Michener, James A(lbert) 1907–
Michener is an American novelist, short story writer, essayist, art historian, and editor. Although best known as a novelist, he has also been a prolific writer of nonfiction, publishing works on the social sciences, American politics, and travel. Hawaii, considered by many to be his finest work, reveals Michener's masterful handling of vast amounts of historical and descriptive detail, offered in a spare prose style that is characterized by its clarity. However, many of his other novels, although always exhaustively researched, tend to overpower the reader with their wealth of minutiae. Michener was awared the Pulitzer Prize in 1948. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
[Chesapeake] is, at times, impressive, for Michener is a tireless researcher; he always has the story—if not the reader—by the throat, and some of his passages of action and violence are vividly written. On the whole, however, I found [it] exasperating to read.
When the moment calls for humor, subtlety, or even silence, Michener too often either leaps onstage to lecture on the obvious, or he reaches for Pomp and Circumstance and proceeds to play it on an atomic pipe organ…. Characters in this book tend to make timpanic pronouncements in empty places. Edmund Steed, after finding his wilderness island "a fascinating place," announces, apparently to the grackles and squirrels: "This is the island of Devon, proprietary of the Steeds, and so it shall remain forever." (pp. E1, E4)
Chesapeake is full of … flat superlatives and cliches, of saucy little slatterns, pert little princesses, rollicking rascals, rapscallions, naughty plans, women who shout like fishwives or who resemble goddesses, madonnas or Hebrew maidens in the Old Testament, hostile Indians, sly and clever foxes, rude trails, rude huts, rude landings, rude warehouses, rude boats, and Canada geese incessantly characterized as great. There are also three "litanies" which are not litanies. The blacks are often heroic, always admirable….
In these days of the docu-drama, or whatever it is lately that passes fiction off as fact, writers are putting words in the mouths of people and events on the blank pages of history. Some of this may be entertaining, but the whole business gives me the willies, and while I was not entirely uncomfortable with the cameo appearances in Chesapeake of Clay or Calhoun, by the time Woolman Paxmore visits Berchtesgaden to plead with Hitler for the release of 50,000 Jews, I am not only wondering what in blazes such a chapter is doing in this novel, but am preparing for a Steed to be among the first astronauts on the moon….
Chesapeake is an interesting and ambitious quilt of history, with some nice touches here and there, and the telling never lags. But overall there is a shallowness about this book and the people in it. An experienced writer has become careless with the craft of good writing, and it shows. (p. E4)
Boyd Gibbons, "James Michener Bridges the Bay," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), July 9, 1978; pp. E1, E4.
It's easy enough to be condescending toward James Michener, and over the years many reviewers have been exactly that. His long, plodding novels are high on sincerity, low on literary merit. The history he serves in such massive helpings tends to arrive at the table half-baked….
Yet Mr. Michener deserves more respect than he usually gets. Granted that he is not a stylist and that he smothers his stories under layers of historical and ecological trivia, nonetheless he has earned his enormous popularity honorably. Unlike many other authors whose books automatically rise to the upper reaches of the best-seller lists, he does not get there by exploiting the lives of the famous or the notorious; he does not treat sex cynically or pruriently; he does not write trash. His purposes are entirely serious: he wants to instruct, to take his readers through history in an entertaining fashion, to introduce them to lands and peoples they do not know.
Hence "Sayonara," "Hawaii," "The Source," "Centennial" and now "Chesapeake." It is in every sense a typical Michener production, with all the weaknesses—and the strengths—of its predecessors. It covers four centuries in the life of the Chesapeake Bay and the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Principally through four fictitious families, three white and one black, it moves from early settlement to Revolution to Civil War to World War to Watergate….
So many characters...
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[The title Chesapeake] is misleading. Michener does not write about the whole Bay but about its quirkiest (in some ways most interesting) part, the Eastern Shore. Nor is the distortion restricted to the title. Michener wants to make broad types of narrow exceptions. His book belongs to that genre of multi-generational Hollywood epic that is advertised as a triumph of the human spirit. We have all seen, many times, the movie this book will become….
The later episodes show how thin Michener finds his Eastern Shore material. He must range all over the world to supplement it…. Over and over Michener achieves his Eastern Shore "epic" by leaving the Eastern Shore. At one point, he includes the decisive sea battle of the French navy with the British before Yorktown by the simple expedient of having an Eastern Shore boat nearby to watch it. What we get is a mini-history of the United States seen from the vantage of the Eastern Shore.
The only trouble is that real Eastern Shore people do not watch much of anything but the Bay itself. They were Tory out of sheer orneriness in the Revolution; their boats were a nuisance when not a menace to the patriot cause. Their isolation brewed in them a bitter mix of revivalism and racism that Mencken was still excoriating in the twentieth century. They were more rabid than most Southerners in the Civil War. Their racism and xenophobia remains notorious….
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They call Chesapeake—guess what?—"a sweeping historical novel." I think "whisking" is more apt. The sweep-whisk genre will take a pseudohistorical place or family and trace its/their progress from ice age to Tuesday last. (Michener has saved his ice age description for page 405—a risky and imaginative departure.) Sweep-whisk novels are usually written by people who haven't talent or idea enough to write a short book. The standard Chesapeake character, for instance, won't develop, he'll just change costume from century to century. Besides, Michener is more interested in hardware than people: ships particularly: Chesapeake has all that mizzen abaft poop to windward hard off the port centerboard and furl your bosun chair gibberish, which doesn't mean a Q-tip to any but 15 readers in America. (p. 1153)
The present-day sections of Chesapeake are tedious, idiotic, disjunct, pointless, phony, and offensive. Michener has written a lunch-box-sized, condescending children's book. And he is cheeky enough to end with sonorous admonitions re keeping nature natural: this man who has made a thousand forests tumble down so that his trivial glut might be read.
Michener is a long joke, of course: but a dangerous one. He has been too often and easily read. We inhabit a neglectful time: history-the-discipline is not honored in school curricula now: more and more, "historical knowledge" comes from fiction. This need not be a bad thing: provided that research is meticulous: provided that writers don't recast known truth to accommodate their weak and fantastical brainchildren…. No man has done more to corrupt the historical perspective of Americans than Michener, with his unctuous, naïve, sentimental, and downright fraudulent plot-maneuvering. It's ironic: he would not be rich and popular today if readers didn't assume they were getting reliable fact with fancy: that has been his attraction. If Michener wrote honest fiction, took a novelist's chance, he'd be just another unremarkable hack. But he will pretend to retail fact, and that makes him some kind of liar. (p. 1154)
D. Keith Mano, "Poop Poop!" in National Review (© National Review Inc., 1978; 150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), September 15, 1978, pp. 1153-54.