Obituary: James Michener
Saturday 18 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
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