James A. Michener 1907–1997
American novelist, short story writer, nonfiction writer, essayist, memoirist, and art historian.
For further information on Michener's life and career, see CLC, Volumes 1, 5, 11, 29, and 60.
With forty best-sellers to his name, Michener was thought to be one of America's most popular and prolific novelists of the twentieth century. Considered a master of epic narrative, he started life as an orphan and did not begin to write in earnest until he was in his forties. Michener became an avid reader as a child Doylestown, Pennsylvania, where he was raised by a poor Quaker widow. He graduated summa cum laude from Swarthmore College in 1929 with a degree in English literature, after which he taught social studies until 1931 when he won a fellowship to study in Europe. In 1940 he served as a visiting professor of history at Harvard's School of Education and published several scholarly articles for professional journals. While in the Navy in World War II, he was assigned as naval historian in the South Pacific. Later he submitted short stories he'd written during the war to Macmillan publishing house. These were published in 1947 as Tales of the South Pacific. Although not a commercial success, the book won a Pulitzer Prize in 1948 and became the basis for the hit musical South Pacific. Michener continued to write travel articles, essays, and novellas, but became best known for monumental sagas that dramatized the social and political development of nations and regions spanning several generations. Critically acclaimed Hawaii (1959), was the first of these, and his first best-seller. The Source (1965), Centennial (1974), and Chesapeake (1978), were just a few of his other blockbuster successes. Michener imbued his protagonists with patriotism, frugality, common sense, and courage, qualities admired by his wide readership but considered trite to some critics. Some of these reviewers criticized his novels for their casual blending of fact and fiction, predictable plots, moralizing, and digression. Other critics, however, praised his ability to transport his readers to another time and place, and to expertly document historical events while entertaining them.
Tales of the South Pacific (short stories) 1947
The Fires of Spring (novel) 1949
The Bridges at Toko-Ri (novel) 1953
Sayonara (novel) 1954
The Bridge at Andau (novel) 1957
Hawaii (novel) 1959
Caravans (novel) 1963
The Source (novel) 1965
The Drifters (novel) 1971
Centennial (novel) 1974
Chesapeake (novel) 1978
The Covenant (novel) 1980
Space (novel) 1982
Poland (novel) 1983
Texas (novel) 1985
Legacy (novel) 1987
Alaska (novel) 1988
Caribbean (novel) 1989
Journey (novel) 1989
Mexico (novel) 1992
The World Is My Home (memoir) 1992
Literary Reflections (nonfiction) 1993
Recessional (novel) 1994
John Omicinski (obituary date 16 October 1997)
SOURCE: "Writer James Michener Dies at 90," in USA Today, October 16, 1997, p. 4A.
[In the following obituary, Omicinski lauds Michener's life and works.]
James Michener's novels are hard to put down.
Indeed, some are difficult to pick up, too.
Michener, who last week ordered doctors to remove him from life-sustaining kidney dialysis, died Thursday in Austin, Texas. He was 90.
Millions who have read Michener's engrossing and best-selling doorstopper sagas like Hawaii, Chesapeake and Poland, find them uplifting as well as arm-testing experiences.
For 50 years the social-studies-teacher-turned-novelist delivered the goods in plot, history, writing and heft. His maze-plotted novels—peopled by dozens of characters in exotic faraway places readers might never see except through his eyes—spilled Niagaras of fact and fable.
One biographer called him "a master reporter of his generation."
Readers loved it, scooping up more than 75 million Micheners.
Having read him, readers felt they understood complex societies like South Africa (The Covenant), Hungary (The Bridge at Andau), Colorado (Centennial) and Israel (The Source).
Michener's secrets were his essential sympathy and a drive to...
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write as if his life depended on it. He never stomped on his characters, even the evil ones, and his unalloyed gee-whiz quality never flagged through more than 40 books and novels.
Michener also didn't intimidate readers.
"I tried to create an ambience that would both entertain and instruct the reader," he said, and "to invent characters who were as real as I could make them," giving them "only such heroics as I myself had experienced or found credible."
That patrician intellectuals berated his plebeian popularity didn't seem to bother Michener; Main Street's adulation and sales more than made up for it.
"I have always remained out of the literary mainstream," he once wrote, "… as an act of conscious policy."
Michener was harsh in his judgments of himself.
He once called himself no example for young writers. "I certainly do not recommend either my behavior or my writing to them. I am a loner to an extent that would frighten most men," indicating he paid a penalty for his wealth and fame in hard work and enforced solitude.
Michener admitted, too, that his understated, often elliptical writing often missed its mark.
"I … am aware," he wrote in a personal memoir titled The World Is My Home, "that I frequently fail to make my point with the average reader. Thousands of people read Hawaii without recognizing it as a strong statement on race relations, and this same failure to understand has happened with several of my other books, notably The Source and The Covenant."
Yet reviewers credited him with "perfect best-seller pitch: enough intrigue to make life exciting, enough chronological and geographical distance to make the thrills thrilling, not threatening."
Perhaps equally as important, Michener never talked down to his audience.
His sweeping literary dioramas took readers from primordial time to the day before yesterday. One critic called Michener's work "more truth than fact" with history slightly skewed to fit plots.
Hawaii is about imperialism, noted one reviewer, but the reader never noticed or cared while turning 1,140 pages that held down many beach towels in 1959. No matter what the formula was, Michener stories were simply too good to put down.
If they didn't remember many of Michener's characters after South Pacific, readers remembered that they liked the books.
But Michener—though a teacher at heart—didn't get lost in ancient history.
Several books—notably his 1961 Report of the County Chairman and his 1971 Kent State: What Happened and Why—were literally deadline reports on contemporaneous events. His 1971 The Drifters, a novel concerning six disenchanted young people touring Spain, was one of the first serious efforts to examine the '60s counterculture.
Whether they knew it or not, readers also were getting from Michener a not-so-subtle sociological education—which he once taught at Harvard—as well as a ratification of the Christian ethic, wrapped up in richly painted characters and cliffhanging plots.
James Albert Michener wrote superlong. His manuscripts were so beefy there usually was enough surplus to make another book or two.
Leftovers from the 1,000-page Alaska of 1988 became Journey, a tale of the 19th-century gold rush to the Klondike. Notes from the 1985 blockbuster Texas were enough to write the 1990 The Eagle and the Raven, which was essentially twin portraits of General Santa Anna and Sam Houston.
One reviewer called him the "literary world's Cecil B. DeMille."
Michener was the consummate showman who knew what his audience of middle-class Americans wanted to see, hear and feel, and who gave them plenty of it. Teams of researchers helped him write his books in projects as well-organized as military operations. He used 15 local researchers on the 1983 Poland and made eight visits behind the Iron Curtain himself.
If his work resembled DeMille, Michener's personal life was more like Huckleberry Finn's.
An adopted orphan who spent time in poorhouses when his mother ran out of food, he once told an interviewer "We never had a sled, never had baseball gloves, never had a bicycle, never had a wagon. Nothing."
Friends remembered him as the brightest boy in grade school, and that his toes stuck out of his threadbare sneakers. Like Huck, he lit out for the territory at 14 from Doylestown, Pa., got a job in a traveling show and never looked back, hitchhiking through 45 states.
After Swarthmore College and teaching—including a 1939 stint as a Harvard lecturer in sociology—Michener's first effort at writing was a professional study called The Future of Social Studies.
Like so many men and women of his time, Michener's life was transformed by World War II. It was as a naval historian, gathering data on Pacific sea operations from an island in the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) named Espiritu Santo, that Michener turned into a writer of fiction.
Michener's wartime scribblings in damp little notebooks became post-war short stories in The Saturday Evening Post, then a small 1947 book called Tales of the South Pacific.
Those stories, hammered out in a Pacific island quonset hut, won the 1948 Pulitzer Prize. They became the script for the landmark Broadway musical that gave the world All-American nurse Nellie Forbush, scam artist Luther Billis, matchmaker Bloody Mary and unforgettable songs like There is Nothin' Like a Dame and I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair.
The author said he never wrote a better character than Nellie.
Michener visited 49 islands while working on naval histories, discovering in the French owner of a copra plantation named Aubert Ratard the makings of Emile De Becque of South Pacific's "Some Enchanted Evening."
On the island, as well, was an overweight worker nicknamed "Bloody Mary."
He found the intriguing name "Bali Ha'i" on a signboard in "the most miserable Melanesian village I would ever see" and transformed it into a synonym for earthly paradise.
His own Bali Ha'i, he said, was Bora Bora, calling it the most beautiful island on Earth.
He recast the story for children in a 1992 book called South Pacific, as told by James A. Michener. Later in life he had this advice for aspiring writers: "Be sure your novel is read by (Richard) Rodgers and (Oscar) Hammerstein," who wrote the musical.
Dirt-poor Michener was supposed to get a measly 1% of the profits from the Broadway show, but on opening night—when it was obviously going to be one of the biggest hits of all time—Hammerstein loaned him $5,000 to invest in the show on the spot.
The $5,000 helped make him a fortune.
The Pacific tales and South Pacific royalties launched former Pennsylvania poor boy Michener on an author's life. A literary King Midas, virtually everything he wrote turned to gold and allowed Michener to give more than $100 million to charities and museums.
Pacific led him into a series of books and novels on Asia—The Voice of Asia, The Floating World, Sayonara, The Bridges at Toko-Ri, Hawaii and Caravans, the latter a romance-adventure set in Afghanistan.
From there, his novels toured the globe with special attention to North America, where he set six blockbusters including the 1978 Chesapeake, which sold 900,000 books.
Michener regarded 1965's The Source as his best-written book because the story was so complicated. But some reviewers saw Michener's 1974 Centennial—a story of Colorado—as his most accomplished.
Toward the end of his life, Michener said he regretted producing no short stories and failing to write a South American historical saga. (A short story for Michener may have been anything less than 500 pages.)
A man who had literally seen every nook and cranny on the globe, Michener said the Incan ruins of Peru's Machu Picchu was the one locale that had somehow eluded him for his 90 years.
Tightly wrapped and dedicated to work, Michener married three times but said few people really knew him. "I doubt it," he ruefully told an interviewer.
Michener, soaking up as much of a place as he could, usually lived in areas he was writing about.
Perhaps echoing Thomas Wolfe's "You can't go home again," Michener never wrote a big novel about his boyhood home of Doylestown or surrounding Bucks County. That was an area well-mined by John O'Hara, a novelist who Michener admired and who also cranked out big mass-market novels loved by readers but snubbed by Fifth Avenue literati.
To write about Bucks County, he said, he would have to go back and live there, read the newspapers, watch the sun set, attend meetings and interview parsons and principals.
Bart Barnes (obituary date 17 October 1997)
SOURCE: "Epic Novelist James Michener Is Dead at 90," in The Washington Post, October 17, 1997, p. A01.
[In the following obituary, Barnes gives an overview of the author's works, calling him a "gifted storyteller, with a panoramic vision."]
James A. Michener, a prolific author whose best-selling works ranged from poignant and compassionate stories of men and women in love and war to weighty novels spanning centuries and millennia while combining fiction and historical fact, died yesterday of kidney failure at his home in Austin. He was 90.
Michener was 40 before he wrote his first book, Tales of the South Pacific, but it made an immediate and lasting impact. It won the 1948 Pulitzer Prize for literature and became the basis for the hit musical South Pacific, by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. The show, starring Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza, ran on Broadway for more than five years beginning in 1949, and it included some of the most popular music of the post-World War II era.
Michener also wrote travel articles, essays, novellas and short stories. But he became best known as a specialist in narrative epics that dramatized the social and political evolution of nations and regions as experienced over generations by real and imaginary participants, a technique he first developed with his 1959 bestseller, Hawaii.
In that novel, Michener traced the history of the Hawaiian islands from their earliest geological formations through the arrivals of diverse immigrants from Polynesia, Japan, the Philippines, the Asian mainland and the United States.
Published only months after Hawaii was granted statehood in August 1959, the book was praised by reviewers as a superlative account of the amalgamation of dissimilar people into an integrated society. It also provided Michener with a formula that he followed to varying degrees with such subsequent bestsellers as The Source, a 1965 novel covering 12,000 years of successive civilizations in Israel; Centennial, a 1974 novel about Colorado; Chesapeake (1978); Poland (1983); Texas (1986); Alaska (1988); and Caribbean (1989).
Those books and others earned Michener a reputation as a gifted storyteller with a panoramic vision, an eye for detail and a capacity for painstaking research. He was a solid craftsman but not an eloquent literary stylist, and some critics said his characters lacked dimension. He was, nevertheless, one of America's all-time best-selling authors, with more than 50 million books in print.
It was his World War II experience in the Navy that gave Michener the idea for Tales of the South Pacific, a collection of 18 loosely linked stories about U.S. Marines, Seabees, nurses and native islanders of the South Pacific during the war. Royalties from the Broadway musical and a 1958 film adaptation of his story made him independently wealthy and permitted him to devote himself full time to writing.
"I have only one bit of advice to the beginning writer: Be sure your novel is read by Rodgers and Hammerstein," he later told a friend and colleague, A. Grove Day.
His second novel, The Fires of Spring, published in 1949, was a critical disappointment, partly because of the high level of expectation after Tales of the South Pacific. It told the story of a creative artist's search for identity and included many autobiographical details, including attendance at a Quaker College and traveling with a tent show.
After a series of short stories and essays combined in a 1951 book, Return to Paradise, as well as travel articles and features about the Pacific and Far East, Michener wrote an immensely popular novella, The Bridges at Toko-Ri, which later became a hit movie starring William Holden. Initially, the story appeared in Life magazine in the summer of 1953, and it later was released in book form. It was about a Navy jet pilot and his family during the Korean War. The pilot is killed after completing a mission to destroy four vital bridges.
Michener's next book, Sayonara, published in 1954, was a tender and compassionate story of the ill-fated love of a U.S. Air Force officer for a beautiful young Japanese woman during the Korean War. It, too, became a popular movie, starring Marlon Brando.
Among Michener's other works adapted for film were the short stories "Until They Sail" and "Mr. Morgan" (from Return to Paradise). His novel Hawaii was made into two films, Hawaii, and Hawaiians, both released by United Artists. Centennial was adapted for television in the 1978–79 season. Space, Michener's best-selling 1982 novel about the U.S. space program, became a television miniseries in 1985.
Born on Feb. 3, 1907, in New York, Michener was taken as an infant to an orphanage in Bucks County, Pa., where he later was raised by Quaker foster parents, Edwin and Mabel Michener, whose surname he took. He was an avid reader as a youth, and at the age of 15, he hitchhiked and rode boxcars across the United States.
He won a $2,000 scholarship to Swarthmore College, where he graduated summa cum laude in 1929 with a degree in English literature. In 1984, declaring that he had always considered the scholarship "a loan against future earnings," Michener gave Swarthmore $2 million as repayment.
After college, he taught for two years at the Hill School in Pottstown, Pa., then in 1931 won a fellowship to study and travel in Europe. In this period, he worked as a chart corrector aboard a coal carrier in the Mediterranean, studied at St. Andrews University in Scotland, spent a winter in the Outer Hebrides collecting folk songs and studied Italian art in Siena and at the British Museum in London.
In 1933, Michener returned to the United States, taught three years at the George School in Newtown, Pa., then taught for five years at Colorado State College of Education at Greeley. In 1940, he served as a visiting professor of history at Harvard's School of Education.
He wrote several scholarly articles for professional journals, work that he found unrewarding, he would later say, except that it taught him what many authors never learn, "how to explain something so that somebody else can understand it."
When the United States entered World War II, Michener was working as an editor in the education division of the Macmillan publishing house in New York. He enlisted in the Navy and was assigned to the South Pacific, initially as a keeper of records on naval aircraft maintenance and later as a naval historian. Both assignments required travel from island to island, and he recorded his impressions as he went.
Near the end of the war, Michener went off by himself to one of the smaller islands, where he began writing fictional vignettes based on his experiences. He offered his manuscript to Macmillan after leaving the Navy, and the stories were published as Tales of the South Pacific in 1947.
During the 1950s and into the early 1960s, Michener continued to set much of his writing in the Pacific and Far East. He lived in Hawaii for much of this time, accumulating material for Hawaii, but he also traveled extensively. He went to Europe at the time of the Hungarian uprising in the fall of 1956, and a year later, he published The Bridge at Andau, a dramatic account of the escape of 20,000 Hungarian refugees across the bridge at Andau, Austria, during the uprising.
