Praise for James A. Michener
“A master storyteller . . . Michener, by any standards, is a phenomenon.”—The Wall Street Journal
“Sentence for sentence, writing’s fastest attention grabber.”—The New York Times
“Michener has become an institution in America, ranking somewhere between Disneyland and the Library of Congress. You learn a lot from him.”—Chicago Tribune
“While he fascinates and engrosses, Michener also educates.”—Los Angeles Times
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About the Author
Date of Birth:February 3, 1907
Date of Death:October 16, 1997
Place of Death:Austin, Texas
Education:B.A. in English and history (summa cum laude), Swarthmore College, 1929; A.M., University of Northern Colorado, 1937.
Read an Excerpt
I grew up in the 1960s, a time when the extent of reading material for kids was, to say the least, limited. R. L. Stine, J. K. Rowling, Suzanne Collins, and so many others had yet to come along. In fact, what we now know as the young adult genre had yet to be invented. Back then, at least for me, it was Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. A limited selection, but what gems those tales were—each loaded with action, adventure, secrets, and conspiracies. Wondrous stories to fuel young imaginations. I devoured them.
Then one day when I was sixteen years old, a friend handed me a dog-eared paperback copy of Hawaii by James Michener. Its thousand pages immediately intimidated me, as did the small print. I’d never seen so much information packed into one book. The opening sentence alone contained thirty-six words—monstrous in comparison to the prose of Franklin W. Dixon.
But what a sentence: Millions upon millions of years ago, when the continents were already formed and the principal features of the earth had been decided, there existed, then as now, one aspect of the world that dwarfed all others.
I kept reading.
What unfolded was a saga spanning many centuries that described how a tiny group of islands in the Pacific Ocean were formed by nature and then settled by man. The epic involved Polynesians, Chinese, Japanese, Europeans, and Americans. Its massive chapters, hundreds of pages long, featured one expansive episode after another—each intertwined—forming a chronicle that defined both the land and its culture. I read it cover to cover. Then I found more books by this guy Michener and read every one. Eventually, I started collecting them, and now, more than forty years later, I own a first edition of each, save one—Tales of the South Pacific. That book is hard to find. Only a few thousand were printed and, if by some miracle one of those 1947 first editions can be found, the price is through the roof. I keep every one of my Michener books prominently displayed, wrapped in plastic. I see them every day. They are a source of pride and comfort. Today, I write modern-day thrillers in which history plays a central role. Without question, the seed for that technique was planted the day I discovered Hawaii.
James Michener led an incredible life. Born in 1907, he was orphaned but was soon adopted by a woman named Mabel Michener, who was already raising two other children. Some of his biographers have hypothesized that he was actually Mabel’s natural son, the adoption story used to protect both of their reputations. No one knows the truth, and as an adult Michener refused to comment on the subject.
By the time he turned ten, the family had moved to Bucks County, Pennsylvania. They were poor, barely able to put food on the table. His classmates, and even a teacher or two, tormented Michener about the secondhand clothes and toeless sneakers he wore every day. Later in life he recounted that taunting with a sly smile and a twinkle in his eye. He would say that those early years instilled in him an appreciation for life that he never forgot. They taught him about living simply and not attaching too much value to material things. And though he eventually earned hundreds of millions of dollars from writing, he always feared ending up poor.
Before he’d even reached twenty years of age, Michener had traveled across the country in boxcars, by thumbing rides, or simply by walking. He worked in carnival shows and other odd jobs, and he visited all but three states. Of that time, he wrote in his 1991 autobiography, The World Is My Home, “Those were years of wonder and enchantment. Some of the best years I would know. I kept meeting American citizens of all levels who took me into their cars, their confidence and often their homes.” He would also say that those wandering years spurred inside him an insatiable curiosity about people, cultures, and faraway lands.
In 1925 he entered Swarthmore College, a prestigious Quaker institution, on a four-year scholarship, graduating with highest honors. He attended graduate school in Scotland, then returned home and taught at a school in Bucks County. He eventually ended up in New York City, editing textbooks at Macmillan Publishing.
World War II changed everything. At age forty Michener enlisted in the navy, where he discovered the enchanting South Pacific. He earned the rank of lieutenant commander and was made a naval historian, assigned to investigate cultural problems on the various islands. A near-fatal crash landing in French New Caledonia altered the course of his life. He wrote in his autobiography, “As the stars came out and I could see the low mountains I had escaped, I swore: ‘I’m going to live the rest of my life as if I were a great man.’ And despite the terrible braggadocio of those words, I understood precisely what I meant.”
