Insignia / February 1999
By Larry Luxner
Globe-trotting novelist James Michener, who died last year at the age of 90, was one of America's most prolific authors of the twentieth century.
Michener was already 40 years old when he submitted his first novel, Tales of the South Pacific, to Macmillan under an assumed name in 1947. Soon after, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein turned the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel into one of Broadway's most popular musicals ever, South Pacific.In later years, Michener's blockbuster novels would sell over 75 million copies and be translated into every major language in the world.
Born of unknown parents in 1907 and raised in an orphanage in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Michener has always been a traveler. By the time he graduated from high school in 1925, he had been to 45 of the then 48 states of the union.
For years, the author has also had his own method of exploring a new place, which he described in matter-of-fact style in the opening pages of Iberia, his famous novel about Spain: "I enter the country unannounced and without a letter to anyone. I stand back and look at the scene before me, talk with anyone who cares to talk with me, then go to the bus station and buy a ticket for the end of any random line. This drops me in some village out in the country, and there I stay, just sitting and looking and talking. This produces some very dull days, but also some very memorable ones."
But the turning point in Michener's career came in the late 1950s, when Random House published his first epic novel Hawaii -- a 937-page blockbuster of a book whose action begins in a volcanic upheaval "millions upon millions of years ago" and ends with the establishment of Hawaiian statehood in 1959.
"The years passed, the empty, endless, significant years," writes Michener, describing the painfully slow evolution of Hawaii's plant and animal life. "And then one day, another bird arrived on the island, also seeking food. This time it found a few dead fish along the shore. As if in gratitude, it emptied its bowels on the waiting earth and evacuated a tiny seed which it had eaten on some remote island. The seed germinated and grew. Thus, after the passage of eons of time, growing life had established itself on the rocky island."
Today, tourists to Oahu can visit the little beachfront community of Waimanalo, where one establishment, the Kom A'ona Bed & Breakfast, advertising on the Internet -- offers "a tranquil genuine Hawaiian setting ... on the spot where Michener wrote his famous novel Hawaii."
Michener himself wrote over 40 books during his lifetime. After Hawaii came several more epic novels, each of them filling at least 900 pages of text and spanning centuries, if not millenia: The Source (1965), Centennial (1974), Chesapeake (1978), The Covenant (1980), Poland (1983) and Texas(1985).
"I never realized that I had any unusual capacity for writing until pretty late in the day," recalled the author during a 1987 interview in Miami. "A virtue of the work I do is that I bring people's attention into focus. If I do it well, and the book is published in a large number of volumes, it will direct people's thoughts for the next two or three decades. They may not agree with everything, but they will at least have to think about it."
Unlike many contemporary writers who use PCs, laptops and sophisticated soft-ware, Michener produced his novels the old-fashioned way -- on a manual typewriter. "I type with only two fingers, and not as accurately as I should," he said. "One of my principal weapons is a tube of liquid glue. Everything has to be in visual sequence, so I cut and paste a great deal. Then I turn it over to a woman who puts it on a disk, where we do all our editing. When the manuscript is finished, I send individual chapters out to people who know more about the subject than I do. I pay them and ask them to tear the thing apart."
Michener's 672-page novel Caribbean -- published by Random House in 1989 -- follows a pattern similar to Hawaii, The Source and more recently, Alaska, in which he traces the history of a place from one generation to the next, intertwining the lives of fictional characters with those of real ones. The action in Caribbean spans 700 years and covers the French and Dutch islands as well as Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Mexico's Caribbean coast.
Long before Michener thought about writing a book on the Caribbean, he toured the islands extensively and even taught a university course in the Dominican Republic. Over the years, he's made 14 trips to the area, starting in 1959 with a visit to the Mayan ruins of Palenque and Chichen Itza. "It was always just as a tourist," he said. "I wasn't doing any substantial work. But even as a tourist, you pick up insights."
After several years, Michener had been to every country he needed to go for the Caribbean novel, except Cuba. The author was unwelcome in Cuba because of the anti-Communist overtones of his books on Hungary and Poland, and because of his association with the U.S. Information Agency. Yet following several failed attempts to enter the country, the Castro regime finally let him in -- a trip that resulted in an entertaining picture book, Six Days in Havana.
But it wasn't easy. "You have to get permission from the American government, and then also from the Cuban government," he says. "When one agreed, the other didn't."
Michener, who during his life supported Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, nonetheless categorized the U.S. embargo of Cuba as "complete idiocy," saying it was inhumane and counterproductive. "I think we should make life as difficult as possible for Castro, but not for the Cuban people. Punishing them seems repugnant to me. This won't help anybody. I'm especially worried when such harsh measures are applied to a country so close to the United States."
The eventual end of the embargo, he said, will produce an important realignment of economic interests. "I think that as soon as Americans can visit Cuba from U.S. ports, Cuba will become a major destination." He adds, however, that "what that country needs most is a million gallons of white paint and 15 powerful lawn-mowers. I think this can be done in six months."
In our 1987 interview, the author predicted that the Caribbean would soon burst onto the world scene, just as Eastern Europe did after Poland was published in 1983. "I am essentially a geographer, and you only need to look at Poland to realize that it's got to be of importance at some time. I wrote about Poland long before it became important, and then Solidarity came along by accident and my friend, the Bishop of Krakow, became Pope. Then there was a minor revolution to the right. All that happened after I went there, but it was clear to me that it was going to happen.
"I feel somewhat the same about the Caribbean," Michener continued. "With all these islands facing such critical economic problems, the big question to someone like me is: What are they going to do in the years ahead? It will have to reflect back on the United States, more than it used to on Britain or France. We could save the whole area if we would pay three cents above the world price for sugar, but the farmers of America wouldn't permit that."
The Caribbean country with the most severe problems, he says, is impoverished Haiti. "I don't see any solution there," he lamented. "To think they've been a free nation since 1804 and have accomplished so little. I like people, but Haiti defeats me."
Throughout his working life, Michener stuck to a rigid schedule, rising at 7:30 every morning. By 7:31 he was at his typewriter -- and he stayed there until noon. His evenings were reserved for catching up on the news or meeting new people. He never used a tape recorder, nor took extensive notes -- though he did make careful mental observations about the places he visited and the people he interviewed. "I don't think I am prolific if you compare me with writers like Scott, Tolstoy or Dickens," he said. "I spend two years on the actual writing of a book. That's 730 days. If the book is 730 pages, that means I'm doing one page a day."
In 1988, Michener -- who once ran for Congress as a liberal but lost -- interrupted his work to write a book based on the Iran-Contra scandal, entitled Legacy. After producing Caribbean, he wrote Mexico, then a book on the art of writing itself, The Novel.
In 1995, the great author produced his last two books, Miracle in Seville and Ventures in Editing. By the time Michener died in October 1997 of kidney failure, he had sold over 75 million books -- and had given away more than $100 million to universities, libraries in museums.
"I always thought that each new book would supplant the old one in sales, but they're all still in print," Michener mused. "I don't think any of them have caught up with Hawaii."