He became involved in national politics during the 1960 presidential campaign of John F. Kennedy, then wrote about his experience in Report of the County Chairman, an account of national politics at the local level and of Michener's work as manager of the Kennedy campaign in Bucks County, Pa.
Americans and their experiences in far-off and exotic lands were among Michener's favorite subjects. He wrote about them in Caravans, a 1963 novel based on a trip to Afghanistan several years earlier; The Drifters, a 1971 novel about the wanderings and lifestyles of six alienated young people, three of them from the United States; and Iberia: Spanish Travels and Reflections, a 1968 book based upon Michener's own many visits to Spain since his student days of the 1930s.
With the aid of a large staff from Reader's Digest, he wrote about the killing of four students by Ohio National Guardsmen during a 1970 anti-war protest, Kent State: What Happened and Why (1971). A 1980 novel about the history and development of race relations in South Africa, The Covenant, was criticized as lacking the crispness of some of his earlier work.
"I don't think the way I write books is the best or even second best," Michener once said. "The really great writers are people like Emily Bronte, who sit in a room and write out of their limited experience and unlimited imagination. But people in my position also do some very good work."
Michener's marriages to the former Patti Koon and Vange Nord ended in divorce. In 1955, he married Mari Yoriko Sabusawa. She died in 1994.
Juan B. Elizondo Jr. (obituary date 17 October 1997)
SOURCE: "Writer James Michener Dies at 90," in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, October 17, 1997, p. A16.
[In the following obituary, Elizondo calls Michener's works entertaining and inspiring.]
James Michener's second novel tells of a poor Pennsylvania boy who becomes a writer—an autobiographical touch from the Pulitzer Prize-winning author who went from the Bucks County Poorhouse to the far reaches of the globe.
He spent decades wandering from Japan and Korea to Hungary, Hawaii, Afghanistan, Spain, South Africa, Colorado, Israel, Chesapeake Bay, Poland, Texas, Alaska and the Caribbean.
Every step of the way, through 40 best-selling novels, Michener's readers were entertained and inspired as he argued for universal ideals: religious and racial tolerance, hard work and self-reliance.
Michener, who once admitted that he wasn't very good at composing dialogue but he sure knew how to hold the reader's interest with a good narrative, died of kidney failure Thursday at age 90.
"Jim Michener was America's storyteller," said Harold Evans, president and publisher of the Random House Trade Publishing Group. "He enlightened millions of people around the globe with the fruits of his labor during his stunning 50-year writing career."
His death came less than a week after he ordered doctors to disconnect him from life-sustaining dialysis treatments.
Michener was born Feb. 3, 1907, in New York City, and was taken as an orphan to the poorhouse in Doylestown, Pa., where he was adopted by a Quaker widow, Mabel Michener.
His childhood was not one of privilege, "so that accounts for my social attitude—I'm a fiery liberal," he once said.
"I've never felt in a position to reject anybody," he said in a 1972 interview. "I could be Jewish, part Negro, probably not Oriental, but almost anything else. This has loomed large in my thoughts."
Michener's heralded writing career began in 1947 when he was 40, with Tales of the South Pacific. The book, written during his tour of duty with the Navy in World War II, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1948 and was the basis for South Pacific, a Broadway musical later made into a motion picture.
Michener wrote historical-geographic blockbusters, living in and absorbing the culture of the places about which he wrote.
In Voice of Asia in 1951, he presented a variety of points of view gathered from interviews in Japan, India and other countries of the Orient. The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1953) and Sayonara (1954) were based on the Korean war, and in 1955 Michener produced The Floating World, a history of Japanese prints.
During the Hungarian revolt in 1956, Michener was in Austria where some 20,000 refugees crossed to the West. He assisted dozens to safety, writing about the experience in 1957's The Bridge at Andau.
By that time, Michener was living in Hawaii, where he worked seven years to produce Hawaii. The novel appeared in 1959 as the islands became the 50th state.
Then Michener was in Afghanistan to write Caravans (1963); in Israel for The Source (1965); in Spain for Iberia (1968) and The Drifters (1971).
Between trips during the 1960s, Michener again was based in Pennsylvania, where he worked as chairman of the Bucks County Citizens for Kennedy Committee. He wrote about that experience in 1961's Report of the County Chairman.
In 1971, he wrote Kent State: What Happened and Why, a sympathetic account of the tragic student protests at Kent State University.
In 1974, he completed Centennial, an epic tale of Colorado. It became a 26-hour television miniseries, the longest ever.
Then his attention shifted to the East Coast for Chesapeake in 1978, to South Africa and The Covenant in 1980, Space in 1982 and Poland in 1983.
"James Michener wanted to enlarge his readers' horizons and he did so in a wonderful way," said Texas Gov. George W. Bush. "His vast works taught us, entertained us and inspired us."
Former Texas Gov. Bill Clements invited Michener to profile his state in 1981, and offered the author a staff position at the University of Texas to help him. Michener made Texas his biggest book at 1,096 pages, and Austin his final home.
Michener never quit working, saying "as long as the old brain keeps functioning, I know the desire will always be there."
He released his latest book, A Century of Sonnets, earlier this year and reportedly was working on a book about his illness.
"I'm not a stylist," Michener once said of his writing. "There are a whole lot of things I'm not good at. I'm not hard in dialogue; I don't have that wonderful crispness. I don't think I'm good at psychology. But what I can do is put a good narrative together and hold the reader's interest."
Before the Navy and his writing, Michener taught at a prep school for two years, then won a two-year grant for study and travel in Europe. He did graduate work at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, studied art in Siena, Italy, and in London, and spent a winter in the Outer Hebrides collecting folksongs.
He graduated with highest honors in English from Swarthmore College in suburban Philadelphia in 1929.
From 1933 to 1941, Michener taught English at various schools including Harvard University, taking time out to earn a master's degree. He worked as an editor of educational books at Macmillan publishing company in New York from 1941 until his enlistment in the Navy the following year.
He taught part-time well into his 80s, at the University of Texas and at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla.
His first two marriages, to Patti Koon in 1935 and Vange Nord in 1948, ended in divorce. In 1955, he married Mari Yoriko Sabusawa. She died in September 1994.
His work made Michener wealthy. Gifts from Michener and his third wife to the University of Texas over the years totaled $44.2 million, including a $15 million donation in 1992.
In 1996, Fortune magazine ranked him among the nation's top 25 philanthropists, estimating he gave away $24 million in that year alone. Other donations included $1 million to a Bucks County art museum that bears his name.
Michener will be cremated and buried alongside his wife, said John Kings, Michener's longtime friend and assistant.
A funeral service will be held Tuesday in Austin.
Albin Krebs (obituary date 17 October 1997)
SOURCE: "James Michener, 90, Pulitzer-Prize Winning Author," in The New York Times, October 17, 1997, p. B8.
[In the following obituary, Krebs discusses Michener's work and comments on his expert documentation and narrative ability.]
James A. Michener, who survived a Dickensian childhood to win the Pulitzer Prize with his very first book, published when he was about 40, and then became one of America's favorite storytellers with grand-scale novels like Hawaii, The Source and Texas, died in his home in Austin, Texas, on Thursday. He was about 90.
Michener chose to discontinue life-saving kidney dialysis treatment earlier this month and died of complications following renal failure, according to John Kings, a longtime friend and assistant of Michener's.
"He felt he had accomplished what he wanted to accomplish in terms of his life's work," Kings said. "He did not want to suffer a long series of complications."
Michener's entry in Who's Who in America says he was born on Feb. 3, 1907. But he said in his 1992 memoirs that the circumstances of his birth remained cloudy and that he did not know just when he was born or who his parents were.
Tales of the South Pacific, a collection of stories he began while he was in the Navy during World War II, was his first published fiction and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1948. Although it later became a classic Broadway musical by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein and a successful film, it was not a best seller at first.
It was not until Michener moved from his brief tales of people to his monumental sages of places—beginning with Hawaii in 1959—that he became one of those rare writers whose books are snatched up by the book clubs and become almost automatic best sellers even before they hit the book stores. As of late 1992, he was one of only eight authors who had written six or more No. 1 best sellers in the half-century history of the weekly New York Times best-seller list. And just the mention of his name was enough to gain Time's best-seller list. And just the mention of his name was enough to gain movie or television interest.
