James A. Michener

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James A. Michener Long Fiction Analysis

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3618

In almost all of James A. Michener’s novels, the story line is a loosely woven thread, a framework, a context in which to tell tales and provide geographic and historic detail. Although in his notes on Centennial Michener explains four differentnarrative devices he developed in the course of his writing career, each is still a framing device for a series of related events or information. Throughout all of his work Michener is the social-science editor and teacher, using quantities of well-researched data and imaginative incidents to explain issues from his particular point of view. In many of his writings, it is apparent that Michener is not only a very competent writer, historian, and geographer but also a competent psychologist and geologist. While each of his novels has a historical basis that covers hundreds or thousands of years, each is rooted in its own time as well.

Much of Michener’s writing, both fiction and nonfiction, is journalistic in style, but his staccato rhythms are interrupted from time to time by florid descriptions and precise diversions, such as recipes and statistical contrasts. All of his writing is permeated by an unmistakable creed that affirms human values and a deep concern for the United States. The harsh facts of his early life shaped his career, and his writing is that of a grateful man driven to repay society for the chances he was given in life. There is more to his writing, however, than a need to express gratitude: His broad panoramas are peopled with Dickensian characters from every part of society, although his sympathies remain with the sad and the unfortunate—even rogues such as Oliver Wendell in Centennial and Jake Turlock in Chesapeake—who can get by on their wits.

Underscoring all of Michener’s work is a strong statement of human courage and human tolerance, coupled with a driving concern for humanity’s relationship with its environment. Many of his novels focus on racial discrimination of some kind, and each teaches the value of hard work and the necessity for change. As in his nonfiction, Michener does not hesitate to portray society’s weaknesses. While critics have frequently panned both his style and the values it embodies, particularly in his later work, these same late novels have consistently been best sellers.

Tales of the South Pacific

Ironically, Tales of the South Pacific was not a best seller, even though of all Michener’s works it is perhaps the most familiar. Although it continues to sell as many copies today as when it was originally published and has won the Pulitzer Prize, the book was first printed on the cheapest paper with the poorest binding available—so little did the publisher think of its chances—and new chapters did not even begin at the tops of new pages. Even after its award, the novel would have continued to die a slow death were it not for the musical comedy based on it. Few successful writers have had a less auspicious beginning.

Tales of the South Pacific is a framing story that sets up many of Michener’s themes; with it the author began a literary romance with the Pacific islands that would last for more than fifteen years and characterize much of his work. In this work, nineteen related episodes tell the story of the commitment of the United States to the Pacific theater during World War II. The treatment of character as well as setting is significant to the body of Michener’s work. No one character can be called theprotagonist, although Tony Fry (a Navy lieutenant) and the narrator are most central to the plot. By not having a protagonist, Michener implies that this is not the story of one person but rather the shared experience of all those who were in the Pacific during the war years. The narrator makes no moral judgments: Men and women are presented at their finest and their weakest moments; some die in war, but life somehow goes on.

The Bridges at Toko-Ri

With the exception of The Fires of Spring, a semiautobiographical novel that develops much of Michener’s personal life through 1929, both the fiction and nonfiction that followed Tales of the South Pacific are steeped in Pacific history and Michener’s own war experience. All are connected as part of a cumulative statement; the collection Return to Paradise (1951), for example, with its alternating essays and stories, begins with the description of islands emerging from the sea, the same technique Michener employs in the first of his blockbuster novels, Hawaii. Of these early works, The Bridges at Toko-Ri is particularly significant. The novel exemplifies Michener’s typical blend of fact and fiction, as he exposes his reader to the Asian world and the Korean War experience. With the publication of the novel, the author observed that it was the “purest writing” he had done so far.

Although The Bridges at Toko-Ri is a short novel and neatly divided into sections—“Sea,” “Land,” and “Sky”—in it, Michener provides his strongest development of character. The protagonist is Harry Brubaker, a twenty-nine-year-old veteran of World War II and promising Denver, Colorado, lawyer, who resents fighting in Korea. In the first section, Brubaker is rescued from the frozen sea by another three-dimensional character, Mike Forney, a cocky Irishman from Chicago. Michener included an expanded version of both these characters in his later novel Space. The “Land” interlude takes place in Japan, a liberty stop, where Brubaker must rescue Forney and his friend from jail before he can visit with his family, who has come to see him there. In a human brotherhood scene typical of Michener, the Brubakers meet a Japanese family in a private pool at their hotel; paddling naked, the families intermingle and converse, resolving any conflict left over from the days before. At this point, the major conflict of the novel begins, however, as the carrier crew starts to plan its assault on four bridges across the canyon of the enemy center at Toko-Ri. Connected to the questions about the attack are more rhetorical ones, addressed to the reader: Will the flyers knock out the bridges? Will this make the Communists stop the war? Have Americans lost the strength to make this sacrifice? Where will America’s last stand against the Communists come—in California, or Colorado, on the banks of the Mississippi?

