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James A. Michener was among the most popular and prolific of American novelists. He was known primarily for historical epics that chronicle events of various regions and their people from prehistoric times to the present. His novels are often family sagas in which men and women of many heritages intermingle in far-off places.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Unknown Origins The exact date or place of Michener’s birth is not known. Although many reference books state that it was probably in New York City in 1907, all that is known for certain about his infancy is that Michener’s mother, Mabel, picked up the young child whom she would name James from the streets of Doylestown, Pennsylvania, and reared him as her foster child. in 1931, when the young man received a scholarship to study abroad, he obtained a passport only after Mabel Michener and a notary prepared a statement giving him citizenship status. The fact that Michener has never known when or where he was born, or his family background, has impelled him to invent his roots and has enabled him to put himself in the place of characters of exotic heritages.
Michener grew up in the Bucks County countryside in Pennsylvania and attended Doylestown Grammar School. At the age of fourteen he hitchhiked for some months through forty-five American states. On his return home he delivered newspapers, wrote a sports column for the local paper, and was saved from delinquency by his prowess in sports, especially basketball.
Scholarships and Travels
A sports scholarship took Michener to Swarthmore College, and his second novel evokes feelings of an undergraduate of the time in this Quaker institution. During one summer vacation Michener traveled with a Chautauqua tent show and became imbued with a love of the drama, reflected in his fiction, which has often been adapted for the stage and screen.
Michener graduated with honors in 1929 with a degree in English and history as well as a Phi Beta Kappa key. He began teaching at the nearby Hill School. A traveling scholarship enabled him to make his first trip abroad, and he enrolled at St. Andrew’s University in Scotland, but he also studied art in London and Siena, Italy, worked on a Mediterranean cargo vessel, and collected folk tales in the Hebrides islands.
The Depression and World War II
Michener returned to the United States during the Depression years. He taught from 1933 to 1936 at George School near Doylestown and in 1937 earned a master’s degree at the Colorado State College of Education in Greeley, where he was an associate professor from 1936 through 1939. Michener was inspired through his friendship with an erudite newspaper editor to write a voluminous novel based on the history of that state. The result, many years later, was Centennial (1974), which dramatized the lore of Colorado from the creation of the earth up to 1974.
Michener served his writing apprenticeship as the author of some fifteen scholarly articles on the teaching of social studies, published between 1936 and 1942. During 1940-1941 he was a visiting professor at Harvard University, and in 1941 he accepted a post on the editorial staff of the Macmillan Company in New York. Despite his Quaker upbringing (Quakers traditionally emphasize pacifism), he volunteered for service in the U.S. Navy in 1942, after the United States entered World War II, and his first assignment as a lieutenant (junior grade) was a wartime post as ”a super secretary for aviation maintenance” in the South Pacific—a region with which his name is still associated. From 1944 through 1946 Michener served as a naval historian in the South Pacific.
Michener was able to visit some fifty islands during World War II, and as the war wound down, he retreated to a jungle shack and began writing the stories that were to appear as his first novel, Tales of the South Pacific (1947), which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1948.
Michener had been discharged from the navy in 1946 as a lieutenant commander and had returned to Macmillan as a textbook editor when in 1949 Tales of the South Pacific was made into a successful musical by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. When South Pacific ran for a total of 1,925 performances on Broadway, a share of royalties from the play (which became in 1958 a popular Hollywood film) enabled Michener to devote himself entirely to his career of professional author.
Michener’s second book was the semiautobiographical The Fires of Spring (1949). With The Fires of Spring came an important change in the life of the author. When the book was rejected by Macmillan, Michener traveled by bus up Fifth Avenue and submitted the manuscript to Random House. Thereafter, almost all his books were published by Random House, and Bennett Cerf and Albert Erskine became his meticulous publisher and editor.
Magazine Assignments and More Travels
The Pacific still beckoned, and an assignment from Holiday magazine to revisit his wartime haunts sent Michener to write feature articles about the Pacific, its atolls, and places like Fiji, Guadalcanal, and Rabaul. Other assignments allowed Michener to range through Asia, the continent of his early dreams. From these travels, he produced not only several novels but nonfiction works as well, including The Floating World (1954), a scholarly study of the art of the Japanese print, the first of four volumes that revealed Michener’s serious concern with art, especially that of the Orient.
An avid student of politics, Michener was turning toward involvement in the national political scene. His active campaigning for John F. Kennedy is described in Report of the County Chairman (1961). In 1962 Michener himself campaigned vigorously but unsuccessfully as a candidate for the House of Representatives from the Pennsylvania Eighth District. A later study by Michener of the democratic process resulted in Presidential Lottery (1969), a plea for reform in the method of choosing an American president.
A Productive Pattern
Michener returned to fiction in 1963, living in the state of Israel and gathering material for a mammoth novel, The Source (1965), which became another best seller. The pattern laid down in this novel was repeated throughout the rest of Michener’s life: travel, extensive research, and a voluminous treatment of a regional subject matter. His later works include The Drifters (1971) in which he focused on a group of disenchanted, contemporary young people, and another saga, Chesapeake (1978), set in the great bay of Maryland and its shores; the characters go back to the American Indians, and the story incorporates much fictionalized American history. Still active in his seventies, Michener wrote The Covenant (1980), an exploration of the history of South Africa; Space (1982), which describes the U.S. space program; Poland (1983) and Caribbean (1989), which are both fictionalized histories of a country or region.
During his final years, Michener lived in Austin, Texas, where he founded the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas. He died of kidney failure in 1997 at the age of ninety.
Works in Literary Context
Michener’s body of work is largely made up of historical fiction, and many of his novels, some over a thousand pages long, cover large swaths of historical ground. These wide-ranging novels include, among others, The Covenant, a saga of the development of South Africa; Space, the story of the United States space program; Poland, which follows that country’s progress from early centuries to the present; Texas (1985), a novel commissioned to celebrate the state’s sesquicentennial, recounts factual events from 450 years of the region’s recorded past; and Alaska (1988), which begins with the formation of North America’s land mass and follows the state’s progress from its early settlement by Russia up to the oil boom that began during the 1970s.
History that Entertains
Michener not only employs an abundance of well-researched information on the social, cultural, and historical background of his subjects that allows him to invest his novels with an encyclopedic quality, he combines this historical information with entertaining and engaging narratives that often center around a particular family or community. A. Grove Day once wrote, ”As a literary craftsman Michener has labored to entertain.” One Newsweek reviewer called Michener ”the literary world’s Cecil B. DeMille” while a Time reviewer praised Michener for being ”a popular novelist with an awesome audience for his epic narratives” who was also ”an unpretentious, solid craftsman.” Michener enjoyed widespread popularity during his lifetime, and his novels have sold over seventy-five million copies worldwide. He remains one of America’s most commercially successful authors.
Works in Critical Context
Although commercially successful, Michener’s fiction has garnered an uneven critical response. Such early works as The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1953) and Sayonara (1954) were commended for their steady pace and unified structure. Michener’s later, longer novels, however, have been faulted for lacking these same qualities. The frequent time shifts, large casts, and vast scope of events in these works are regarded by some as impediments to serious reader involvement. While some reviewers consider Michener’s characters often flat and unrealistic, others laud his entertaining and informative narration of regional histories. Webster Schott, in the New York Times Book Review, is in the latter category. Reviewing the breadth of Michener’s work, he wrote that Michener
has found a formula. It delivers everywhere— Hawaii, Africa, Afghanistan, America, Israel, even outer space. The formula calls for experts, vast research, travel to faraway places and fraternizing with locals. And it calls for good guys and bad guys (both real and imagined) to hold the whole work together. It’s a formula millions love. Mr. Michener gratifies their curiosity and is a pleasure to read.
Tales of the South Pacific
Although Tales of the South Pacific is considered a collection of short stories, Michener considered it a novel due to the book’s overall theme of America’s fight in the South Pacific theater during World War II. New York Herald Tribune Weekly Book Review writer P. J. Searles agreed, stating, ”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.” Michener ”is a born story teller,” New York Times writer David Dempsey added, ”but, paradoxically, this ability results in the book’s only real weakness—the interminable length of some of the tales. Mr. Michener saw so much, and his material is so rich, that he simply could not leave anything out.” When the book was published in 1947, Orville Prescott in the Yale Review described Michener as ”certainly one of the ablest and one of the most original writers to appear on the American literary scene in a long time.”
In James A. Michener, A. Grove Day described Hawaii as ”the best novel ever written about Hawaii.” It was published a few months after Hawaii was granted statehood in August 1959. According to Day, the book ”is founded on truth but not on fact.” Michener drew from his own experiences in the Pacific region to develop Hawaii and also consulted a variety of other sources, including missionary accounts. As the author stated in his book Report of the County Chairman, his goal was to portray ”the enviable manner in which Hawaii had been able to assimilate men and women from many different races.”
Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Maxwell Geismar praised the book as
a brilliant panoramic novel about Hawaii from its volcanic origins to its recent statehood. It is a complex and fascinating subject, and it is rendered here with a wealth of scholarship, of literary imagination and of narrative skill, so that the large and diverse story is continually interesting.
This is not a historical novel in the usual sense, for not one actual name or event is given; rather, it is a pageant of the coming of settlers from many regions; and the main theme might well be: Paradise is not a goal to attain, but a stage to which people of many colors and creeds may bring their traditional cultures to mingle with those of the others and create what may truly be an Eden at the crossroads of a hitherto empty ocean.
Nevertheless, some of the praise was qualified. A Times Literary Supplement writer indicated that ”Mr. Michener’s zestful, knowledgeable progress through the millennia is absorbing. He cannot, of course, with such enormous slabs of raw material to handle and shape, go anywhere deeply below the surface, but there are some splendid sustained passages in his book.” William Hogan wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle that ”as he has adjusted details in Hawaii’s history to suit his fiction, the author is forced to adapt characters to fit into the big historical picture. And that is the book’s main weakness.” Although Saturday Review critic Horace Sutton was of a similar opinion, he maintained that Hawaii ”is still a masterful job of research, an absorbing performance of storytelling, and a monumental account of the islands from geologic birth to sociological emergence as the newest, and perhaps the most interesting of the United States.”
Michener applied this same pattern to explore the history of South Africa in The Covenant. In this book, said William McWhirter in Time, the author ”manages to cover 15,000 years of African history, from the ritual-haunted tribes of Bushmen to present-day Affikaners obstinately jeering at appeals for ‘human rights.”’ Michener’s method of combining fiction with nonfiction drew some criticism from reviewers. As Andre Brink noted in the Washington Post Book World,
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—the Trek leader Piet Retief, the Boer general De Wet, Prime Minister Daniel Malan and a host of others—many of their major exploits are attributed to fictitious characters appearing alongside of them. Imagine a novel prominently featuring Abraham Lincoln but attributing the Gettysburg Address to a fictitious minor character.
However, according to John F. Bums in the New York Times Book Review,
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.
Writing in the New York Times, Stephen Farber described Michener’s Space as a ”fictional rendering of the development of the space program from World War II to the present.” Michael L. Smith reported in the Nation that ”real participants make occasional appearances, but Michener relies primarily on fictional approximations.” In fact, said Smith, Space ”is less a historical novel than a tract. In part, it is a celebration of space exploration as a glorious blend of science, American frontiersman ship and human curiosity. But more than that, it’s an impassioned denunciation of what Michener considers one of the gravest dangers facing post-Vietnam America: the proliferation of an ‘anti-science movement.”’
Ben Bova in the Washington Post Book World added that the book ”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.”
Michener’s sprawling novel Poland (1983), was begun in 1977. Ursula Hegi, writing in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, explained that Michener ”visited Poland eight times and traveled throughout the country. He talked to people of different backgrounds and enjoyed the assistance of fifteen Polish scholars.” Despite the time and effort Michener put into the book, Poland received mixed reviews. Bill Kurtis wrote in the Chicago Tribune Book World that ”Michener’s form is familiar. History is seen through the lives of three fictional families. . . . Around them, Michener wraps a detailed historical panorama.” Hegi wrote that ”though Michener captures Poland’s struggle and development, he presents the reader with too many names and personal histories, making it difficult to keep track of more than a few characters.” Other reviewers criticized Michener for oversimplifying history, making notable omissions, and committing historical inaccuracies. Peter Osnos of the Washington Post, however, asserted that Poland was ”Michener at his best,” that the book was ”prodigiously researched, topically relevant and shamelessly intended for readers with neither will nor patience for more scholarly treatments.”
Caribbean (1989), another of Michener’s best-selling novels, is a fictionalized history of the scattered islands between North and South America. Some critics deemed Michener’s plot improbable and his characters stereotypical. John Hearne of the New York Times Book Review found the characters in the novel ”stiff and wooden” and the dialogue unrealistic. Some reviewers, on the other hand, defended the work as informative and entertaining. Hearne commented:
Given the scope of the task which Michener has set himself, he has done his chosen region proud. Caribbean is a work which anybody strange to the islands and wanting to know something about them could read with confidence. All the essentials are there; and a skilled and studious novelist has embedded these essentials in a deeply felt, highly responsible tale.
Karen Stabiner, writing in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, claimed that Michener ”has perfect bestseller pitch: enough intrigue to make life exciting; enough chronological and geographical distance to make the thrills thrilling, not threatening.”
- Becker, George Joseph. James A. Michener. New York: Ungar, 1983.
- Day, A. Grove. James A. Michener. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1977.
- Dybwad, G. L., and Joy V. Bliss. James A. Michener: The Beginning Teacher and His Textbooks. Albuquerque, N.Mex.: The Book Stops Here, 1995.
- Hayes, John Phillip. James A. Michener. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1984.
- Kings, J. In Search of Centennial. New York: Random House, 1978.
- Newquist, Roy. Conversations. Chicago: Rand McNally, 1967.
- Prescott, Orville. In My Opinion: An Inquiry into the Contemporary Novel. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill,1952.
- Severson, Marilyn S. James A. Michener: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996.
- Stuckey, W. J. The Pulitzer Prize Novels. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1966.
- Warfel, Harry Redcay. American Novelists of Today. New York: American Book, 1951.
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