Once in Hawaii, Mun Ki and Nyuk Tsin are not in John Whipple’s employ for very long before they absorb the old Yankee virtues of thrift, family solidarity, scholarliness, and common sense. Nyuk’s willingness to spend her off hours earning money to buy land convinces Whipple that the Chinese will revitalize the indolent Hawaiians. Yet Nyuk’s most sterling qualities become apparent only after Mun Ki contracts leprosy and is sent to a leper colony; Nyuk goes there with him. Like Jerusha Hale, Nyuk Tsin and the other “kokuas” who accompany their diseased relatives to the leper colony demonstrate that the word “love” has what Michener calls a “tangible reality.” Just before he dies, Mun Ki, in one of the only sentimental scenes in the novel, calls Nyuk his real wife, a belated acknowledgment of her worthiness.
When Nyuk returns to Honolulu, the first thing she does is to reunite herself with her sons, who have been cared for by a charitable Hawaiian woman named Apikela. In time, all of Nyuk’s sons, including the one who was adopted by the governor while she was at the leper colony, become community leaders.
Despite the increasing fortunes of the Chinese, the haoles, or whites, control Hawaii during the remainder of the nineteenth century. Rafer Hoxworth’s grandson, “Wild” Whipple, stands for all the ruthless American entrepreneurs of the nineteenth century. Michener’s re-creation of the deposing of Queen Liiuokalani and the admission of Hawaii as a territory by U.S. president William McKinley takes liberties with the facts.
Michener’s love of the Japanese is evident throughout the entirety of “From the Inland Sea.” His account of the beauties of the Inland Sea and the island of Kauai has a lyrical quality that is quite striking. One of the workmen imported from Hiroshima, Kamejiro Sakagawa, exhibits persistence, obedience, endurance, and industriousness in all the menial jobs that he is given. Of all the Japanese characters in this section, he is the best developed. Another quality that Michener admires in the Japanese, their patriotism, drives four of Sakagawa’s sons to enlist in the 222d Combat Team (the fictional equivalent of the 442d). Racial discrimination is a major theme in this section. World War II marks the decline of the whites and the emergence of the Asians as the ruling class in Hawaii.
The final section of the book, “The Golden Men,” is generally considered to be the weakest. Instead of developing each scene, Michener provides brief synopses of a staggering number of postwar conditions in Hawaii. Many readers were offended by his portrayal of a descendant of generations of Hawaii residents as a surfer who preys on wealthy women. The title of this section refers to Hawaii’s population. The narrator recapitulates the ancestor worship and the insistence on racial purity by all the races in Hawaii and then, on the last page, observes that all Hawaiians are “products of the mind,” the beneficiaries of the cross-fertilization of ideas from different cultures.
Hawaii is the novel on which Michener’s reputation most firmly rests. Although critics still complained about his “cardboard characters,” they were impressed by the scope and narrative power of his novel. Charles Sutton dubbed him the “Pepys of the Pacific,” after the seventeenth century English diarist Samuel Pepys. In addition, the ending of Hawaii is much more satisfying than those of Michener’s other novels. Whereas the evidence of disorder and unreason contradicts the narrator’s optimistic affirmation about the future in books such as Centennial, Hoxworth Hale’s prediction regarding the ultimate unity in which all people will live seems to be warranted by the novel it concludes.
First published: 1965
Type of work: Novel
Suffering and obedience to the law characterize the development of the Jewish culture.
Of all Michener’s novels, The Source is certainly the most ambitious and complex. Conceived while Michener was on a visit to Israel, the novel traces the history of the Jews from their primitive origins thousands of years ago to the establishment of Israel in 1948. The chapters in each stage of the history illustrated are, for the most part, independent narratives; however, like Hawaii, partial continuity is achieved through the repetition of familiar family names.
In The Source, Michener employs a variation on the narrative technique that he used in Hawaii. The historical events in The Source are put into contemporary perspective by a frame story that is set in 1964. In the frame story, a team of three archaeologists is excavating a Tell, or mound, at the site of the fictional crossroads of the ancient world called Makor, or the Source, because of its spring. The narratives correspond with the unearthing of each successive level of human habitation, beginning with the earliest level—Level XV. At the end of each chapter, the archaeologists evaluate the finds that correspond to the events that have previously been related.
