James A. Michener

James A. Michener

Author James A. Michener in 1991
Born (1907-02-03)February 3, 1907
Doylestown, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Died October 16, 1997(1997-10-16) (aged 90)
Austin, Texas, U.S.
Occupation Author, philanthropist, teacher, academic, naval officer and political advisor
Alma mater Swarthmore College
University of St Andrews
University of Northern Colorado
Genre Historical fiction
Notable works Tales of the South Pacific (1946)
Notable awards 1948: Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
1977: Presidential Medal of Freedom
2008: Honorary portrait image on a United States postage stamp

James Albert Michener (/ˈmɪnər/;[1] February 3, 1907 – October 16, 1997) was an American author of more than 40 books, the majority of which were fictional, lengthy family sagas covering the lives of many generations in particular geographic locales and incorporating solid history. Michener was known for the popularity of his works; he had numerous bestsellers and works selected for Book of the Month Club. He was also known for his meticulous research behind the books.[2]

Michener's novels include Tales of the South Pacific for which he won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1948, Hawaii, The Drifters, Centennial, The Source, The Fires of Spring, Chesapeake, Caribbean, Caravans, Alaska, Texas and Poland. His non-fiction works include Iberia, about his travels in Spain and Portugal; his memoir titled The World Is My Home, and Sports in America. Return to Paradise combines fictional short stories with Michener's factual descriptions of the Pacific areas where they take place.[2]

He also wrote an analysis of the Electoral College system of the United States, which condemned it, Presidential Lottery: The Reckless Gamble in Our Electoral System, published in 1969, and republished in 2014 and 2016.

His first book was adapted as the popular Broadway musical South Pacific by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, and later as a film by the same name, adding to his financial success.


Michener wrote that he did not know who his biological parents were or exactly when or where he was born.[2] He said he was raised a Quaker by an adoptive mother, Mabel Michener, in Doylestown, Bucks County, Pennsylvania.[3]

Michener graduated from Doylestown High School in 1925. He attended Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, where he played basketball and was a member of the Phi Delta Theta fraternity. After graduating summa cum laude in 1929 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and History, he traveled and studied in Scotland at the University of St Andrews for two years.[4]

Michener took a job as a high school English teacher at The Hill School in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. From 1933 to 1936, he taught English at George School in Newtown, Pennsylvania. He attended Colorado State College of Education in Greeley, Colorado, in 1970 renamed the University of Northern Colorado, where he earned a Master of Arts degree in Education.[3] After graduation, he taught at the university, and at College High School (the University Lab School) for several years. The library at the University of Northern Colorado was later named after him in October 1972.[5][6][7]

In 1935, Michener married Patti Koon. He accepted a Guest Lecturer position at Harvard, from 1939 to 1940, but left to join Macmillan Publishers as their social studies education editor.[3]

Michener was called to active duty during World War II in the United States Navy. He traveled throughout the South Pacific Ocean on various assignments which he gained because his base commanders mistakenly thought his father was Admiral Marc Mitscher.[8] His experiences during these travels inspired his stories published in his breakout work Tales of the South Pacific.[3]

In 1960, Michener was chairman of the Bucks County committee to elect John F. Kennedy. In 1962, he unsuccessfully ran as a Democratic candidate for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives from Pennsylvania, a decision he later considered a misstep. "My mistake was to run in 1962 as a Democratic candidate for Congress. [My wife] kept saying, 'Don't do it, don't do it.' I lost and went back to writing books."[3]

In 1968, Michener served as the campaign manager for twice-elected US senator Joseph S. Clark's third-term run.[9] Michener was later Secretary for the 1967–68 Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention.[3]

Writing career

Michener began his writing career during World War II, when as a lieutenant in the Navy he was assigned to the South Pacific as a naval historian. He later turned his notes and impressions into Tales of the South Pacific (1947), his first book, published when he was 40. It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1948, and Rodgers and Hammerstein adapted it as the hit Broadway musical South Pacific, which premiered on Broadway in 1949.[10] The musical was also adapted as eponymous feature films in 1958 and 2001.

In the late 1950s, Michener began working as a roving editor for Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature. He gave up that work in 1970.

Michener tried television writing but was unsuccessful. American television producer Bob Mann wanted Michener to co-create a weekly anthology series from Tales of the South Pacific, and serve as narrator. Rodgers and Hammerstein, however, had bought all dramatic rights to the novel and did not relinquish their ownership.[11] Michener did lend his name to a different television series, Adventures in Paradise, in 1959, starring Gardner McKay as Captain Adam Troy in the sailing ship "Kontiki."[12]

Michener was a popular writer during his lifetime; his novels sold an estimated 75 million copies worldwide.[13] His novel Hawaii (1959) was based on extensive research. He used this approach for nearly all of his subsequent novels, which were based on detailed historical, cultural, and even geological research. Centennial (1974), which documented several generations of families in the West, was adapted as a popular 12-part television miniseries of the same name and aired on NBC from October 1978 through February 1979.