Theclimax of the novel comes in “Sky,” when the heroic Brubaker and Forney destroy the bridges but are killed in the aftermath of the attack. The action reaffirms that the United States has produced fighters who will always “fly against bridges.” The energy of this short section is powerful, deeply rooted in Michener’s own naval air experience and the passion of his convictions.

Caravans

Caravans is a transitional novel for Michener; while the setting is still Asia, it marks a western movement in both action and thought. Precursor to The Drifters, The Source, and to a lesser extent Poland, Caravans begins in 1946, in the aftermath of World War II. Here, the journalistic style that marks much of Michener’s fiction is handled through a first-person narrator, Mark Miller, a junior-grade State Department officer stationed in Afghanistan. During the opening pages of the novel, Miller is sent on a mission to locate Ellen Jaspar, a high-spirited college student from Dorset, Pennsylvania, who left Bryn Mawr College to marry an Afghan exchange student named Nazrullah. The plot is a series of adventures laced with romance, even after Ellen is found with a nomad caravan in the desert. The connecting link for the related incidents is the ancient route of the Kochis, whom Miller joins in the hope of convincing Ellen to return to her parents. Again, in usual Michener fashion, the plot provides a context within which to describe geographic and historic detail and argue thematic questions.

In his excellent discussion of Michener’s major works, George J. Becker points out that for more than twenty years the author was concerned with the “stresses and false values that beset American youth”; Becker applies his insight to The Drifters, but it is equally true of Caravans. Although the time of the story is 1946, Ellen is almost a stereotype of college youth in the early 1960’s—when the novel was written—in her dress, ideas, and lifestyle. For the last third of the book, she and Miller articulate the fiery rhetoric of campuses across America.

The thematic substance of Caravans goes further than any of Michener’s previous work in its discussion of racial and religious prejudice. The dark-skinned Nazrullah explains his educational experience in Germany and America, infuriating Miller by comparing the American treatment of blacks to the German treatment of Jews. Although the reader’s sympathy is with Miller, Nazrullah’s point is well made. It is underscored in the climactic moment of the novel, when Miller—a Yale man, perhaps the most civilized member of the cast—announces that he is Jewish and nearly kills Dr. Stiglitz for his wartime Nazi efforts.

The majority of characters in the novel are Muslim, and a few are Christian. Repeatedly, however, the novel turns on a Jewish element, directly anticipating Michener’s next major novel, The Source. Even Kabul, the Afghan capital, is used to show “what Palestine was like at the time of Jesus.”

Chesapeake

Chesapeake was the first of Michener’s highly popular novels to deal with an indigenously American subject (one might take exception here with Hawaii, but that work seems clearly to belong to his earlier preoccupation with the Pacific). As in Centennial and later in Texas, Michener hoped to chronicle the making of America and to celebrate the courage of those who took part in that achievement. Spanning nearly four hundred years, the novel moves from the first indigenous peoples who settled the land to the funeral, in 1978, of one of the Quaker descendants of the earliest Caucasians. In part, it is an instructive, political book, dealing with governments in Great Britain and France as well as the United States, culminating with Pusey Paxmore’s suicide over his involvement in the Watergate scandal. For the most part, the focus is narrow—the eastern shore of Chesapeake Bay—despite the long roster of historical characters, from John Smith and George Washington to Daniel Webster and Henry Clay.

