Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Remember Him?

     He said he never knew who his real, biological parents were, but he did seem to know that he was born in New York City, and his birthday was February 3, 1907. He was adopted at an early age and raised by a widow in Doylestown, Pa. He was bitten by the travel bug early in life, and while still in high school he traveled across the country, using his thumb and riding the rails.

     In 1925 he graduated from Doylestown High School and went to nearby Swarthmore College, where he played basketball and was described as the poorest boy in school, and also the brightest. After he graduated, with highest honors, he headed to Europe where he traveled and briefly went to school in Scotland.
Swarthmore College

     But his first ambition was to be a teacher. He landed a job as an English teacher at the exclusive private school, The Hill School, in Pottstown, Pa. -- a school later made famous by Tobias Wolff in his novel Old School. He then went to teach at the George School in Newtown, Pa., where he met and married his first wife. Next he headed out to Colorado to get a master's degree in teaching. A few years later, he landed a one-year teaching job at Harvard. But after that, he decided to leave the profession, and he found a job in New York as a social studies textbook editor at MacMillan & Co.

     When World War II started, he was called to active duty and joined the Navy. He became a lieutenant, assigned as a Naval historian, and in connection with his recording of events was sent on various missions across the South Pacific.

     When he returned from the war, he first went back to work at MacMillan, then decided to try to make his living as a writer. He had plenty of success, but suffered some failures as well. He tried his hand at television writing, but was unable to sell any scripts. He was involved in one show, "Adventures in Paradise" that made the air in 1959, but even that was only a modest success. After his Hollywood ambitions fizzled, he took on a more steady assignment as a Roving Editor for Reader's Digest magazine.

     In 1960 he signed on as chairman of the Bucks County, Pennsylvania, committee to elect John F. Kennedy. Two years later, in 1962, he ran for Congress from the 8th District of Pennsylvania. He was defeated by the Republican incumbent. In the meantime, he divorced his first wife, married his second wife, then got divorced once again and in 1955 married his third wife, Mari Yoriko Sabusawa of Las Animas, Colorado. They remained married for 39 years, until her death in 1994.

     All these were important events in his life, but they were not what made him famous. His claim to fame came from his stories from the war in the Pacific. He mailed them to his former employer, MacMillan, and they were published in 1947 as Tales of the South Pacific. The book won the Pulitzer Prize in 1948 and provided the basis for the megahit musical South Pacific by Rodgers and Hammerstein, starring Mary Martin.

     The play opened on Broadway in 1949. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1950 and garnered ten Tony awards, including best musical. The movie was released in 1958, starring Mitzi Gaynor, and became the top-grossing film of the year. (Doris Day was offered the starring role, but turned it down, while Elizabeth Taylor tried out for the part but didn't get it.)

     Meanwhile, the writer -- obviously, by now you know he's James Michener -- went on to write literally dozens of books that altogether sold some 75 million copies. His 1959 novel Hawaii was based on extensive research (he lived in Hawaii for several years), and set the stage for his subsequent books, which were noted for their historical breadth and depth, their memorable characters, their easy readability ... and their sheer length. Several of his tomes ran on for over 1000 pages.

     I'd be interested to know how many people have read the Michener classics, and which ones were favorites. I myself never read Tales of the South Pacific, although I certainly saw the movie, but I did read The Covenant when it came out in 1980. A few years later I read Poland. And then last year, in advance of taking a short vacation to Chincoteague, Va., I read Chesapeake -- and was reminded once again just how ambitious, and how good, these books really are.

     Michener died in 1997 at the age of 90 and was buried in Austin, Texas, where he spent his final years. He gave away much of the money he earned from his books, including an endowment to the University of Texas to create The Michener Center for Writers. He also gave money to the Iowa Writers Workshop, and then left the bulk of his estate to his alma mater Swarthmore College.

     Today, a library at the University of Northern Colorado is named after Michener, as is a suite at one of his favorite hotels, the Raffles Hotel in Singapore. There's a James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, Pa., that features the work of local artists. In 1998, a group of enthusiasts formed the James A. Michener Society which meets periodically to promote his work and share stories about his life.



Mac n' Janet said...

I've read them all and The Source is my favorite. It made me want to go to Israel, and hopefully, next year we're going.

schmidleysscribblins, said...

Mad about Michner. As a teenager, while other kids bought rock and roll records, I bought his books as they were published back in the 1950s, and have them still on a shelf in my closset. They are old and yellowed and beloved. What a wonderful man he was.

Did you know he was also a collector of Japanese prints and he donated them to the U of Texas? I have a book he wrote on Japanese prints. His wife is/was Japanese, and it is believed Sayonara and other stories that allude to mixed marriages are autobiographical. I too love The Source. Dianne

Snowbrush said...

I haven't read anything by him, but I am interested in the war in the South Pacific (Eugene Sledge did a fine job of recording his memories of it), so will be looking that one up, at least.

Dick Klade said...

Read 'em all. It wasn't the best-known, but I thought Centennial was the most compelling story. Michener was a terrific talent. Thanks for the detailed presentation of his background.

Stephen Hayes said...

A great writer. I've read most of his books, but Hawaii probably affected me most. I read somewhere that Michener considered Bora Bora the most beautiful island on earth, so I went to check it out. He was right.

Jono said...

I remember Adventures in Paradise from when I was a young boy. I am afraid if I read Tales of the South Pacific on these gloomy winter days, I may never be heard from again. He did incredible research.

ksam said...

The Source!! Still dreaming of Israel, and may yet get there!

Arkansas Patti said...

Sad to say I have read none but plan to rectify that. Shame on me. So many books, so little time.

MerCyn said...

I have read a lot of his books, but not all. My favorites are The Source and Centennial. My least favorite was Space; I felt he ended it abruptly, as if he had to finish and move on.

Old Dog Learning New Tricks said...

I've read all of James Michener's books and enjoyed every one of them. Thank you for the background on the author. I've always wondered about Michener's personal narrative and now I have many of the details, without having had to do the research!

Linda Myers said...

Hawaii and The Source. Loved to get one of those big thick books and settle into it.

Kay Dennison said...

I loved all of his books and most are on my overcrowded bookshelves!!

Deb said...

I haven't read all of them, but I have to agree with Stephan Hayes. Hawaii had a huge impact on me. I read that book over 20 years ago and I still think of it. When I visited Hawaii a few years ago, I was reminded of how hard the Hawaiians have worked to retain their heritage, and how close the Anglos came to robbing them of it.

I really enjoy these biographical posts. Reminiscent of Paul Harvey's "And now you know...the REST of the story".