AN EPIC LIFE
Editor's Note: The interview for this article took place with Mr. Michener on August 28 , 1997. Mr. Michener passed away on October 16, 1997.
James Michener, one of America's best-loved novelists, has lived a life of epic proportions, his saga as much a page-turner as any of his famous books, his success the outcome of hard-won battles.
Michener, an orphan, was adopted shortly after birth by Mabel Michener, a poverty-stricken widow with two other children. The family lived in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, surviving with few resources and often little to eat. Michener's classmates and even a teacher tormented him about his unpressed secondhand clothes and toeless sneakers with broken, knotted laces.
According to John Hayes, author of James A. Michener: A Biography (The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1984), Mabel was Michener's birth mother, but being unwed, she used the adoption story to protect them both. Michener holds to the adoption version but no longer discusses the subject. Despite these circumstances, his participation in basketball led to numerous team victories and a championship season, bringing him a certain acceptance and some lessening of the pain of the ridicule to which he was subjected.
As a young teenager and with just a few dollars in his pocket, Michener began hitchhiking across the United States, sometimes with a buddy, frequently alone. Of those days, Michener writes in his autobiography, The World Is My Home (Random House, 1992), "Those were years of wonder and enchantment,...some of the best years I would know. I kept meeting American citizens of all levels who took me into their cars, their confidence and often their homes." From these early experiences grew Michener's lifelong insatiable curiosity about people, cultures, and faraway lands.
Before establishing his career as a writer, Michener was a teacher, graduate student, textbook editor at Macmillan, and lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy. During World War II, at age 40, he was assigned to the South Pacific as a naval historian to investigate problems on various islands and write reports. Observing the interaction of two different cultures and inspired by the beautiful setting of the South Pacific, he began to make notes with no specific goal in mind. A near fatal landing at dusk, on the Tontouta Air Base in French New Caledonia, changed his life. He recalls in his autobiography, "As the stars came out and I could see the low mountains I had escaped, I swore: 'I'm going to live the rest of my life as if I were a great man.' And despite the terrible braggadocio of those words, I understood precisely what I meant."
Michener's epiphany led to a conviction that the young men and women who lived through the war would one day want to recall it and explain it to others. So every evening, after watching a movie on the base, Michener would retire to his Quonset hut and type up his impressions of life in the Pacific. He writes in his memoirs: "Sitting there in the darkness, illuminated only by the flickering lamplight, I visualized the aviation scenes in which I had participated, the landing beaches I'd seen, the remote outposts, the exquisite islands with bending palms, and especially the valiant people I'd known: the French planters, the Australian coast watchers, the Navy nurses, the Tonkinese laborers, the ordinary sailors and soldiers who were doing the work, and the primitive natives to whose jungle fastnesses I had traveled."
Using a nom de plume, Michener submitted his writing to Macmillan. Though the company had an ironclad rule against publishing works of an employee, Michener-who planned to return to his previous job there-decided that at that moment he was not technically an employee. They accepted his work, discovered his true identity, and published Tales of the South Pacific, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1948. That was the first of his many books, some other titles being Hawaii, The Bridges at Toko-Ri, Mexico, and Texas.
Rumor has it that Michener uses an army of researchers to gather background material for each of his epic novels, which average around 900 pages each. The fact is that he achieved his massive work with the help of only three secretaries. "People don't believe it, but it's absolutely true," says John Kings, Michener's editorial assistant since 1972. Adds Michener, "I think [people] would be shocked if they knew how hard I have to work to turn out these books, which seem to the average spectator so easy to do."