In the years after Hawaii, Michener was often scorned by critics even as he achieved a huge and appreciative following. Expertly applying his tried-and-true formula, he wove big, old-fashioned narratives involving generations of fictional families as they moved through expertly documented events in history. As a writer, he liked to celebrate the all-American virtues of patriotism, frugality, common sense, and courage and to enrich his episodic, educational fiction with such details as the geological origins and prehistory of the territory he staked out as his subject.
To gather information for his books, Michener often moved to the place he wanted to write about, soaking up atmosphere and collecting detailed information. In 1981, for example, he accepted an invitation from Gov. William P. Clements Jr. to write about Texas. He moved to the state from Maryland, where he had passed several years researching and writing Chesapeake (1978). Working out of Austin, he and a hired staff traveled extensively to gather research and interview Texans for the novel, which dealt with the state's history and culture and the people who lived there from early times to the present.
When Texas appeared in 1985, its 1,096 pages made it heftier than any previous Michener work, and its publisher, Random House, said that the first printing of 750,000 copies was the largest in the company's history. Michener was about 78 when Texas came out, and his health was becoming precarious, but he immediately took on another huge subject for his next book.
He and his wife had decided to settle near Austin, where the University of Texas had named him a professor emeritus, but they spent part of 1985 in Sitka, Alaska, to do research for his panoramic 1988 historical novel, Alaska, which swept from the mastodon era to modern times. He followed Alaska, the next year with Journey, a novel about four men on a trip from England to the Klondike during the 1897 gold rush.
"Storytelling came naturally to me," he said. It was a gift that made him a multimillionaire, for in addition to the phenomenal total sales of hardcover and paperback editions of his 40-odd books, a number were sold to the movies and television—including Centennial (1974), encompassing Colorado's history, Space (1982), about the space program, and Texas.
Typical of the critics' response to most of Michener's work was that of Orville Prescott of The New York Times, who wrote of Hawaii when it was published in 1959: "It may never make literary history, but for some time it has been making publishing history." The 450,000-word novel was selected by the Book-of-the-Month Club and the Reader's Digest Condensed Book Club, and it was sold for $1 million for a movie that starred Julie Andrews, Max von Sydow, Richard Harris, and Gene Hackman.
The Micheners had lived in Hawaii for some years, and in his novel Michener sought to show that the islands had been able to harmonize different cultures and races and to set an example that could benefit the rest of the United States. However, two years after the publication of Hawaii and after it had been at the top of the best-seller lists for 70 weeks, Michener and his wife, Mari, the daughter of Japanese immigrants, left the islands.
"On the day-to-day operating level at which my wife and I lived," he said at the time, "we met with more racial discrimination in Hawaii than we did in eastern Pennsylvania, where we had previously lived."
The Covenant, Michener's 1980 novel depicting the rise and triumph of the Dutch settlers in South Africa, was banned in that country two months before its publication. The novel's time span was, for Michener, relatively brief—from 1647 to the present. His previous epic, Chesapeake, used the stories of his characters to trace the development of the Chesapeake Bay area from the 16th century to the 1970s.
James Albert Michener, a mild-mannered, spectacled man who could have been mistaken for the small-town teacher he once was, was born in New York City, according to his entry in Who's Who. But in a 1985 interview with Caryn James of The New York Times, he indicated that he had no definite information about his birth. "I have no idea who I am," he said. "I know what I was told, that I was a foundling."
According to his 1992 autobiography, The World Is My Home: A Memoir, he was taken in by Mabel Haddock Michener, a poor young widow, and raised alongside other children who came and went from her home in Doylestown, Pa. "My mother made her living by taking in orphaned children and doing other families' laundry," he wrote. "The family I was reared in usually had four or five and sometimes as many as six other children."
He recalled that in later years he had sought out more specific information about who he was because he lacked the birth certificate needed to obtain a passport. "In such circumstances," he wrote, "it is common to hire a lawyer who will interrogate neighbors to establish the earliest possible date at which the child was known to have been in the community."
And so, he recounted, he engaged a lawyer in Doylestown "who proved that I had lived in that town since the age of 2." In addition, Michener reported, "It was generally believed that I had been born in New York and had arrived in town when I was about two weeks old." He wrote that he had fallen into Mrs. Michener's home "one way or another."
Despite his childhood poverty, he said he felt loved and inspired by Mabel Michener, a Quaker who read aloud to him from 19th-century novels, especially Dickens. Michener wrote movingly about the experiences of his childhood in his second, highly autobiographical novel, The Fires of Spring (1949).
He was a footloose youth. "As a kid of 14, I bummed across the country on nickels and dimes," he recalled. "Before I was 20, I had seen all the states but Washington, Oregon, and Florida. I had an insatiable love of hearing people tell stories, and what they didn't tell I made up."
At Swarthmore College, on a scholarship, he majored in English and history, receiving a bachelor's degree with highest honors in 1929.
It was also at Swarthmore, he recounted, that he learned from an acquaintance for the first time that he was adopted. John P. Hayes, in a biography of Michener, maintained that he was, in fact, Mabel Michener's illegitimate son. Asked about that possibility, Michener told The New York Times: "I don't know whether it's true or not. I have no idea who I am."
He went on to teach for two years at the Hill School in Pottstown, Pa., and to spend two years in Europe on a traveling grant. Later, he taught at the George School in Newtown, Pa., where a friendly Quaker woman who was on its board gave him advice that he said helped him form his philosophy of education. He quoted her: "Thee is too conservative. Thee has these children only a few years of their lives. Thee must tell them more."
"I recall that advice with pleasure when I hear others lament the stupidity and conservation of American education," Michener said. For his own part, he became what he called "a specialist in teaching others how to teach, serving with several educational groups writing and publishing research papers" on teaching. He did some education research at Harvard.
Soon after he joined Macmillan Publishing Co. in New York as a textbook editor in 1941, Japanese military forces attacked Pearl Harbor and, he said, "I waived my Quaker principles and volunteered for service." He began as a Navy enlisted man, but he soon became an officer and was made a "super-secretary" to an aviation maintenance unit in the Solomon Islands.
It was mostly humdrum duty, Michener said. To pass the time in the afternoon, he drafted the outlines of "some stories that disturbed me." At night, he turned the outlines into the short stories that became Tales of the South Pacific, published in 1947.
By then, Michener was back at his job at Macmillan, but not for long. The hardcover edition of Tales of the South Pacific had only modest sales—25,000 copies, despite the Pulitzer Prize—but the wildly popular 1949 musical South Pacific, based on the Michener stories, turned the paperback version of the book into a runaway best seller of more than 2 million copies. The musical, which starred Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza, won another Pulitzer Prize, ran for 1,925 performances, and was made into a popular movie in 1958. Michener liked to advise struggling writers on the key to success: "Make sure Rodgers and Hammerstein read your first book."
Michener was around 40 when his first book was published. Several years later, he said that if an aspirant "hasn't published a book by the time he is 35, he's not likely ever to amount to anything as a writer," adding that the "accident of the war may have delayed me." He continued: "Writing is hard for me. I'm weak on style, plot, and form—all the things you're supposed to be good at. My first drafts are pretty terrible. Also, I start a great deal that I don't finish. But I always have a great backlog I want to write about. I can't ever conceive of running out of ideas. They crowd me."
After his initial success, his name reappeared on best-seller lists again and again, decade after decade, on into the 1990s. Among the books that followed South Pacific were Return to Paradise, a collection of travel writings and short stories, and The Voice of Asia, both published in 1951; The Bridges at Toko-Ri, 1953; Sayonara, 1954; Floating World, 1955; The Bridge at Andau, 1957; Caravans, a novel set in 1946 in Afghanistan, 1963; The Source, a novel, covering 12,000 years of history, about life in and around what became an Israeli town, 1965; Iberia, a highly regarded travel book on Spain and Portugal, 1968; Kent State, 1971; Sports in America, 1976; Poland, 700 years of history in novel form, 1983; Legacy, a brief novel about an Army major called to testify at the Iran-Contra hearings and about his patriot forebears, 1987; Caribbean, a novel recounting Caribbean history, 1989; The Novel, a fictional study of book publishers and kindred souls, 1991; Mexico, a novel in which an American journalist learns Mexican history, 1992; Literary Reflections, a collection of Michener's occasional writings, 1993; and Recessional, a 1994 novel that addressed issues linked with aging in America.
