Back in 1974, traveler, citizen, philanthropist and best-selling author James A. Michener published a novel about the American West titled
. This month, the Doylestown native, who was born in February 1907 and died Oct. 16, 1997, hit his own.
Institutions are taking note. Random House, his longtime publisher, is reissuing both Centennial and his autobiography, The World Is My Home. Swarthmore College, the alma mater to which he donated millions, will honor him in the fall. Doylestown's James A. Michener Art Museum, which he helped establish, will mount an exhibition, "James A. Michener: Traveler/Citizen/Writer," on March 3.
There's more. The University of Texas at Austin, to which Michener donated millions and nearly 300 artworks, has opened a new Mari and James A. Michener Building at its Blanton Museum of Art. The university's press, in conjunction with the Michener Center for Writers endowed by you-know-who, will publish quality writers who lack Michener's commercial punch.
And let's not forget the Honolulu Academy of Arts, to which Michener donated almost 5,400 Japanese woodblock prints. It will present two shows, "The Floating World: James A. Michener and Hawaii" and "An Art Reborn: James A. Michener and 20th Century Japanese Print."
The list goes on. Michener, after all, donated more than $117 million in his lifetime. Born poor, he became one of the 20th century's best-selling authors, a multimillionaire who lived modestly and wanted to give back.
Yet almost all the institutions celebrating Michener remain beneficiaries of his largesse. That forces delicate questions at his centennial.
Is Michener's legacy as a philanthropist or a writer? Is it his money that has lasted, or his work?
Michener's Random House books, 23 of which remain in print, still sell steadily, if not as spectacularly as in his heyday. Since the publisher began keeping computer records, total Michener sales come to 37 million copies. His books spent more weeks on the New York Times best-seller list than those of any other 20th-century writer.
But this public-spirited liberal soul, who ran for Congress from Bucks County in 1962, never won much praise from critics, reviewers or academics. His singular moment of literary acclaim came at the beginning of his career: the 1948 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his first book, Tales of the South Pacific. Rodgers and Hammerstein adapted it into the musical hit South Pacific.
Why did the acclaim not continue? Because, in almost every way, Michener violated literary taste.
At a time, beginning in the 1950s and '60s, when the American novel was departing both the monumental realism of Theodore Dreiser and the spare, journalistic style of Ernest Hemingway for more modernist, experimental forms, Michener, a onetime textbook editor, patented the novel as textbook with multiple stories laced through it.
In Hawaii (1959), Caravans (1963, about Afghanistan), The Source (1965, about Israel), Centennial (1974), Chesapeake (1978), The Covenant (1980, about South Africa), Poland (1983), Texas (1985), Alaska (1988) and Mexico (1992), Michener combined enormous research - increasingly abetted by researchers - with narratives of the entire history of his subjects for centuries.
He wrote other kinds of books, but it was these monuments with which he became identified. At the same time, critics regularly lambasted him for a verbose, wooden style. Even his admiring biographer, Stephen J. May, describes him as "long-winded," a judgment Michener accepted.
"He never considered himself a literary man," says Carol Schneider, the executive director of Random House publicity, who worked with him, "but simply an educator and a storyteller. . . . He made parts of America and many countries come alive for his audience. In doing so, I think he extended the reach of fiction to many nonfiction readers who never bothered with novels before."
That leaves the critical community today with a puzzle. Don't we live in the information age, the age of globalization? How can Michener, who provides a comprehensive overview of important global territories in each of his signature books, be second-rate, while fiction writers who provide no useful information in their work - just, occasionally, some insight into the human condition - enjoy immortality?
One answer is that literary taste - which triggers the legacies that produce symposia and honors from places other than a writer's beneficiaries - operates in its own world, and is not always fair.
Michener spent much of his life as an indefatigable journalist, particularly for Reader's Digest, who insisted on expressing that reportage through fiction as well. A Tom Wolfe with dog-eared passport long before the white-suited Southerner turned his own reportorial powers to fiction, Michener suffered the same snobbery Wolfe receives from literary critics, who often find adapting anything more distant than one's domestic spats into fiction faintly vulgar.
Unlike Wolfe, however, Michener never transcended the flat style he found apt for delivering facts - he said he believed in using "ordinary words to achieve extraordinary results." As a result, the aesthetically minded critics, who (we predict) will ultimately rescue Wolfe, shunned him.
Finally, Michener rarely hobnobbed with other literati. Wealthy enough to do as he pleased, the longtime loner left no cadre of literary pals or disciples to emulate his approach or tend his flame after he died.
Michener's centennial year nonetheless invites critics and intellectuals to reflect on a startling fact: This white-bread novelist, this foundling who never knew his own ethnicity, produced the most colossal, widely read corpus of any American writer about what academics fashionably call the "Other."
Isn't Michener thus a perfect subject for "Cultural Studies," the discipline that discerns deep truth in a grain of popular art? Is Michener really worse for us than a fact-challenged nativist like the currently sainted Cormac McCarthy?
At a time when American journalism finds itself losing readers in lockstep with its shrinkage of international coverage, while American book publishers gain readers as they publish more about the rest of the world, we might learn from James Michener's globe-hopping, notebook-filled approach to the novel.