"I have tended toward heavy, comprehensive subjects because I want to reader to spend time on ideas and concepts that matter. I see a narrative as an endless web moving back and forth that the writer, like a Norn, severs at some arbitrary point to end his book. I am aware that a writer skilled in plotting could wrap things up in much neater packages than I do, but in writing, as in personal dress, I have never been much involved with neatness."
I'd been looking forward to reading Michener's autobiography for awhile now. The guy seemed to live such an enviable, interesting life, and I was curious how his own account would affect that impression.
I'm happy to report that it very much deepened it. It afforded so much interesting stuff, in fact, that I found myself with way too much material. I'm afraid what follows - which still runs rather long - is only the tip of the iceberg. But what can you do? Michener's life and many opinions on art and the writer's craft easily fills 400+ pages. (And should be assigned across curricula.) I left out so much; I left too much in. Here are some of my favorite bits.
(One last thing. The World Is My Home reminded me of King's On Writing in more than a few spots, both in philosophy and biography, something which surprised me. I decided not to point out each and every case, but those familiar with such things might notice a few on their own. I don't have my copy of On Writing handy and can't recall if there's any Michener in the recommended reading in the backpages - anyone remember?)
1. EARLY LIFE
Michener was born in 1907-ish and raised in a Quaker orphanage run by Mabel Michener in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. He adopted the Michener surname, something which gave him unexpected trouble as we'll see a little later.
When he was 10, the United States joined the Allied side in WW1, and to show his patriotism, Michener stormed into the local shoe cobbler's shop - a first generation German immigrant who had always shown great friendliness to the young Jim - and tore down a picture of the Kaiser the cobbler had therein. He brought it out into the street and stomped on it, yelling out insults at the old man and drawing a crowd. His fellow citizens cheered, but when he turned and and saw "how the old man who had so often befriended me looked with confusion and despair at this young boy taking his world apart," it imparted a lesson that haunted him still, 70 years later. ("He's a hero, that one!") When the local newspaper came by to do a story on the young patriot, he was too ashamed to leave his bedroom to meet with them.
Starting in his teens he began hitch-hiking. On box cars, sleeping in fields, scrounging free meals from sympathetic diners or churches, he criss-crossed the entire country. Although unsupervised and completely naive about the ways of the world, he never found himself in any dangerous situations. Often he wouldn't even let his mother know where he was going, though she'd learned he had a unique knack for occupying himself and didn't worry.
Although he had no money, his academic talents earned him a full scholarship to Swarthmore College, and then to St. Andrews in Scotland, where he traversed the width of the country on foot (twice), visited the far Orkneys, and got to see Europe in all its interwar glory while working on a freighter that brought Scottish coal to the Mediterranean.
2. TO THE PACIFIC
"In the bleak days of World War II when the American fleet lay hiding or at the bottom of Pearl Harbor, the United States government issued a frantic call for men to staff the new navy that must come into being if the nation were to survive. I was among the inept civilians - ribbon clerks, school teachers, bulldozer operators - who responded."
The above is actually from the Marcus Goodrich chapter of Literary Reflections (covered here). Michener was 36 when he enlisted. In those early days of the war, the Merchant Marine ferried the enlisted men and officers headed to the Pacific. The MM earned hazard pay and a host of other benefits; the men en route to hurl themselves at the Japanese war machine were paid peanuts and fed rations barely fit for 17th century ships. The Captain and commanders and Army colonels in charge should have stepped in to address things but instead locked themselves in their cabins and drank their way into oblivion. When the situation became intolerable, a fellow officer and Michener forced the issue with the cooks at gunpoint - and kept forcing it - and the rations were redistributed.
Near the end of the voyage, bolstered by their virtual takeover of the ship, they broke into the Captain's cabin to confront him with his abominable dereliction of duty, but he was nowhere to be found. Helping themselves to the cigars and brandy, someone noticed a whole slew of official stationary on the Captain's desk. "Michener, you always wanted to travel," one of his mates said and proceeded to write out a set of orders authorizing him to travel at his discretion, first priority for transport, throughout the military zones of the South Pacific on tours of inspection. "It was those orders, augmented later by a battery of more legitimate ones, that enabled me (my) exhaustive tour of the South Pacific. ...Rarely has a forged document been put to livelier use."
Michener spent the first part of the war flying among the islands in the Slot, the active theater of the Pacific conflict until the tide inexorably turned towards the Allies. After that - among the more legitimate orders mentioned above - were personal requests from Admiral Halsey and others to go this island or that island and tell them what was going on. Among these was an insane situation for which Michener still, decades later, uses pseudonyms, involving what amounted to a "homosexual riot" (and aborted court martial) for one Marines unit on an island Michener calls Matareva. It's difficult to give a concise summary of events without getting into every last little thing - you really should just read it for yourself. As per usual, truth is stranger than fiction.
|Word to the wise (or perhaps a heads-up:) googling "US Marines gay riot South Pacific" is not the way to get any information on this subject.|
There's tons more, of course, and I hate to skip any of it. But I'll just touch on one last one: it was a near-fatality of a landing that awakened Michener's resolve to write, not only about his experiences in the war but about "things of greatness." Something about near-death experiences brings this out of people. Like Flannery O'Connor once wrote (paraphrased), if only we had someone sticking a gun in our faces every other day.
3. SOUTH PACIFIC
Michener was in the middle of getting chewed out by his boss (who went right back to it after the news) at MacMillan Publishing when he received the news that Tales had won the Pulitzer Prize. The news pleased but puzzled him - Tales was not a huge success, critically or commercially. But it did have one conspicuously well-placed fan: Alice Roosevelt Longworth, daughter of the former President.
The Pulitzer did not lead to instant fame and fortune; in fact, the first thing that happened was his agent fired him by registered letter. ("You show no promise whatever of developing into a writer whose works would find favor with the public.") But Rodgers and Hammerstein wanted to develop a couple of the stories in Tales into a musical. When it became obvious it was going to be a huge hit, Hammerstein - a fellow Bucks County resident - took Michener aside and told him he had to buy a share in its success or he'd always regret it. Michener agreed but didn't have the few thousand dollars such a share cost, at which point Hammerstein said "Us Doylestown kids have to look out for one another" and loaned him the money. He was able to pay it back with interest almost immediately, so huge was the success of the musical and subsequent film.
|This act of altruism (or perhaps gratitude) on Hammerstein's part provided the funds for Michener to live as a professional writer until he got his brand going.|
Re: Bloody Mary, one of the better-known characters from the book and its subsequent adaptations, Michener has this to say: "I would often think of her in later years when American troops were fighting their fruitless battles in Vietnam. But I was deficient in my understanding, for when I wrote about her in Tales I depicted her not as a potential revolutionary but as a Tonkinese woman with a pretty daughter to care for."
While we're here, it's interesting to see the things Michener predicted correctly (the German development of heavy water/ atomic research, the inevitable abuses of communism, the futility of Vietnam) vs. the things he didn't (the successful importation of pizza to the USA - "It'll never catch on!" - the revolution in Iran, etc.) Despite this failure to properly contextualize Bloody Mary as a potential revolutionary, he was pretty ahead of the game when it came to attitudes towards the west in Malaysia (and elsewhere). In a 1950 letter from Bangkok to his friend Herman Silverman (published in the latter's Michener and Me) he writes:
"Vange (Michener's 2nd wife) is totally pessimistic about any long range prospects for the white man out here. We haven't been in a single spot where they didn't want him to get the hell out and where, in fact, they weren't helping him along. It's nationalism first and communism second, but the first so quickly becomes the second that it's hard to differentiate between the two. As usual, I'm not so pessimistic and think that in the long run we can get back... but on their terms, brother, their terms. I've never really seen hate before this trip, and it's a bit disconcerting."
As noted in Return to Paradise (and elsewhere) Michener was one of the few Americans suitably cognizant of how unacknowledged Polynesian and Asian resentment against the West/ white man animated all other things in the region. When addressed respectfully, allies were made and maintained; when ignored, well, subsequent events bore that out.
Or how about this, written decades before anyone in America woke up to this possibility:
"For a dozen years I served as chairman of a committee devoted to helping Afghan fighters sustain their battle against the Russian invaders, and we collected substantial funds to help keep our men in the field. But when victory was achieved, I had a sad feeling that I had supported and helped to put in power the same kind of fanatical Muslim mullahs who were behaving so abominably in Iran, and I could visualize myself in the years ahead collecting new funds to oust the very fanatics I had helped place in command of this savage, wonderful nation which I remember with such affection."
4. FRIENDS IN HIGH PLACES
Silverman (a lifelong friend of Michener's) mentions in that Michener and Me book that Jim had few friends, and he was aloof - never responding to their invitation to their daughters' wedding, for example - with the friends he had. Nevertheless, those he did consider friends seemed to be loyal and longstanding. One of those? The onetime most trusted man in America, Walter Cronkite.
He, Cronkite, and Art Buchwald, apparently, were at one time always asked to appear at fundraisers and struck up a friendship.
And while he wasn't exactly friends with either JFK or Richard Nixon, he was on friendly enough terms with them for a) the former to consider Michener as ambassador to Korea (he didn't get the gig on account of Mari (his wife's) being Japanese), and b) to give the latter advice and comfort during his Watergate troubles. (Nixon was unreceptive.)
Speaking of, here's what he wrote to Silverman about it: "Watergate is a typical right-wing debacle. When liberals misuse a government they do so by means of theft, nepotism, and stupendous bureaucracies. (Can anyone imagine a bunch of Democrats in charge of $60m * without someone trying to steal half of it?) The classic right-wing abuses are less flamboyant but more dangerous: assaults on individual freedom, corruption of power processes, flagrant disregard for human rights." It's worth noting that these are both the off-the-record remarks to a friend and from the mouth/ pen of a dedicated member of the Democratic Party.
* Nixon's slush fund for his Plumbers.
5. POLITICAL LIFE
As with the WW2 section, I am skipping over an awful lot of fascinating stuff, but I was really surprised at the extent of Michener's political life. I knew about some of his anticommunism work from The Bridge at Andau, but not the extent to which he served so many different administrations directly. He notes with some irony that it was always Republican Presidents who seemed to honor him (such as Nixon in asking him to accompany him on his historic trips to China and Moscow, or Ron and Nancy honoring the Micheners for their generous donations to charity and the arts at the White House) while his own party gave him no medals but no shortage of difficult and thankless work (such as that collected in Report of the County Chairman or Presidential Lottery.)
I was also surprised by his warm opinion of certain political personalities often maligned, such as Jesse Helms (who often opposed anything Michener said or did, but in a manner that appealed to the author. "I didn't mind being abused in such high style; when he was done, I almost wanted to congratulate him.") or Ted Kennedy (whom history, says Michener, will vindicate as one of America's best Senators.)
6. YOU THINK YOU’RE BETTER THAN ME?
As aforementioned, as a baby, Jim was adopted into the expansive Michener clan of Pennsylvania, but he wasn't always accepted as one of their own. He relays horrid tales of his aunts who visited often and lavished praise (and chocolates) on his older brother, who was a "bona fide" Michener, but never failed to let Jim know he wasn't "a real Michener" and not to get any big ideas about himself. He suffered this abuse in silence but it led to an inner feeling of distrust for anyone who took a superior attitude towards other people "thinking they're above their station." You can easily see how this led to his sympathetic attitude towards all those marginalized by the brutal stratifications along race/ gender/caste lines throughout the world.