His last fictional work appeared in 1995, a short novel of the supernatural called Miracle in Seville, set in the Spanish bullfighting world. Allen Josephs, writing in The New York Times Book Review, called it "a vintage demonstration of Michener storytelling." A nonfiction work about his vision of the United States, This Noble Land, was published in 1996.
Resourcefully, Michener also drew on his experiences in politics during the early 1960s. Having returned from Hawaii to live near Doylestown, he became an avid campaign worker for the election of John F. Kennedy to the presidency in 1960. In 1962, he ran for Congress as a Democrat, seeking to unseat Rep. Willard S. Curtin, the Republican incumbent from the House district embracing Doylestown. He was unsuccessful.
"If I were found worthy to participate in the government of my nation I would be happy indeed," Michener said. "I would consider the work more important than the writing of another book."
He wrote about his 1960 electioneering in Report of the County Chairman (1961) and he turned out a thoughtful book on how Americans choose their president, Presidential Lottery, in 1969.
Michener suffered a serious heart attack in 1964, but his recovery was excellent and he continued writing. He did ease his workload by employing researchers and an editor to take care of much of the detail work he had previously done himself.
His reaction to his monumental success as an author has been described by friends as "humble." He remained haunted by his years of poverty in the Depression. He told Ms. James: "They have a deeper impact on someone like me than people realize. It makes you more dour, more tightly ingrained. It inhibits you…. I live as if I had stayed on my job and retired on a small pension and some savings and security."
Michener gave much of his money away and was generous to young writers. The Associated Press reported late in 1994 that his wife, Mari, had played a major role in directing donations by him that had totaled more than $100 million. The beneficiaries included Swarthmore College, the University of Texas, the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa, and The Authors League Fund.
By 1992, the Micheners had given more than $37 million to the University of Texas—the most ever given to that university by a single donor. The university exhibits a collection of 20th-century American art valued at several million dollars donated and lent by the Micheners along with an endowment to acquire more. The Micheners' collection of more than 1,500 Japanese prints has gone to the University of Hawaii. In February 1996, he pledged $5.5 million to the art museum in Doylestown that bears his name and to other cultural institutions in Pennsylvania. Earlier this month, it was announced that the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, where he received a master's degree in 1937, would be the only recipient of his manuscripts, personal documents, notes, and other items totaling 60,000.
Michener's 1935 marriage to Patti Koon ended in divorce in 1948, and his 1948 marriage to Vange Nord ended in divorce in 1955. Later that year, he married Mari Yoriko Sabusawa, an editor, who, as the American daughter of Japanese parents, had been in a detention camp in World War II. She died in 1994. Michener had no surviving children.
Despite the scope of his philanthropy, he described himself in a 1989 interview simply as "a storyteller." He added: "I'm sure that in the dawn of civilization, I would have gone out with the hunters, then stayed behind a safe tree and at night explained how it all happened."
Stephanie Simon (obituary date 17 October 1997)
SOURCE: "Blockbuster Author Michener Dies," in The Los Angeles Times, October 17, 1997, p. 1.
[In the following obituary, Simon discusses Michener's amazing success and popularity with his readers, despite the criticism of reviewers.]
James A. Michener, the extravagant storyteller who delivered whole states, whole nations—indeed, whole epochs—to an adoring international audience by wrapping historical fact in sweeping fiction, died Thursday. He was 90 and died at his home in Austin, Texas.
The author of such blockbusters as Hawaii, Texas, Centennial and Iberia—which sold in incredible volume, despite their imposing length—Michener died of renal failure.
He had been in frail health in recent years, undergoing a quadruple bypass and hip surgery. Though he continued to work, his need for kidney dialysis three times a week forced him to stay close to his modest home in Austin.
His condition had deteriorated to the point where he ordered his doctors to take him off the dialysis unit last week, and his death had been imminent since.
Michener leaves behind fans all over the globe, readers who grabbed every book he wrote regardless of the topic, certain he would carry them away with his broad narratives while teaching them history, geography, botany and more.
Los Angeles Times book editor Steve Wasserman said: "James Michener's death diminishes American letters. He was the most democratic of authors, believing passionately in the promise of America, with a profound love of its people."
"His generosity of spirit was palpable in the books he wrote, which gave pleasure to millions the world over."
Michener did not write his first manuscript until he was 40. But that book—Tales of the South Pacific, typed out in a Navy Quonset hut by the glow of a foul-smelling lantern—won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1948.
From then on, he wrote, and wrote, and wrote.
Forty-seven books. One hundred million copies sold. Movie, theater and miniseries spinoffs. Translations into at least 50 languages.
The Michener Phenomenon, publishers called it.
To be sure, Michener did much else in his long life besides pump out bestsellers. He was a philanthropist who donated a fortune to education. He was a sought-after teacher, too. And an art collector who wrote two books on Japanese prints. He won the Presidential Medal of Freedom, this country's highest civilian honor.
Proud to be called a knee-jerk liberal, Michener was also passionately political; he even ran for Congress himself. He spoke out against McCarthyism. He lobbied for the right to die. He chaired President John F. Kennedy's Food for Peace Program. He served on a committee that recommended worthy figures to adorn U.S. postage stamps.
But his true love—and his true gift—was telling stories.
He approached his craft with methodical, journeyman style. As he told a radio interviewer in 1992: "My job is to be a hard-working man who sits at a modern typewriter and tries to write books that a lot of people will want to read."
By that measure, he succeeded in the grandest possible style.
Critics might call Michener's fiction flat, might carp about his cardboard characters or his dreary dialogue. Fellow novelists might grumble that he moralized too much, used too many cliches, digressed too often. His readers didn't care. They knew they could count on Michener to transport them to another time, another place—to enlighten even as he entertained.
He wrote about space, and they bought it. He wrote about sports, and they bought that, too. He wrote about presidential politics, racial discrimination, South Africa, the Caribbean, nursing homes.
They bought it all.
Indeed, the devotion of Michener's readers was legendary.
They dreamed up plots to secure advance copies of upcoming books. They wrote him that old aunts, wasting away on deathbeds, had asked for his novels to be read aloud. They even named their children after his characters.
One reviewer summed up the appeal this way: "Michener's are the beach books that, unlike most other beach books, leave you smarter than you were when you started reading. Each delivers the product of all that research, doled out to the reader at just the right rate. You know right away who the bad guys are—the petty ones, the stingy ones. The heroes are generous and energetic and smart and, above all, unprejudiced."
Despite his roaring commercial success, Michener never took a vacation. He worked seven days a week. He rarely treated himself to luxuries. And he never thought of himself as a bona fide author.
"I think the word 'author' ought to be reserved for those figures that used to appear in our classrooms in America years ago, people from the last century, always with beards, always with three names—James Russell Lowell, Ralph Waldo Emerson," he once said.
To another reporter, he commented: "I'm not a brilliant mind. I'm more Germanic. I'm the guy who can see the thing through. I know how to organize material. That's different than the sheer brilliance of a Norman Mailer or a Truman Capote."
But his fans would say he had his own brand of brilliance.
James Albert Michener knew next to nothing about his origins.
Like adventure novelist Harold Robbins, who died Tuesday and who surpassed Michener in copies sold but not in critical praise, Michener was an abandoned child.
Born Feb. 3, 1907, probably in New York City, he was a foundling, as he called himself. A Quaker woman named Mabel Michener took him into her home in rural Doylestown, Pa., and raised him as her own.
The family was poor. Young James sometimes went hungry. He always wore castoff clothes. For a few bleak periods, he was forced to return to the orphanage because Mabel Michener could not afford to feed him. Still, he remembered some happy times. Mabel read him the classics, especially Dickens. She imbued him with a strong Quaker faith, which propelled his lifelong commitment to fighting discrimination. And he was able to indulge his itch for travel one year by hitchhiking through 45 states.
When, as a teenager, Michener learned that Mabel was not his biological mother, he said he "had a bad three days." But he resolved not to think of it again. He also vowed not to attempt to track down his birth parents. From then on, Michener rarely revisited the subject of his childhood, not even while writing his curiously detached 1991 memoir, The World Is My Home.
"It has not mattered in my life, not even one-tenth of one percent," he once said.
A skilled athlete and excellent student, Michener attended Swarthmore College on a scholarship (over the objections of his high school principal, who feared he would shame the school by flunking out). The principal suggested Michener become a plumber. Instead, he went to Swarthmore—and graduated summa cum laude in 1929.
After a brief stint teaching in a local school, Michener won a fellowship to travel abroad—and embarked on an adventure of the kind he would later learn to put in prose. He toured with Spanish bullfighters, worked on a cargo ship in the Mediterranean, explored folk legends on islands off the coast of Scotland.
But though he collected color wherever he went, Michener did not try his hand at writing. Not yet.
Instead, he returned to teaching social studies for a time, then accepted a post as associate editor with Macmillan Co. in New York. The experience, he later said, proved to be excellent grounding for his writing career. "I learned what a great many people never learn," he said. "I learned how to write a sentence and how to write a paragraph."
Michener turned those skills to good use as he wound down his tour of duty as a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy during World War II. Setting up a typewriter in a musty Quonset hut, he tapped out the series of short stories that became Tales of the South Pacific.
Though some critics complained that the stories were too long, Tales of the South Pacific won praise for its texture, its drama, its originality. "Romantic, nostalgic, tragic—call it what you will—this book seems to me the finest piece of fiction to come out of the South Pacific War," one reviewer proclaimed.
Even when honored with the Pulitzer Prize, however—beating out novels by John Steinbeck and Sinclair Lewis—the book did not become a bestseller. Michener did not make real money off it until Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II adapted it into the musical South Pacific. ("I have only one bit of advice to the beginning writer," Michener said years later. "Be sure your novel is read by Rodgers and Hammerstein.")
Royalties from the musical allowed Michener to pursue his writing career full-time.
Later, of course, his other books made him a very rich man, and his official biography notes that he donated more than $100 million to charity over the years. His donations to University of Texas at Austin topped $37 million, including $15 million for a writers' program. Michener also gave away his impressive collections of Japanese and American art. And he put dozens of students through college.
Michener's financial success really started with Hawaii, published by Random House in 1959. By then he had married his third wife, Mari Yoriko Sabusawa, a librarian who would stay at his side until her death in 1994 after 38 years of marriage. (He will be cremated and buried beside her Tuesday in Austin.)
Hawaii was an instant hit.
The novel's scope was audacious, its approach striking. In it, Michener swept through hundreds of years of history by creating fictional families and then tracing their lives through generations.
His characters were not subtle; psychological insight was not the point. Michener was not even particularly concerned with plot. His goal was to use his fictional families to illuminate sociological issues and moral concerns and, of course, as a vehicle for reviewing history.
The formula proved wildly successful. And it established Michener as a brand-name, bankable author. "I stumbled on the device of the long novel," he said in 1996, "and the crazy things sold unbelievably."
Indeed, after Hawaii, Michener would use the same format for many of his most famous books, including The Source (about Israel), The Covenant (about South Africa), Iberia (Spain) and Centennial (the American West).
Michener churned out these regional tapestries with astounding speed.
He produced Space in 1982, Poland in 1983, Texas in 1985. He broke from the tried-and-true format to write Legacy, a novel based on the Iran-Contra scandal, in 1987. But the slim novel was panned by critics, and Michener returned to his familiar heavy tomes with Alaska in 1988, Caribbean in 1989 and Mexico in 1992. (He had actually started Mexico 30 years earlier, but lost the manuscript; when a relative found it in a neglected cupboard, he freshened it up and finished it.)
Though his prolific pace made it hard to believe, Michener always insisted he did all his research himself, aided only by his longtime assistant John Kings.
Michener made repeated visits to each place he wrote about, sometimes living there for months or even years to steep himself in the atmosphere before memorializing it in print. Lodged for a time in Maryland, say, or Colorado, he would make every effort to think like a local. He would badger his wife to haunt the supermarkets and bring him word of the chit-chat she heard. He would listen to the weather reports, attend the sporting events, interview residents from all walks of life.
"He knows everybody from the Pope on down. He'll talk to a plumber just as he'll talk to Bill Clinton," Michener's secretary, Theresa Potter, recounted.
He also read incessantly. According to Kings, he went through 200 to 300 books in preparation for each novel.
Michener took tremendous pride in his ability to synthesize all that information and turn even the dullest facts into an appealing story. "If I try to describe a chair," he once said, "I can describe it so that a person will read it to the end."
Still, some critics called his works interminable. "He begins with the first faint primordial stirring on the face of the deep and slogs onward through the ages until he hits the day before yesterday," scoffed one reviewer for Time. A Los Angeles Times reviewer added that Michener wrote "at a pace any glacier would enjoy."
A Washington Post critic took issue as well with Michener's casual blending of fact and fiction. Writing about The Covenant, he complained that Michener mentioned many well-known South African figures but attributed their actions to his fictional creations. "Imagine a novel prominently featuring Abraham Lincoln but attributing the Gettysburg Address to a fictitious minor character," the reviewer huffed.
But other critics found value in the historical panoramas, however long, and praised Michener's ability to bring alive events that "would otherwise be dry as dust."
While Michener is best known for his fat historical novels, he returned again and again through his long career to social, political and religious themes.
A lifelong Democrat, Michener had a strong sense of social justice that shone through nearly all of his writing, from his admiration for Hawaii's multiracial society to his indignation at Texas' shabby treatment of Mexican Americans.
"No other American writer has made the world the subject of his writing with such sympathy for the universal nature of people everywhere," a reviewer wrote in an appreciative look at Michener's memoir.
Michener was also an avid student of the American political system. He chronicled his work campaigning for John F. Kennedy in one nonfiction book called Report of the County Chairman. In another, Presidential Lottery, he set out arguments for reforming the electoral system.
He used his novel Space, published while he was serving on a NASA advisory council, as a platform for advocating scientific research. In several books, he chastised Americans for ignoring public education and the arts. And he explored the issue of doctor-assisted suicide for the terminally ill—a cause he passionately believed in—in Recessional, set in a Florida nursing home and published in 1994.
Over the years, Michener also served on various government committees, including the International Broadcasting Board and the State Department's Advisory Committee on the Arts.
He received numerous awards, most notably the Medal of Freedom in 1977. He taught and lectured all over the world. And he always supported programs for young writers. (He had no children of his own. Though he and his second wife adopted two children, they gave them up after their divorce.)
When speaking to aspiring authors, Michener always emphasized that writing was not as easy as he made it seem.
Even after four decades of success, he said he still woke up in the middle of the night, sweating and fretting about his current project. And he acknowledged a habit of writing out of sequence, taking the easy parts first.
"In the middle of every book, I get panic stricken," Michener told The Times in 1991. "I think, 'Who's going to read this?' Then I think, 'Well, there's nobody on this block who could tell this story any better than I could.'"
Bill Barich (review date 12 January 1992)
SOURCE: "Sing along with Michener," in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 12, 1992, p. 4.
[In the following review, Barich praises Michener's memoir, The World Is My Home, as a "Horatio Alger story," both entertaining and touching.]
In his new memoir, The World Is My Home, James Michener puts to rest the idea that there are no second acts in American lives. As the old saying goes, his life really began at 40, when, during World War II, he sat down in a Quonset hut on Espiritu Santo Island, lit a smoky lantern, and turned out the linked stories that became Tales of the South Pacific, which won him a Pulitzer Prize in 1947. This stroke of luck helped to transform him into James Michener, the best-selling phenomenon, and he has continued to live on the grand scale ever since, becoming in the process America's "best-loved" writer.
Michener's reminiscences don't have much in common with the usual literary fare. There are no drunken brawls, no brilliant seductions, no drugs, and precious little animosity. Vice for Michener consists of an addiction to the fine arts. When he discusses writing, he often does it with an eye toward the business end of things, offering cautionary advice to beginners. Above all, he comes across as a practical person, and his book has the flavor of another, pre-Elvis era, when issues of complexity could be mastered through grit, hard work and positive thinking.
