Michener, James A. 1907(?)–1997
Michener, James A. 1907(?)–1997
PERSONAL: Born c. February 3, 1907, probably in New York, NY; died of renal failure after choosing to be removed from a kidney dialysis machine, October 16, 1997, in Austin, TX; foster son of Mabel (Haddock) Michener; married Patti Koon, July 27, 1935 (divorced, 1948); married Vange Nord, September 2, 1948 (divorced, 1955); married Mari Yoriko Sabusawa (deceased, 1994), October 23, 1955. Education: Swarthmore College, A.B. (summa cum laude), 1929; Colorado State College of Education (now University of Northern Colorado), A.M., 1936; research study at the University of Pennsylvania, University of Virginia, Ohio State University, Harvard University, St. Andrews University, University of Siena. Politics: Democrat Religion: Society of Friends (Quakers)
CAREER: Writer. Worked variously as an actor in a traveling show and as a sports columnist at the age of fifteen; Hill School, PA, teacher, 1932; George School, PA, teacher, 1933–36; Colorado State College of Education (now University of Northern Colorado), Greeley, associate professor, 1936–41; Macmillan Co., New York City, associate editor, 1941–42, 1946–49; freelance writer, 1949–97. Creator of "Adventures in Paradise" television series, 1959. Visiting professor, Harvard University, 1940–41, and University of Texas at Austin, 1983. Chair, President Kennedy's Food for Peace Program, 1961; congressional candidate from Pennsylvania's Eighth District, 1962; secretary of Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention, 1967–68. Member of U.S. State Department advisory committee on the arts, 1957; U.S. Information Agency advisory committee, 1970–76; U.S. Postal Service advisory committee, 1978–87; National Aeronautics and Space Administration advisory council, 1979–83; U.S International Broadcasting Board, 1983–89. Military service: U.S. Naval Reserve, 1942–45; became lieutenant commander; naval historian in the South Pacific.
MEMBER: Phi Beta Kappa.
AWARDS, HONORS: Pulitzer Prize for fiction, 1948, for Tales of the South Pacific; D.H.L., Rider College, 1950, and Swarthmore College, 1954; National Association of Independent Schools Award, 1954, 1958; L.L. D., Temple University, 1957; Litt.D., American International College, 1957, Washington University, St. Louis, 1967; Einstein Award, 1967; Bestsellers Paperback of the Year Award, 1968, for The Source; George Wash-ington Award, Hungarian Studies Foundation, 1970; U.S. Medal of Freedom, 1977; Franklin Award for distinguished service, Printing Industries of Metropolitan New York, 1980; cited by the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, 1983, for long-standing support of the Iowa Workshop writer's project at the University of Iowa; Lippincott Travelling fellowship, British Museum; U.S. Medal of Freedom; Distinguished Service Medal, NASA; Golden Badge of Order of Merit, 1988.
The Fires of Spring, Random House (New York, NY), 1949.
The Bridges at Toko-Ri (first published in Life, July 6, 1953), Random House (New York, NY), 1953.
Sayonara, Random House (New York, NY), 1954.
Hawaii (first section originally published in Life), Random House (New York, NY), 1959.
Caravans, Random House (New York, NY), 1963.
The Source, illustrated by Richard Sparks, Random House (New York, NY), 1965.
The Drifters, Random House (New York, NY), 1971.
Centennial, Random House (New York, NY), 1974.
Chesapeake, illustrated by Alan Philips, Random House (New York, NY), 1978, illustrated selections published as The Watermen, Random House (New York, NY), 1979.
The Quality of Life, Including Presidential Lottery, Transworld (London, England), 1980.
The Covenant, Random House (New York, NY), 1980.
Space, Random House (New York, NY), 1982.
Poland, Random House (New York, NY), 1983.
Texas, Random House (New York, NY), 1985, published in two volumes, University of Texas Press (Austin, TX), 1986; chapter published as The Eagle and the Raven, illustrations by Charles Shaw, State House Press (Austin, TX), 1990.
Legacy, Random House (New York, NY), 1987.
Alaska, Random House (New York, NY), 1988.
Journey, Random House (New York, NY), 1989.
Caribbean, Random House (New York, NY), 1989.
The Novel, Random House (New York, NY), 1991.
