James A. Michener Michener, James A(lbert) (Vol. 29) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Walter Havighurst

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Orville Prescott

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Herbert Mitgang

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Andre Brink

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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David Winder

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

John F. Burns

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Thomas M. Gannon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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….


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Pearl K. Bell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Ben Bova

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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John Noble Wilford

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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"...

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Anatole Broyard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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,"...

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Don Harrell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Jack Kirwan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Publishers Weekly

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Charles Madison

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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…....

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Wladyslaw Pleszczynski

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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