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James A(lbert) Michener 1908–
American novelist, short story writer, nonfiction writer, essayist, and art historian.
Among the most popular American novelists, Michener is known primarily for his historic epics chronicling the events of a place and a people from prehistoric times to the present. He first gained attention with his 1947 Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of short stories, Tales of the South Pacific, and has continued to enjoy success with such panoramic works as Hawaii (1959), The Source (1965), Centennial (1974), and Chesapeake (1978). Michener's unpretentious narrative style states, rather than demonstrates, the personalities and motives of his characters. He employs a great deal of well-researched information on the social, cultural, and historical background of his subjects, giving his books an encyclopedic quality. Despite their diverse topics, his books share a theme: the belief in the brotherhood of man along with a concomitant concern with overcoming prejudices.
Michener's books have had an uneven critical response. Early works such as Tales, The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1953), and Sayonara (1954) were complimented for their pace and unity. The longer novels have been faulted for lacking those same qualities. Their time shifts, large casts, and the vast scope of events are regarded by some as impediments to any serious involvement with the stories. It is also suggested that better characterization would benefit his books. Michener's strength, however, lies in his narrative skill, which lends plausibility and readability to his accounts.
Regardless of critical appraisal, readers continue to put Michener's books on best-seller lists and keep them there. The most recent among these have been The Covenant (1980), a saga of the development of South Africa; Space (1982), the story of the space program; and Poland (1983), which follows that country's progress from early centuries to the present.
(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 5, 11; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; and Dictionary of Literary Biography; Vol. 6.)
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Tales of the South Pacific reads like a novel, with its strong unity of mood and background and with its reappearing characters, notably Bus Adams and Tony Fry. It is a wide-ranging book—ranging over the whole strange and beautiful world of the South Pacific and over a gallery of characters that include pompous naval commanders and tattooed Seabees, aloof French planters and raffish Tonkinese. It ranges also in emotion, from tedium to the fury of battle on coral beaches, from broad comedy to loneliness, homesickness, and grief. The Tales are not equally effective, but they are all as fresh as a tropical daybreak, and they are all alive. Mr. Michener's first book was the work of a mature writer; he appeared in full stature. (p. 2)
The Tales contain four distinct levels of experience and observation: (1) Navy life, with its boredom and comedy, its service jealousies and antagonisms; (2) a romantic yearning for beauty, love, tranquillity; (3) the granite facts of military strug-gle; (4) the superimposing of jeeps, airplanes, bulldozers, radio communication, over a timeless primitive culture. This juxtaposition of cultures runs through all the tales, giving them a further unity and significance.
James Michener saw his book as a novel, but Rodgers and Hammerstein saw it as a musical romance. Michener had already declined a proposal for dramatization of the book, but he warmed to the idea of a musical version. The book's light-hearted picture of Navy rank and discipline, its zestful sketching of the island garrisons, and its romantic portrayal of the native life all carried triumphantly over to musical romance. So South Pacific became stage history. (pp. 3-4)
In his second novel, James Michener wrote about his own land. The Fires of Spring (1949) is a novel of Americans growing up between the riches of the 1920's and the despair of the early 1930's. It is a long, sprawling, often sentimental and distorted novel of the creative artist's boyhood-to-manhood quest. David Harper survived a harsh boyhood; he grew up in a county poorhouse, went to work as a petty thief in an amusement park, traveled over the country with a Chautauqua crew. As a boy he saw the barges drifting down a Pennsylvania canal, and he was haunted by their serenity and mystery. This was his secret. No one could guess "the passionate wildness of his thoughts as he recalled Old Daniel and the gypsy girl, and the barges drifting down year after year through all the old man's life, the call and echo of the horns, the creaking gates, the dank lock walls, and the far vistas of the Delaware." This ardor offers relief from the violence and melodrama of the novel, but it is a soft and sometimes banal story, largely peopled by grotesques.
The youth-to-manhood novel would normally be a writer's first book. Mr. Michener reversed the usual order; from the larger world of Tales of the South Pacific he moved back to the more restricted, painful, slowly unfolding experience of a Pennsylvania boy. Except for its zestful record of sensory detail, there was little in The Fires of Spring to suggest the balance, restraint, and controlled intensity of Tales of the South Pacific. The second novel added nothing to his accomplishment.
It was inevitable that James Michener should return to the Pacific—at least in memory and imagination. His return in 1949 was an extended visit to Australia and the scattered islands. (p. 4)
Out of this visit he wanted to write "not another batch of stories on the old theme" but a new kind of book—a book of mingled fact and fiction. His plan was to write a fact-filled essay, both evocative and interpretive, about each of the countries on his tour. To accompany each essay, and based upon its theme, he would write a short story. The essay would be a report of observation; the story would be a dramatizing of a significant problem. This fact-and-fiction treatment materialized in the popular and highly readable Return to Paradise (1951).
It must strike any writer that Mr. Michener's plan called for some cold-blooded writing of stories. The eight pieces of fiction in Return to Paradise were written to order, and it is surprising that they are as good as they are. The reporting in this book is unsurpassed; nowhere else can one find so much information so warmly and graphically presented about the vast realm of the South Pacific countries and their peoples. From the first sketch of the slow building of the coral island to the final dramatic picture of war-ruined Rabaul, the essays are superb. In brief space Mr. Michener provides a variety of information—about races, religions, trade, primitive culture, social and economic tensions—and does it all with unfailing zest, sympathy, and discernment. To him, he has said, the stories seem more real than the essays; perhaps what a writer creates must seem that way. Actually, the stories in Return to Paradise are extremely uneven and are always less successful than the essays. (pp. 4-5)
Most of the stories do not spring from their own reality; they lean upon the accompanying essays, and they throw no new light upon the life around them. The "Australia" story, for example, shows a staid Boston man losing his wife to an adventurous Australia sea captain, and it tells less about Australia than a single page of the evocative essay that precedes it. (p. 5)
In late 1950 he again crossed the great ocean to study directly the Asiatic countries. The book that resulted from this visit was The Voice of Asia (1951)….