Mexico, Random House (New York, NY), 1992.
South Pacific (retelling of the musical South Pacific), illustrated by Michael Hague, Harcourt, 1992.
Creatures of the Kingdom, Random House (New York, NY), 1993, large print edition, Wheeler, 1994.
Recessional, Random House (New York, NY), 1994.
SHORT STORIES AND SKETCHES
Tales of the South Pacific, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1947.
Return to Paradise, Random House (New York, NY), 1951.
Selected Writings, Modern Library (New York, NY), 1957.
A Michener Miscellany: 1950–1970, Random House (New York, NY), 1973.
(Editor) Firstfruits: A Harvest of 25 Years of Israeli Writing (fiction), Jewish Publication Society of America (Philadelphia, PA), 1973.
(With Harold Long) The Unit in the Social Studies, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1940.
Voice of Asia, Random House (New York, NY), 1951.
The Floating World, Random House (New York, NY), 1954.
(With A. Grove Day) Rascals in Paradise (biographical studies), Random House (New York, NY), 1957.
The Bridge at Andau, Random House (New York, NY), 1957.
Japanese Prints: From the Early Masters to the Modern, Tuttle (Boston, MA), 1959.
Report of the County Chairman, Random House (New York, NY), 1961.
The Modern Japanese Print: An Appreciation, Tuttle (Boston, MA), 1968.
Iberia: Spanish Travels and Reflections, Random House (New York, NY), 1968.
America vs. America: The Revolution in Middle-Class Values, New American Library (New York, NY), 1969.
Presidential Lottery: The Reckless Gamble in Our Electoral System (also see below), Random House (New York, NY), 1969.
The Quality of Life (essays; also see below), Random House (New York, NY), 1969.
Facing East: A Study of the Art of Jack Levine, Random House (New York, NY), 1970.
Kent State: What Happened and Why, Random House (New York, NY), 1971.
About "Centennial": Some Notes on the Novel, Random House (New York, NY), 1974.
Sports in America, Random House (New York, NY), 1976, revised edition published as Michener on Sport, Transworld (London, England), 1977, reprinted under original title, Fawcett (New York, NY), 1983.
The Watermen, Random House (New York, NY), 1979.
(With John Kings) Six Days in Havana, University of Texas Press (Austin, TX), 1989.
Pilgrimage: A Memoir of Poland and Rome, Rodale (Emmaus, PA), 1990.
James A. Michener's Writer's Handbook: Explorations in Writing and Publishing, Random House (New York, NY), 1992.
My Lost Mexico, illustrated with photographs by Michener, State House Press (Austin, TX), 1992.
The World Is My Home: A Memoir, Random House (New York, NY), 1992.
Literary Reflections, State House Press (Austin, TX), 1993.
Miracle in Seville, Random House (New York, NY), 1995.
This Noble Land: My Vision for America, Random House (New York, NY), 1996.
A Century of Sonnets, State House Press (Austin, TX), 1997.
(Editor) The Future of the Social Studies, National Council for the Social Studies (Washington, DC), 1939.
(Editor) Hokusai Sketchbooks, Tuttle (Boston, MA), 1958.
(Contributor and author of foreword) Peter Chaitin, editor, James Michener's U.S.A., Crown (New York, NY), 1981.
(Author of preface) John W. Grafton, America: A History of the First 500 Years, Crescent Books (New York, NY), 1992.
Many of Michener's works have been translated into foreign languages. Collections of his books and manuscripts are kept at the Swarthmore College and University of Hawaii libraries; the Library of Congress also has a large collection of his papers.
ADAPTATIONS: Tales of the South Pacific was adapted for the stage by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammer-stein II as the musical South Pacific; the play was filmed in 1958. Return to Paradise, The Bridges of Toko-Ri, and Sayonara were all adapted into motion pictures, as were Until They Sail and Mr. Morgan, both from Return to Paradise; Forgotten Heroes of Korea was adapted into the film Men of the Fighting Lady, 1954; Hawaii was adapted into the films Hawaii, United Artists (UA), 1966, and The Hawaiians, UA, 1970; Centennial was adapted for television, 1978–79; Space was adapted into a television mini-series, 1985.
