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Finding Michener

Updated on June 13, 2019
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Mary is an organizational development specialist and writes about today's challenges.


Finding Michener, Finding Ourselves

Is Michener yesterday? For some, yesterday means dead fashion, cute expressions and bad bagels. For others, yesterday has a hint of lessons learned, of wisdom shared, of ideas started. James Michener is a part of the second yesterday.

In the 60s 70s and 80s he was a giant, writing the books we all wanted to read, to be excited and energized about the histories of our places of origin, of a world we as yet knew very little of.

Hawaii, The Tales of the South Pacific, Iberia, Poland, Chesapeake, The Source, The Covenant, Caravans, on and on, countries explored layer by layer in a narrative archaeology that remains pure genius. The writing ends 15 years ago but little has changed in the 2000 year histories that he tells with complete humans acting out our roles over the millennia. And that's the secret, you and I are in those histories. You'll see yourself again and again as he tells the stories through people like us.

If you still don't know James Michener finding him maybe one of the great joys of your reading life.

Michener Attending the 50th Anniversary of Pearl Harbour Attack

Below is a picture of the author James Albert Michener when he attended an observance commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour.

This image or file is a work of a U.S. Air Force Airman or employee, taken or made during the course of the person's official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image or file is in the public domain.

Know James Michener

James Michener
James Michener | Source

Who is James Michener?

On October 16 of 1997, about 15 years ago, this prolific American writer passed away at the age of 90. During his lifetime, he fired the imagination of many who see history as a mountain climb that we and our ancestors have made. By taking real history and injecting fictional characters, we lived each era, we didn't just read facts and figures and cold hard numbers.

In a roundabout way, his sagas of families who had lived in the places of which he wrote engaged us in discovering more about their era. As the events changed their lives, we are drawn deeper into the events and discover how the adventure of time felt to our ancestors.

Somehow, as we visit the countries portrayed in his books, we start searching for the buildings and places and forests he described. Time may have relegated them to the back pages of dusty history but Michener's novels paint them as bright as Montana's sunset in our imagination. We can still see what they were. Factories started by families. Villages living in terror. Streets with migrants huddled together in fear and cold. Unknown frontiers where our ancestors built new cities on the foundation of their dreams.

Who is this Michener who gave us these gifts?

Michener: The Traveler, Citizen, Writer

Michener's Chosen Epitaph

Michener's life is best summed up in the epitaph he personally chose: Traveler, Citizen, Writer. After graduating summa cum laude in Swarthmore College, he went to study in Europe and that started his travel where he ended up in the South Pacific. It was here, as a lieutenant in the U.S. navy assigned as a naval historian, that he started his writing career. His first book, Tales of the South Pacific, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1948. After this, he wrote many more, some had been made into movies or television series.

Not only was he in the military, he also ran for political office but unhappily (or maybe happily) lost. However, Michener served in other ways. He donated most of the money he earned over $100 million mostly given to writers groups. His $10 million estate was donated entirely to Swarthmore College. In Canada, he donated the royalties of the Canadian edition of his novel, Journey, to create what is called as The Journey Prize, an annual award of C$10,000 for the best short story published by an emerging Canadian writer.

Michener did not have the auspicious beginning of many of the heirs of the families he wrote about for generations. He started his early years not knowing where and when he was born or who his real parents were. He was raised in Doylestown, Bucks County, Pennsylvania by an adoptive mother, Mabel Michener, a Quaker.

Michener's Typewriter

Michener's Typewriter
Michener's Typewriter

Michener's Typewriter

Source: Wikipedia Creative Commons Attribution-Attribution Share-Alike

James A. Michener Museum, Doylestown, Pennsylvania

Author: Ekem

It seems that Michener spent from 12-15 hours at this typewriter and his output was so prodigious that his filing system could not cope. He also showed the next generation of historical fiction writers that an investment in a great research team is the foundation of fabulous historical novels.

Watch this interesting video on Michener

Some of James Michener's Books

1. Tales of the South Pacific - Michener's First Fiction Novel

The book that earned James Michener his Pulitzer Prize in 1948 is a collection of stories he wrote while on duty on the island of Espiritu Santo in what is now Vanuatu. As a naval lieutenant commander, he gathered stories and anecdotes which with his own insights built the skeleton which became the basis of the famous musical, South Pacific.

These interconnected stories were mostly on the relationships of the Americans with the locals and the other foreign nationals in the area. Viewed from Michener's eyes, these stories were not only entertaining but witty and gave us an understanding of what it is to be caught up in war in a foreign country.

Chesapeake - A Glimpse into U.S. History

Chesapeake starts with the local Indians and their ruling family living on this beautiful coast. Then, the hammers of history start. European families escaping the horrors of their homelands settle close by to find better lives.

The story goes on to remind us of the plantations they developed and the slave trade that fed the labor into these great estates. Interspersed is the interplay of battling Christian polarities as the first settlers confronted again the horrors they left in Europe. The next generation leads us to the iron fist of American industry and the impact on the families we first met as settlers.

In fact, being now Canadian, the ducks I often see in the lakes here in Canada remind me of the novel's characters who hunted ducks for food then.

The Caravans - A Novel Set in Afghanistan

How do you want to be an active participant in a culture totally alien to you? Let Michener bring you to follow just that adventure. In this novel, Michener brings us to Afghanistan to follow Mark Miller who was stationed in the U.S. Embassy there. He was tasked to investigate the whereabouts of Ellen Jasper, the impetous American who married an Afghani engineer. Ellen's parents were concerned that they had not heard from her.

Mark's finding of Ellen and of following her as she joins the caravans is a story of an American trying to understand the Afghan culture and society not from the outside but as an active participant in the journey. It's also a quick glance at the silk road and the other peoples who played significant parts in its development.

This novel was made into a movie of the same title starring Anthony Quinn and Jennifer O'Neill.

A Rainbow in Stellenbosch, South Africa - The Setting of the Novel, The Covenant


The Covenant - The Novel Set in South Africa

This novel tells of the story of South Africa. It shows the Dutch arrival to establish a station in Cape Town for their ships that were travelling between Holland and their major settlement in Java. As they settled in the area, they were soon joined by the French Huguenots who wanted religious freedom from the aggressive Catholicism of the time. Together, they became Afrikaners and began to bind themselves into a perceived covenant with God.

In fact, they became over 400 years a white African tribe behaving in every way like their immediate neighbors. Like the Israelis, they believed that God had given them their land and bestowed on them authority over it. This covenant gave them a messianic fervor to fight for this stunning country. Their role still dominates the psychology of South Africa.

Centennial - A Town in Colorado

Michener once again enthralled the American public with a novel close to home. Centennial is a fictitious town in Colorado which in Michener's pen was where American history was made alive from the local Indians to the French fur trappers to the traders and the migrating families. This novel tells of stories of people like Levi and Ellie Zendt who left their confining life in Dutch Pennsylvania, the Garrett family who moved out because time and again they only met defeat in farming their land and the countless others who gave way to their spirit of adventure only to face hardship and disappointment.

These are the Americans who dared to make the trip west and in their journey lived through the violence, conflicts and difficulties but with their strong pioneering spirit triumphed and made the West an American dream.

Michener so fired the imagination of the Americans that this novel was made into a 12 episode television series in October 1978 and it ran through to February 1979. John Wilder produced this most ambitious project at that time and it immediately became a favourite among American viewers.

Have you read any of James Michener's novels? - Take this poll

Have you read any of James Michener's novels?

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Which of Michener's fiction novels do you like best? - Tell us

Which is you favourite of James Michener's novels?

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© 2012 Mary Norton


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