All achievers

James A. Michener

Pulitzer Prize-winning Novelist

I think young people ought to seek that experience that is going to knock them off center.

James Michener as a child. (Courtesy Virginia Trumbull)
James Michener as a child. (Virginia Trumbull)

As an infant, James A. Michener was adopted by a widow in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. He was born in New York City in 1907, but over the course of a long life, he was never able to learn who his birth parents were. His adopted mother was a hardworking woman who opened her home to many foster children, but life was hard, and James Michener learned early to work hard and do without material possessions.  His mother and aunt valued books and education, and young Michener immersed himself in the novels of 19th century masters, Dickens and Balzac. Reading fed his wanderlust, and as a teenager he hitchhiked from coast to coast. The great variety of odd jobs and experiences that followed formed an important part of his early education. He traveled across the land by boxcar, worked in carnival shows, and before he was 20 years old, had visited all but three of the States in the Union. Michener entered Swarthmore College as a scholarship student and graduated with highest honors. He went on to St. Andrew’s University in Scotland, and then returned to teach at the George School in Bucks County. There followed two years of “teaching others how to teach,” first at Colorado State Teachers College, and then as Assistant Visiting Professor of History at Harvard University. Subsequently, he found himself editing textbooks for a New York publishing firm, a position that was interrupted by World War II, when Michener joined the U.S. Navy.

Members of the Awards Council: pioneer newscaster Lowell Thomas, famed attorney Louis Nizer, and best-selling author James Michener at the 1975 Banquet of the Golden Plate ceremonies in Evansville, Indiana.
Members of the Awards Council: pioneer TV newscaster Lowell Thomas, famed trial attorney Louis Nizer, and best-selling author James Michener at the 1975 Banquet of the Golden Plate ceremonies in Evansville, Indiana.

It was the Navy that introduced Michener to the Pacific. From his wartime experiences in the Solomon Islands came his first book, Tales of the South Pacific, which he mailed anonymously to his former publishing employer. Brought out in 1947, the book won a Pulitzer Prize. Michener won his job back as a textbook editor, and Rodgers and Hammerstein, with Joshua Logan, adapted the story into the musical South Pacific that ran for season after season on Broadway. Michener crossed the Pacific many times. In 1949, he took up residence in Honolulu, Hawaii, and became actively involved in Hawaiian civic affairs. Ten years later, his novel Hawaii was published and became an immediate bestseller. It had been four years in preparation and three in writing, and he finished writing it on the day that Congress voted Hawaii into the Union. James A. Michener traveled widely. In connection with his books and articles, he visited most countries of the world, staying long enough in a majority of them to become familiar with the customs and to know the people. Michener also explored major themes in numerous books about his homeland.

James Michener was called to active duty during World War II in the United States Navy. His travels throughout the South Pacific Ocean on various Navy assignments inspired his first novel, "Tales of the South Pacific." Michener won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1948 for "South Pacific," and the novel inspired the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical "South Pacific."
James Michener was called to active duty during World War II in the United States Navy. His travels throughout the South Pacific Ocean on various Navy assignments inspired his first novel, Tales of the South Pacific. Michener won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1948 for South Pacific, and inspired the 1949 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical.

Over his lifetime, he published more than four dozen books, including the texts for five art books. His work has been issued in virtually every language in the world, with hardcover and paperback sales running into the millions.

Most of Michener’s works are historical novels, all distinguished by the thorough research which is his hallmark. Among these are: The Bridges at Toko-Ri, Sayonara, The Source, Centennial, Chesapeake, The Covenant, Space, Poland, Texas and Alaska.

James Michener, with a painting of himself, at his home in Pennsylvania in 1962. At the the time he was running for the United States Congress. (© Bettmann/CORBIS)
1962: Michener, with a painting of himself, at home in Pennsylvania.  At the time, he was running for U.S. Congress.

Michener also devoted much of his time to public service. In 1962, he ran for Congress as a liberal Democrat, but lost in a decidedly conservative district. In 1968, he served as secretary of the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention. From 1979 to 1983, he was a member of the Advisory Council to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), an experience that solidified his interest in the field. Other positions included appointments as cultural ambassador to various countries, the advisory committee of the U.S. Postal Service, and the International Broadcasting Board.