SIDELIGHTS: The author of over twenty best-selling novels, James Michener was a literary legend, a one-man cottage industry who sold almost one hundred million copies of his books before his 1997 death. Michener penned short stories and almost thirty nonfic-tion titles, as well, but it is for blockbusters such as Sayonara, Hawaii, The Source, Centennial, Chesapeake, The Covenant, Space, Poland, Alaska, and The Caribbean, that he is remembered mostly, blending historical research with family sagas to produce works that both entertain and inform. "As a literary craftsman [James] Michener has labored to entertain," said A. Grove Day of the popular novelist in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. Arthur Cooper characterized Michener as "the literary world's Cecil B. DeMille" in Newsweek, while Time reviewer Lance Morrow remarked that "practically entire forests have been felled to produce such trunk-sized novels as Hawaii and The Source." Cooper went on to praise Michener as "a popular novelist with an awesome audience for his epic narratives, an unpretentious, solid craftsman." Yet Michener will also be remembered for his works of charity, donating a reputed one hundred million dollars of his income to worthy causes.
Citing Centennial, a novel that fictionalizes the history of Colorado from the beginning of time up to 1974, Morrow described a characteristic Michener drama: He "begins with the first faint primordial stirrings on the face of the deep and slogs onward through the ages until he hits the day before yesterday," said Morrow. "He is the Will Durant of novelists, less an artist than a kind of historical compactor." Day added, however, that the author's lengthy novels "also appeal to the thoughtful reader and are laden with details that reveal Michener's academic training and bestow information as well as enlightenment." As Day indicated, "he is a master reporter of his generation, and his wide and frequent travels have given him material for colorful evocation of the lives of many characters in international settings in periods going back to earlier millennia."
Reviewing the breadth of Michener's work, Webster Schott wrote in the New York Times Book Review 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 works together. It's a formula millions love. Mr. Michener gratifies their curiosity and is a pleasure to read."
Raised near Doylestown, Pennsylvania, by a foster parent, Michener never knew anything about his actual family background. The Micheners were far from wealthy, and the author had a difficult time of it until he was a teenager and athletics helped to turn his life around. Michener became curious about the world outside of Doylestown at a young age, and he was keenly aware that he would have to make his own way. At the age of fourteen he hitchhiked for several months through forty-five American states. After he returned home, he delivered newspapers, excelled in sports, and wrote a sports column for the local paper. Michener won a sports scholarship to Swarthmore College, and during one summer vacation he traveled with a Chau-tauqua tent show. (Michener incorporated some of these experiences in his second novel, the semiautobiographical The Fires of Spring.) After graduation, he began teaching at a local school and won a Lippincott traveling scholarship to Europe, where he enrolled at St. Andrews University in Scotland, collected folk stories in the Hebrides Islands, studied art history in London and Siena, Italy, toured northern Spain with a troupe of bullfighters, and even worked on a Mediterranean cargo vessel.
After his return to the United States during the Great Depression, Michener taught, earned his master's degree, and served as associate professor at the Colorado State College of Education from 1936 through 1939. He published several scholarly articles on the teaching of social studies, became a visiting professor at Harvard University, and in 1941 was asked to accept an editorship with the Macmillan Company in New York. According to Day in his book James A. Michener, the author once told a college group that "no aspirant can avoid an apprenticeship to his literary craft. 'I did serve an apprenticeship,' he affirms, 'and a very intense one, and learned what a great many people never learn. I learned how to write a sentence and how to write a paragraph…. The English language is so complex, so magnificent in its structure that I have very little patience with people who won't put themselves through an apprenticeship.'"
Michener didn't publish his first work of fiction until around the age of forty, however, a fact he attributes to his disinclination to take risks, particularly during the Depression. And it was not until he volunteered for service in the U.S. Navy in 1942 that he began to collect experiences he could visualize as marketable fiction.
His first assignment as a lieutenant was at a post in the South Pacific, and from 1944 to 1946 he served as a naval historian in that region. During this tour of duty, Michener had the occasion to visit some fifty islands, and "as the war wound down," explained Day, "he retreated to a jungle shack and began writing the stories that were to appear as … Tales of the South Pacific," which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1948.
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 theatre 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."