In choosing to call The World Is My Home a memoir rather than an autobiography, Michener alerts us at the start that he will not be terribly forthcoming about himself. We must ferret out the salient facts from chapters that are arranged according to subject—Travel, People, Health and so on—not chronologically. He jumps backward and forward in time, and while this allows him the leisure to dwell on his strongest concerns, it opens gaps in the narrative that leave a reader scratching his head over the missing parts of the puzzle.
Michener had a difficult, scarring, Dickensian childhood. Orphaned at birth, he grew up in Pennsylvania, bouncing from one foster home to another. The homes were run by Mabel Michener, a caring, intelligent woman who took in the wounded and the abandoned. Others in the Michener clan were not so kind and put it to young James that he was not a true Michener, and this gave him an independence of spirit, as well as an emotional armoring, that molded his character. He became a Quaker and has always had the sturdy, unshakable values of the Pennsylvania Dutch.
In his teens, Michener took to the road, hitchhiking around the country and developing a love of exploration and adventure that never left him. As a scholarship student at Swarthmore, he was a classic high achiever. He enjoyed painting, poetry and music, especially opera, but he showed no predisposition toward writing. Eventually, he went to work in publishing, and as his 40th birthday approached he found himself about to be drafted into the Army. He enlisted in the Navy instead and was stationed in the South Pacific, where the life-changing episodes began.
The chapters that deal with Polynesia are the stars of The World Is My Home. Michener's recollections are sweetly nostalgic and have a simple human happiness that is sometimes missing elsewhere in the book. He fell into an island paradise that was far enough removed from the war theater to pose no serious threat, and he was soon gifted with a writer's most precious possession—wonderful material. There were honky-tonks, colorful characters, a surpassingly beautiful landscape, and just enough weirdness around the edges to keep everybody on his toes.
Michener admits to being a bit of a Boy Scout, but the South Pacific seems to have loosened him up a little. In a distant, Victorian way, he describes the sexual dreamland in which many American GIs were living, invited by their hosts to take up residence with the most gorgeous young girls of the islands. So lubricious was the scene on Bora Bora that soldiers often didn't want to return to the states. Michener makes Polynesia sound like the Playboy Mansion, but he plays his cards so close to the vest that it's impossible to tell whether he was only an observer, someone who liked to admire the naked bodies of the natives when they went skinny-dipping at twilight.
Observation has always been central to Michener's work. He has a vast curiosity, and research and reporting provide the substance for his novels. Yet, by his account, he might never have written a word if he hadn't almost died in a plane crash while landing at Tontouta Air Base. His brush with death gave him the willies, and during a long night of soul-searching he realized that he was dissatisfied with himself. "As the stars came out and I could see the low mountains I had escaped," he says. "I swore: 'I'm going to live the rest of my life as if I were a great man.'" It's the as if that matters here, for Michener is essentially a modest soul. From that moment on, though, he would ask the best of himself.
It takes an idealist to make such a vow, and Michener is idealistic to the core. He confesses that he would have made a good minister if he had had more religion. But it was his fate to hole up in his Quonset hut and transcribe as accurately as possible his vision of the South Pacific. When the manuscript was finished, he submitted it anonymously to Macmillan, where he had gone back to work as an editor, and the company published it to scant critical praise and indifferent sales. The cheap, ugly dust jacket remains an object of scorn to Michener. On the basis of his reception, he had no intention of quitting his job, but then, out of the blue, he won the Pulitzer, and his transformation was complete.
Well, not quite. Tales went on to sell many copies, but Michener earned his first megabucks from the Broadway adaptation, South Pacific, a Rodgers and Hammerstein collaboration. For a time after his success, he struggled with his identity as a writer until he hit on the sort of formulaic "big book" that has become his stock-in-trade. The formula allowed him to travel widely, and Random House provided him with a well-oiled editorial machine geared to getting his manuscripts in shape and between covers in a timely way. Michener views himself as an old-fashioned storyteller and claims not to be affected by critics—a claim his fellow writers might doubt. But there is no doubting another claim of his, that he has pleased a huge international audience.
In a crucial sense, the ability to please readers is only half the battle of literature. To be "best-loved" at anything, you have to dance around the darkness. In The World Is My Home, it is the darkness that Michener avoids, seldom delving below the surface.
He doesn't seem comfortable with intimacy or emotions, and one suspects that this must go back to his earliest days as an orphan, when he had to steel himself against the world rather than embrace it. Although he has gone through two painful divorces, he mentions them only in passing. His current wife is barely alluded to, and we get so little information about their relationship that we wonder at the intensity of Michener's privacy.
His public adventures are much more fully recounted. We are offered glimpses of Michener as a liberal politician, as a goodwill ambassador for the United States and as a fortune-teller whose prescience astounds the residents of Doylestown. He sprinkles the book with famous names, but there is seldom anything revealing in the anecdotes, and we must be content to learn that he has palled around with singer Ezio Pinza, Walter Cronkite and Art Buchwald, and that he lobbied to get Robin Roberts, the old Phillies' pitcher, into the Hall of Fame.
The portrait Michener draws of himself shows us an honorable, driven, high-minded man who hangs onto his optimism at all costs. His generosity to universities and to other writers is well-known, and he may have no peer as a knee-jerk liberal—to Michener, that's a term of praise. Where his work will ultimately land is up to posterity, of course, but he has a right to be proud of his output, since writing one book, much less 34, demands a certain respect. In contrast to most immensely popular novelists, he has picked themes and topics that are challenging and sometimes politically sensitive, and he has never indulged in the cheap shot.
In the end, The World Is My Home most resembles a Horatio Alger story, in which all the traditional American virtues lead to a triumph on the grand scale. It is an entirely American document that could not have come into existence without being nurtured by the Puritan taproots of the country. Michener's memoir is high-strung, entertaining, occasionally funny, and curiously touching in what it omits. We admire the passion and the energy he brings to the task, especially at the age of 85.
Michener fans will surely be delighted, while other readers will find enough interesting material to keep the pages turning.
Reeve Lindbergh (review date 16 October 1994)
SOURCE: "James Michener's September Song," in Washington Post Book World, October 16, 1994, pp. 1, 18.
[In the following review, Lindbergh faults Michener's Recessional for its two-dimensional characters and predictable plot.]
The trouble with James Michener's latest novel may be that it is too true to its title. It seems odd to say this, because Michener's strength as an author so often lies in his faithful representation of whatever it is his titles tell us he has written about: Hawaii, Poland, Chesapeake. Most of his books concern themselves with specific pieces of geography, places one can find on the map. There is something both heartening and encompassing in sharing James Michener's view of life. We have a sense of taking in whole continents, and entire cultures, as well as the minutiae of one meadow in eastern Europe, or the awkward absurdity of a pelican in the Florida Everglade. Reading Michener at his best is like going on a field trip with God. His landscapes are as rich as fine loam with the physical truths of this earth, and because of this they are often unforgettable.
But this book deals with old age, and age is not a landscape. It is not a place on the map, and it is not exactly a "recessional," either; as the frontispiece of this book defines the word: "A hymn or other piece of music played at the end of the service while the congregation is filing out." The last years of life cannot be measured realistically by the steady, even tread suggested here, an orderly parade toward finality. Old age is as passionate and varied as any other time in life, and human beings generally do not "file out" of existence any more than they "file in."
The central character in the story is not, in fact, an old man but a young one: Dr. Andy Zorn, formerly of Chicago. He has been recruited by James Taggart of the mammoth "Taggart Enterprises," to salvage The Palms, one of the many retirement centers the corporation operates. The Palms is suffering from economic instability, and needs new management. Zorn has a bit of salvaging of his own to do, with a failed marriage and two malpractice suits (fraudulent, but damaging) behind him. Still, Zorn's character is solid and his managerial skills impressive, and he sets to work turning things around.
