6.14.2017

The Best of James Michener: Nonfiction


I realized with the completion of Sports in America earlier this week that I had completed the nonfiction portion * of the James Michener Trail. Huzzah! I immediately entered in my score of Sports (3.4 out of 5) into the one remaining blank cell of the spreadsheet I've been keeping and sorted that bad boy A-to-Z to see where everything landed. I love it when a plan comes together.

* For reasons given elsewhere, this trail does not include The Future of the Social Studies (1939), The Modern Japanese Print: An Appreciation (1968), The Quality of Life (1970), About Centennial: Some Notes on the Novel (1978), Collectors, Forgers - and a Writer: A Memoir (1983), William Penn (1994), Ventures in Editing (1995), and A Century of Sonnets (1997). 

Here, then, is the nonfiction fruit of many months' labor, ranked least to most favorite. I quoted my earlier reviews where appropriate. The fiction rankings will come along within a month or two.


17.
(1989)

The photographs are great, but the prose is slight. One example: before his departure he meets with prominent Cuban intellectuals for a "most invigorating discussion." But that's it - no details.

I did like the pilgrimage to Hemingway's Finca La Vigía, though, and meeting the Cuban volunteers who maintain it for the inevitable day American tourists return to Cuba. Those volunteers are unsung heroes of the Cold War in my book.

16.
(1992)

Most of this (slim) book is photocopies of his notes and original outlines for the novel that eventually became Mexico. The behind-the-scenes process of how a novel's put together - the forces that shape, derail, or sustain it, and in this case, led him to abandon it - is interesting enough, but it probably didn't need to be its own book. Not bad, but for completists only.

If Michener had been around during this age of blogs - and I'm kind of glad he isn't, as I don't think the current online climate is all that conducive to the Michener gestalt, present company excluded of course - I bet some of these "special features" books (or travelogues like Six Days in Havana or Pilgrimage) might have just been blogs. In the 50s or 60s, maybe this sort of thing would have been a feature article for Life or something like that.


15
(1971)

This book forever ruined CSNY's "Ohio" for me. It becomes completely obvious after only a few dozen pages that this tragic situation was the result of an epic failure of leadership on just about every level (student, grad student, TA, police, crazed yippie/ weathermen, national guard, college admins - especially the college admins, who were telling gullible students right up until the moment the bodies dropped that the National Guard only used fake bullets to break up "protests," even as the ROTC building burned in the background.) Everyone involved should have seen jail time for criminal neglect. Instead, many of them continued on in academia and even elsewhere. Ai yi yi.

As for the book itself, it's comprehensive for sure, but too repetitive for me, particularly the parade of Marxist cliches from most of the interviewed "activists." I don't suggest doing that to censor Marxism, you understand, only to cut down the reader's exposure to Hanoi Jane redundancy. After the fourth or fifth reiteration of such things, I was wondering if the National Guard couldn't be coaxed into hurrying up a little. (Or maybe the Polish Army.)


14.
(1990)

While researching Poland, Michener visited the country 3 times and each time saw a different Poland: first as "a tense occupied nation deadened by alien dictatorship of atheistic communism" as a minor member of Nixon's entourage * (1972 - 1977); as a "vibrant, exuberant nation delighting in newly recovered freedoms with a population eager to talk about everything" (1977 - 1979); and "distraught with economic turmoil, and threat of imminent invasion from Soviets" (1980 - 1981). This is the story of his fourth (and final, to my knowledge) visit, where he was received by Lech Walesa in Poland and the former Cardinal of Krakow (now Pope) in Vatican City.

* It still blows my mind that Michener was part of Nixon's famed multiple overseas entourages, especially the famous one to China.

Sometimes I wonder if the man wasn't actually a lifelong OSS operative whose career was CIA-rigged. It sure would explain a lot. Somebody should make a Michener biopic along this sort of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind premise. Schoolteacher goes to war, becomes cozy with Admirals and other top brass, mysterious missions to Afghanistan, the Far East, and Persia, etc. And all the bodies (and bestsellers) in his wake. If Ryan Gosling could somehow manage to make himself look indistinguishable, he'd be my first choice to play JAM in such a thing.  

13.
(1976)

Here's an odd one. Michener, a lifelong sports fan and onetime athletic scholarship recipient, turns his analytical and philosophical eye to one of the USA's most recognizable (and deeply entrenched) obsessions: our national love of sports and all it entails.