After his discharge, Michener returned to Macmillan as a textbook editor. In 1949, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II adapted Tales of the South Pacific into the successful musical South Pacific; a share of the royalties from the play—later to become a film—enabled Michener to become a full-time writer. In his book James A. Michener, Day reported that the author once told him that "I have only one bit of advice to the beginning writer: be sure your novel is read by Rodgers and Hammerstein." As for the Pulitzer, Michener once commented to Roy Newquist in Conversations: "There were editorials that declared it was the least-deserving book in recent years to win the Pulitzer; it was by no means the popular choice. In fact, it was an insulting choice to many. At least two other books had been definitely favored to win…. I had no occasion to develop a swelled head."
Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, Michener continued to set much of his work in the South Pacific and Far East. He was assigned by Holiday magazine to write some feature articles about various places in the Pacific, so at the same time he wrote Return to Paradise, a collection of short stories and travel sketches. He then wrote some works of nonfiction about the area: The Voice of Asia and The Floating World. Several novels, including The Bridges at Toko-Ri, Sayonara, Hawaii, and Caravans, also date from this period in Michener's career.
It was with the novel Hawaii that Michener established the format that would see him through several subsequent novels and make him a best-selling author. Although Tales of the South Pacific won the Pulitzer Prize, it was not a best-seller, and as New York Times Magazine writer Caryn James explained, it was "only when he moved from small stories of people to monolithic tales of places—beginning with the fictionalized history of Hawaii in 1959 through Israel in The Source, South Africa in The Covenant, Poland, Chesapeake and Space—did he become the kind of brand-name author whose books hit the best-seller lists before they reach the bookstores."
James noted that "the Michener formula might seem an unlikely one for the media age: big, old-fashioned narratives weaving generations of fictional families through densely documented factual events, celebrating the All-American virtues of common sense, frugality, patriotism. Yet these straitlaced, educational stories are so episodic that they are perfectly suited to the movie and television adaptations that have propelled Michener's success."
In James A. Michener, 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." Day reported, "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."
After publishing Hawaii, Michener became involved in national politics. He actively campaigned for John F. Kennedy and wrote a work of political nonfiction, Report of the County Chairman, in which he chronicled that involvement. A later Michener study, Presidential Lottery, presented an argument for reform in the method Americans use to select their president. He was also an unsuccessful candidate for the House of Representatives from Pennsylvania's Eighth District.
In 1963, however, Michener returned to fiction with The Source, a book researched while he was living in Israel, and described by Day as another best-selling "mammoth volume." In this novel, Michener described the archaeological excavation of Makor Tell, a mound that contains the remnants of various settlements built over the course of many centuries. As Day explained, "artifacts found in the various layers introduce chapters dealing with events in the Holy Land during the period in which the articles were made…. Prominent families of several nationalities are followed through the ages; the setting is limited to the invented tell of Makor, the surrounding countryside, and the shores of the Sea of Galilee." Day claimed that The Source is "one of the longest of Michener's books, and the best in the opinion of many readers. Although it may lack a clear general theme, its leading topic is certainly the various facets of religion."
Michener's nonfictional account of the Spanish peninsula, Iberia: Spanish Travels and Reflections was followed by The Drifters, published the same year as his report on the Kent State University shootings. The Drifters is a novelistic account that follows the adventures of six young members of the counterculture as they wander through Spain, Portugal, and parts of Africa.
The story is narrated by a sixty-one-year-old man and reflects the author's own interest in modern times and contemporary issues. Saturday Review writer David W. McCullough pointed out that The Drifters is also "something of a guidebook loosely dressed up as fiction: a guide to quaint and colorful places especially on the Iberian peninsula, and to the life-styles of the rebellious young." According to Peter Sourian in the New York Times Book Review, The Drifters "is an interesting trip and Michener is an entertaining as well as a knowledgeable guide. The novel has a more serious purpose, however, which is exhaustively to examine the 'youth revolution.' Michener brings to this task narrative skill and a nicely adequate socio-psychological sophistication." And Thomas Lask of the New York Times claimed that "those interested in knowing how a sympathetic member of the older generation views some of the shenanigans of the younger will find The Drifters a tolerable interlude, especially as it is spiced with travelogue evocations of foreign climes. Dozens of readers will be making notes of the places they too will want to visit."
Michener returned to his historical panoramas with Centennial. The book is narrated by Dr. Lewis Vernor, who is writing a report on the village of Centennial, Colorado. The first part of the book covers the area's early geology, archaeology, and ecology before humans even appear. And then, according to Day, Centennial introduces some "seventy named characters … not including Indians, fur traders, trappers, cattle drivers, miners, ranchers, dry farmers, real estate salesmen, and assorted townspeople. Again national and ethnic interminglings in a limited region are recorded through many years, and little is omitted from the panorama of the developing American West."
The novel has few all-encompassing themes. As James R. Frakes wrote in the New York Times Book Review, "denying himself the luxury of 'flossy conclusions' and dogmatic theorizing, the author allows himself only a very few unqualified extrapolations from the text: the determining endurance of the land, for instance; the interdependence of man, animal, earth, and water; the possibility that white survival in some areas may require a return to the permanent values of the Indian."
In Michener's book, Chesapeake, according to Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in the New York Times, Michener "does for Maryland's Eastern Shore what he did for Colorado in Centennial. By telling the story of dozens of fictional characters who live in a partly imaginary locale, he tries to capture the real history of the area—in the case of the Chesapeake Bay, from the time in the 6th century when Indians and crabs were its chief inhabitants, down to a present when developers and pollutants have taken over."
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 Afrikaners 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 frontiersmanship 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 began Poland in 1977 with the belief that the country would become a focal point within the decade. To write the book, explains Ursula Hegi in the Los An-geles Times Book Review, 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." The result was a novelization of the last 700 years of the country's history, including several invasions and partitionings, the Nazi occupation during World War II, and a modern struggle of farmers attempting to form a labor union. As Bill Kurtis reported in the Chicago Tribune Book World, "by now, Michener's form is familiar. History is seen through the lives of three fictional families: the nobility of the wealthy Counts Lubonski; the gentry or petty nobility of the Bukowskis; and the peasant heart of Poland, the family Buk. Around them, Michener wraps a detailed historical panorama; he combines fact and fiction to breathe life into nearly 1,000 years of battles, with far more Polish defeats than victories. If recited as dates and incidents, these would otherwise be dry as dust."
Poland received mixed reviews. Hegi claimed 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 critics cited omissions, historical inaccuracies, and oversimplifications in Michener's research. And Patricia Blake reported in Time that the work glosses over Polish anti-Semitism. However, Washington Post reviewer Peter Osnos described Poland as "Michener at his best, prodigiously researched, topically relevant and shamelessly intended for readers with neither will nor patience for more scholarly treatments." And, added Hegi, his "descriptions of the country—blooms covering the hillsides, the swift flow of the rivers, splendid groves of beech trees—are as detailed as his depictions of weapons, castles and costumes."
Texas was written when former state governor William Clements invited Michener to create a book that would be timed to appear for the 1986 Texas Sesquicentennial. According to Hughes Rudd in the New York Times Book Review, Texas, "at almost 1,000 pages, contains enough paper to cover several New England counties. The novel is so heavy you could probably leave it on a Lubbock, TX, coffee table in a tornado and find it there when everything else was still in the air over Kansas City, KS." The frame for Texas concerns a committee appointed by a Texas governor to investigate the state's history and recommend what students should be taught about their state. The story begins early in the sixteenth century when the state was still an unexplored part of Mexico.
Texas received many of the criticisms that are frequently accorded Michener's work. According to Nicholas Leman in the Washington Post Book World, none of the characters "stays in mind as embodying the complexity of real life. The reason is not exactly a lack of art on Michener's part; it's more that the form dictates that everything novelistic must be in the service of delivering history. Nothing ever happens that doesn't embody an important trend." For example, Leman wrote, "when it's time to recount the story of the battle of the Alamo, [Michener] invents a handful of characters on both sides and has them engaging in dialogue with Jim Bowie, Davy Crockett, and General Santa Anna."