The chapter titled “The Bee Eater” begins in 9831 b.c.e. and introduces Ur, the progenitor of the Family of Ur that appears in the following four chapters. Ur is primarily a hunter, but his son’s experiments with planting presage a new way of life for Ur’s descendants. When his son-in-law is killed by a wild boar, Ur begins probing the mysteries of life and death by asking himself questions such as “Why do I live?” By the year 2202 b.c.e., the people of Makor have attempted to answer those questions by creating gods, in “Of Death and Life.” When the time comes for Urbaal to sacrifice his first-born son to the Canaanite god of Death, he does so willingly in spite of the protests of his wife.
“An Old Man and His God” introduces the Haibiru, who are the forerunners of the Hebrews. After arriving in Makor, the Haibiru diplomatically respect the local gods but cling to the belief that El Shaddai is the most powerful god. This theological conflict is dramatized in the dilemma faced by the leader of the Haibiru, Zadok, whose granddaughter is impregnated by Zibeon, the son of the Canaanite leader.
The third historical chapter, “Psalm of the Hoopoe Bird,” takes place during the reign of David. By this time, El Shaddai has been replaced by Yaweh, who controls the heavens and the hearts of humanity. A descendant of Zibeon named Jabaal is an engineer who builds a massive tunnel that King David places below the more abstract accomplishment of a psalmist named Gershon. In 1964, though, the rediscovered tunnel is itself hailed as a psalm of those who do God’s work.
In “The Voice of Gomer,” a theme that had been an undercurrent in the previous chapters—suffering for one’s religious beliefs—receives its first major exposition. Gomer, a poor widow, becomes a heroine because she does as Yahweh commands, regardless of the hardships she must endure. When Yahweh tells her to defy the governor and drive out the priestess-prostitutes of Baal, she does so. Imprisoned in a well shaft, Gomer predicts that Yahweh will use the Babylonians to punish the Hebrews for their pagan ways. The Jews’ passive acceptance of God’s punishment becomes an integral part of their character.
“King of the Jews” is the only chapter of the novel that is told in the first-person voice. The narrator is a Roman soldier named Myrmex who admires his superior, Herod, because Herod kills his beloved Jewish wife when ordered to; however, obedience, Michener implies, is admirable only when the command is from God. Although Myrmex does not construe Herod’s disfigurement by a horrible disease to be a sort of divine punishment, the evidence provided by the author forces the reader to draw this conclusion. Five hundred years later, the Jews continue to resist any attempt to change their beliefs. In “Yigal and the Three Generals,” the Jews organize a successful protest against the bringing of a statue of the god Caligula to Makor. For their defiance of Nero, many are crucified.
The harshness of Jewish law is exposed in “The Law,” which is set in the Byzantine period. Rabbi Asher declares Menahem a bastard because his widowed mother remarries before the fifteen-year waiting period has elapsed. Barred from participating in Jewish rituals, Menahem converts to Christianity. While the arrival of the Muslims in 635 c.e. does not disperse the Jews, it does add to their suffering in “A Day in the Life of a Desert Rider.” After eight hundred Jews of Medina are beheaded for refusing to convert, military units are dispatched all over the Middle East to do the same everywhere, if need be, to spread Islam. The next two chapters recount the invasion of the Holy Land by the Crusaders. In “Volkmar,” Michener draws a clear parallel between the slaughter of Jews in Europe and in the Middle East in the eleventh century and the systematic extermination of European Jews by Adolf Hitler in the twentieth century. Two hundred years later, in “The Fires of Ma Coeur,” the Crusaders are on the decline.
The first example of “modern” persecution occurs in the chapter titled “The Saintly Men of Safed.” The three men who take center stage in this episode are saintly because each suffers mightily for his belief. Michener’s description of the tortures endured by Jews in the Spanish Inquisition is just as horrifying as his explanation of the shocking plight of the lepers in Hawaii. The chapter ends with Michener’s observation that Judaism has had a tendency to be protected from common understanding when too much emphasis is placed on mysticism and legalism.
The need for religious tolerance is the central theme of “Twilight of an Empire.” In 1880, a Russian Jew named Schumuel Hacohen attempts to escape the anti-Semitic atmosphere of his homeland by establishing a colony of transplanted Russian and Polish Jews along the Jordan River. The once-dispersed Jews return to their homeland in larger numbers than ever before. “Rebbe Itzik and the Sabra,” the last of the historical narratives, is an account of the evacuation of the British from Palestine. The chapter ends with the Jews’ assertion that they will never again submit to oppression or dispersion, thereby adding a new dimension to the Jewish character.
The novel comes full circle in the last chapter with the discovery of the well and prehistoric flints by the archaeologists in the frame story. The Jews’ strict adherence to tradition, Michener says, has been a heavy burden, but it has preserved and defined the Jewish character through the centuries. The novel ends with the optimistic pronouncement that the Arabs and Jews are closer than they realize because they share land and the same partnership with God.
