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James A(lbert) Michener (1907-1997)


American novelist, essayist, and travel book writer, best known for his massive and detailed novels (Hawaii, Centennial, Texas, etc) many of which were created in his workshop with assistants and researchers. Michener wrote his first book at the age of thirty-nine and immediately won a Pulitzer Prize.

"I am a humanist because I think humanity can, with constant moral guidance, create reasonably decent societies. I think that young people who want to understand the world can profit from the works of Plato and Socrates, the behaviour of the three Thomases, Aquinas, More and Jefferson - the austere analyses of Immanuel Kant and the political leadership of Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt." (from The World is My Home, 1992)

According to his own words James A. Michener was a foundling without knowledge of his birth-place or date; according to other sources he was born in New York and taken as an orphan to Doylestown, Pennsylvania. He was raised by Mabel Michener, a Quaker widow of a man named Edwin Michener. Mabel supported her family with her meagre income as a seamstress, doing the neighbours' laundry and by taking in orphaned children. At one time, thirteen children lived undet the same roof.  The family constantly moved from one low-rent house to another.

At the age of eleven or twelve, Michener had his first salaried job – he cultivated floering plants at the local Burpee Seed Company's meadows. Michener started to write a sports column at the age of fifteen for the local newspaper and edited the high school student paper. From his early youth, Michener was a voracious reader and he listened to opera. His Uncle Arthur gave the family a Victorola, a record player, and three records, Cohen on the Telephone, The Stars and Stripes Forever, and the sextette from Lucia di Lammermoor, backed by the quartet from Rigoletto. From the moment he heard the quartet he began to collect operatic records. Michener also started to collect reproductions of paintings. His favorite artists included the Dutch painter Carel Fabritius (1622-1654), the Italian Renaissance artist Benozzo Gozzoli, (1420-1497), and Ando Horoshige (1797-1858), the Japanese woodblock artist. 

While at high school and college Michener hitchhiked to all parts of America, and he continued to travel widely throughout his life in different parts of the world. "I was in many ways the poorest boy on the road, in others the richest," Michener has recalled, "and I was always happy to be on the road meeting new people, hearing new stories and seeing new landscapes." From 1950 through 1953, he reported on the Korean War, he operated in 1956 behind Russian lines during the Hungarian Revolution, in 1963 he spoke for the liberation of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in Leningrad, in 1964 he travelled in the Russian provinces adjoining Afghanistan, in 1972 he accompanied President Nixon on his visit to Moscow, Iran, and Poland, from 1972 through 1981, he visited Poland nearly a dozen times, and in 1972 he was with Nixon in China.

Michener majored in English at Swarthmore College, where he had success as an athlete in basketball, baseball, and tennis. His B.A degree Michener took in 1929. Upon receiving a Lipincott traveling grant, he attended St. Andrew´s in Scotland, and studied Italian art in Siena and at the British Museum in London. He also collected folksongs in the Hebrides and visited Spain while a crew member on a freighter. In 1935 Michener graduated from the University of Northern Colorado with an M.A.

From 1929 to 1931 Michener was employed as a master at the Hill School in Pottstown and from 1934 to 1936 at the George School in Newtown, Pennsylvania. He was a professor at the University of Northern Colorado (1936-40), and then visiting professor of history at Harvard's School of Education (1940-41). His first publications were articles in professional journals. When the United States entered World War II Michener worked as a textbook editor in New York City. Although as a Quaker he was exempt from actual military service, he decided to enlist in the United States Navy. His wife Patti Koon served with Eisenhower's army in Europe.

Michener received a commission in the navy in 1943. He first performed clerical duties with the Bureau of Aeronautics in Washington, D.C, and was then transferred to the Aviation Supply Depot in Philadelphia. From 1944 to 1946 he served as a naval historian in the South Pacific and traveled widely in the area. His early fiction is also based on his experiences in the Pacific.  Michener sailed on the Cape Victory, a transport ship, for a year and a half.