In 1996, State House Press published James A. Michener: A Bibliography, compiled by David A. Groseclose. Its more than 2,500 entries from 1923 to 1995 include magazine articles, forewords, and other works.

Michener's prodigious output made for lengthy novels, several of which run more than 1,000 pages. The author states in My Lost Mexico (1992) that at times he would spend 12 to 15 hours per day at his typewriter for weeks on end, and that he used so much paper, his filing system had trouble keeping up.


Michener was married three times. In 1935, he married Patti Koon. In 1948, they divorced, and the same year Michener married his second wife, Vange Nord.[2]

Michener met his third wife, Mari Yoriko Sabusawa, at a luncheon in Chicago. An American, she and her Japanese parents had suffered internment in camps the US set up during World War II to hold ethnic Japanese from West Coast communities. Michener divorced Nord in 1955 and married Sabusawa the same year. She died in 1994.[2]

Michener's novel Sayonara (1954) is quasi-autobiographical.[3] Set during the early 1950s, it tells the story of Major Gruver, a soldier stationed in Japan, who falls in love with Hana-Ogi, a Japanese woman. The novel follows their cross-cultural Japanese romance and illuminates the racism of the post-World War II time period.


Michener became a major philanthropist, donating more than $100 million to educational, cultural, and writing institutions, including his alma mater, Swarthmore College, the Iowa Writers Workshop, the James A. Michener Art Museum, and more than $37 million to University of Texas at Austin. By 1992, his gifts made him UT Austin's largest single donor to that time. Over the years, Mari Michener played a major role in helping direct his donations.[2]

In 1989, Michener donated the royalty earnings from the Canadian edition of his novel, Journey (1989), published in Canada by McClelland & Stewart, to create the Journey Prize, an annual Canadian literary prize worth $10,000 (Cdn) that is awarded for the year's best short story published by an emerging Canadian writer.[14]

Final years and death

In the Micheners' final years, he and his wife lived in Austin, Texas, and they endowed the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin. The Center provides Michener Fellowship scholarships to students accepted to the university's MFA in Writing program.[15][16]

Suffering from terminal kidney disease, in October 1997, Michener ended the daily dialysis treatment that had kept him alive for four years. He said he had accomplished what he wanted and did not want further physical complications. On October 16, 1997, he died of kidney failure, at age 90.[2][10] Michener was cremated, and his ashes were placed next to those of his wife at Austin Memorial Park Cemetery in Austin, Texas.[17]


Michener left most of his estate and book copyrights to Swarthmore College, where he earned his bachelor's degree.[18] He had donated his papers to the University of Northern Colorado, where he earned his master's degree.[2]


"Many of the fondest memories of my travels stem back to my years of military service in the New Hebrides -- now Vanuatu -- during the Pacific War years of the early 1940s...While those beautiful islands have changed much with progress in the ensuing years, I know from subsequent visits that the friendliness of the peoples, their infectious smiles and their open-heartedness will remain forever one of life's treasures."[22]


James A. Michener Art Museum

Opened in 1988 in Michener's hometown of Doylestown, Pennsylvania, the James A. Michener Art Museum houses collections of local and well-known artists. Michener pledged $5.5 million to the museum in 1996.[2] Constructed from the remains of an old prison, the museum is a non-profit organization with both permanent and rotating collections. Two prominent permanent fixtures are the James A. Michener display room and the Nakashima Reading Room, constructed in honor of his third wife's Japanese heritage. The museum is known for its permanent collection of Pennsylvania Impressionist paintings.

James A. Michener Society

The James A. Michener Society was formed in the fall of 1998 and is composed of people who share a common interest in James Michener's life and work.[25]

The society's purpose is to provide the following:[25]

The society sponsors a variety of activities and publishes an electronic newsletter. Annual meetings of members are held at locations closely associated with James Michener's life.[25]


In addition to writing novels, short stories, and non-fiction, Michener was very involved with movies, TV series, and radio. The following is only a major part of what is listed in the Library of Congress files.