Here the episodes are organized in a fairly straightforward pattern—allowing for slight digression with a chapter devoted to a family of geese and another to a batch of crabs—and the third-person omniscient point of view does not shift. Four fictional families provide the substance of the book: the Catholic family of Edmund Steed who flees religious persecution in England and joins John Smith in exploring the land in 1607; the family of London thief and indentured servant Timothy Turlock, who arrives a generation later; the Quaker family of Edward Paxmore, who comes in search of religious freedom by way of Barbados and ironically receives the first slaves in the area; and the Caters, a family of former slaves, who build their contribution to the novel from the time just before the American Civil War. Although there is great discussion of loyalties, each of the first three families fares well in the American Revolution: Steed is an interpreter for the French, Turlock a sharpshooter, Paxmore a builder of fine ships. The War of 1812 continues the tension that creates the climax of the novel, with the Emancipation Proclamation and the American Civil War. Certain characters are given focus—Rosalind Steed, for example—but Michener does not slow down to develop any of them fully; many are types used to maintain the human element while the narrative sweeps over succeeding generations. This large movement does not, however, mitigate the value of the novel.

From the outset, Michener’s emphasis is on human courage and tolerance and humanity’s relationship with its environment. Ample descriptions build a love for the land and for the watermen who work it; later chapters deal with ecological concerns—erosion, litter, and landfill. Early chapters ennoble the Native American and lament his passing. Perhaps the greatest weight throughout is given to the issues of racial and religious freedom.

The suffering of both the Steeds and the Paxmores offers compelling insight into the theocracy of Puritan New England and those who came to America seeking religious freedom. In ironic contrast, both the Steeds and the Paxmores own slaves. The final struggle for black freedom comes at the start of the twentieth century, with an amendment to the Maryland constitution intended to disenfranchise blacks. Although the Steed and Turlock clans support it, Emily Paxmore champions the defeat of the bill by arguing that it can be applied equally to all European immigrants after 1869, and the campaign becomes her own personal Armageddon.

Chesapeake is a big novel (it even includes a recipe for oyster stew). The fragments that fill the end are the unresolved conflicts of modern time—except for an account of the passing of Devon Island. As the scene of much of the action slips into the sea, Michener affirms that it will come again and again until at last the “great world-ocean” reclaims it.

Space

Although his other novels touch on the twentieth century, Space and Recessional are Michener’s two pieces of fiction that concentrate solely on life in twentieth century America. In Space, he chronicles the U.S. space program from its inception in 1944 to an ebb in 1982 through a series of incidents that connect neatly to his work before and after it. The novel begins on October 24, 1944, with scenes that introduce four major characters. The first is Stanley Mott, an American engineer, who is in London at the request of the U.S. president, whose job it is to see that the German installation at Peenemünde is not bombed before three of the chief scientists can be captured alive. The second is Norman Grant, drawn much like Harry Brubaker, in the climactic naval battle of Leyte Gulf. The third is John Pope, a seventeen-year-old football hero from Grant’s hometown of Clay. Finally, there is Dieter Kolff, one of the scientists whom Mott must rescue, who survives the bombing because he is away with his girlfriend, Leisl.

The next part of the novel introduces the women who are loved by these men and advances the story through them. Because of the ingenuity of a Nazi officer who later becomes a leader of the U.S. aerospace industry, Kolff and Leisl come to the United States, shepherded by Mott and his wife, Rachel. Pope gets appointed to Annapolis, on the recommendation of Grant, who has become senator from the state of Fremont; Pope’s wife, Penny, earns a law degree and goes to work for Grant when he is appointed to the space committee; Grant’s wife, Elinor, preoccupied with little green men, becomes the principal supporter of Leopold Strabismus and the Universal Space Associates.

These characters, and those who flesh out their stories, create the substance of the novel. While Michener’s focus is on the space program, his characters are among the most fully developed in all of his work. Systematically moving through the various stages of America’s efforts in outer space, he keeps the weight of his research in careful balance with the stories of human lives. This is particularly true in the second half of the novel, which centers on six fictional astronauts (Pope among them). While the reader is drawn into the explorations (particularly the Gemini flight, which Pope shares with his likable opposite, Randy Claggett, and their adventures on the dark side of the moon), one’s interest is held by the characters at least as much as by the technology. This is particularly true of the capable con man Strabismus.

At first Strabismus seems an unnecessary diversion—similar to the recipes Michener offers for Polish sausage or oyster stew—but as the story builds, he becomes an integral part of the work. Playing off the initials U.S.A., Strabismus moves through a series of lucrative rackets until he sets himself up as a preacher with the United Salvation Alliance. As he panders to the fears of the uneducated, he crusades against “atheistic humanism” and advocates a return to fundamentalism that will prohibit the teaching of evolution and forbid National Park rangers from describing the geological history of their areas. He launches impassioned attacks on homosexuals and fosters a virulent anti-Semitism. Michener clarifies his point of view in the final confrontation between Strabismus and the “heroes” of his novel. Finally, Michener suggests, the conflict is part of the long march of history and will continue thousands of years hence.

