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20.00.12 The Works of James A. Mitchener, by Howard Ray White

Although James A. Michener would not be considered a Southern writer by normal measure, he did have Southern instincts and lived out his last productive years at the University of Texas in Austin.  But it is not those instincts that attracts the Society to his works and prompts this commenrary regarding them.  It was his way of bringing history to the masses of everyday readers who love a story told well.  For that he did.  His historical novels, and they were many and very popular, presented a fairly accurate history of the region and the peoples of which he wrote, but in a style that engrossed the reader who was more accustomed to the novel than to the history book.  It was his works that first attracted me to the study of history and to — how should it say it — to the study of truthful history.  For Michener, not only told a story well, he told a story accurately, after great research and study. 

James Albert Michener (1907 – 1997) was an American author of 43 titles, the majority of these books being sweeping family sagas — what might be called epic stories — each novel covering the lives of many generations in their particular geographic setting, while faithfully incorporating historical facts into the presentation.  And Michener was known for the meticulous research behind his work.

Michener’s major books include Tales of the South Pacific (1947, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and which became the basis for the 1958 musical “South Pacific”); Hawaii (1959, which established his signature style and reputation, and which was made into a very successful 1966 movie); Chesapeake (1978, considered his most important work concerning the Southern people and their early history);Texas (1985, another important work concerning the South, also made into a 1994 television mini-series); Mexico (1992, another important work concerning our neighbor to the south and its people, many of whom are, today, also Americans);  Centennial (1974, his only work telling a history of  America, which begin in Pennsylvania, then quickly moved west to Colorado; was made into a fabulous 1978 television mini-series); Caribbean (1989, important for its proximity to the Southern states), The Source (1965, important history of the region that became the home of the Israeli people and the source of Judaism and Christianity, both so especially relevant to the culture and history of our Southern people).   

Born in 1907 in New York to unknown parents, Michener was raised as a Quaker by an adoptive mother, Mabel Michener, in Doylestown, Pennsylvania.  He graduated from Doylestown High School in 1925.  His college education was obtained at Swarthmore College, where, in 1929, he earned a degree in English and Psychology, summa cum laude.  He then travelled Europe for two years, taught high school English in Pennsylvania for 3 years, then went to the University of Northern Colorado, where he earned his Masters Degree in 1937.  Yet these years were less important than the experiences he gained while serving in the U. S. Navy in the Pacific during World War II.  It was those experiences that made the man — among the greatest writers of historical novels to ever live — considered by many to have defined how historical novels ought to be researched and presented — epic in scope of time and multigenerational, giving the reader the breath of living experiences needed for the understanding of history.

The most important lesson we need to gain through reading James A. Michener is understanding: “How should a researcher and writer teach history to people who love to read and prefer novels to history books.  How is that done successfully and accurately?”  First, the story must cover several generations (Centennial began with the dinosaurs at what would become Colorado).  Second, the story must be one through which the reader “lives” the history, as if he or she were there: Michener accomplished that goal by following, in parallel, several accurately-crafted families through several generations.  History is the story of people and their adventures, their good times and bad times, there happy days and horrific days: Michener provided great balance to his novels, properly revealing that human experience is not all happy, not all sad, but swings with the pulse of life.  Yet as we advance toward page 1,000 in a typical Michener work, we understand that, overall, human progress was moving forward.  One more thought: Michener did not write for the literary world: he wrote for everyday readers — they were his audience and he connected with them.

At age 75 Michener relocated from Pennsylvania to the University of Texas at Austin, which became his home and a superior vantage point for writing three books important to the Society: Texas, 1985, Caribbean, 1989 and Mexico, 1992.  So we of the South can claim him to at least that degree.  He died of kidney failure in 1997 at the age of 90.  The body was cremated and the ashes were placed next to those of his devoted wife Mari in the Austin Memorial Park.  He left most of his estate and copyrights to Swarthmore College.

Of Michener, Dr. Larry R. Faulkner, President of the University of Texas eulogized:

“In the telling of his tales, Michener always made clear his own feeling for the oppressed and the hard-pressed.  In many of his novels . . . his sympathy for the underdog is made clear, and his outrage at the injustice imposed upon one people by another became a kind of hallmark of his literary effort.  As a writer and as a human being, Michener was a liberal in the finest sense of that fine old term. He believed in liberty, in law, and in human rights, and in many of his tales he made that concern a central theme.  His books overflowed with history and with characters representative of the times and places of which he wrote, and his stories were always gripping.  He is remembered, however, not as a stylist, but a writer of straightforward, sometimes dogged, prose, and an inventor of ingenious plot lines. 

“His mark on The University of Texas was deep and permanent.  As faculty and students, we enjoyed him and were proud to have him among us.  In 1991, President William H. Cunningham bestowed upon him a Presidential Citation, the University’s highest honor.  Dr. Cunningham described him as ‘not only a preeminent author,’ but also as ‘a profound and ardent spokesman for the liberal arts and for liberal education.’  Above all, he said, Jim Michener had ‘a vast yearning to leave the world a better place than he found it.’  And that is what he did.”

We of the Society can only wish that he had applied his immense talent, intellect and energy to writing an historical novel that centered upon State Secession and the War Between the States.  We must suppose he never figured out a way to pull it off.  But we shan’t fault him for that.  Instead we should strive to learn history from his novels by “living it” in a most enjoyable way.  And, if you be an aspiring writer of historical fiction, you must — and I mean must — sit at the feet of the master and soak up crucial wisdom.  No one ever did it better, repeatedly, so many times.  Ninety years.  What a blast!