Books — fiction

TitleYear published
Tales of the South Pacific1947
The Fires of Spring1949
Return to Paradise1950
The Bridges at Toko-ri1953
The Source1965
The Drifters1971
The Watermen1978
The Covenant1980
The Novel1991
South Pacific1992
Miracle in Seville1995

Books — non-fiction

TitleYear publishedNotes
The Future of the Social Studies ("The Problem of the Social Studies")1939 Editor
The Voice of Asia1951
The Floating World1954
The Bridge at Andau1957
Rascals in Paradise 1957
Japanese Prints: From the Early Masters to the Modern1959With notes by Richard Lane
Report of the County Chairman1961
The Modern Japanese Print: An Appreciation1968
Iberia1968 Travelogue
Presidential Lottery1969
The Quality of Life1970
Kent State: What Happened and Why1971
Michener Miscellany – 1950/1970 1973
Firstfruits, A Harvest of 25 Years of Israeli Writing1973
Sports in America1976
About Centennial: Some Notes on the Novel1978
James A Michener's USA: The People and the Land1981 Edited by Peter Chaitin; foreword by Michener
Collectors, Forgers — And A Writer: A Memoir1983
Michener Anthology1985
Six Days in Havana1989
Pilgrimage: A Memoir of Poland and Rome1990
The Eagle and the Raven1990
My Lost Mexico1992
The World Is My Home1992 Autobiography
Creatures of the Kingdom1993
Literary Reflections1993
William Penn1994
Ventures in Editing1995
This Noble Land1996
Three Great Novels of World War II 1996
A Century of Sonnets1997


South Pacific1949 Broadway musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein based on the novel Tales of the South Pacific (1946)
The Bridges at Toko-Ri1954 film based on the novella The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1953)
Return to Paradise1953 film based on the short story "Mr. Morgan" in the collection Return to Paradise (1951)
Men of the Fighting Lady (also known as Panther Squadron) 1954 film inspired by Michener's Saturday Evening Post article, "The Forgotten Heroes of Korea"
Until They Sail1957 film based on a short story included in Return to Paradise
Sayonara1957 film nominated for 10 Academy Awards, won four; including Best Supporting Actress, for Miyoshi Umeki, the first and, as of 2016, the only East Asian Actress to win an Oscar. Based on the semi-autobiographical novel Sayonara (1954).
South Pacific1958 film based on Tales of the South Pacific (1946)
Adventures in Paradise1959–62 television series created by Michener
Hawaii1966 film based on the novel Hawaii (1959)
The Hawaiians1970 film based on the novel Hawaii (1959)
Centennial1978 TV miniseries based on the novel Centennial (1974)
Caravans1978 film starring Anthony Quinn based on the novel Caravans (1963)
Space1985 TV miniseries based on the novel Space (1982)
James A. Michener's Texas1994 TV miniseries based on the novel Texas (1985)
South Pacific2001 television movie based on the novel Tales of the South Pacific (1946)

See also


  1. "Michener". The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (Fourth ed.). Houghton Mifflin. 2004.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Albin Krebs (October 17, 1997). "James Michener, Author of Novels That Sweep Through the History of Places, Is Dead". The New York Times. Retrieved November 5, 2009.
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Pennsylvania Center for the Book - Michener Biography, Penn State University Libraries
  4. Biographical Sketch, James A. Michener Papers, University of Miami liberary
  5. http://www.unco.edu/news/releases.aspx?id=4484
  6. 21
  7. Michener Library website: http://libguides.unco.edu/c.php?g=94768&p=2497317
  8. Michener, James A. Return to Paradise Random House 1951
  9. Beers, Paul B. (March 31, 1976). Pennsylvania Politics Today and Yesterday: The Tolerable Accommodation. Penn State University Press. p. 198. ISBN 978-0271002385.
  10. 1 2 3 "Get me Michener at Raffles". Singapore: The New Paper. September 16, 1998.
  11. Hayes, John Michael. James A. Michener: A Biography, Bobbs-Merrill, 1984, p. 158.
  12. Hayes, p. 159.
  13. "James Michener Biography". Bookrags.com. Retrieved May 3, 2009.
  14. "Journey Prize".
  15. "The Michener Center for Writers and its Master of Fine Arts program at the University of Texas at Austin". utexas.edu. Retrieved May 28, 2014.
  16. "The Michener Fellowship at the University of Texas at Austin". utexas.edu. Retrieved May 28, 2014.
  17. 1 2 "Memorial headstone details for James Michener". cemetery.state.tx.us. Retrieved May 28, 2014.
  18. O'Neill, James (March 1, 1998). "Michener's gift keeps on giving". Philadelphia Inquirer.
  19. Website of St. Louis Literary Award
  20. Saint Louis University Library Associates. "Recipients of the Saint Louis Literary Award". Retrieved July 25, 2016.
  21. "Lone Sailor Award Recipients". The United States Navy Memorial. Retrieved 29 November 2014.
  22. http://www.iririki.com/dinning.html
  23. Two American Legends Appearing on Stamps: The Postal Service Honors James Michener and Dr. Edward Trudeau.
  24. "Michener Library". Libraries: UNC's Information Source. Retrieved 29 November 2014.
  25. 1 2 3 James A. Michener Society

21 Michener Library website: http://libguides.unco.edu/c.php?g=94768&p=2497317

Further reading

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