Poland

Two massive novels are representative of Michener’s later works: Poland and Texas. The first is a well-researched chronicle of Polish history that moves backward and forward, connecting the Communist country of modern time to the thirteenth century raids of Genghis Khan through the development of three fictional families. In the acknowledgments section, in which the author explains his reasons for choosing this particular subject, he sounds very much as he did three decades before, when clarifying his interest in Asia. In both instances, the geographical and ideological positions of the areas indicate that they will become political focal points. Again, Michener is using his fiction to educate readers of his time, moving through history to explain the present.

Texas

Texas is perhaps Michener’s largest novel: More than two hundred characters are involved in its story, a number of whom are historical figures, and dialogue is the primary vehicle through which their story is told. Michener tracks the major events in Texas history, including the struggle for independence from Mexico. The battles of the Alamo, Goliad, and San Jacinto form the backdrop for fictional characters who illustrate the migrations of the Spanish, Europeans, and Americans to Texas. With its narrative framework and blending of fact and fiction, the novel compares neatly with many of its predecessors. Despite its scope, however, one would be hard-pressed to claim that Texas is among the finest of Michener’s works.

Mexico

Mexico traces the history of Mexico from fictional pre-Columbian Indians to modern Mexico through the eyes of an American reporter. Begun by Michener in the 1950’s, Mexico was set aside because of negative comments by the publisher, eventually was lost, and then was rediscovered and completed by Michener in 1992. The narrative’s structure differs from Michener’s previous novels, with more concentration on the present than the past. Norman Clay, the central character, is a Princeton-educated Virginian whose family roots have been in Mexico since the 1840’s. Clay is sent to Mexico as a Spanish-speaking journalist to cover a series of bullfights between two celebrated matadors, Victoriano Leal and Juan Gomez. Through Clay’s eyes, the readers discover Mexico, its turbulent history, and the part played in that history by Clay’s family. A variety of conflicts are portrayed, including Spaniard versus Indian, Catholic versus pagan, and the quest for the exploitation of gold and silver, as well as war, civil war, and revolution in the twentieth century.

A gripping story unfolds that becomes a vivid portrait of a fascinating country. The cultural conflicts of a class-torn society are epitomized through the tale of the sad, bitter, dirty, sometimes lucrative business of being a matador. In Mexico, bullfighting not only is a sport but also an art form, big business, and festival, mirroring the sordid, grisly, and violent aspects of Mexican culture. Mexico shows that Michener had not lost any of his ability to tell a great story while providing his readers with interesting information about how different cultures live, think, and interact.

Miracle in Seville

As in Mexico, Michener uses a journalist as the narrator and participant in Miracle in Seville. The narrator, Shenstone, is sent by his editor to Seville, Spain, to write the story of Don Cayetano Mota, owner of a famous ranch where fighting bulls have been raised for decades. However, Shenstone never writes the story, because he believes that he will lose his credibility as a journalist if he reports the unbelievable events that he witnessed while in Seville.

By using a journalist as the narrator, Michener provides a realistic framework for detailing the classical Spanish bullfight with its four distinct parts, as well as the context for describing the appearance, personalities, and techniques of four matadors who will fight in Seville after Easter. Michener places the reader in Seville, seeing, smelling, hearing, and experiencing the bullfights, the processions, and the parade. Character development becomes secondary in the narrative, as Michener is much more interested in telling the story of Don Cayetano, who is seeking to restore the lost honor and glory of his ranch with the help of the Virgin Mary. Through Shenstone, Michener paints a portrait of Spain as a country where bullfighting is an art form, where religious faith is sincere and often dramatic in its expression, and where constant effort is required to sustain personal and family honor.

Miracle in Seville stands apart from Michener’s other novels. Although it resembles his previous novels in its focus on the culture of a particular place, it is his only novel that presents events that cannot be rationally explained, creating a strong aura of fantasy. However, even though it is an adult fairy tale, this novel exhibits a well-developed story and a vivid sense of location.

Whatever the critical verdict on Michener the novelist may be, it is clear that Michener the educator-through-fiction has been a great success. To a popular audience numbering in the millions, he has communicated the uniquely modern sense of the long view of history.

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