In "The Novel," a work of fiction about writing a work of fiction, one of James A. Michener's narrators observes that people "acquire wisdom in two ways: by patient accumulation and analysis of the evidence available and by epiphanies that in an instant illuminate continents and centuries."
The two methods fit the inquiring and patient Michener to a T but seem rather too limiting to apply to all of his readers. In fact, a third strategy is apparent to anyone who has ever devoured just about any of his works of fiction and nonfiction:Transfusion.
For through his books, many discovered, and absorbed, the world.
"I decided early on to choose as my subject the entire earth, all terrains, all peoples, all animals, and in my major works I have hewn fairly closely to that aim," wrote Michener, who died Thursday of kidney failure at age 90. In pursuing his goal, he put a human face on war with "Tales of the South Pacific" (giving Rodgers and Hammerstein the foundation for a fine musical). He developed the encyclopedic novel and became the impactful teacher he was meant to be with "Hawaii," "Centennial," "Alaska" and so many more. He visited and lived in the far corners of the planet, gathered and digested vast quantities of information and conveyed what he saw and learned to millions of readers.
Literary critics generally had difficulty accepting Michener's swath, or his attempts to educate as well as entertain. And the writer himself recognized that he was no Hemingway, Fitzgerald or Faulkner, to name three other American lions. Tight, cohesive plotting and crisp dialogue were not his forte, he admitted, and neither was psychology; his characterizations often proved rather broad. "I liked my novels big and rugged and extensive," he said.
History's panorama, human rights, the struggle for personal and civic growth - these are just a few of the grand topics Michener chose to weave into his stories. Religion was as well, generally with curiosity but sometimes without deep understanding. The latter subject is, of course, key to "The Source," his epic novel of Israel, and plays a significant role in "Hawaii." In "Alaska," a young teacher, Kendra Scott, is a Utahn. Though not Mormon, her parents "shared the stern discipline that religion imposed." She attended Brigham Young University, dating young men "slight of build, washy-blond of hair, hesitant in speech and awkward in movement." While the example is of local interest, the broad assumptions are typical of Michener's approach.
However, most enjoyed Michener's creations because he was prodigiously inquisitive and willing to lay his discoveries so amply before us. Few, if any, will be able to know and see all that Michener knew and witnessed in a lifetime closely aligned with the sweep of the 20th century. But we can share his experience through his words.
"Looking back on a lifetime of joyous travel, I have these answers to questions frequently asked," he wrote in the aptly titled memoir, "The World Is My Home." " `What was the most delightful place you ever visited?' Bora Bora. `The most rewarding city?' A dead tie between Rome and London. `The best ancient ruin?' Karnak and the temples along the Nile. `The most romantic?' What used to be Angkor Wat in Cambodia. `The most spiritual place?' Kyoto in Japan."
What is perhaps not widely known is that Michener was adopted; he never knew who his parents were. He lived his life, he said, "without a birth certificate." Despite the cruelties of some, the kindness of a few gave him a foundation in life; he was raised on a farm by a Quaker widow, Mabel Michener, in Bucks County, Pa. His intelligence and wanderlust took him early to universities in both America and Europe. He became an editor, enlisted in the Navy and went to the Pacific in World War II, survived multiple airplane crashes, won the Pulitzer Prize for his first novel - published at age 40 - and underwent heart surgery, yet thrived for nine decades. He became a wealthy man and a generous one: Michener donated more than $100 million to various libraries, universities and museums.
What would he like to be known for? He answered the question himself: "By that row of solid books that rest on library shelves throughout the world." And, he added, as "a working resident of the world, one who has labored to describe it with understanding and affection and share it with others. With my pen I have engraved warrants of citizenship in the most remote corners, for truly the world has been my home."
He will be remembered as a storyteller of unusual gifts, indeed, one who proved singularly able to "illuminate continents and centuries."