At 149 pages, Legacy qualifies as Michener's shortest novel. Prompted by Michener's disgust over events surrounding the Iran Contra scandal during the Reagan administration, the novel centers on the fictional army major, Norman Starr, who has been called to testify at the Senate hearings involving the alleged cover-up of the president's National Security Council. As Starr and his lawyer, Zack McMaster, prepare his defense, Starr thinks about the roles of his ancestors in American history in chapters that discuss the nature of the country's Constitution. As Starr heads for the courthouse he realizes that his moral code and sense of propriety will not allow him to plead the Fifth Amendment as Colonel Oliver North and Admiral John Poindexter have in the novel. Published in 1987, as the U.S. celebrated the bicentennial of its Constitution, Legacy's final pages consist of a complete reprinting of the Constitution. Acknowledging the appeal of the subject matter, critics nevertheless agreed that, in the words of John Ehrlichman, who reviewed it for the Los Angeles Times Book Review, "the brevity, research lapses and forced timeliness of [the novel] tarnish Starr's dramatic nobility and in some measure defeat the author's original, worthy objectives."
With Alaska, Michener returned to the genre of historical novel. Alaska traces the development of the land and its inhabitants from the time of the mastodons to the building of the state's highways. Finding Michener's research thorough and accurate, Chip Brown, in a review for Book World, noted further that Michener "is rightfully sympathetic to the native inhabitants of Alaska … exploring at length their customs, their shamans, their rituals and trials." In an effort to keep the novel under 1,000 pages, editors convinced Michener to delete a large portion of the Alaska manuscript. That portion, a story of a group traveling to the Klondike during the gold rush of 1897, was published the following year as Journey.
Discussing Michener's historical epic Caribbean, published in 1989, Karen Stabiner wrote in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, that Michener "has perfect best-seller pitch: enough intrigue to make life exciting; enough chronological and geographical distance to make the thrills thrilling, not threatening." While finding the characterizations in Caribbean "stiff and wooden" and the dialogue unrealistic, reviewer John Hearne, in the New York Times Book Review, nevertheless acknowledged that "what cannot be faulted, and what shines from the pages, is a great sympathy on Michener's part for the people who made the events happen."
In the 1990s Michener produced several works unique in his canon. The Novel is a work of fiction comprised of four segments, each narrated from a different point of view. It is a portrayal of the publishing world, with sections focusing on a writer named Lukas Yoder, his editor, Yvonne Marmelle, a literary critic, and a friend of Yoder who represents the reading public. Critics generally regarded The Novel as a failed experiment focusing on the interior lives of his characters—an area in which Michener's critics have generally found his abilities lacking—unlike the historical narratives at which he excelled. More favorable reviews emerged regarding the autobiographical The World Is My Home, which documents Michener's extensive travels and literary endeavors. In the New York Times Book Review, Doris Grumbach noted that Michener considers himself a popular storyteller rather than a novelist; she asserted that while Michener's literary talents may be regarded by some as limited, his memoirs indicate that "there is every chance that he will be remembered … for being not an ordinary but a highly unusual fellow, almost a Renaissance man, adventurous, inquisitive, energetic, unpretentious and unassuming, with an encyclopedic mind and a generous heart."
Significantly shorter than many of his previous novels, Michener's 1995 work Miracle in Seville was classified by some critics as a novella or fable. Set in Spain, the story portrays the quest of Don Cayetano Mota, who faces his last opportunity to prove that his family's ranch can produce great bull-fighting bulls. Allen Joseph of the New York Times Book Review praised Michener's vivid evocation of Spanish culture and the suspenseful plot of the narrative: "What emerges most strongly is the real admiration and awe that lovers of bullfighting feel for the toro bravo."
Michener's 1994 novel Recessional, concerned with the theme of old age and focusing on the pressures that face the elderly, also represented a departure from his usual fictional output. Reeve Lindbergh of the Washington Post Book World emphasized the volume's contrast with Michener's usual technique of depicting broad geographical areas and expansive family sagas in books that are "like going on a field trip with God." Recessional, in contrast, depicts the landscape of a human life by portraying Andy Zorn, a doctor who regains his ability to heal through his work at a retirement home. Offering praise for the novel, Mark Jackson of Books commented: "Meticulous, incomparable research and vividly drawn characters blend seamlessly within this richly told novel that is concerned with the choices, obstacles and rewards faced by older-but-wiser adults at the Palms retirement center in Florida."