From Japan to Indonesia he proved himself a good observer—perceptive, open-minded, zestful, realistic. He is aware of massive social pressures and economic necessities, but he also knows the profound importance of spiritual forces in an area where fatalism and poverty combine to make spiritual experience almost a necessity. He has an eye for individual character as well as for economic dilemmas, and the book is a gallery of vivid portraits…. There is a wealth of human nature in Mr. Michener's account, along with its picture of social and political crisis. Altogether, The Voice of Asia is an eloquent and arresting introduction to the teeming world across the Pacific.
After his first book was published, James Michener said that he would not write again about foreign lands: "The writer's job is to dig down where he is." Since then he has returned repeatedly to the collision of cultures in the islands and nations of the Pacific. Where should the writer dig down—where but in the place that haunts his memory and imagination, where his mind and feelings are committed? For this writer that place is demonstrably not the Pennsylvania of his boyhood; it is the realm that he discovered by chance in the momentous 1940's. Here he has found meaning and excitement, and here he has acquired knowledge and concern that give him urgent things to say. Now his name is linked with the Pacific. (p. 6)
Walter Havighurst, "Michener of the South Pacific," in College English, Vol. 14, No. 1, October, 1952, pp. 1-6.
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James A. Michener's postwar literary output now includes four books, of which Tales of the South Pacific, the first, is immeasurably the best. (p. 152)
[The loosely linked short stories] were amazingly good, fresh, simple and expert in their presentation, humorous, engrossing and even moving. They all were distinguished by an unusual combination of thoughtful insight appealing to mature minds and old-fashioned storytelling, which made the most of exotic local color. Mr. Michener was adroit in his manipulation of the dramatic possibilities of men at war on tropical islands; but he also dug deeply into the character and behavior of young Americans in fantastic circumstances and made by implication many a pointed comment on courage, boredom, discipline, love and sex.
Tales of the South Pacific contains several excellent narratives of battle action; but it is not primarily about combat. Its fundamental purpose seems to be to fuse the functions of reporting and fiction, to use the methods of fiction to tell American civilians about war in the South Pacific, the way men lived and thought and felt on isolated staging islands, at great Navy shore bases, deep in the jungles of the Solomons.
Comic, satirical, romantic and exciting by turns, Mr. Michener's tales are tough but not hysterically so, realistic about single men in barracks, but not intended to shock. They are too well-balanced for that. And they are illuminated by his profound admiration for courage, generosity, patience, kindliness and humor.
James Michener's second book, a semiautobiographical novel called The Fires of Spring, bears all the earmarks of being a first novel which was published second only by accident. Although it is written in immensely readable fashion and contains a gallery of vivid and amusing minor characters, it is overly emotional, confused and confusing. When Mr. Michener describes the swindling tricks of amusement parks or the horrors of life on the Chautauqua circuit, he writes vigorously and well, the instinctive reporter in him doing a good job. But when he describes the ethical equivocations of his sensitive young hero he loses his way in a maze of words, and loses his readers' interest, too. Somehow he has not been able to turn his youthful experience into successful fiction as he has the war experience of his maturity.
In Return to Paradise Mr. Michener invented a hybrid literary form, which consists of alternating excellent travel articles with short stories designed to dramatize the conditions described in the articles. As journalism, Return to Paradise is outstanding, a fine account of the postwar South Pacific crowded with concrete information and significant anecdotes. But the quality of the stories is much inferior to that of the reporting and much inferior, also, to that of the stories in Tales of the South Pacific. The evidence is piling up that as Mr. Michener becomes more expert as a journalist he is becoming less effective as a writer of fiction. There is no harm in that. We need journalists as good as Mr. Michener. But those who were excited by the appearance of the wonderful tales cannot help being disappointed.
And then in the autumn of 1951 came Mr. Michener's fourth book, a volume with no fictional element at all. The Voice of Asia is good, popular topical reporting. But it seems a plain indication of which fork in the road Mr. Michener has chosen. (pp. 153-54)
Orville Prescott, in a review of "Tales of the South Pacific," "The Fires of Spring," "The Voice of Asia," and "Return to Paradise," in The New York Times (copyright © 1947, 1949, 1951 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 3, 1947, February 7, 1949, April 23 and October 30, 1951 (and reprinted in a different form as "Novelists and War: Hersey, Michener, Mailer, Jones, Baron, Wouk," in his In My Opinion: An Inquiry into the Contemporary Novel, The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., Publishers, 1952, pp. 146-64).∗
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James A. Michener won the Pulitzer Prize in 1947 for his first novel, Tales of the South Pacific. It can be predicted that he will not receive a second Pulitzer for his new novel and twenty-third book, The Covenant…. It can also be predicted that … the novel will soar to the top of the best-seller lists in this country and be read and admired all over the world.
Michener's reputation among critics has declined—even as his popularity has soared—since Tales of the South Pacific. Those short stories were admired by Orville Prescott [see excerpt above] … as "fresh, original and moving," and Prescott's reviews helped to start the encomiums that eventually led to Michener's Pulitzer Prize.
