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Rediscover James Michener

RediscoverMichenerWhen I was a young teenager in the mid-1960s, the young adult genre of books was a mish-mash of Nancy Drew, Sue Barton, The Hardy Boys, Little Women, Treasure Island and David Copperfield. Once we teens had devoured all of those books, including Black Stallion, Johnny Tremain and I Capture the Castle, we seemed to move quickly and deliberately into books written for adults. We read John Steinbeck’s Mice and Men, Conrad Richter’s A Light in the Forest, and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. We carried dog-eared copies of Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Pearl Buck’s Good Earth, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath.

There were many of us who wanted something more meaningful than the romance, science fiction, and adventure written in the 40s and 50s for teenagers. Bestselling author Steve Berry writes that “what we now know as the young adult genre [in the early 60s] had yet to be invented”. Steven King’s Carrie was a decade away and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter was more than 30 years from being published.
One day, when he was 16, Steven Berry was handed a copy of James Michener’s Hawaii. Massive chapters, pages of descriptive prose, and centuries of history unfolded for him and a generation of older teens who were ready to devour books that opened up the world. Berry writes on his website that Michener is probably his favorite author and the one who made the greatest impression on him as a writer. It led him to write the introduction that appears in thirty-three of Michener’s books republished in paperback by Penguin Random House’s Dial Press, including Tales of the South Pacific (first published in 1947) and Miracle in Seville (Michener’s last book published, in 1995.)

James Michener’s memoir, The World is My Home was published in 1992, five years before his death. It’s a tome to be reckoned with, spanning nearly 90 years from his birth in Buck’s County, Pennsylvania in 1907 through some of the last of his novels written before he turned 85. At 512 pages, The World is My Home is neatly split into 14 chapters – seven about his life before he became a writer and seven after that. He writes of the early years of – when he was seemingly abandoned as an infant and adopted by a widowed Quaker, Mabel Michener. In fact, he never knew his actual birth date, nor the names of his biological parents. Years later, in order to obtain a U.S. passport, he would have to apply for a birth certificate, and it included a lengthy legal process with estimated and historical information about his birth.

Although he grew up in poverty, Michener managed to attend Swarthmore College on scholarship after graduating from high school. He earned a graduate degree in northern Colorado and became a college teacher. He guest lectured at Harvard, leaving that position to become an editor of textbooks. As a Quaker, he was sent to the South Pacific during World War II as a historian for the Navy from 1942-1946. He was discharged right before his 40th birthday.

And that is where the first seven chapters end and his writing career began – with his Tales of the South Pacific. He began notes about the stories, observations, and impressions that were made on him in the Navy. Tales of the South Pacific was published the year after he left the Navy and it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1948. The Broadway musical opened in 1949 (and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1950) and two film versions were released in 1958 and 2001. The 1958 big-screen film was nominated for three academy awards, winning best picture for sound. The 2001 version was made for television and starred Glenn Close and Harry Connick, Jr.

I read a dog-eared mass paperback edition of Michener’s first novel The Fires of Spring (1947); (Tales of the South Pacific is considered a book of short stories). I was in my early 20s, traveling on rapid transit along the rail running along the East Bay of San Francisco. I devoured that book during my work commute. It is the semi-autobiographical story of Michener’s own life. David Harper, a young orphan who grows up in a rural poorhouse, drifts as a young man, spends time as a scam artist at a carnival, attends college and eventually becomes a journalist and writer in the early years of the depression.. The book is a true bildungsroman, the German word for a coming of age novel (a word known to librarians as it is a descriptor for a whole genre of novels.)

A few months ago, I was remembering with nostalgia those books I read in my late teens and early adulthood. I wondered if I would still enjoy the stories of angst, poverty, despair and political upheaval that they represented. Among them were Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle, and Michener’s Fires of Spring. I decided to reread Fires of Spring and I stumbled upon the entire republished collection of Michener’s works by the Dial Press. Publication began in fact, in 1987 with Fires of Spring.  It continued with the reprinting in 2016 of Michener’s commentary on the rashness of our electoral system, a work of non-fiction, The Presidential Lottery. In 1968 Michener was a Democrat elector in the Electoral College in Pennsylvania, having run for public office himself in the early 60s. What he witnessed as the possibility of disaster in trusting our system to the Electoral College drove him to warn Americans about this “reckless gamble.”

In his memoir The World is My Home, James Michener wrote “mostly I want to be remembered by that row of solid books that rest on library shelves throughout the world.”  Our shelves held about a dozen of Michener’s books, once new but greatly loved. We’ve replaced those and many other with the newest Dial Press editions and are spotlighting them in a “Rediscover James Michener” display. They include Centennial, Hawaii, the Source, Texas, Bridges at Toko-Ri and about a dozen others. You’ll find the display on top of the NEW FICTION shelves in the library. I hope you will re-experience your favorite Michener book or find a Michener treasure to love for the first time.

Charlotte Canelli is the Director at the Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood, Massachusetts.  Read Charlotte’s column in the March 9, 2017 issue of the Norwood Transcript & Bulletin.


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