The Source Additional Summary

James Michener

Summary

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The principal action of The Source takes place on the Tell of Makor, an imaginary archaeological site undergoing excavation in 1964 under the direction of Dr. John Cullinane. This tell, or mound, which has been uninhabited for nearly seven hundred years, has a history reaching back some twelve thousand years to 9831 b.c.e. The Hebrew name “Makor” means “source,” indicating the existence of a well or natural water supply nearby, while the settlement itself represents “the patiently accumulated residue of one abandoned settlement after another, each resting on the ruins of its predecessor, reaching endlessly back into history.” It is to this mound that Cullinane has come to excavate the various layers (fifteen in all) of civilization that settled Makor. Three other archaeologists join him: Jemail Tabari, Dr. Ilan Eliav, and Dr. Vered Bar-El, a Muslim and two Jews respectively. Cullinane is a Catholic, and the obvious tripartite religious significance of this group should not be overlooked. The excavation is financed by Paul J. Zodman, a Jew from Chicago, whom Cullinane must keep happy if he wants to continue working at Makor for more than five years.

In the opening chapter, the three archaeologists meet at Makor to begin their work (aided by a group of local kibbutzniks). As they excavate the two main shafts, or tunnels, down through seventy-one feet of debris that comprise the tell, they discover fifteen objects from fifteen different historical levels. The objects are recorded and diagramed by Cullinane and each offers the basis for a dramatized episode of the people and events that successively built and destroyed Makor throughout its history. In this way, the true focus of the novel starts taking shape and the dig becomes a structural vehicle. Interspersed throughout the historical narratives, the novel returns to the present, giving Cullinane and his colleagues a chance to discuss various historical and philosophical questions regarding the formation of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim religions, and their oftentimes stormy relationship in the past and present.

The greater part of the novel is devoted to the historical flashbacks that form the backdrop of the story. The present-day team discovers at the bottom level evidence of the family of Ur who helped to formulate the first organized society at Makor in 9831 b.c.e. It is here that man first learned to cultivate and harvest wheat. As a result of this discovery comes the vague realization that man is at the mercy of the rains and winds. Unclear notions of religion creep into their lives, and they erect a nameless monolith which they hope will placate nature’s wrath and ensure their crops’ survival. Thus man’s first notion of religion springs forth, but with it comes a new fear: “the mystery of death, the triumph of evil, the terrible loneliness of being alone, the discovery that self of itself is insufficient.” It is an anxiety that will haunt humankind forever.

Eight thousand years pass, and Ur’s descendant, Urbaal, is the leading figure of Makor, and the nameless monolith has been christened El. The religious practices of the people are rooted in the fertility of the earth, and it is into this “corrupting” atmosphere that Joktan, leader of a nomadic tribe called the Habiru (forerunners of the Hebrews and reminiscent of Moses), and his followers enter Makor. The tribe and their one God are quickly absorbed by the lusty rituals and gods of the townspeople, yet the seeds of monotheism have been sown and begin to grow.

After a span of eight hundred years, another descendant of Ur, Uriel, and another leader of another nomadic Hebrew tribe, Zadok, meet and...

(The entire section is 1532 words.)

Bibliography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Day, A. Grove. James Michener. New York: Twayne, 1964. Day provides a critical and interpretive study of Michener’s earlier works, with a close reading of his major novels, a solid bibliography, and complete notes and references.

Groseclose, David A. James A. Michener: A Bibliography. Austin, Tex.: State House Press, 1996. An annotated bibliography of works by and about James Michener from 1923 to 1995.

Hayes, John P. James A. Michener: A Biography. Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill, 1984. A biography spanning Michener’s childhood through the 1980’s. Valuable for background on influences in Michener’s development as a writer.

Michener, James. Literary Reflections: Michener on Michener, Hemingway, Capote, and Others. Austin, Tex.: State House Press, 1993. Michener reflects on his life as a writer and on his work. He also shares his memories of his era’s most influential writers. The collection of essays gives important insights into Michener’s views on literature and into his evaluations of his own works.

Roberts, F. X., and C. D. Rhine, comps. James A. Michener: A Checklist of His Works, With a Selected, Annotated Bibliography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995. A comprehensive bibliography of Michener’s books, stories, and articles by and about him.

Severson, Marilyn S. James A. Michener: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996. Severson give an overview of Michener’s life and examines the characteristics and themes of his fiction. His major historical novels are discussed and analyzed for plot, structure, and theme.

Shahin, Jim. “The Continuing Saga of James A. Michener.” Saturday Evening Post 262 (March, 1990): 66-71. Shahin gives an overview of the life and career of Michener.