When we think sports media in 2017, we tend to think of cable and huge screens and buffalo wings and Miller Lite and endless talking heads and endorsement deals and all the rest. At the time this appeared, the sports-journalism industry was by no means in its infancy - American sports journalism was already well-recognized as superior and a field all its own by the 20s or 30s, I think - but it's important to remember this book was immediately prior to all of that. (Michener innocently supposes, at one point, how cool it would be the sit down with all of baseball's accumulated statistics and pore over them with a group of journalists and enthusiasts to see what kind of patterns re: left-handed batters vs. hitters, etc. might emerge. i.e. the sort of data any fantasy baseball manager can collate all on his or her phone.)

Some of his other perspectives are similarly old-fashioned, if not obsolete. "Every statement (in this book) has been subject to three criteria: 1) Sports should be fun for the participant. 2) Sports should enhance the health of both the individual participant and the general society. And 3) Sports have an obligation to provide public entertainment." Forgive my Gen X cynicism, but these aren't the most appropriate lenses through which to view the topic at hand. Replace sports with "movies," for example, and think of reading a book on Hollywood from such a vantage point. Still interesting, of course.


12.
(1961)

Michener was part of Kennedy's election campaign in 1960 (along with Angie Dickinson, Stan Musial and some others) and a precinct chairman for the Democratic Party in Bucks County, PA. Here is his account of both experiences.

It's infuriatingly vague on a few things, but a perfectly readable reminder of a more genteel and just all-around interesting time in American politics. Even so, he comes across a tad precious. "I would be appalled at my own degeneration if I should ever come to look upon the representatives of a major American political party as we were looked upon that day (during a contentious pit stop at an Idaho country club) With such attitudes there can be no traffic." It's a good thing he wasn't around to be appalled by nowadays, where no blow is too low, no outlook too degenerative.

Michener's take on Eisenhower (that he was anti-intellectual and ineffective) is interesting. I suspect Eisenhower's Presidency is due a major re-evaluation one of these days. Not that I have any strong opinions on the subject; I'd just like to read it.


11.
(1969)


"On election day 1968 the United States once again played a reckless game with its destiny. Acting as if we were immune to catastrophe, we conducted one more presidential election in accordance with rules that are outmoded and inane. This time we were lucky. Next time we could wreck our country. (If the winner) of the popular vote were to be deprived of the Presidency by manipulations in either the Electoral College - that faceless group of electors beholden to no one - or the House, there could be large scale disaffection - or worse."

So begins Michener's odyssey as one of the Democratic electors from Pennsylvania during the '68 election. All the pros and cons, historical exceptions, curiosities, and some constitutional anecdotes on the topic of our electoral system and its electoral college can all be found herein. And the full text of the Constitution appears in one of the appendices, raising the number of Michener books with the Constitution in the backpages to at least two.

(A revised edition detailing subsequent chatter and reform on the topic would be great. Ditto for Sports in America and any of these, really.) 


10.
(1957)

During the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 Michener was on the other side of the bridge of the title across the border in Austria, helping to resettle refugees. Out of that experience came this book

It paints in rather broad strokes. Which suits me fine when it comes to the commies stuff - communism's all broad strokes, you red bastards. And as this was written when the smoke was still rising from what the Soviets left of Budapest, no one can fault anyone for some of the history that turned out to be wrong (i.e. John Foster Dulles did tell the Hungarians that the US would come to their aid if they rose up. He just lied to Eisenhower about it. Oops. At the time it was spun as a tragic misunderstanding on the part of the Hungarian freedom fighters.)

Andau might have been improved with a bit more on Hungarian history, but I enjoyed it. I've said it before and will go right on saying it: that the Soviet Union has never had to account for its crimes has got to be one of the greatest (and most murderous) sleight-of-hand tricks in history.  

9.
(1954)

and

8.
(1959)

Michener wrote these two books on Japanese printmaking (the first re: those of the Edo period (roughly 1603 to 1868, or from just after Shogun to just before The Last Samurai, and the second re: all things leading up to it) when the art was little-known or celebrated in the West. He and wife Mari dedicated many years to collecting and preserving as many prints as they could. Partly as a result of these two books (as reported in author-friend's memoir Michener and Me by Herman Silverman) the works they accumulated rose steadily in value until they found themselves with one of the most substantial private collections around, which they then spread among a handful of museums.

Through the wonders of our exciting age we can have a look at some of the Micheners' collection. Mrs. Dog Star Omnibus and I recently went to the Art Institute here in Chicago to admire some others - amazing stuff


Both books are readable, informative, and filled with great art. Just in time for Father's Day, kids, if your Dad's into such things.

7.
(1990)

This nonfiction compare-and-contrast between Sam Houston (the raven) and Antonio López de Santa Anna (the eagle) is a quick, great read. I knew little about either man, so it was all new to me.

At the time I originally reviewed this, I wrote "Almost as fascinating as the two men is the intro, where the author describes an incident from his youth where an old farmer pounded rusty nails into a tree which had stopped producing apples. The old-timer explained this was an old farmer's trick to remind the tree that it wasn't dead yet. Sure enough, when Michener came by again, the tree was back to producing apples. He goes on to explain how at age 80, life had pounded a few rusty nails into him (quadruple bypass, dental rebuilding, permanent vertigo, a new hip) and the subsequent surge of activity this inspired. Over the next 3 years, Michener produced 10 new works, two of which (Alaska and Caribbean) were of substantial size."

Still love the anecdote, but I had to chuckle. This was the first place I read it and so it'll be from where I remember it, but yeah, in true old man fashion, Michener gives this anecdote in at least a half-dozen other places.


6.
(1996)

"In a stirring essay on America's past and future, octogenarian novelist Michener outlines his native land's strong and weak points, and his hopes and fears for America's future."

I couldn't help thinking of this funeral scene from The Fall of the Roman Empire when I got to the end of this one. Not on account of the Rome/USA parallels, which are beyond my pay grade, really, but on account of what it might have meant for a man of Michener's century-spanning perspective to be looking around at the reality of life in the 1990s and back over his shoulder at all of the above. Like the Romans in that scene, Michener heard in the distance both the ghastly call of his own demise and a very real lament for an America gone forever. 

Whatever may come, the past dies - again and again - so the future can breathe. May we all face our collective mortality as respectfully and thoughtfully as Michener does in This Noble Land.



5.
(1993)

This expansion of previously published material (Collectors, Forgers - and a Writer) is great fun. I enjoyed his discussion of his Hemingway, Mitchell, and the rest - as well as all of his anecdotes of being a young man at Swarthmore, engaging with the greats of the canon and piecing together his own likes and dislikes - but my favorite stretch was the bits dealing with the Barnes Collection.

For those of you who don't know (or haven't seen The Art of the Steal, which is fantastic) Albert Barnes was an eccentric, irascible gazillionaire who, upon one fateful trip to Europe in the early years of the 20th century, amassed the world's premier private collection of modern art. When he was rebuffed by scholars and intellectuals back home, he declared the work off-limits to all ingrate intellectuals and founded the Barnes Foundation, an invite-only educational foundation which hung and organized the works according to his own ideas about the relationships between them and the various furnishings of his palatial home. The collection grew by leaps and bounds during the Depression, when Barnes (a real schadenfreude kind of guy) "robbed the suckers who invested in flimsy securities and had to sell their precious paintings to keep a roof over their heads."

Michener, college-aged at the time, wrote Barnes requesting to see the collection but was refused. So he took a different approach: posing as an illiterate steel worker whose only inspiration came from gazing at the end of the day upon a postcard facsimile of one of the works in the Barnes Collection, he wrote Mr. Barnes and asked if he might be allowed to see it in person. His Mercedes Marxist sensibilities so engaged, Barnes gave the disguised Michener a personal tour (complete with lecture and slideshow) of this "hidden" collection.

Once the ruse was discovered, Barnes spent the rest of his life trolling Michener's public appearances, which at the time were confined only to specialty events for social studies teachers and textbook industry people. That's dedication! His money bought a whole team of professional agitators, who filled the halls wherever Michener spoke and heckled him. After one such public bashing, Barnes came up to Michener after, threw his arm around him, and, pleased as punch, said "We roasted you today, Michener! Until next time."  

Barnes would die soon after, the victim of a traffic accident near his home. The city had put in a traffic light at an intersection near his house over his strenuous objections, and he vowed never to heed it. Accordingly, he was struck and killed by a motorist driving through the intersection from the other side when he (Barnes) refused to acknowledge a red light.


4.
(1951)

Michener was sent (by Life or Colliers or something - I didn't write it down and googling's no help) on a tour of Asia in 1950-1951 as it emerged from World War Two, in some places (Malaysia) peacefully, in others (Indonesia) violently. Through a series of interviews, personal reflections, observations, and history, Michener does his usual commendable job of presenting all sides pretty fairly, even while filtering it through the political understanding of a mid-20th-century white guy.

You'll have to read it yourself to see if it makes for the same fascinating crossroads of perspective I found it to be. Every country visited was in such a unique place in these years, and to have a writer / thinker / listener of Michener's vintage as our man on the scene gets a big 5 out of 5 stars from me.


3.
(1957)

This non-fiction collaboration with A. Grove Day recounts the adventures of several real-life South Pacific personalities, from the mutineers of Bligh's Bounty to the most notorious pirate of all (Coxinga, whose exploits make even the worst of the Caribbean pirates seem like pan-and-scan knock-offs of the real thing) to Bully Hayes to that famed drunken painter of Polynesian black velvets Edgar Leeteg and more. 