That brush with death also made him realize what every soldier was experiencing during the war, and that one day, when the danger had passed, people might want to recall those things. So each night he began writing down observations, recording comments, describing people and places. Fifty years later, in 1991, he said:
Sitting there in the darkness, illuminated only by the flickering lamplight, I visualized the aviation scenes in which I had participated, the landing beaches I’d seen, the remote outposts, the exquisite islands with bending palms, and especially the valiant people I’d known: the French planters, the Australian coast watchers, the Navy nurses, the Tonkinese laborers, the ordinary sailors and soldiers who were doing the work, and the primitive natives to whose jungle fastnesses I had traveled.
All of that became Tales of the South Pacific.
The story of how that first manuscript made it to print is typical Michener—an unexpected combination of skill, determination, and luck. Using a pseudonym, he submitted the work to Macmillan, the publisher he’d worked for before enlisting. He omitted his name because he knew the company had a strict policy against publishing anything by an employee. Once the war was over he definitely intended to return to work there, but at the time of the submission he was technically a naval officer and not an employee. So the company bought the book, which was published in 1947. One year later Tales of the South Pacific won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
Michener changed publishers in 1949, moving to Random House, where he stayed for the rest of his life. More books followed—The Fires of Spring, Return to Paradise, The Bridges at Toko-Ri, and Sayonara. Also in 1949 he moved to Honolulu and soon began work on his most ambitious project to date. Four years of research and three years of writing were needed to produce Hawaii. Its epic scope, length, and breadth proved to be the stamp of Michener’s trademark style, one he would master over the next forty years. Legend has it that he finished Hawaii on March 18, 1959, the day Congress voted to accept the islands as the fiftieth state.
In 1962 Michener ran for Congress as a liberal Democrat but lost. Then, in 1968, he worked as secretary of the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention. Outer space was a lifelong interest, and he served on NASA’s advisory council, an experience that led to his novel Space.
Honors were something Michener shied away from, but in 1977 Gerald Ford bestowed upon him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award. Eventually, he wrote nearly fifty books, including five on Japanese art. His work has been translated into multiple languages, and there are more than 75 million copies of his books in print. These latest editions, being rereleased with new covers, will only add to that already staggering inventory.
A myth associated with Michener speaks of his cadre of researchers, used to gather the enormous amount of historical detail included in each of his epics. The reality was quite different. Most of the work was accomplished with the help of only three secretaries. He was a disciplined writer, establishing a routine early in his career and maintaining it his entire life. An early riser, he would go straight to work, where he wrote using a manual type writer. He then had a light breakfast, maybe a meeting or two, and went back to work until around one p.m. Evenings were a time to be by himself. In the final year of his life, at age ninety, he still kept to his daily routine, except he spent three days a week at a renal treatment center, undergoing kidney dialysis.
The treatment proved painful in a multitude of ways, perhaps the most difficult being that it prevented him from straying far from home. The man who’d visited nearly every country could no longer travel. He told an interviewer at the time, “I sit in the TV room and see shows on the big ships I used to travel or areas that I used to wander, and a tear comes to my eye. It’s not easy.”
And that explains his death—he simply decided there would be no more dialysis. Instead, he welcomed the end.
Michener died on October 16, 1997.
I recall the day vividly. A segment on the evening news reported that he was gone. A sadness came over me, as if I’d lost a close friend—which, in a sense, I had.
In preparation for writing this introduction, I reviewed many articles written just after Michener passed. Most came from folks who’d had some personal contact with him through the years—an experience that had clearly stuck in their memory. All of them recounted what happened as if they had been in the presence of a king or head of state. It seemed a privilege to have spent just a little time with James Michener.
And that legacy lives on.
Though he was known to be fanatically frugal, he gave away more than $100 million. Recipients of his generosity included libraries, museums, and universities. He donated $30 million to the University of Texas for the establishment of a creative writing program. Several million more went to the creation of the James A. Michener Art Museum in Pennsylvania. One wing of that building was named for his third wife, Mari Sabusawa Michener, who died before him, in 1994.
He never really liked talking about himself, and he could frustrate interviewers. “Famous is a word I never use,” he would say. “I’m well known. I’ve written thirty or forty books.”