When Michener wrote The Fires of Spring (1949), about a writer's search for integrity, he moved on to more familiar ground. This time, several reviewers found his theme, in fact, overfamiliar and his sentiments naive. In The Bridges of TokoRi (1953), some critics claimed that his characters lacked depth. (p. 21)
His epic novels have been both praised for their facts and deplored for their characterizations…. When The Source appeared (1965), the research and history were greatly admired, but some critics found the main characters in the Israel-based novel more symbols than flesh-and-blood people.
His reputation did not soar when he wrote, with great goodwill, Kent State, What Happened and Why, in 1971. Liberal critics found the author somewhat too objective and generous in his interpretation of those controversial events…. Antiwar critics felt he was not hard enough on the National Guardsmen and those above them who had tolerated the shootings.
Nevertheless,… Michener remains America's most popular serious novelist; I emphasize the word serious to distinguish him from the trash-masters and trash-mistresses grinding out what the book trade brands "popcorn for the eyes." Some other best-selling novelists—Sidney Sheldon, Harold Robbins, Judith Krantz—clearly aim for the same middle-brow reader. And by doing so, they too cannot be expected to be considered for kudos from the National Book Critics Circle or the Pulitzer judges. But there are clear distinctions between their works and Michener's. Sheldon, Robbins, Krantz, and other calculatedly popular authors seem to be trendier in their themes, sexier in their scenes, and easily identified by their slick characterizations.
Another difference, it has often been pointed out, is that Michener "gives you your money's worth"—his books are long and compendious with facts. Readers have to work harder at his novels than at many other bestsellers. Michener presents what he conceives would help the reading public to understand a subject, a lifestyle, or a country. He would not be offended at being called an educator in his novels. Many other best-selling novelists have less desire to educate than to entertain—and to have room left over for their next entertainment.
But most of all, other best-selling novelists often seem to take dead aim at the marketplace—at what the public wants. This does not appear to be Michener's aim. He seems to be offering what he wants to do, to be exploring locales and histories that intrigue him…. Yet despite Michener's apparent determination to write first of all for himself, his novels have attained as loyal a following among a wide cross-section of readers as did the stories of Charles Dickens in the last century.
This much is certain: People read a Michener novel because he is the author, not necessarily because of its locale or particular theme. The Covenant is set in South Africa. The Source had its roots in Israel. Hawaii, Caravans, Iberia, Sayonara, Centennial, and Chesapeake took place in various parts of the globe, including the United States. Each bears the Michener benchmark: material researched on the scene, not merely in libraries, blending real and fictional characters, delivering romance, adventure, and history, often at length. (pp. 21-2)
The Covenant is in the epic tradition that Michener has set for himself. It begins in the mists of South African history, 15,000 years ago, and comes up to the present; it does not evade such issues as apartheid, though the author … has an inclination to ameliorate and present all sides. Michener is well aware of the meaning of prejudice and tolerance…. Researching The Covenant, Michener spoke to every sector of South African society: black, colored, Indian, Afrikaner, and English. (pp. 22-3)
[It is] this striving for verisimilitude in his narratives that has resulted in the large interest and sales of his books….
His long-time editor …, Albert Erskine, explains Michener's appeal from an editor's viewpoint: "Jim is not simply writing entertainment. People feel they learn a lot from him. He has the ability to anticipate developments in different parts of the world long before they happen. Hawaii came out just ahead of statehood; The Source when important events were taking place in Israel. As for The Covenant, you can't pick up the newspaper without finding stories about South Africa or Rhodesia. He doesn't deliberately set his novels in these places but, rather, senses that they contain the seeds of great events. There are similarities of style, but each one of his books is different. He never repeats himself with localities or events.
"You know, Michener hasn't got very many competitors who can do what he can in a novel. First, he's a superb researcher-reporter. He lives in the places he writes about. Second, he creates believable characters so that readers constantly say that they hate to come to the end of his books. Next, he seems to be getting more skillful, sentence by sentence, in his writing…." (p. 23)
Herbert Mitgang, "Why Michener Never Misses," in Saturday Review (© 1980 Saturday Review Magazine Co.; reprinted by permission), Vol. 7, No. 15, November, 1980, pp. 20-4.
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Michener has been known to rush through millennia before this, and in The Covenant, set against the backdrop of history from the formation of the earth's crust to the present day, he polishes off a dozen generations of good men and true…. [The] narrative proper commences somewhere between the 15th and 17th centuries, involving three families [Black, Dutch, and English] …, whose intertwined lives embrace the whole of South African history, even if it means manipulating episodes to suit the preconceived popular thesis….
Unfortunately Michener's "White" account of Black life (ranging from Khoisan, i.e. "Bushman" and "Hottentot," to Zulu and Xhosa) remains uncomfortably shallow. In the earlier chapters dialogue tends to the "Me Tarzan" variety; Zulu names designate Xhosa characters (imagine a novel dealing with French characters called Ludwig and Kurt!); and the account seldom probes more deeply than the folkloristic.
As for the mainstream of narrative, such crucial periods in the history of the Afrikaner as the development of the Boer republics are largely glossed over; and when the novel finally reaches home base in its treatment of "apartheid," Michener opts for farfetched melodrama rather than veracity. God knows, apartheid is abhorrent enough in its actual workings … not to require the ridiculous embellishment provided by Michener.
In his portrayal of history the author adapts a curious method also characteristic of his earlier novel, The Source: even though well-known historical figures appear in it … many of their major exploits are attributed to fictitious characters appearing alongside of them…. Among other disturbing results this procedure makes [the fictitious character] Detleef van Doorn personally responsible for drafting practically all the obnoxious apartheid legislation since 1948—which does not only act against a suspension of disbelief but also ignores the entire broadly based historical process Michener is so eager to demonstrate, namely national involvement in the Covenant rather than individual idiosyncrcy.