First published: 1974
Type of work: Novel
Violent conflict, heroic struggles, and cruel injustice characterize the lives of the people and the animals that inhabit Colorado throughout its turbulent history.
Published two years after his nonfiction examination of the Kent State University shootings—Kent State: What Happened and Why (1971)—Centennial returns to the genre upon which Michener’s reputation rests. Like Hawaii and The Source, Centennial is a fascinating blend of historical fact and fiction. Unlike his previous novels, though, which are set in exotic lands, Centennial takes place in the continental United States.
In Centennial, Michener employs the same type of narrative artifice that he used in The Source, but which he believed was unnecessary in Chesapeake, The Covenant, and Space (1982). The contemporary presenter of the historical episodes in this novel is the fictional Professor Lewis Vernor, who is commissioned by US magazine to validate a series of articles on a town in Colorado called Centennial.
As in Hawaii, Michener provides a dramatic and historically verifiable explanation of how the land was created and populated. It is in his exposition of the prehistory of Colorado that Michener introduces two themes that run through the entire novel: the survival of the fittest and the persistence of the past into the present. The first human inhabitants of Colorado followed the woolly mammoths across a land bridge from Asia to Alaska thirteen thousand years ago. Michener then moves to the second half of the eighteenth century to introduce the progenitor of many of the characters in the novel, Lame Beaver, who inadvertently makes the area attractive to white men when his golden bullet falls into their hands.
Despite the plethora of Indian lore that Michener provides, Lame Beaver’s story is strangely uninteresting. The thrilling exploits of the first two white men who come on the scene, however—Jacques Pasquinel, a trapper, and Alexander McKeag, a fugitive from Scotland—help to bring the novel alive in chapter 5. McKeag, Pasquinel’s fellow trapper, is a much more complex character; he breaks with Pasquinel after a knife fight with Pasquinel’s half-breed son, Jake. This dispute foreshadows the racial tensions that permeate the remainder of the novel.
The following two chapters document the two forces that contributed to the vanquishing of the culture of the American Indians: the settlers and the United States government. The central character of chapter 7 is Levi Zendt, a former member of a Pennsylvania Dutch community who is ostracized for flirting with his brother’s girlfriend. In his flight from injustice, Levi bears an ironic resemblance to the Indians in chapter 8 who are forced to leave their homeland after their treaties are broken. The courage of Levi and his sixteen-year-old bride, Elly, is underscored by their naïveté, which is revealed early by Levi’s insistence that horses be used instead of oxen to pull his huge Conestoga wagon. Thus, his journey is also a rite of passage, and his tutors are the people who join with them. After Elly dies, he starts a store that becomes the focal point of the town of Zendt’s Farm, later renamed Centennial.
In chapter 7, the whites are firmly established as the dominant race in Colorado by the machinations of the U.S. government and the instrument of its will, the U.S. Cavalry. The domination of the whites is ratified in a treaty during the Civil War that reduces the Indians’ lands to forty-acre allotments on reservations. The degradation of the Indians culminates in a massacre of the Arapaho that is instigated by the fanatical Frank Skimmerhorn.
The novel then moves to its third phase, the civilizing of the West. Chapter 8 is probably the most successful because of its unity and because of the verisimilitude that is achieved by its detailed and authentic portrayal of life on the range. In order to stock the 670,000 acres of range, a transplanted Englishman, Oliver Seccombe, hires a Confederate general and the son of the infamous Frank Skimmerhorn to drive longhorn cattle from Texas to Colorado. The story focuses on a fourteen-year-old boy named Jim Lloyd. Because of Jim’s inexperience as a cowboy and his overall naïveté, it is appropriate that the reader view the trip through his eyes. Throughout the drive, Jim exhibits those qualities that Michener contends were essential in the winning of the West: responsibility, courage, and skill.
Chapter 9 dramatizes the struggles among the various forces of civilization to control the prairie. An immigrant from the Ukraine named Hans Brumbaugh finds farming to be more profitable after he begins irrigating the land to produce potatoes first, then beets. Although Oliver Seccombe maintains an uneasy truce with Brumbaugh, he declares war against the sheep herders and their leader, Messmore Garrett. The tragedy of this conflict is pointed out by Paul Garrett years later, as he observes Hereford cows and sheep grazing together with no apparent harm to the grass.
Michener’s epic narrative culminates in chapter 11, which illustrates what Michener calls the “dark side of western history.” To make ends meet, a destitute actress named Maude Wendell lures a Swede to her bedroom in hopes of blackmailing him. When he protests, she kills him, and she and her son conceal the corpse in an ancient beaver cave. Ironically, the Wendells prosper: Maude becomes a socialite, and her husband and son become unscrupulous real estate agents.