James Michener and his wife, Mari, at home with their formidable art collection in 1962. (© Bettmann/CORBIS)
James Michener and his wife, Mari, at home with their formidable art collection in 1962. (© Bettmann/CORBIS)

His many honors and awards include honorary doctorates in five different fields and the Medal of Freedom, the United States’s highest civilian award. In 1983, he received an award from the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, recognizing his long-standing and continuing support of the arts in America.

James Michener was married for 39 years to Mari Yoriko Sabusawa, a second-generation Japanese American, who died in 1994. In his last years, Mr. Michener was based at the University of Texas in Austin, where he died on October 16, 1997, at age 90.

Inducted Badge
Inducted in 1971

“I am right now in the middle of a difficult writing project. And it’s just as difficult now as when I started. But when I get up in the morning, I am really qualified to say, ‘Well, Jim, it isn’t going too well, but there is nobody on the block who is better able to wrestle with it than you are, so let’s get on with it.'”

Published in just about every country and language in the world, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist James A. Michener was a storytelling phenomenon, a world traveler at home on virtually every continent. Unlike other novelists who sit down to write, pulling plots and characters out of their heads, Michener was a meticulous researcher, a craftsman who did not begin to write until he had absorbed every nuance of the culture, the history, the geography, and the people of the country he had chosen for his next work. Over 48 books attest to his genius.

Told to forget writing because no writer ever gets a first book published if he’s over the age of 40, Michener ignored the advice and published a book of interrelated stories taken from his experiences during World War II. Tales of the South Pacific went on to win two Pulitzer Prizes — one for the novel and one for the long-running musical play Rodgers and Hammerstein adapted from it with Joshua Logan: South Pacific.

James Michener entertained the planet for over 40 years, creating one bestseller after another. His books emphasize harmonious relationships among people and the continuing need to overcome ignorance and prejudice. A devoted public servant who once ran for Congress, Michener also served as secretary of Pennsylvania’s Constitutional Convention. James A. Michener’s words will entertain and inform readers as long as there are books to read and people to read them.

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We know that World War II changed the course of your life, but you didn’t need to go into the military. You were exempt from the draft, weren’t you? 

James Michener: I was a Quaker, and I was exempt from military service by government edict. And I was also 36 years old, so I was beyond the draft, but I fell into the hands of a tough draft board, and particularly, a specific member of it, the chairman, who did not like me very much, nor did I like him, and he hounded me into military service. I could have escaped it very easily. And everybody who heard about it thought it was outrageous. But I didn’t. I had taught about Hitler, and I had taught about the Japanese war machine, and I knew that this was a battle to the death, so I enlisted.  Now I don’t want that to sound too important. I enlisted because I got a letter from President Roosevelt saying, “Greetings. Get into uniform or we will come get you.” And the day before, this draft board was going to send me to Fort Dix. I went down and cut a deal with the Navy. I said, “Look, I’ve been in the Mediterranean. I know ships.” My papers were very sleek. “You need me.” And they said, “Yes. We do need you.” And I was a Naval enlisted man that night and never regretted it. It was a vivid experience, a tremendous one. I think I saw the devastation of war. I saw the loneliness of that terrible Pacific duty. I had two complete tours out there. I saw a lot of the war and a lot of the aftermath of it. And wonder what might have happened had I stayed at home and not gone. I might never have become what I did become.

What did you discover in the South Pacific that turned you to writing?

Let’s think that I was 38 or 39 years old, that’s pretty old, and I was surrounded by a lot of very wonderful men. Because the system had, in those days, decided that the fine men in this society would go and conduct this war, so I had men who had had positions of great importance in Wanamaker’s Department Store, Macy’s, and a wonderful guy from Tennessee who had been a troubleshooter for The Chattanooga Times, a New York Times subsidiary, and a great oil field geologist. I was small potatoes in my group, but there I was, and I had my own assets. Not as conspicuous as theirs, but still there. And I lived with these men, and I noticed that almost all the ones that I liked decided that they did not want to go back and do what they had done before; they wanted to be something else. Quite a few of them went into religion. They had been deeply moved by this. They had a spiritual awakening. Quite a few of them went into politics. They said, “I’m as bright as that clown.” Quite a few of them shifted business. Quite a few of them at that advanced age went back to college on the GI Bill. I was one of that group who said, “Now, wait. If you are ever going to change direction, let’s do it now.”

I did not change direction consciously. I didn’t say, “I’m going to be a writer.” All I knew was, that I was able to write better than a lot of the stuff I was reading, and I was going to take a shot at it. That it turned out the way it did was accidental — purely accidental. Not a matter of design at all. I had a great start. Everything hit me favorably at the beginning. It was five years before I had the courage to become a freelance with all that start because I knew what the facts were. I had been an editor myself, and I knew that people do not make a living writing books. They get enhancement in their other professions by writing books. Not many in my day ever made a living at it. And I never dreamed that I would — never thought of it. But it worked out. I think that the axial war, and the fact that I reacted the way I did — I consciously went in, meant that I was sort of a free agent in many aspects — made it fairly easy to say I want to do something bigger.

Writing Tales of the South Pacific in a Quonset hut on Espiritu Santo Island at 4:00 A.M. (Courtesy James A. Michener)
Writing Tales of the South Pacific in a Quonset hut on Espiritu Santo Island at 4:00 a.m. (Courtesy James A. Michener)

You also survived a difficult landing in New Caledonia, didn’t you?

Keys to success — Vision

I was flying into Caledonia one night, that was our headquarters. Admiral Halsey had his fleet headquarters there, and I was working there. And we had to make three passes at the airfield. The weather was really quite bad. Now when you came out, you made a big turn to the left to get over the mountain and get out to sea, turn 360 degrees, and come back. It’s a very normal procedure, but you sure pour it on the moment you decide you give it everything, and you hope you can make that turn because you need both elevation and speed. When we did that the third time, I said wait a minute. This isn’t going to work. This is tough. We may have had it. Wonderful pilot. Did it. Came back. Came into a perfect landing. It was about sunset.

That night, I could not sleep, and I went out on that airstrip on Tontouta. I’ll never forget it, about eighteen miles north of where our headquarters was, Noumea. And I walked along the airstrip, and that’s when the war hit me, and that’s when the phenomenon I spoke of before hit me. I said, “When this is over, I’m not going to be the same guy. I am going to live as if I were a great man.” I never said I was going to be a great man because I had no idea what my capacities were. I had no great confidence; nothing in my background gave me a reason to think so. But I was not forestalled from acting as if I were. That is, deal with big subjects.

Associate with people who are brighter than you are. Grapple with the problems of your time. And it was as clear to me as if a voice were telling me to do this: “This is the choosing-up point, kiddo, from here on.” I had no idea that life was as short as it is. That concept comes very late in any human life, I think. I thought life was immeasurable, extensive to the horizon and beyond. But I did know that my capacities were not unlimited. I had only so much to spend, and let’s do it in a big way. And I think that was all the difference.

Your first book, Tales of the South Pacific, portrays Americans in faraway places, and their experiences with people from very different cultures. What was it about Tales of the South Pacific, and the movie, and the musical South Pacific, that reached people?

James Michener enlisted in the U.S. Navy at age 36 and left the service a the end of World War II as a Lt. Commander. (Courtesy James A. Michener)
Lt. Cmdr. James Michener, USN. Michener was 36 when he enlisted in the U.S. Navy during World War II. (Courtesy James A. Michener)

James Michener: It came along when it was needed. People were thinking about these things. It was very daring for its day. We were advised to drop all the racial comments. That they would never be acceptable on Broadway, and it would destroy the play. But it also dealt with some very lovely human beings: this older man in love with a young nurse, the nurse trying to broaden her horizons. To be able to include Polynesian children. And the musical had some great tunes.

It was unusual in a musical to hear words like “You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear.” Was that something you were trying to say?