True, Michener makes it very clear that "this is a novel and to construe it as anything else would be an error."… But the point is not that Michener distorts history: even though he grossly oversimplifies at times and demonstrates himself to be on rather shaky ground at others …, the major failure of the novel lies in the fact that it clings so frantically to the surface of history. There is a lack of that complete and confident immersion in history which makes imagination possible and transforms fact into insight or vision—with the result that The Covenant reads like an illustrated history for high-school students, with bits of "dramatization," sentimental, farcical or pretentious, to make it appear more digestible. More pertinently, The Covenant is an account of the externals of history, not an expression or interpretation of a condition of men.
In previous works Michener may have impressed through an ability to sweep through vast tracts of history, but here he only plods and dodders. Wading through this boring "epic" one feels like watching one of the large birds of Africa taking a run, great unwieldy wings flapping, in order to gain the momentum required to become airborne: only this one never takes off, never soars. There are rare moments, notably in the chapter on the Trekboers, when a hint of epic breadth briefly opens up, only to be spoilt by a pastiche of the worst purple passages from Deep South fiction in the '30s: young man passionately pouncing on prospective bride; drunken father attacking him; girl striking father unconscious with log; young couple wrestling on filthy pile of straw….
In nine pages of Herman Charles Bosman, or Athol Fugard, or Nadine Gordimer there is a more quintessential grasp of (South) Africa than in 900 by James Michener. In attempting too much he offers too little—and breadth is a meager substitute for intuition. Crowding the narrative with a turbulence of minor incidents and accidents the essential epic sweep is lost; no vision illuminates the dreary gloom. Essentially, the novel lacks solidity, a sense of place, a sense of landscape; an experience of people rooted in a particular earth: the laborious Cook's tour offered here makes a mockery both of fact and of fiction.
Stylistically, The Covenant is a depressing experience: not because it is badly written but because it is mildly competent—the work of a tired, pedestrian plodder, far removed from the crispness and brightness which, so many years ago, characterized the author of Tales of the South Pacific.
Andre Brink, "Skimming Over South Africa," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1980, The Washington Post), November 2, 1980, p. 3.
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While Michener's prose [in "The Covenant"] is frequently as flat and colorless as the veld, his research is impressive. In fact he overdoes it—great dollops of history that tend to clog the flow of the story. Yet it is his surefooted grasp of what South Africa is and has been that gives this book extraordinary authority and conviction.
"The Covenant" also has a scope to it that avoids the too often one-dimensional view of South Africa…. What Michener has set out to do is to embrace all South Africa's people and follow them through all time, and do it without favor to any one particular group.
For the whites, in particular—both English and Afrikaans, who constantly complain the outside world misunderstands them—Michener has brought understanding. At times almost a fondness.
It is precisely because Michener has been so scrupulously evenhanded throughout this book that his dismay in its conclusion at the excesses of apartheid, of an ideology gone berserk, is so chillingly credible. (p. B11)
David Winder, "Michener's Sweeping South African Saga," in The Christian Science Monitor (reprinted by permission from The Christian Science Monitor; © 1980 The Christian Science Publishing Society; all rights reserved), November 10, 1980, pp. B1, B11.
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[As] Mr. Michener showed in his previous blockbusters, scope is his forte, and legions of readers will find that techniques applied successfully to other cultures have not failed [in "The Covenant"]. (p. 3)
As in some of his past works, Mr. Michener's characterizations are sometimes flat, his sentiments naïve, his dialogue unreal. Prehistoric Bushmen, their poisoned arrows proof of an ingenuity "that could in time contrive ways to build a skyscraper or an airplane," speak in an argot borrowed from 20th-century America; not long after the Boer War, early black nationalist leaders speak to each other in the jargon of a generation of sociologists yet unborn. Words like "exfoliate," "explicate" and "inspirit" come oddly from the typewriter of an author who seeks to educate as he entertains.
But these are quibbles. The book's accomplishment may be to offer a public inured to stereotypes a sense of the flesh and blood of the Afrikaners, the settlers who grew from harsh beginnings to a white tribe now nearing three million, commanding the most powerful economy and armed forces in Africa…. [The book,] by tracing the courage and independence of the Afrikaners, the stubbornness born of a Calvinistic faith and the settlers' dispossession by the British, suggests none of the disdain fashionable for South Africa's dominant group today. In the end, no reader could think these men and women evil; misguided and brutal, but worthy of understanding all the same. Perhaps it was a sense of this that persuaded the censors in Pretoria, after initially banning the novel, to put it back on the shelves. (p. 27)
John F. Burns, "Michener: The Novelist As Teacher," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 23, 1980, pp. 3, 27.
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James Michener has found, perhaps even perfected, a formula for commercially successful novels: He begins with exhaustive research on the social, cultural and political history of a particular nation or region; then he dramatizes the results of his research through fictional characters who recapitulate in their lives the experience of the nation or region over time, often a span of centuries. The enormous sales of his novels testify to the popularity of his approach with the reading public. The Covenant, a massive work that begins in prehistoric southern Africa and ends in today's racially troubled Republic of South Africa, is Michener's most recent application of his proven method….