Chapters 12 and 13, which bring the novel into the twentieth century, add a whole new set of characters. Chapter 13 concerns the efforts of Mervin Wendel, the railroad, and an agronomist named Dr. Thomas Dole Creevey to attract farmers to Colorado in 1911. Despite the warnings of Lloyd and Brumbaugh, the immigrants implement Dr. Creevey’s system of dry farming, only to find the promise of the first few years shattered by crop failure in the 1920’s and by the dust storms of the 1930’s.
Like chapter 1, chapter 14 is composed entirely of the frame narrative. In Paul Garrett, Professor Vernor finds a man who epitomizes the history of the West. In Garrett, the genetic strains of many of the main characters converge (although a bit too conveniently to be believable). Yet Paul is also a product of the West in his love and respect for the land. Another frontier quality, courage, surfaces in Paul’s decision to marry a Mexican woman despite the social constraints prohibiting such a union.
Paul acts as Professor Vernor’s guide and introduces him to changing aspects of the West. Looking to the future, Paul tells Professor Vernor that Colorado will be in trouble if it does not acknowledge the fact that humankind and nature have always existed in precarious balance and begin protecting all of its components.
Despite its shortcomings, Centennial is an impressive work. The novel clearly benefits from the years that Michener spent in Colorado. The desert scenes, for example, are much more vividly described than are the desert scenes in his earlier The Covenant. Michener must also be praised for avoiding the big, easy subjects such as gold mining and railroad building and choosing, instead, the more challenging subjects such as irrigation and farming.
First published: 1978
Type of work: Novel
The history of the Eastern Shore of Maryland from 1583 to 1978 demonstrates the need for religious tolerance, personal integrity, and respect for the environment.
In Chesapeake, another sprawling novel, this one covering four hundred years and four major families, Michener abandoned his usual narrative practice of providing several points of view and used the third-person omniscient point of view. He also shaped his novel by dividing it into fourteen “episodes” with their own chapters. The first seven voyages concern the settlement of the Eastern Shore, first by Pentaquod, a peaceful member of the warlike Susquehannock tribe who settles among the Nanticokes, and then by the three white families that dominate the remainder of the novel. The Steeds are Catholics who settle on Devon Island and eventually become landed gentry. The Turlocks are distinctly lower-class people who spring from indentured stock and adapt to the land. The Paxmores are peace-loving (“pax”) Quakers who have fled New England religious persecution. The fourth Family, the Cates, are the children of slaves. Michener uses the families and the landscape to demonstrate familiar themes. Devon Island, seat of the Steed family’s colonial power, erodes, despite humankind’s efforts to slow or stem the erosion, and finally disappears at the end of the novel after Pusey Paxmore’s funeral and the hurricane that follows it. Pusey—descended from the moral center of the novel, the Paxmores—has just finished serving time for involvement in the Watergate scandal. The Steed family also declines, much like the Southern families in the plays of Tennessee Williams. The Paxmores live, appropriately, at Peace Cliff. The Nanticokes, whom the Turlocks have assisted, eventually vanish when Tciblento dies, showing how the white man’s intolerance, exploitation, and racism have destroyed indigenous tribes.
There are so many characters that few are drawn in any detail. One exception is Rosalind Janney, who marries Fitzhugh Steed and finds that she must administer both the house and the plantation. She also is the driving force behind seeing that the infamous pirate Bonfleur (“good flower”), ironically named, is brought to justice and hanged. When “wayward” women are whipped, as is the custom, she bares her own back and effectively puts an end to the practice. She is perhaps the feminist in the novel.
As is his practice, Michener also includes historical characters (Thomas Jefferson, John Smith, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and George Washington make cameo appearances) and historical events. Teach Turlock, Simon Steed, and Levin Paxmore unite to take on the British, primarily at sea; and Michener tells his readers more than they want to know about boat building. Similarly, in the Civil War material, the intricate details of the Underground Railroad, particularly as it relates to the Paxmores, are given.
Michener also devotes chapters to nonhuman characters: geese and crabs, both identified with the Eastern Shore. The goose Onk-or, his mate, and their flock are threatened by the huge guns capable of killing several birds with one shot. Conservation is not an Eastern Shore practice, whether it concerns birds or crabs. Michener also personifies the crab as “Jimmy,” the name given by Shoremen to male crabs. While providing a wealth of detail about geese and crabs, Michener also demonstrates the interconnectedness between the human world and the world of nature.