James Michener: I really believe — in all of my books — I’ve testified to the fact that people of different climates and nationalities and religions and skin color can be delightful people, just like your next door neighbors. And I have never deviated from that. I believe it thoroughly. I think that is a particularly American problem. I was not smart enough to perceive that it was an American problem until much later, when race problems became dominant in this country. But I had certainly staked out my position on it when I was a very young man. And I have never wavered from that.

Could you share some memories of your book Tales of the South Pacific and its adaptation into the musical South Pacific?

I think the most moving moment in The South Pacific is when Bloody Mary, the Tonkinese indentured servant, has brought her daughter to the attention of Lieutenant Cable, and she thinks it’s all going in one way. They fall in love. They are two wonderful young people. They are handsome and beautiful and desirable. And as she comes down, following them, when he is going to the boat leaving the island for a time — when he would go to his death — she tells the natives around, “Look at that wonderful guy. He going to be my son-in-law.” Now, you know he’s not going to be. And you know that it might work out better if he were. And that is what drama can do. Because then, when the planter, Pinza, and Mary Martin do get together, you feel it is really the right thing. And it’s a kind of fulfillment of the one that went wrong. Things are going to go wrong, and I think we are false to life if we don’t portray it. But there is also the hope that some lucky clown is going to come along and stumble into the gold mine. And I think you are also entitled to hold out that hope.

A scene from the original Broadway production of South Pacific. (©Rodgers and Hammerstein)
A scene from the original Broadway production of South Pacific. (©Rodgers and Hammerstein)

In your work, you combine history and fiction. Is there a danger of distorting history? How do you balance the demands of fact and fiction?

James Michener: I pioneered this form in certain respects, and I have had three or four guidelines. One, I would do my research to find out what’s actually happening. When I went to Poland, one of the first things I did was to commission, at my expense, some 20 Polish intellectuals to tell me what the hot ideas were in Poland at that time, and what to avoid, and especially what old ideas are now outmoded. The ideas of Sienkiewicz and his period. They were great for then, but they don’t apply now. And I have done that always.

I have sought out bright people and said, “Where are the pitfalls?” A point I want to make very strongly is that I don’t want the old books on the interpretation of Poland. I want the five best books of the last ten years. I want to know where we have more or less expanded our knowledge.  The second thing is, as a result of that research, I really do pledge myself not to fake anything. Not to give spurious quotes on important subjects. Not to portray a person wildly contrary to what the facts are, regardless of where the facts lead.  The third is that I have tried to, in this wonderfully exciting form, always to pin the story on fictional characters or fictional boats or fictional regiments or fictional companies. In history, I would never write about the Mayflower because everybody has done that. And everybody knows too much about that. I would write about the third ship that came in. Nobody knows what it was. I’m going to say it’s the Thetis. And boy, are there going to be some interesting people on the Thetis. And they are going to get to the Plymouth colony. They are going to tear that place apart because nobody knows really who they were. That’s a device I use, and the adjunct to that is, basing my story upon those imaginary characters, I then am not adverse to bringing in historic characters to give it authenticity and color, but only insofar as the historic character might really have impinged on these lives.

I think the best example of that is in my novel The Source, in which I am dealing with the digging of this well in a place like Northern Israel. And anybody who is doing that would ultimately come into contact with King David. And so my boy comes into contact with King David, and I try to show David as a troubled king, as a worried king. As a king who, late in his life, told his prime ministers to go out into Israel and find him a couple of nice 17 year-old girls, that he was lonely. A king who sent his prime general into the front lines so that the general would be killed so that David could inherit the general’s widow. That’s my David. And I’m entitled to do that because I know David intimately. I know everything about him, that a man like me could know, within the limits of my knowledge.

So I will use David to elucidate this whole period, but I will not fake him. I will not give him resounding statements of what we are going to do about the people living out in the desert, when there is no evidence he ever even bothered with that. And that’s a tricky gambit, and I have fallen on my face sometimes. As in Centennial, when I wrote about the marriage [of the parents] of Winston Churchill. His father to this wonderful daughter of a New York jeweler, Jenny Jerome. I have Churchill’s father out there looking for Jenny Jerome, I think eight years after he married her. I’m ashamed of that. I’m disgusted with myself. But I don’t do it too often.