Though historical figures—Dutch, Zulu, British—appear throughout The Covenant, Michener relies on a handful of fictional families to carry the burden of his narrative. (p. 66)
For most of The Covenant, Michener both entertains and enlightens. While his characters are generally flat, even stereotyped, his kind of panoramic, fictionalized history does not require fully realized characters; the very flow of events carries the book along. It is when the narrative reaches our own times that Michener's most serious artistic troubles begin. He does not solve them. He is ambivalent about present-day South Africa: Apartheid is evil, of course, but one should sympathize with the Afrikaners and their position. He fails, however, to communicate this ambivalence dramatically. He tries to portray the Afrikaners as basically honorable, albeit misguided, people, yet it would take skills at characterization superior to Michener's own to balance, in dramatic terms, the horrors of apartheid he has already catalogued. He is finally reduced to virtually telling his readers to think well of the Afrikaners. The novel thus ends in complexity, but it is an artificial, stated complexity. The commercial success of The Covenant is almost certain; its artistic success is another matter. In the end, South Africa proved too much for Michener's novelistic gift. (pp. 66-7)
Thomas M. Gannon, in a review of "The Covenant" (reprinted with permission of America Press, Inc. and the author; © 1981; all rights reserved), in America, Vol. 144, No. 3, January 24, 1981, pp. 66-7.
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James Michener's long and earnest novels … have not been found worthy of even the most casual mention in serious studies of contemporary American fiction, and neither do they appear on college-literature reading lists. None of this has made a particle of difference to his readers….
Michener's panoramic chronicles are a very different breed of fiction from the classic schlock … that ordinarily hogs the best-seller list, for Michener's novels are short on sex and long on facts. Though he enlivens and simplifies the dusty record of the past by means of invented characters, incidents, and dialogue, and has a canny respect for the allure of romance and melodrama, his plots are braced with a solid rigging of expert knowledge about the history, archeology, religion, language, geology, wildlife, agriculture, and specialized social and economic lore of the particular region … that he stakes out for exploration and proceeds to conquer.
Saturated in information and local color, Michener's novels overflow with an instructive abundance of scrupulously vetted dates, customs, and statistics. In his "Jewish" novel, The Source …, he takes a present-day archeological dig in the western Galilee as his point of departure, and inundates the reader with centuries of reenacted Jewish, Christian, and Muslim history, plus maps, population tables, and scientific drawings of objects unearthed from the ancient mound. In Michener's current blockbuster [The Covenant], which moves at an unhurried pace through 15,000 years of South African history, the reader's task is eased by archeological reports, genealogical charts, and a glossary of Afrikaans words "without which the narrative would lack verisimilitude."
In the course of the centuries spanned in the novel, we soak up an enormous amount of historical detail about matters ranging from the way the tiny Bushmen who roamed southern Africa thousands of years ago hunted rhinoceros to the humiliation and suffering inflicted on individual lives by the laws enforcing apartheid today….
It does not seem unreasonable, though, to wish that he had paid as close attention to his prose as he does to his facts. His style is either workhorse-monotonous or banal-portentous, particularly when he peers, as he unfortunately does rather often, into the telescope of hindsight for a rueful forecast of things to come. (p. 71)
It is difficult, however, to discuss Michener's literary quality because none of the usual terms of critical judgment can be usefully applied. All the axiomatic givens seem to have passed him by: no ambiguity, no irony, no paradox, no conceits. His narrative devices, often shamelessly contrived, would have been scorned by the late Victorians. In dividing his principal fictitious characters into three fecund families—the Afrikaner Van Doorns, the English Saltwoods, and the black Nxumalos—Michener crudely attempts to demonstrate continuity in the different strains of the South African experience. The various members of these families who turn up without fail in each era are in the main drawn with stencils to clarify their didactic function in the narrative—some are brave, others weak, this one bigoted, that one noble. Down the long corridor of history they march, conveniently entwined at every bend of fate by that ancient drudge, the long arm of coincidence. And, of course, the schematically neat design deprives them of any convincing individuality. It is not surprising that only the actual people who enter the story now and then, such as those flamboyant buccaneers of the Kimberley diamond fields, Cecil Rhodes and Barney Barnato, have any genuine idiosyncratic vitality, because in portraying them Michener can rely on his lifeline, the historical record, instead of his own pale and homiletic imaginings.
In trying to figure out the secret of Michener's success, it is tempting to say that he is the ideal "middlebrow" novelist for a predominantly middlebrow culture whose typical reader is not in the least put off by his uninspired writing and characters or by his preachy habit of telling us how to think about the events he has transcribed with such diligent care. But Michener's popularity is not limited to the United States; he has an enormous following in Europe, where he is apparently taken more seriously by critics than he is in his own country. (pp. 71-2)
Where does all this leave a writer like James Michener? He does not fit into [Dwight Macdonald's midcult category of pop sociology] since he does not imitate serious literary art, nor does he present himself and his work as part of high culture. His objective is the factually meticulous transcription of the past in easily comprehensible form, and if he does harbor any pretensions, they are aimed not at the tone and manner of literary artists but at the intellectual authority of the historian. It is in the appeal to his multitudes of readers, who do not think of themselves as consumers of high art, that Michener's quintessential middlebrowness can be found.
Like all historical novels, Michener's The Covenant mingles the real and fictitious, but the author's obsession with accuracy even in the minutest trivia … and his determination to provide his readers with a flawlessly correct account of what actually happened in peace and war suggest that he regards himself as a teacher even more than a novelist.
It seems doubtful that most of the thousands … [buying] The Covenant have a passionate curiosity about the history of South Africa. What perhaps draws them to Michener's magnet is the thought that they are getting solid value for their money and learning a great deal without arduous intellectual effort. It is the unequivocal certainty that one can trust Michener to deliver the goods, that his facts, significant or trivial, are always right, that may in large part account for his stature among people hungry for authenticity. (p. 72)
It is as though Michener takes with astonishing literalness Mary McCarthy's observation that "the distinctive mark of the novel is its concern with the actual world, the world of fact, of the verifiable, of figures, even, and statistics." But the literalness of fact or the indisputable transcription of historical events, even for the sake of verisimilitude, pales beside the novelist's art….