"From far away, from deep in the jungles near Jap sentries, came a human voice. It was clear, quiet, somewhat high-pitched. But it never rose to excitement. I was to hear that voice often, almost every day for two months. Like hundreds of Americans who went forth to fight aided by that voice, I can hear it now. It fills the room about me as it filled that sweating hut. It was always the same. Even on the last day it was free from nervousness. On this morning it said: "Good morning, Americans! This is your Remittance Man. I am speaking from the Upper Solomons. First the weather. There are rain clouds over Bougainville, the Treasuries, Choiseul, and New Georgia. I believe it will rain in this region from about 0900 to 1400. The afternoon will be clear. It is now 94 degrees. There are no indications of violent weather." (from 'The Cave' in Tales of the South Pacific)

After the war, Michener worked as an associate editor at the Macmillan Company in New York until 1949, and then devoted himself entirely to writing. In 1948 he won the Pulitzer Prize for the collection Tales of the South Pacific. Alice Roosevelt Longworth, daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt, had recommended the book to the award committee. Critics classified the work as a series of short fiction, although the author himself considered it a novel because of the unified setting and the recurrence of several characters throughout the book.

The stories depict Navy officers and enlisted men, Marines, Seabees, and nurses as well as the inhabitants of the islands during the war. The book received the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and was the basis for the famous Richard Rodgers-Oscar Hammerstein musical, with songs like 'I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair,' 'Younger Than Spring Time,' and 'Bali Ha'i.' Joshua Logan, who had brought the show to the stage in 1949, directed its film version, lasting two hours and 51 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission. Although the public loved the movie, Time found it "about as tastelessly impressive as a ten-ton marshmallow". Leon Shamroy, the director of photography, used color gels to establish "mood" for each use of song and defended the idea in an interview: "My interpretation of the South Pacific was like Gauguin painted it. I also wanted to create a change of pace... So I shot the musical parts as a fantasy by sliding colored gelatin filters across the lens."

John Ford's film Donovan's Reef (1963) was loosely based on Michener's 'The South Sea Story' although the writer was not credited. It was lushly filmed in Technicolor on the Hawaiian island Kauai. John Wayne was Michael Patrick "Guns" Donovan who has no intention of returning home to America after World War II. With his sparring partner, Thomas Aloysius "Boats" Gilhooney, he has found a happier existence among the islanders of French Polynesia. James Edward Grant, who wrote the screenplay with James Nugent, once said: "All you gotta have in a John Wayne picture is a hoity-toity dame with big tits that Duke can throw over his knee and spank, and a collection of jerks he can smash in the face every five minutes." The arrival of Amelia (Elizabeth Allen), and the romantic relationship between her and Donovan, complicates for a short time the situation but she soon becomes part of the island's free way of life.

The following novel, The Fires of Spring was a semi-autobiographical story about a poor, creative artist trying to establish himself as a writer in New York. Because Macmillan had refused the book, Michener took the manuscript to Random House, his major publisher since 1949. Return to Paradise (1950) brought together essays and fictional stories about the Pacific islands. It was followed by The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1953), a story set against the Korean War and depicting a self-sacrificing jet pilot. In Sayonara (1954) Michener returned to the world of Madame Butterfly and depicted the ill-fated romance of an American officer and a Japanese woman. Shortly after the novel's publication Michener married his third wife, Mari Yoriko Sabusawa, an American of Japanese extraction.

In the film adaptation of Sayonara Marlon Brando (Major Gruver) falls in love with a beautiful dancer and faces his own prejudices. Paul Osborn, who wrote the screenplay, was rewarded with an Oscar. Hawaii (1959) was a blockbuster novel and also its screen version, directed by George Roy Hill, became very popular. Hawaiian location filming was principally made at Makua Beach on the Island of Oahu. During the filming Julie Andrew's dress actually caught fire and one Friday Hill was removed from the picture. When a number of Hawaiian extras announced they would strike, Hill was reinstated the next Monday.