Something interesting happens in this section and perhaps I'm tying the two together erroneously. But when he relays the business about his aunts, he mentions how he idolized his older brother, but once he (the brother) left for college, he was adament about never speaking or associating with Jim ever again. It was a painful experience, but it hardened his resolve to never behave towards others the way these Micheners did to him. (Worth noting: these aunts and this brother were outliers; he seemed to have a large and supportive family as evidenced by other anecdotes.) He then skips ahead to relay how for years starting with when he won the Pulitzer he began receiving "You have no right to use that name. Does everyone know you're a fraud?" poison pen letters, some of which implied details never made public. He never found out who sent them and after a few decades (!) they stopped arriving.
Was it his brother? Michener does not suggest it was, and perhaps it's just the juxtaposition of the two anecdotes that made me think so. Either way, how sad.
7. MICHENER'S WAR ON CHRISTMAS
"Although I do not celebrate holidays with any enthusiasm, finding them commercially offensive, I do always honor three days: December 21 as the shortest day in the northern hemisphere, June 21st as the longest, and April 23, Shakespeare's birthday - I use him as a surrogate for all the Beethovens, Titians, and Balzacs of the world to whom I owe so much."
8. MICHENER ON ART, OPERA,
AND RACIST ENTERTAINMENT
"Walk into a museum and stand in the center of the room so you can't see the cards then ask 'what is worth noting here?' This will build confidence in your own taste. I have consistently fortified (my taste) with the opinions of others, but I have never allowed critics to dissuade me from making my own evaluations. As a result my appreciation of the arts has been nothing but positive. And it has been one of the best parts of my life. I doubt I would have felt this way had I been overawed by the opinions of others."
Sound advice. I've talked to hundreds of people over the years on this topic, and nine out of ten of them have no confidence in their own opinions/ tastes. A simple practice like the one Michener describes here could do wonders for this. Put the professional opinion-makers out of business, or at least cut them back down to a size commensurate to their function.
Michener's love of opera gets quite a few pages, here. And - much in the same way we pop culture/ media bloggers do about the media and platforms of our youth on which we watched or listened to it - he relays that "zapped back to boyhood" feeling from hearing Caruso sing "Rigoletto" or from any music on certain turntables. (He had his original Caruso 78 RPM for an astonishing 75 years. Still playable!)
"From that moment when I first heard the quarter from Rigoletto, I was enmeshed in a form of art which is inherently romantic, passionate, absurd, and illogical. * The stories upon which opera is founded are so preposterous that no rational man or woman should really bother with them; it is a make-believe world, reserved for us lesser types who can anesthetize our sense of reason, betraying an inability to separate common sense from reality. I have been damaged, in some ways, by my fixation on opera, for it has helped to delude me into seeing human experience in a more dramatic form than facts would warrant; it has edged me always closer to romanticism and away from reality; it has made me a confirmed liberal when saner men, pondering the objective record, tend to be pessimistic conservatives. That sunny afternoon when Uncle Arthur lugged his fateful Victrola into our home, he condemned me to some wrong values and set my small feet upon some improper roads."
|* I could say the exact same thing about Shout at the Devil or Sin After Sin, or hair metal in general. Or Marvel comics. No shortage of contenders, really, given the era in which I grew up and stuff to which I gravitated.|
His love of opera, despite being kicked off by his uncle, was not shared by his family or friends, most of whom preferred the popular radio of his era ridiculing African-Americans and Jewish immigrants, something which puzzled him. "I knew even at age 7 I preferred "La Rigoletto" to 'Coon Songs' and The Cohen Brothers. *" Amen, buddy.
* I knew about the "Amos and Andy" sort of radio (or worse), but anyone else never realize the Coen Bros. nomenclature is a reclaimation of such a thing or was it just me? Anyway, try googling for this info - I gave up. Google simply refused to believe I wasn't just misspelling the Coen Bros. I'll take Michener's word for it.