Nearly 91, Michener still maintains a disciplined routine of writing. After a 7 a.m. awakening, Michener goes straight to work. He'll eat a light breakfast, possibly have a few meetings, and work until 1 p.m., when he breaks for lunch. An afternoon nap follows, and the evenings he "keeps to himself." Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, Michener spends three hours at the Seton Renal Treatment Center, where he undergoes kidney dialysis-a procedure that confines him to the distance between his home and the clinic in Austin, Texas. Being unable to travel-for a man who has been everywhere in the world-is more upsetting than the dialysis. "I sit in the TV room and see shows on the big ships I used to travel or areas that I used to wander, and a tear comes to my eye," he told writer Steve Wartenberg during an interview for the Intelligencer Record. "It's very painful. It's not easy."
Michener's financial hardships during childhood affected his attitude toward money for the rest of his life. Despite his wealth resulting from literary success, he has always feared ending up in the poorhouse. He spends little money on himself beyond the bare necessities. "He lives like he was on social security," says Herman Silverman, a successful businessman and close friend of Michener for over 50 years. "He doesn't spend money on fancy homes or good food. He lives in a regular tract house that's probably not worth more than $200,000." Adds Silverman, "He's very generous with places he wants to be generous with."
The generosity to which Silverman refers adds up to over $100 million. Recipients of Michener's philanthropy include a variety of public institutions such as libraries, museums, and universities. As a firm believer in education he gave $30 million to the University of Texas at Austin for the establishment of a creative writing program. Several million more have gone to the creation of the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, formerly a jailhouse built in 1860. Reportedly, Michener did not want the building named after him, though he is immensely proud of the museum and what it has to offer. One wing is named for his third wife, Mari Sabusawa Michener, who died of cancer in 1994.
"It's an absolutely lovely thing," Michener says enthusiastically. "It holds the work [artifacts] of great people that lived and worked in the area. Pearl Buck and Oscar Hammerstein II, S. J. Perelman, Moss Hart. A band of geniuses."
Michener is certainly a member of that band. As a young man, his genius earned him a four-year scholarship-one of the five awarded annually-to Swarthmore College, an excellent Quaker school, from which he graduated summa cum laude in 1929. Throughout his career he has won prestigious awards, including The Presidential Medal of Freedom, The Franklin Award, and the Einstein Award; he has received many honorary degrees and has served on government commissions dealing with radio and television, foreign relations, space, and postage stamps. He even made a bid for Congress in 1962 on the Democratic ticket but lost to the incumbent. "Everybody knows he must be very bright because of the kind of books he writes," says Silverman. Ann Silverman interjects, "He knows every bird, every tree. Knows the stars. Interested in opera. He's a very rounded guy. Not just a guy that sits down and writes books."
Michener, who doesn't like to talk about himself, is humble about his success and popularity. "[Famous] is a word I never use myself, about myself," says the author. "I'm well known. I've written these 30...40 books. I've done a great deal. But I let it go at that." Herman Silverman describes Michener as "unpretentious...just like everyone else." Generous with his autograph, he once admitted to Silverman, "The most valuable books are those that aren't signed."
Gracious though he is, Michener is often referred to as an enigma, a difficult person to really know. Ann Silverman says of their early friendship, "He wasn't the kind of guy to start conversations with people he didn't know. He didn't like small talk with strangers." She pauses, then adds, "He still doesn't."
Though it may be hard to know the man personally, he shares his voice through the millions of copies of his books, translated into nearly every language. Now he is at work on eight projects but won't reveal their contents. And to the frequently asked question, "Which book are you most proud of?" He responds, "The one I'm working on next."
In his most recent book, This Noble Land: My Vision for America (Random House, 1996), Michener shares his hopes and fears for this country's future. He expresses concern about the direction we are heading, about race relations; the distribution of wealth, which he calls "preposterous"; the Supreme Court, which is "stumbling around, not giving us the leadership we need"; and the "deplorably low" level of education. Still, Michener's vision of our future remains hopeful, as he concludes, "In the next half century we can light new candles of excellence, protect the ones we already have and gain an extension. I wish I could witness the next years of decision; they should be riveting as we face one crucial choice after another. I hope our genius for doing the right thing will guide us."