"A Michener novel is a tribute to the industriousness of both author and reader," said James, "and, in addition to the easy-to-swallow data, it contains a morality tale about the heroism of hard work and guts. His thick, fact-filled books seem thoroughly impersonal, but several days in Michener's company show the novels to be perfect expressions of their author's anomalies—moral without being stern, methodical yet digressive, insistently modest yet bursting with ambition, full of social conscience yet grasping at facts as a way to avoid emotion."
Michiko Kakutani commented similarly in the New York Times that Michener's books contain many "bits of knowledge," which "served up in the author's utilitarian prose, are part of Mr. Michener's wide popular appeal: readers feel they're learning something, even while they're being entertained, and they're also able to absorb all these facts within a pleasant moral context: a liberal and a humanitarian, Mr. Michener argues for religious and racial tolerance, celebrates the old pioneer ethic of hard work and self-reliance, and offers such incontestable, if obvious, observations as 'war forces men to make moral choices.'"
James quoted literary critic Leslie Fiedler as commenting that Michener "puts a book together in a perfectly lucid, undisturbing way, so that even potentially troublesome issues don't seem so. Hawaii is about the problem of imperialism, yet one never senses that. The Source is about the Middle East, one of the most troublesome political issues in the world, but he's forgotten all the ambiguities. His approach is that if you knew all the facts, everything would straighten out, so it's soothing and reassuring to read him."
Such an approach has its flaws. New York Times critic Thomas Lask explained that Michener "likes to have his characters perform against the background or in ac-cordance with the events of history. The quirks of personality, the oddities of character, the unpredictable Brownian motions of human psychology appear to interest him little. He prefers to represent a history in action." A Time reviewer summed up that Michener's "virtue is a powerful sense of place and the ability to convey great sweeps of time. His weakness is an insistence on covering murals with so much background and foreground that he has learned only a few ways of doing faces."
Jonathan Yardley reported in the New York Times Book Review that Michener "deserves more respect than he usually gets. Granted that he is not a stylist and that he smothers his stories under layers of historical and ecological trivia, nonetheless he has earned his enormous popularity honorably. Unlike many other authors whose books automatically rise to the upper reaches of the best-seller lists, he does not get there by exploiting the lives of the famous or the notorious; he does not treat sex cynically or pruriently; he does not write trash. His purposes are entirely serious: he wants to instruct, to take his readers through history in an entertaining fashion, to introduce them to lands and peoples they do not know."
Schott concluded that "while the arbiters of letters try to figure out what James A. Michener's fat books are … Mr. Michener goes on writing them as if his life depended on it." As Michener once told James, "I don't think the way I write books is the best or even the second-best. The really great writers are people like Emily Bronte who sit in a room and write out of their limited experience and unlimited imagination. But people in my position also do some very good work. I'm not a stylist like Updike or Bellow, and don't aspire to be. I'm not interested in plot or pyrotechnics, but I sure work to get a steady flow. If I try to describe a chair, I can describe it so that a person will read it to the end. The way the words flow, trying to maintain a point of view and a certain persuasiveness—that I can do." And he still has plenty of ideas for future development, he told Insight reporter Harvey Hagman in 1986. "I am able to work, and I love it. I have entered a profession which allows you to keep working at top energy. It's a wonderful job I have."
One of Michener's last books was the 1996 This Noble Land: My Vision for America, in which he examined the political and social problems besetting his native land and suggested some cures. For Michener, the huge disparity in wealth was destroying America, and he recommended a revised tax system in which the wealthiest are taxed at a higher rate in order to fund more social welfare programs. A critic for Publishers Weekly called his analysis "straightforward and congenial" and a "moderate and humane vision." Similarly, Gilbert Taylor, writing in Booklist, called the book a "personal declaration of faith in 'legitimate liberalism.'" Michener continued working up to the last in 1997, when he died of kidney failure. Dictionary of Literary Biography contributor Day summed up Michener's achievement: "As a scholarly novelist, Michener has won wide popularity without stooping to cheap melodrama. He may best be remembered for his family sagas in which men and women of many heritages intermingle in far-off places." And a contributor for the Economist echoed these comments, noting that Michener was less a fine novelist than he was "at heart, an educator and popu-lariser, satisfying readers' demand for information and self-improvement in a palatable, unhectoring way."
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