In 1949 Michener had moved to Hawaii, and completed there his long historical novel, which combined history and fiction. The story started with the geological beginnings of the islands to the migrations of the Polynesians and the arrival of the Europeans. Using the same formula Michener produced several large novels, including Caravans (1963), Source (1965), inspired by the author's travel to Israel, Centennial (1974), Poland (1983), Texas (1985), Alaska (1988) and Mexico (1992). He also wrote non-fiction, and among other books Kent State (1971), a study of the events in 1970 that led to the killing of four students by the Ohio National Guard during a Vietnam War protest. Legacy (1987) was a short essay-like novel that criticized the United States' tendency to criticize the world, and The Novel (1991) was a story of the settlement of Pennsylvania by the Dutch.

Michener ran unsuccessfully in 1962 on the Democratic ticket for the U.S. House of Representatives. He was a member of the advisory committee on the arts for the U.S. Department of State in 1957, served as a secretary of Pennsylvania's Constitutional Convention in 1967-68, and was member of the Advisory Committee, United States Information Agency (1970-76), Council of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (1980-83). From 1983 he was member of the Board of International Broadcasting. Michener received more than 20 honorary degrees, and was awarded both the Navy Gold Cross and National Medal of Freedom.

During his career as a writer Michener wrote some 40 books, which sold about 75 million copies. Many of his works have also been adapted for film and television. Michener continued to publish prolifically, though he had a severe heart attack in his fiftees, a hip replacement in his seventies, and in his eighties he had to take kidney dialysis treatments. While writing Alaska he lived in a log cabin near to Sheldon Jackson College in Sitka, Alaska. A very private man, he guarded his personal life, but in 1992 at the age of eighty-five, Michener published his autobiography, The World Is My Home. Michener died after his decision to stop the treatment for renal disease. He was married three times: first to Patti Koon in 1935 (divorced in 1948), the second time to Vange Nord in 1948 (divorced in 1955), and the third time to Mari Yoriko Sabusawa in 1955. Michener's collection of twentieth-century American art has been donated to the University of Texas at Austin.

For further reading: Michener's South Pacific by Stephen J. May (2011); " Michener’s the Name" by Robert Vavra (2006); Talking with Michener by Lawrence Grobel (1999); James A. Michener - A Critical Companion by Marilyn S. Severson (1996); World Authors 1900-1950, Volume 3, ed. by Martin Seymour-Smith and Andrew C. Kimmens (1996); The World is My Home by James A. Michener (1992); James A. Michener by J.P. Hayes (1984); James A. Michener by G.J. Becker (1983); In Search of Centennial by J. Kings (1978); James A. Michener by A.G. Day (1964, rev. 1977); The Subject is Israel by Dore Schary and James Michener (1968)

Michener about other writers: (on Multatuli=Eduard Douwes Dekker) "When I first read, as an impressionable young man, the Java novel Max Havelaar, by Eduard Douwes Dekker, I was astounded by the freedom with which he incorporated in his novel material of the most revolutionary character: price lists, data on the cultivation of sugarcane, long disquisitions on life in Indonesia and political analyses." (on Flaubert) "Curiously, I never studied the way in which a gifted novelist like Flaubert can gather together a group of characters within a limited compass and give the entire novel a sense of the universal." (on Norman Mailer) "I used to think that the Norman Mailer of The Naked and the Dead, published when he was twenty-five, was merely a sensationally successful one-book author, and his first books thereafter seemed to prove that. But he revealed himself as a protean man with the widest possible interest and the skill to tackle them all, from pertinent comments on politics to a biography of Marilyn Monroe... He has been invaluable to American life because he is an authentic American voice." (on Gore Vidal) "Gore Vidal, who wrote Williwaw at only nineteen, was another whose early book could well have been his last, but instead he wrote a series of books that varied in subject matter from the critical days of early Christianity to the dramatic eras of American history to outrageous sexual games. I envy him two novels on whose subjects I also did a great deal of work: Julian, which deals with the apostate who tried to turn back Christianity in ancient Antiochea, and 1876, which covers the amazing incident in American history that year when the Republican Rutherford B. Hayes stole the presidential election from the Democrat Samuel J.Tilden."