9. MICHENER ON MICHENER
"I was turning my back on a style of writing that critics had usually described as superior. I much preferred Victor Hugo to Jane Austen and so, I found, did many readers, and to label Charles Dickens inferior, as critics then did, was in my opinion laughable. (...) I have consistently dealt with several themes: Man as a six-decade actor in the unbroken chain of human experiences. Man as a resident of a physical world that he shares with all other living creatures and forms. Man as an economic being who is forced to earn a living. Man as a brother to all other men. Man as a questioning human being who strives to understand his relationship to an unknown spiritual world. And man as an arrogant tyrant who loves to victimize the helpless. This somewhat restricted focus has meant that I have never dealt with nor desired to deal with some of the great themes that have been the mainstays of other writers: Man as an essentially tragic figure. Man as a victim of hubris. Man in violent personal and social revolution against his society. Man as a vulnerable figure losing control over his mental and emotional powers. And man as totally confused in his relations to the opposite sex. If I were a young writer starting over, I would focus my attention on the changing relationship between the sexes; despite my age I am fascinated by this and the other subjects but do not feel myself qualified to write about them."
10. ROADS NOT TAKEN
Tantalizing: "I was asked by China to take up residence and write about its recent history; by Russia to participate in a master symposium on space" - which would have fulfilled my desire to see a Michener's Space but for the Soviet side of things - "by Korea to observe the changes in the country whose mountains I had climbed during the war there; by Turkey to write about their Sephardic Jews. And there were equally tantalizing trips that various organizations wanted me to make: to New Zealand to help launch a production of South Pacific; to Australia to visit the Outback; to Afghanistan to visit the war camps; to Buenos Aires for a cultural session. (...) I have known the world, have loved it and would happily visit once more its farthest corners, but sooner or later the sands in the mariner's glass will run through and even Ulysses' ship must come to dock."
At one point, as well, the head of Readers Digest made him a remarkable offer: Michener could travel anywhere he wanted to and stay as long as he like and Readers Digest would cover all expenses, no matter how extravagant, just so long as they got first pass on the material. I can't imagine a better offer from a publisher for a writer than that, but he felt it would make him beholden to Readers in a way his contract with Random House (which was basically informal and allowed him to publish wherever he liked) did not.
11. MUSEUM AND THE END
Toward the end of his life and due largely to the efforts of his friend Herman Silverman, the James A. Michener Art Museum opened in a building that had once been a prison in Doylestown, PA.
|Some items from the permanent collection:|
|Michener: A Living Legacy.|
|Two by Robert Spencer: Concrete Bridge and White Mill (both 1916).|
|Early Spring (1920) by Edward Redfield.|
|Two by Daniel Garber whose titles I neglected to write down. (Beautiful, though.)|
|Rae Seated (1935) by Ben Solowey.|
Definitely a top 10 Bucket List destination for me now. A lot of these painters, I discovered, have work hanging in the Art Institute here in Chicago. Good excuse to plan a trip over there; it's been a few years. I'll employ Michener's stand-in-the-middle-of-the-room trick when I do. (Not that I am lacking confidence or familiarity with my own taste in art by this point.)
After Mari died, Michener moved to a small apartment in Texas. When his kidneys began to fail around his 90th birthday, he underwent an exhausting dialysis routine 3 times a week until he deemed enough was enough. He'd seen enough of hospice care to know spending 60-70% of his remaining days flushing out his blood and fighting off infections was not for him. He made some phone calls, including an almost comically understated goodbye to Herman Silverman, who nonetheless understood the depth of what his old friend was trying to convey, got what remained of his affairs in order (assigning royalties of this book to that cause, this other book to that institution, etc.), and quietly stopped going to treatment. Within a few weeks, on October 16th, 1997, he died.
One of the best autobiographies I've ever read. As a writer, as an American, as a human being, Michener sets a high bar but an admirable example to follow.
"I was convinced (the reader) would be interested in the aspirations and defeats of ordinary people, in the exploration of ideas, in the depiction of far regions, and in the time-honored themes of good storytelling: the maturation of the human mind, the challenges of young adulthood, the struggle for existence, the accumulation of years with dignity or despair, and the mystery of death."