For the true novelist, imagination does the work of the literal, and does it more competently….
To be fair, let us admit that there is nothing much to be gained from comparing James Michener with novelists of a kind he has never pretended to be. His shortcomings of style and characterization, the stilted dialogue, the sentimental indulgence in what-might-have-been …—why hit Michener over the head with all this when he modestly refuses to inflate his talents? Though one might wish his devices less simplistic, it is surely not dishonorable that along with all the self-improving information he offers his readers, he tries to improve their hearts as well by exposing, as he has done in many of his books, the torment and destruction caused by racial intolerance and religious bigotry.
What is not at all creditable, however, is his urge to reinforce the soggy liberal optimism of his middlebrow audience, not because he panders to its craving for reassurance in a confusing and heartless world, but because he shares its values and attitudes so completely…. In the concluding pages of The Source, after the Israeli archeologist and the Arab archeologist have exchanged bitter words about the Palestinians, Michener reaches instinctively for the silver lining….
In The Covenant, perhaps because the problematic uncertainties of South Africa's future lend themselves so easily to prophecies of doom, Michener sounds his customary note of hope more cautiously. He brings his own political commentary into the final chapter in the voice of an American geologist, Philip Smallwood, who makes a valiant effort to be objective and fair-minded to all sides…. None of Michener's facts lends any credence to [his] sanguine vision, and it is ironic that in the end all that labor to get things right counts for less than the need to end on an upbeat.
What, then, are these hefty tomes of Michener's, since they are not really novels and not really history, not genuine art nor awful kitsch? If we lift our eyes from the printed page to the brightly lit television screen, it is apparent that they are "docudramas," the fictional equivalent of Roots, Holocaust, and Shogun…. Like the TV docudramas, his books convey the sweep of history through its high moments, enacted in simple, dramatic, pictorially vivid scenes whose moral and meaning are immediately and unambiguously clear. A great, or even serious, novel, as we have seen repeatedly, cannot be translated into a movie or television special because the visual form works through images, and the serious novel works through language. Novels have to be read. No such obstacles face television in assimilating the fact/fiction of a Michener. In the end, the printed docudrama and its TV version are interchangeable. One might almost say that they were literally made for each other. What we have here is a new genre of the information age. (p. 73)
Pearl K. Bell, "James Michener's Docudramas" (reprinted by permission of the publisher and the author; all rights reserved), in Commentary, Vol. 71, No. 4, April, 1981, pp. 71-3.
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In typical Michener fashion, [Space] examines every aspect of its subject: the men who build and fly the rockets, the women who marry them, the scientists, the politicians, the journalists, the astronauts.
But that is only on the surface. For what Michener is really writing about is something far deeper. This is a novel about faith, religious faith, even though it is not a novel about religion. (p. 1)
Michener has … hit on that theme, expanded on it, deepened it. Space contrasts several varieties of faith, from the simplistic faith of the German rocket engineer who believes that technology can solve any problem, to the faith of the astronauts who believe that flying farther and faster is the greatest good in the world.
And then there is the cynical, corrosive manipulation of faith by those who prey on the fears of the public for their own selfish ends. Michener has created a villain, a charming, satanic fraud who calls himself Strabismus and makes his living first by milking the "flying saucer" racket and then by making himself into a Bible-thumping evangelist who attacks science in general and evolution in particular.
For what Michener is portraying in this novel is America today. He has laid bare, with a newspaper reporter's pitiless instinct for the truth, the central issue of modern American society: we have, on the one hand, an incredibly rich and powerful scientific technology that can transform our world; on the other hand, we have a deep-rooted fear of the new, the unknown, and this fear has manifested itself in a reversion to anti-scientific attitudes…. (pp. 1, 4)
Like most of Michener's earlier novels, Space is a saga that shows a wide panorama of events. He follows four families, one German and three American, from the dying days of World War II up to roughly the year 1981. Historical characters such as Wernher von Braun, Deke Slayton, and Lyndon B. Johnson are there. But it is the men and women of the space program who are center stage. In particular, two astronauts and their wives become the major characters. The contrast between these two men, who are so dissimilar in so many ways and yet who are fierce friends who share a common view of the world makes Space worth reading, all by itself.
But there is so much more to the novel, as well. Much has been said of Michener's encyclopedic approach to fiction. His novels are stuffed with characters and incident, historic detail and local minutiae. At critical moments, the characters tend to lapse into speechifying rather than natural dialogue. He is not regarded as a stylist, nor I suspect, would he want to be taken as one.
Michener is, if nothing else, a solid reporter. He studies his subject matter thoroughly and writes about it in unadorned prose. Better than most writers, he gives his readers an understanding of the men and women involved in the mighty saga of space….
By using the space program as a cutting edge, Michener has shown a cross-section of America today—all the bright promise of our glittering technology, all the dark dangers of know-nothing anti-intellectualism, all the choices that we face today in our continual striving to build a better tomorrow. (p. 4)
Ben Bova, "James Michener Blasts Off," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1982, The Washington Post), September 12, 1982, pp. 1, 4.