Fantastic read, fascinating history.


2.
(1968)

An exhaustive exploration of Spain as it existed in the mid-1960s, as well as a detailed and lavishly illustrated overview of Spanish history. With plenty of photographs. 

I would love to teach a class on Spanish history using nothing but this and Phil Ball's Morbo and then compare my students' final exam results with those from a more traditional Spanish history's class. I bet mine would score better. I also bet my class (and these two books) would be more fun. 

Can't praise this one enough. I read it straight through years ago and have flipped through it many times since. Spanish history is pretty colorful to begin with, but Michener's fine eye for dramatic and relevant detail serves the material impeccably. One of the many anecdotes relayed here that's stuck with me over the years is how Michener first saw Spain. He was working on a coal freighter and approached the Iberian coast from the Balearic Island side. The morning mists obscured the shoreline, but as the boat got closer he heard the bells of the docks and the unmistakable sound of water lapping against piers and hulls. When the mist finally cleared, he found himself looking upon a medieval Spanish fishing village, unchanged over the centuries, with a single church spire in the distance over a field of low-roofed huts. Although this arrival took place in the 1930s, the scene could easily have been the 1530s, and perhaps even earlier than that. What a first impression.


1.
(1992)

"(Opera) 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."

Coming in at the top of the nonfiction pops is Michener's autobiography, which was start-to-finish fascinating. I was unable to cover all of the stories, observations, and theories that made this such a pleasure to read in my original review, but click over there for more info. Or better yet, just drop it in your queue, whomever you are, whatever you're reading; I guarantee you'll find plenty to hold your interest and get you thinking.

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 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."


~

2 comments:

  1. (1) Is that a photo of Michener with Donald Duck at Epcot?!? I'd love to know what he made of Disney World. I suspect he probably thought Epcot was a step in the right direction; it has some of the establishing-a-tradition-of-morality type of storytelling that it seems like he'd be in favor of, especially as instruction for the young.

    That aspect of Disney World is dying, though, which is perhaps not surprising.

    (2) Ryan Gosling as young Michener seems about right for casting. I'm a fan.

    (3) Who is that in the Jets photo? Namath? What IS he wearing?!? (That book sounds dry as nursing-home sex, but for some reason, that makes it appeal to me more.)

    (4) "It's a good thing he wasn't around to be appalled by nowadays, where no blow is too low, no outlook too degenerative." -- This sentence was put online on a day when a Congressman was shot by a lunatic, and the country began to argue over whether it was due to anti-Republican sentiment in the media, or whether it was due to lax gun laws, etc. This place is eating itself from the inside, and getting worse by the day. I barely pay attention to it, and yet I think -- fear -- it's making me literally insane. So yeah, I think maybe Michener's life spanned precisely the correct years, for any number of reasons.

    (5) "Mrs. Dog Star Omnibus" -- lol

    (6) I have never heard of Albert Barnes, but am immediately fascinated by him. Michener vs. Barnes needs to be a movie: let's say starring Gosling and Paul Giamatti. Somebody give me $100,000 and I'll give you a crackerjack of a screenplay in about a year!

    (7) "pan-and-scan knock-offs of the real thing" -- Oh, man, I think I've got a new way of referring to inferior imitations. I used to just call 'em Diet __________, but this is even better!

    (8) "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." -- One imagines Michener would have much to say about the sartorial trends of the current day. Heck, that was already in the trash-bin way before he exited stage left.

    (9) I want to figure out a way to slip into a pocket universe where time does not pass so that I can read all of these books. I mean, that's not the ONLY thing I'd use it for, but I could definitely use it for that.

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    Replies
    1. (1) It is! I think he might have mentioned Epcot somewhere in one of these things, but I might be making that up. I agree, though - hell, they should've had a robot/hologram Michener as emcee of the damn thing.

      (3) That is indeed Broadway Joe. The 70s were such a crazy period in sports history in the NFL and in the MLB. I don't know enough about it, but every story I read/ image I see makes me think sheesh, seemed like the wild west. (And Mayday Malone, to boot!)

      (3.5) In a better world, "Dry as nursing home sex!" would be on the cover of SPORTS IN AMERICA. (And it'd get people to buy it, I bet, for some reason, so long as there was an exclamation point.)

      Only 1100 pages of ALASKA and 1100 pages of TEXAS and 500 of MEXICO left and then I can do the Best of Michener: Fiction post.. oy vey! That's a lot of reading. Good thing I love this stuff.

      (7) I like Diet ____ too. I sometimes use "JV" for this sort of thing, too.

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