Most of the novel focuses upon the people he meets during this process, including the staff and elderly residents of the retirement center, and their families. The pace and rhythm of the book make it impossible to stay with anyone for very long, though, and we are left with snapshots of each person as he or she passes by. The problem is compounded because these people, like so many Michener characters in other books, tend to come across to us as types rather than individuals: The Society Beauty (now an Alzheimer's patient); her devoted husband, a burly, gruff-voiced factory owner whom our grandmothers surely would have labeled a Rough Diamond; The Retired Judge; The Famous Baseball Player; The Senator; The Ambassador; The Colombian Exile. People even talk about themselves—and sometimes each other—in a kind of representative voice, avoiding what is personal and particular to each human being. A woman says "I was the headmistress of an elite private girl's school," but fails to tell us which one. A fax comes in from a newspaper editor intending to publish a story about The Palms. He promises to send "our world-famous Austrian photographer," a man who appears to have no proper name. Zorn himself, during his initial job interview with the tycoon Taggart, describes himself in terms of his family background, this way: "Mother's a sentimental Irish Catholic from County Kerry. Dad's a tough-minded German Lutheran from Swabia."
At this point, a reader may wish to be transported to one of these places, where surely Michener would ground our wandering attention in ethnic and geographical information. It is hard to stay interested in the well-meaning but faceless Zorn.
Sometimes the portraits of individuals through the young doctor's eyes are acute and moving, even in such quick takes as we get before the procession continues. Zorn muses while watching Marjorie Duggan, the woman with advanced Alzheimers: "How beautiful she was, how extraordinarily fragile, as if her head were made of some exquisite Chinese ceramic that allowed the veins to peek through." But in another place a description will surrender meaning to generality: A resident's granddaughters are so attractive "they could have posed for ads for expensive soaps."
We do meet some engaging personalities in this book, and after a while we yearn to concentrate upon one of them, forgetting Zorn and his past problems, present responsibilities, and mild-mannered romance. (A beautiful amputee comes to The Palms for physical therapy and rehabilitation, then with encouragement from kindly residents and staff, captures the doctor's heart.) There is the head nurse, Nora Varney, who combines common sense with sensitivity, and shows Zorn her vision of "the other side of medical practice," an AIDS hospice in the back streets of Tampa. There are "the dancing Mallorys," a genial, spirited old couple who enjoy life so much that their children take them to court for spending too much money on themselves. At the other end of the spectrum is Berta Umlauf, struggling to prevent her failing health from becoming a long-term financial and emotional burden upon her family.
My favorite character in Recessional is not a person at all, however, but a rattlesnake. He is a neighbor of The Palms, not a resident, living where he has lived for many years, deep in the cypress swamps and under the low bushes of what remains of the wilderness area surrounding the retirement center. He eats frogs, squirrels, and baby herons, and resents the encroachment of all condominiums. He is a reptilian curmudgeon, refusing to be part of anybody's parade. He is not a mover or even a shaker, retired or otherwise. He is a Rattler, a creature much more primordial, and he stays put.
The Rattler also bites, once in a while. He is just about the only character in the book who does, though there is some fairly nasty potential in a man called Clarence Hasselbrook, a kind of 1990s style Inquisitor in a cheap suit. Hasselbrook infiltrates The Palms on behalf of a nationwide organization bent on banning the execution of Living Wills, and he quickly introduces his own brand of venom into this tale—a nice touch. Michener has always been a good storyteller, and the smaller stories in the book are told well. The novel itself, overall, would be better for a little less evenness and predictability, and perhaps a few more rattlesnakes, as well.
Hilma Wolitzer (review date 16 October 1994)
SOURCE: "Death Before Dying," in The New York Times Book Review, October 16, 1994, p. 20.
[In the following review, Wolitzer finds that Michener's melodramatic Recessional pales in comparison to his poignant The World Is My Home.]
James A. Michener seems to heed the old dictum to "write about what you know," which in his case is hardly limiting. In more than 40 books, published over the past 47 years, he's covered such diverse topics as wartime in the South Pacific, Alaska's social development and the space program. These heavily researched, fact-filled works are enormously popular, especially with readers who prefer their history and geography in the guise of fiction.
Now, in Recessional, Mr. Michener, who was born in 1907, addresses the complex issues associated with aging in America. He has chosen to present what must be an intensely personal subject through the perspective of his novel's idealistic young hero, Dr. Andy Zorn. After enduring some nasty malpractice suits and a divorce in Chicago, the 35-year-old Zorn has abandoned his medical practice to become general manager of the Palms, a flagship facility in Tampa, Fl., for people too old and infirm to live independently.
At the Palms, terms like "nursing home," "hospital" and "hospice" are forbidden. Instead, residents are discreetly moved from the "Retirement Area" to "Assisted Living" to "Extended Care." Euphemisms and ironies abound. The book's epigraph explains that a recessional is "a hymn or other piece of music played at the end of a service while the congregation is filing out." And as Andy Zorn drives through Tampa, he notes a welcoming sign: "You are now entering God's Paradise. The O'Neill Crematorium. Complete Services $475."
Mr. Michener, whose own views (like Zorn's) on medical ethics appear to be liberal and humanistic, allows some of his characters to offer more conservative opinions. (Of the system of triage created by managed care, one man notes: "The budget, inescapable from the moment of birth till the instant of death, will have dictated the value decisions." Replying to the idea of a "therapeutic abortion" done, as a character explains, "to correct nature's accident," another responds that "God does not make mistakes.") In fact, Recessional provides a thoroughly informed overview of what happens to the elderly in this country (along with a survey of numerous other matters, from religion to politics), mostly through the impassioned discussions of a four-member tertulia, or informal debating society, that regularly convenes in the dining room at the Palms.
Unfortunately, the prose style and dialogue in this issue-driven novel are too often stilted and expository. Characters tend to speechify rather than speak, and even Andy Zorn's thoughts are rendered in unnaturally formal, coherent blocks of prose that halt and summarize the action. "Here I sit," he remarks early on, when informed of the Florida laws that regulate the Palms, "a certified doctor with these handsome facilities at hand, and I'm forbidden to use either my own skills or these wonderful lifesaving machines. I've thrown myself into a weird world."
The world of old age is indeed weird, and terrifying, as autonomy diminishes along with physical and mental well-being. Among the villains here (aside from nature) are greedy children, ambitious doctors and medical science itself, which manages to prolong life without sustaining its quality, "so the loved one who has died without dying lives on and on."
The best moments in the novel occur when the characters disclose what's in their hearts and minds with rueful, snappy humor. One Palms resident succinctly complains. "Television six hours a day, and the yogurt machine is never working." Another quips, "The two sorriest days in a man's life in this joint is when his wife dies and when he has to give up his driver's license. Not necessarily in that order." There are also some genuinely poignant passages. An articulate member of the tertulia finds himself mysteriously unable, one morning, to knot his own necktie. And an Alzheimer's patient who manages to elude her warders by wandering outdoors discovers "what she had sought from the moment she climbed out of bed, the freedom of the open air, escape from nurses and bells, the joy of striding along as the sun began to display its power in the east."
But the wordiness and melodramatic subplots of Recessional—including Andy Zorn's romance with a beautiful young double amputee, the comings and goings of a mysterious Kevorkian-like figure at an AIDS hospice and the infiltration of the Palms by a spy from a fanatical organization called Life is Sacred—eventually swamp the essential drama of old age and how we deal with it. James Michener's own remarkable career, as it is intriguingly revealed in his 1992 memoir, The World Is My Home, not to mention his continuing vigorous engagement with that infinite world, makes a much stronger argument against the isolation and disenfranchisement of the elderly.
Groseclose, Karen and David A. James A. Michener, A Bibliography. State House Press: Austin, 1996.
Provides a detailed chronology of Michener's life and career.
Baker, John. "A Novel Approach." Chicago Tribune Book Review (21 April 1991): 3, 5.
Praises Michener's The Novel for its candid look at writing and the publishing industry, but gives mixed reviews of its artistry.
Galloway, Paul. "Author James A. Michener, 90, Dies After 50-Year Writing Saga." Chicago Tribune (17 October 1997): 3.
Summarizes Michener's life and works, acclaiming him as a master storyteller.
Irving, Clifford. "The Long Love Affair of a Tough Old Bird." New York Times Book Review (20 December 1992): 8-9.
Favorably reviews Michener's Mexico, an epic novel, and My Lost Mexico, which relates the former's "genesis, abandonment, and resurrection" thirty years later.
Review of Miracle in Seville, by James A. Michener. Kirkus Reviews (1 August 1995): 1051-52.
Negative review of Miracle in Seville, a novella about a Spanish rancher of fighting bulls.