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James A. Michener has attempted to tell the story of the American space program through fiction, but not all that successfully. The problem may be inherent in the story: It is too contemporary, the real people and events still too familiar, to lend itself to historical novelization in the manner of Mr. Michener's more notable recent books, "Chesapeake" and "Centennial." Great sagas have a mythic quality, and myth takes time to evolve. (p. 3)
The author has, as usual, done his research well. He has also managed to develop through his sprawling narrative all of the major political, social and technological themes that resonated during the years of the first exploration of space. Thus, if "Space" becomes a best seller, as may be expected on the basis of his past record, a wide audience will be exposed to a sympathetic, historically sound treatment of an important human endeavor that some day could be the stuff of myth or at least of grand chronicles in the tradition of Hakluyt.
But the weakness of the fictional approach shows up early in the book. The German rocket team's flight into Bavaria and surrender to the American Army is told here with gripping effect because Mr. Michener offers a generally faithful rendition of what actually happened. Even so, how much better it would have been to relive the action through Wernher von Braun, one of the truly imposing figures of space exploration, rather than through the fictional associate of von Braun, Dieter Kolff, as interesting as he is at times. It is also rather curious that Mr. Michener went to such length, through vivid scenes of naval combat in the Pacific, to build a fictional officer, Norman Grant, into a hero, only to diminish him so thoroughly later as the epitome of Congressional weakness and short-sightedness…. The closer the book approaches nonfiction, the more effective and convincing it generally is.
Many of the real people of the space program do make appearances where appropriate, but the story is told through a dozen or so fictional characters, including Mr. Michener's own team of astronauts, the Solid Six…. Mr. Michener captures much of the on-the-ground flavor of flight training at Patuxent and at Cape Canaveral and of the hucksterism in creating the astronauts' Boy Scout image. But Tom Wolfe did this better in "The Right Stuff."
Surprisingly little of "Space" is devoted to space flight itself. The author does invent two missions, Gemini 13 and Apollo 18, and it is with the latter flight, to the "dark side" of the moon, that the book finally conveys the technical complexity, risk and adventure of travel to outer space.
One of Mr. Michener's most valuable contributions is his development of the space story against a backdrop of the social and political turmoil and the antirational tendencies of the time. Indeed, the most fascinating person in the book is the self-styled Dr. Leopold Strabismus, an out-and-out charlatan who runs a mail-order diploma mill for college degrees and panders to the multitudes who fear science and reason.
In Dr. Strabismus Mr. Michener has created the personification of the reactionary forces he finds gaining ground and threatening the spirit of intellectual curiosity that has made space exploration possible. And this brings the author to the message—and warning—that seem to have been his reason for writing "Space."
By the end of the book, which brings him to the space shuttle flights of today, Mr. Michener comes down heavily on those who allow the hostility toward space exploration to spread…. (pp. 3, 26)
Mr. Michener leaves us with the hope that the dream of exploring space will not die, even though humans may never understand who they themselves are or what makes them seek after knowledge of the unexplored. (p. 26)
John Noble Wilford, "A Novel of Very High Adventure," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1982 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 19, 1982, pp. 3, 26.
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[In] a James Michener novel, the story is in the theme more than in the characters, and "Space" certainly has a remarkable theme. The struggle between "immaculate science" and the vulgarities of politics is very well portrayed…. And Mr. Michener is eloquent in depicting the actual flights into space, as well as the blazing, apocalyptic re-entry of the shuttle into earth's atmosphere.
If his characters don't always touch your feelings, his events almost always appeal to your mind. And though there are a few black holes in his knowledge of novelistic technique, Mr. Michener seems to know just about everything else.
Anatole Broyard, in a review of "Space," in The New York Times (copyright © 1982 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 29, 1982, p. C24.
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In all his previous work James A. Michener's point of origin is the beginning of things….
Locale, therefore, dominates the action of his story and the development of character, a tendency indicated by the titles of his major novels. There is a brooding presence of landscape, a Hardyesque sense of determinism subjecting even the strongest of his people to a fate beyond their control.
So he might have opened ["Space"] with a picture of planets and suns hurling through a million miles of emptiness. That would have given us a familiar Michener beginning. Instead, he moves to the last days of World War II and the men who had the early vision and professional promise to shape the American program in space.
The crucial decision to get into the action right away tells us something about this book that's different from other Michener novels. His focus here is not on the land and traditions of a given region, but rather on the people … who were most affected by the space effort….
In addition to … nuts-and-bolts issues, the scientists were divided among themselves by a philosophic question: Should the space program be satisfied with a spectacular, short-range trip to the moon, or should it take a longer course and aim for the planets beyond? This dilemma, which forms a major motif throughout the novel, provides the necessary intellectual tension between sets of characters.
Michener's familiar use of counterpoint is used here in a series of effective ways. He compares German civilization to American crassness and political expediency. Washington politicians are pitted against West Coast scientists, educated technicians against charlatans and pretenders. The scope of history is long and the canvas wide.
What is lacking is depth, a fault in all of Michener's work. For some it may be a virtue. He makes no great demands on the reader, spells out no spiritual or moral dilemma, claims nothing in the way of final truths.
Fiction of this kind becomes a matter of precise detail, an overload of information and fact. In many ways it is antifiction. But "Space" is readable, even in its prodigious length, and if that's the first test of a novel, then Michener has once again made the grade.
Don Harrell, "Fact-laden Novel on Space Program" (© 1982 The Christian Science Publishing Society; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission of the author), in The Christian Science Monitor, October 6, 1982, p. 14.
