Obituary: James Michener

James Albert Michener, writer: born New York 3 October 1907; married 1935 Patti Koon (marriage dissolved 1948), 1948 Vange Nord (marriaged dissolved 1955), 1955 Mari Yoriko Sabusawa (died 1994); died Austin, Texas 17 October 1997.

The life of the novelist James Michener is an archetypal rags to riches story. A foundling, raised largely in the poorhouse of Doylestown, Pennsylvania, he achieved, by dint of hard work and a lively intelligence, first, academic success in the field of education before the Second World War, then worldwide acclaim and incredible wealth in the decades after the war as the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of a string of epic novels.

He won the Pulitzer at the age of 40 for his first book of fiction, Tales of The South Pacific (1948), a collection of stories which became the basis for the musical South Pacific. Thereafter, however, critics, whilst not denying his talent for narrative, have tended to sneer at his heavily researched "blockbusters" for their shallow characterisations, stilted dialogue and lack of style.

But readers love them. His books, which include Hawaii (1959), Caravans (1963), Centennial (1974), Chesapeake (1978), Space (1982), Texas (1985) and 25 or so others (fiction, non-fiction and memoir), have sold over 75 million copies in 52 languages and have formed the bases for nine major movies and half a dozen television films and mini-series.

Born in 1907, Michener never knew who his real parents were. He accepted that he never would and determinedly kept speculation out of his life. He was fostered by Mabel Michener who, when times were hard, was obliged to pack him off to the poorhouse for weeks at a time. He later attributed his lack of interest in material things to his poverty-stricken childhood.

"Very early on in life I decided the hell with it, material things weren't for me," he said. "Christmas would come and other kids would have all these presents and it wouldn't bother me a bit."

And indeed, relative to his incredible wealth, he seems to have lived a modest life, in certain instances a quirkily frugal one. He never bought shaving cream, for example, using instead odd slivers of soap he carefully saved. However, this did not make him a mean man. Indeed, he gave most of his money away.

In 1996 he estimated he had given away more than $100 million to libraries, museums and universities over the years. He bought modern art to give to art galleries - settling for prints on his own walls - and donated his $25 million Japanese print collection to Honolulu's city art gallery .

His largesse to universities was partly due to gratitude - he was educated at nine of them. Although as a restless, adventurous teenager he had, by the age of 20, ridden freight trains and hitchhiked through 45 of America's then 48 states, taking odd jobs at carnivals and travelling shows as he went, he also excelled in his studies at school and won a scholarship to a Quaker college in 1929.

Before the Second World War he was heavily involved in educative work, so much so that he was a visiting professor of education at Harvard for a time.

His wartime experiences visiting the Pacific islands for the Navy - he started as a seaman third class and ended the war as a lieutenant commander - provided the material for Tales of The South Pacific. Thereafter, for the next four decades, he alternated works of non-fiction with his works of fiction set in exotic locations.

His non-fiction included several books about Japanese prints, a subject on which he was an expert, and an investigation of the Kent State killings (Kent State, 1971) which came down on the side of the rebellious students. (He was a supporter of Kennedy and stood unsuccessfully for Congress on the Democratic ticket.)

Most of his epic fiction follows the same formula: focus on a specific geographical location and tell a story based there over decades, even centuries - for Centennial he started with the geological formation of the North America land mass in prehistoric times and made his slow but fascinating way forward from there.

To research such doorstop books he would settle in the place he was studying for as long as it took - he once likened his research method to that of a "total-immersion Baptist". He spent much of the Fifties based in Hawaii (the eponymous novel took seven years to research and write) and two decades later ended up settling in Austin, Texas after spending two years researching his novel about the Lone Star State. (He estimated he had read over 400 books for that novel.)

Some of this research manifested itself in chunky ethnological, philosophical or historical essays awkwardly stuck into his narratives. The former educationalist didn't deny his didactic intent and indeed was the first to express surprise that his works were so popular since parts of them were often undigestible.

His dedication to research was a manifestation of his driven nature. Well into his eighties he would write for five hours each day, starting at 7.30am, seven days a week. He rarely took a holiday. Although he frequently visited Spain, which he regarded as his second home after discovering it as a student in the early Thirties, explored ancient cities in the Middle East, visited Arctic wastelands and South Sea islands, the motive was usually research rather than relaxation.

His drive presumably harked back to his impoverished childhood but he would never discuss the psychological consequences of that harsh time in interviews, except to say: "When you have that kind of childhood you become self-sufficient or you go down the tubes. I missed a whole cycle of childhood but I've never used it as a device for self-pity."

Indeed, he seems to have blocked out completely whatever misery living in an institution caused him: he and his second wife adopted two sons, but the boys were returned to an orphanage when the marriage ended. He was married three times. He married his third wife, Mari Yoriko Sabusawa, in 1955 and they were constant companions until her death in September 1994.

Michener, who in his life had survived three near-fatal plane crashes, had undergone a quintuple heart by-pass in 1986, and was already on dialysis treatment when his wife died. For over a decade, the globe-trotting writer who wrote a memoir called The World Is My Home (1992), was obliged to remain in Austin because of his condition.

He admitted that there was a time after his wife's death when he thought of giving up. "A person on dialysis undergoes very heavy and irritating treatment and in time it seems more than you can bear," he said. "There's always an easy out. Just don't go to hospital. Then, after two weeks, you're dead." A few days after his 90th birthday, James Michener took himself off his dialysis machine.

- Peter Guttridge

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
A mugshot of Ian Watkins released by South Wales Police following his guilty pleas
peopleBandmates open up about abuse
Javier Mascherano of Argentina tackles Arjen Robben of the Netherlands as he attempts a shot
world cup 2014
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight
Four ski officials in Slovenia have been suspended following allegations of results rigging
sportFour Slovenian officials suspended after allegations they helped violinist get slalom place
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SAP Data Migration Consultant

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client, a FTSE 100 organisation are u...

Programme Support, Coms, Bristol, £300-350p/d

£300 - £350 per day + competitive: Orgtel: My client, a leading bank, is curre...

Linux Systems Administrator

£33000 per annum + pension, 25 days holiday: Ashdown Group: A highly successfu...

(Junior) IT Systems Administrator / Infrastructure Analyst

£28000 - £32000 per annum + pension, 25 days holiday: Ashdown Group: A highly ...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice