Michener: Our Most Prolific Writer & Historian
By Tom Morrow
Born Feb. 3, 1907, author and historian James A. Michener never met a story he didn’t write … extensively and lengthy. He was considered one of America’s most prolific historic novelist.
Often his 40 books contained more information than was anticipated, many leading off with explanations of particular geographic locales and important history. Each and every one of his tome’s were educational, enjoyable and entertaining. Readers finished his books better educated and more entertained than most writers. Michener told a reviewer he had more than 1 million of his words had been published over his long life.
Michener attended Swarthmore College, in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, where he played basketball and was a member of the Phi Delta Theta fraternity. In 1929, after graduating summa cum laude from Swarthmore College he studied in the town of St. Andrews, Fife on the Scottish coast of the North Sea.
In 1933, Michener took a job as a high school English teacher at George School in Pennsylvania. Later, he attended Colorado State Teachers College in Greeley where he earned a Master of Arts degree in Education. The library at the University of Northern Colorado is named in his honor.
Michener’s stories were often fictional family sagas incorporated into solid local history. He had numerous best-sellers and was known for his meticulous research.
To make sure he gleaned every bit of history needed to tell his stories, Michener often relocated himself for months, even years, to the setting where he worked before moving on. The only place he didn’t move to was “Space,” one of his titles about the history of the space race.
Michener began his writing career during World War II, when as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy he was assigned to the South Pacific as a Naval historian. He later turned his notes and impressions into his first book, “Tales of the South Pacific,” (1947), published at his age of 40. He won the 1948 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Rodgers and Hammerstein adapted “Tales” as their hit Broadway musical “South Pacific,” which premiered on Broadway in New York City in 1949. The musical was made into feature films in 1958 and again in 2001.
Among his others books are: “Hawaii,” “The Drifters,” “Centennial,” “The Source,” “The Fires of Spring,” “Chesapeake,” “Caribbean,” “Caravans,” “Alaska,” “Texas,” and “Poland,” plus “The Bridges at Toko-Ri,” a Korean War saga. His non-fiction works include “Iberia,” and his memoir, “The World Is My Home.” and “Sports in America.” “Return to Paradise” combines fictional short stories with Michener’s factual descriptions of the Pacific areas where they take place.
On a more controversial note, in 1969, Michener wrote an analysis of the United States’ Electoral College system in a book condemning it entitled “Presidential Lottery: The Reckless Gamble in Our Electoral System.” It was republished in 2014 and again in 2016.
Michener tried television writing but was unsuccessful. TV producer Bob Mann wanted Michener to co-create a weekly anthology series from “Tales of the South Pacific,” serving as narrator. Rodgers and Hammerstein, however, had bought all dramatic rights to the novel and did not relinquish their ownership. In 1959, Michener did lend his name to a different television series, “Adventures in Paradise,” starring Gardner McKay as Captain Adam Troy in the sailing ship Tiki III.
Michener was a popular writer during his lifetime; his novels sold an estimated 75 million copies worldwide. His novel, “Hawaii” (1959), was well-timed when the Territory became the 50th state. Michener used same historic approach for nearly all of his subsequent novels, which were based on detailed cultural, and even geological research. “Centennial” (1974), which documented several generations of families in the Rocky Mountains of the American West, became a popular 12-part television mini-series of the same name and aired on NBC television network) from October 1978 through February 1979.
Michener’s prodigious output made for lengthy novels, several of which run more than 1,000 pages. The author states in “My Lost Mexico,” (1992), that at times he would spend 12 to 15 hours per day at his typewriter for weeks on end, and that he used so much paper, his filing system had trouble keeping up.
In the Micheners’ final years, he and his wife lived in Austin, Texas where they endowed the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin. The Center provides three-year Michener Fellowships in fiction, poetry, playwriting and screenwriting to a small number of students.
Suffering from terminal kidney disease, in October 1997, Michener ended the daily dialysis treatment that had kept him alive for four years. He said he had accomplished what he wanted and did not want further physical complications. On Oct. 16, 1997, he died of kidney failure, at age 90. Michener was cremated, and his ashes were placed next to those of his wife at Austin Memorial Park Cemetery in Austin, Texas.