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Compared to most of Michener's later novels, Space has a short time span—less than forty years. The story begins with the German rocketeers at Peenemünde in the last months of World War II and winds up in the present. Sandwiched in between is an excellent fictional history of the promising rise and tragic decline of America's adventure into space. By shuffling together real people and events … and fictional ones …, Michener has caught the essence of what motivated and then enfeebled our space program…. As usual, Michener has done his homework, this time with affection and excitement as well—his pro-space enthusiasm is the book's driving force, and he has deftly woven an incredible amount of information into the tale. A lesser author might have been tempted to downgrade characterization and let the grandeur of the theme carry the novel along, but not Michener. His characters (while having ideas) are not just puppets mouthing concepts at each other. They live. This is perhaps because, unlike so many of the trendier novelists, Michener seems to think well of the human race; he opts for decency, competence, and good sense. Because he looks with favor on humanity, it is not surprising that he writes with fervor about humanity's greatest adventure.
Jack Kirwan, in a review of "Space," in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1983; 150 East 35th St., New York, NY 10016), Vol. XXXV, No. 10, May 27, 1983, p. 640.
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[In Poland, a] sweeping, ambitious but uneven historical epic, Michener follows the fortunes of three family lines in Poland from the Middle Ages down to the present day…. In the first half of the book Michener bites off more than many readers will want to chew: so many historical developments are covered that his three families (peasant, gentry, nobility) flit rather vaguely through all the ensuing events…. The book includes a generous amount of Michener mini-lectures: how the Polish language is pronounced, Chopin's special place in Polish culture, the relationship of the Catholic church and the Communist party, the significance of Solidarity and many others. The overall impression Poland will leave with the reader is that of a permanently beleaguered country … inhabited by a people whose spirit of nationalism is fierce and unquenchable.
A review of "Poland," in Publishers Weekly (reprinted from the July 15, 1983 issue of Publishers Weekly, published by R. R. Bowker Company, a Xerox company; copyright © 1983 by Xerox Corporation), Vol. 224, No. 3, July 15, 1983, p. 41.
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[In "Poland" Michener] depicted the history of that colorful and unhappy land, sparked by a realistic portrayal of a large number of characters, historic and fictional. Significant periods of its history are treated at length and in attractive detail.
The book thus provides an absorbing account of the country's thousand-year history, highlighted by a narrative studded with fascinating characters and crucial events….
This historic overview, while basic to the narrative as a whole, is closely combined with the imaginative part of the book. The lavish and conspicuously-extravagant life of the magnatic families is depicted with the breadth and depth of the realistic novelist….
The penultimate chapter deals with the Nazi brutalities in Poland and with the horrible conditions in the concentration camps of Maidenak and Auschwitz. The heroic opposition of some of the Poles is stressed, with the peasants, gentry and magnates each struggling against the enemy with desperate self-sacrifice.
"Poland" reads with continuous fascination. One is impressed by the clear and realistic delineation of Polish history and its people. The numerous characters, real and imaginary, emerge with authentic verity and interest. Those with roots in Eastern Europe will find the book not only highly readable but a rich source of historic information.
Of special interest to Jewish readers is Michener's treatment of the Polish Jews. At the beginning of the book he merely states that medieval Jews were money lenders because the Catholic Church prohibited interest. In the account of the ensuing centuries, Jews are mentioned only as musicians from the towns to entertain the magnate's guests. It was only in the section after 1918 that Jews are dealt with at some length….
It should also be noted that during the Holocaust section, Michener made evident his horror at the killing of Jews….
["Poland"] makes splendid reading, and regardless of its great length and much detail, it is a work of literary distinction.
Charles Madison, "James Michener's 'Poland' Significant, but Novel Skimps on Polish Jewry" (reprinted by permission of the publisher and the author), in The Detroit Jewish News, Vol. LXXXIV, No. 9, October 28, 1983, p. 76.
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Two schools of thought color American views of modern Poland. On the one hand, we have those who find the true Poland in the Poland of Kosciusko and Walesa, heroic, defiant, noble, romantic—just about everything America nowadays tends not to be. On the other hand, we have those who see only the ugly Poland, pig-headed and intolerant, anti-Semitic to the point that the country is sometimes labeled an accessory to the Holocaust. James Michener's latest documentary novel, Poland, reveals him as a member of the former school, an unabashed Polonophile.
Now, it's nice to have admirers, and beleaguered Poland could do worse than to be the subject of a Michener blockbuster. However, the book is destined to be read by millions who know next to nothing about the country, so perhaps it is best to judge it with this in mind. (p. 1418)
The uninitiated, reading Michener's account, will no doubt develop genuine sympathy for this misguided, victimized nation…. But sympathy in this case must not be mistaken for understanding. Without dwelling on the countless errors and distortions to be found in Poland—this is fiction, after all—I might mention two shortcomings that are relevant to Michener's attempt to capture the big picture.
The first concerns Polish-Russian relations…. [For] some reason, Russia doesn't figure in the book until 1757. Meanwhile, the unsuspecting readers of Michener's chapter on Poland's bloody seventeenth-century wars will never know that Russia figured in these wars….
The second shortcoming has to do with Michener's ethnocentric view of historical Poland. While he does find room for the Ukrainians in passing … the Jews are all but ignored. When they appear it is invariably as musicians, always faceless and anonymous, even in Michener's graphic account of their fate under the Nazis. As for the unpleasant matter of anti-Semitism in modern Poland, Michener's apologia appears to come straight from the mouths of the "local authorities."… Any country that produces a John Paul II and a Lech Walesa is resilient enough to be viewed without blinders. (p. 1420)
Wladyslaw Pleszczynski, "Dead End," in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1983; 150 East 35th St., New York, NY 10016), Vol. XXXV, No. 22, November 11, 1983, pp. 1418, 1420.