Selected works:

  • The Future of the Social Studies: Proposals for an Experimental Social Studies Curriculum, 1939 (editor)
  • The Unit in Social Studies, 1940 (with H.M. Long)
  • Tales of the South Pacific, 1948
    - films: South Pacific (1958), dir. by Joshua Logan, starring Mitzi Gaynor, Rossano Brazzi, Ray Walston, John Kerr, France Nuyen, Juanita Hall. "Overlong, solidly produced film of the musical stage hit, with great locations, action climaxes and lush photography (also a regrettable tendency to use alarming colour filters for dramatic emphasis." (Halliwell's Film & Video Guide 2001, ed. by John Walker, 2000); Adventures in Paradise (TV series 1959-1962), prod. 20th Century Fox Television, Jaymar Productions, Martin Manulis Productions, starting Gardner McKay, James Holden and Guy Stockwell; South Pacific (TV movie 2001), dir. by Richard Pearce, starring Glenn Close, Harry Connick Jr., Rade Serbedzija, Jack Thompson
  • The Fires of Spring, 1949
  • Return to Paradise, 1950
    - film: Return to Paradise (1953), prod. Aspen Productions, dir. Mark Robson, screenplay Charles Kaufgman, starring Gary Cooper, Barry Jones, and Roberta Haynes
  • The Voice of Asia, 1951
  • The Bridges at Toko-ri, 1953
    - film: The Bridges at Toko-ri (1954), prod. Paramount Pictures, dir. by Mark Robson, screenplay Valentine Davies, starring William Holden, Mickey Rooney, Grace Kelly, Fredric March
  • Sayonara, 1954
    - Sayonara: romaani (suom. Kyllikki Hämäläinen, 1955)
    - film 1957, dir. by Joshua Logan, screenplay by Paul Osborn, starring Marlon Brando, Miyoshi Umeki, Miiko Taka, Red Buttons, Ricardo Moltalban
  • The Floating World, 1954
  • The Bridge at Andau, 1957 (with A.G. Day)
  • Rascals in Paradise, 1957
  • Selected Writings, 1957 (with a special foreword by the author)
  • Hokusai Sketchbook; Selections from the Manga, 1958 (editor)
  • Japanese Prints: From the Early Masters to the Modern, 1959 (notes on the prints by Richard Lane)
  • Hawaii, 1959
    - Hawaiji 1-2 (suom. Erkki Haglund, 1961)
    - films: Hawaiji (1966), dir. by George Roy Hill, starring Max von Sydow, Julie Andrews, Richard Harris, Jocelyn La Garde, music by Elmer Bernstein, script by Daniel Taradash and Dalton Trumbo. "The production company spared no expense in ensuring an authentic look, importing thatch from Japan, since the pili leaves normally used for thatching huts in the story's era are no longer to be found in the Hawaiian Islands. Rooster feathers (for the colorful costumes) had to  be imported from the Philippines. Red and gold royal cloaks came from Hong Kong, straw mattings from Mexico, boar's-teeth necklaces and bracelets from India, and silks from Taiwan." (Susan Sackett in Box Office Hits, 1990); The Hawaiians (1970), dir. by Tom Gries, starring Charlton Heston, Tina Chen, Geraldine Chaplin, John Phillip Law, screenplay by James R. Webb
  • Report of the County Chairman, 1961
  • The Modern Japanese Print: An Appreciation, 1962
  • Caravans: A Novel, 1963
    - film 1978, dir. by James Fargo, screenplay Nancy Voyles Crawford, Thomas A. McMahon, Lorraine Williams, starring Anthony Quinn, Michael Sarrazin, Jennifer O'Neill, Christopher Lee
  • The Source: A Novel, 1965
  • Iberia; Spanish Travels and Reflections, 1968 (photos. by Robert Vavra)
  • Presidential Lottery: The Reckless Gamble in Our Electoral System, 1969
  • Facing East, 1970 (original lithographs and woodcuts by Jack Levine)
  • The Quality of Life, 1970 (paintings by James B. Wyeth)
  • Kent State: What Happened and Why, 1971
    - TV film 1981: Kent Staste, prod. Inter Planetary, Keller Entertainment Group, dir. James Goldstone, starring Jane Fleiss, Charley Lang, Talia Balsam, Keith Gordon
  • The Drifters: A Novel, 1971
    - Kohtauspaikka Torremolinos (suom. Anja Haglund, 1972)
  • Firstfruits, A Harvest of 25 Years of Israeli Writing, 1973 (editor, with a foreword by Chaim Potok)
  • A Michener Miscellany: 1950-1970, 1973 (selected and edited by Ben Hibbs)
  • About Centennial: Some Notes on the Novel, 1974
  • Centennial, 1974
    - TV mini-series, starring Raymond Burr, Barbara Carrera, Richard Chamberlain, Robert Conrad, Richard Crenna, Chad Everett, Alex Karras, Brian Keith, Sally Kellerman, Donald Pleasence, Lynn Redgrave, Dennis Weaver
  • Sports in America, 1976
  • Chesapeake, 1978
  • The Watermen: Selections from Chesapeake, 1979 (with drawings by John Moll)
  • The Covenant, 1980
  • James A Michener's USA: The People and the Land, 1981 (foreword by James A. Michener; edited by Peter Chaitin)
  • Space, 1982
    - TV mini-series, prod. Dick Berg-Stonehenge Productions, Paramount Television, dir. Lee Philips, Joseph Sargent, starring Mark Benjamin, James Garner and Susan Anspach
  • Collectors, Forgers - And A Writer: A Memoir, 1983 (foreword by John F. Fleming)
  • Testimony, 1983
  • Poland, 1983
    - Masurkka: romaani Puolasta (suom. Heikki Kaskimies, 1986)
  • Texas, 1985
    - TV film 1994, prod. American Broadcasting Company (ABC), Branded Productions, Spelling Entertainment, dir. Richard Lang, starring Maria Conchita Alonso, Benjamin Bratt, Frederick Coffin, Patrick Duffy, Chelsea Field, Stacy Keach, David Keith, Charlton Heston
  • Legacy, 1987
  • Alaska, 1988
  • Journey, 1989
    - Matka Klondikeen (suom. Annika Eräpuro, 1989)
  • Caribbean, 1989
  • Six Days in Havana, 1989 (with John Kings)
  • The Eagle and the Raven, 1990 (drawings by Charles Shaw)
  • Pilgrimage: A Memoir of Poland and Rome, 1990
  • The Novel, 1991
  • Mexico, 1992
  • The World Is My Home: A Memoir, 1992
  • Jamer A. Michener's Writer's Handbook: Explorations in Writing and Publishing, 1992
  • My Lost Mexico, 1992 (with J. Crafton and H.S. Commager)
  • America, 1992
  • Recessional, 1992
  • Creatures of the Kingdom: Stories of Animals and Nature, 1993 (illustrations by Karen Jacobsen)
  • Literary Reflections: Michener on Michener, Hemingway, Capote & Others, 1993
  • Two Complete Novels, 1993
  • Miracle in Seville, 1995 (illustrations by John Fulton)  
  • This Noble Land: My Vision for America, 1996
  • Century of Sonnets, 1997
  • Matecumbe, 2007 (afterword by Joe Avenick)

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