Centennial by James Michener

Finished another Michener:


Before I get into the book itself, I just clicked over to Goodreads to update my reading status with this one and had a look through the user reviews. I quite liked the first comment:

"Michener stayed with our family for two weeks when he was writing this book. We had a cattle ranch in southeast Wyoming and he was doing some of his ranching research with us. I was just a teenager then, but I remember him vividly. He asked the sort of question that would allow someone to respond thoughtfully and in great length. He would smile and listen and never write anything down, but I could see him filing away every word that was spoken. He read at least 200 books for every book he wrote. He would spend a couple years researching, asking questions, and getting to know peoples' stories for every book he wrote. Many of the ranching stories in Centennial came from historical events that happened on our ranch. He was a remarkable man. I miss looking forward to his next book."

Not only is this a nice reminiscence / homage, it smooths over one of the rough spots of the book for me: the "scholar" character (i.e. Michener's in-book avatar) hired by Us Magazine to write up the origins of (the fictional) Centennial, CO.

Michener's creation (not to be confused with the suburb of Denver, which was incorporated after the novel's publication) is a composite of western towns but is primarily based on Greeley, CO.

The book opens with a history professor Prof Volmer being summoned to New York City by the editors of Us (a fictional blend of Time and Life, not to be confused with Us Weekly). They want him to write up a complete history of the Platte River in Colorado for their planned America's Bicentennial issue. This sort of postmodern touch / framing-mechanism is fine, but it's muddied almost immediately by four things:

- When the editors call him into their office, they say something like "We asked hundreds of scholars who to get and whose name came out on top?" (and then they point at him) "You! Abou Ben Adhem led the rest!" This is perhaps only a problem to readers like myself who do not get the reference, but I spent the rest of the chapter/ book (because I didn't think to look it up until after I finished) wondering what the hell this was all about. Didn't they just say the guy's name was Prof. Volmer? Why would Michener give his avatar this boldly unconventional name and then just write him as if he was (as always) interchangeable with the author himself? Turns out it's a reference to a poem and probably would have been instantly recognizable to readers of the era (or of Michener's age group), but it really took me out of the zone.

- Each chapter ends with "Notes to Us editors" where Volmer/ Michener cautions readers / his-fictional-editors not to believe aspects of hype that they otherwise might. (i.e. "Don't let your illustrators draw the Arapaho in such-and-such way.") I suppose there's a worthwhile element to this, but it's a layer or artifice too far. I kept wondering to whom exactly these sections were really addressed. 

- Most problematically, the circumstances of the whole set-up receive yet more artifice when Volmer has to reconcile the fact that Us has already hired one of its own staff to do exactly what they hired Volmer for, and that he has a minor crisis of conscience about it. If this sounds confusing, it should. It amounts to having a narrator narrate the narration and then add ongoing asides to said-fake-narration. All of this adds up to about a hundred pages of text that could have been lopped off with no ill effect. As with The Drifters, it just adds complications that aren't pursuant to anything.

- Lastly, there's an attempt to have a little murder-mystery as part of the framing mechanism. It doesn't work. You don't just drop a murder-mystery clue in the prologue and then swing back to it on page 1082 - that's kind of outrageous, dude.

So, all in all, compared to books of similar scope and American history like Hawaii or Chesapeake, this one is a bit of a misfire. The history itself is fascinating, and Michener does a good job of making you care about the centuries-spanning cast of characters, particularly some of the earlier ones, for whom I felt pangs of anguish when they inevitably exited the stage as years or events overtook them. But somewhere around the 2/3ds mark I started skimming over some paragraphs. I sympathize with the amount of info he had to crunch into some of the later sections on irrigation and land use, etc., but it got a tad repetitive. 

I don't quibble - Michener works at his own pace and indulges himself. That's a great part of the appeal; any full-fledged Michener work will bring in a range of what might be seen as extraneous sideroads. He takes the scenic route, in keeping with his general take on history/ storytelling as a series of episodes and nothing more, and I appreciate him for it.

But just as an example, there are almost two hundred pages on the formation of the Rockies and subsequent evolution of the beaver, rattlesnake, buffalo, and horse. It's all very interesting ("Those lost two billion years lie upon the consciousness of man the way vague memories or ghosts survive in the recollections of childhood.") It's all very integral to the area's subsequent history, and I for one didn't mind the length. 

But seriously, almost two hundred pages?

Readers might feel similarly bogged down with all the irrigation and agricultural info. Again - very pivotal stuff to understanding the west and particularly Colorado, but a less indulgent editing job would have tightened things up considerably.

"The old two part system that had prevailed at the end of the 19th century - rancher and irrigator - was now a tripartite cooperation: the rancher used the rougher upland prairie; the irrigation farmer kept to the bottom lands; and the drylands gambler plowed the sweeping fields in between, losing his seed money one year, reaping a fortune the next, depending on the rain." 

This and many passages like it made me want to watch Open Range again soon.

Speaking of other movies - and with Robert Duvall, even - fans of Lonesome Dove will enjoy the cattle drive chapter, since it seems based on so much of the same history McMurtry's novel is, right down to the black scout, Mexican cook and chuckwagon, and Charles Goodnight's lugging his dead partner's corpse from Montana back to Texas, not to mention aspects from Dead Man's Walk and Streets of Laredo. I'm not saying McMurty's works (which began being published in 1985 but had been kicking around in screenplay form since 1972) seems derivative of Centennial. Like Michener, McMurtry is a writer who reads copious amounts of material to prep for his books; it only makes sense both writers would gravitate to the same historical details. 

The sections are (as swiped from the wiki with main character names in bold and some additional commentary from me:)

"The Commission": The fictional preface (with Prof. Volmer) for the book.
"The Land": The formation of the Earth, specifically the Rockies and the land directly around Centennial.
"The Inhabitants": A series of stories about animals that supposedly lived near what would become Centennial, from the dinosaur Diplodocus to the arrival of man.
"The Many Coups of Lame Beaver": A biography of Lame Beaver, an Arapaho Native American.
"The Yellow Apron": The lives of the beaver trappers Pasquinel and Alexander McKeag.
"The Wagon and the Elephant": Describes Levi Zendt's journey out of Pennsylvania in search of a new life in Oregon, along with Oliver Seccombe.
"The Massacre": Frank Skimmerhorn leads the militia to massacre a group of Arapaho.

"The Cowboys": Chronicles a cattle drive from Texas to Centennial and the establishment of the Venneford Ranch. (Intro Jim Lloyd and Amos Calender)
"The Hunters": Describes three separate Buffalo hunts which led to the near extermination of the Buffalo in the west.
"A Smell of Sheep": The arrival of sheepmen in Colorado and the fights between them and the cattlemen.
"The Crime": Describes the arrival of the Wendell family in Centennial and the crime that they commit.
"Central Beet": Describes the establishment of the sugar beet industry and the arrival of Chicanos to Centennial.
"Drylands": The arrival of dryland farming to Colorado from the perspective of the Grebe family.
"November Elegy": A snapshot of the life of Paul Garrett, a descendant of many of the characters from previous chapters.

The Chicano history of Colorado was all new to me. Michener gives generous space to the still-simmering concerns and passions of La Raza. I enjoyed this passage about the rough-and-tumble days of Denver's Latino Quarter:

"In a society where a young man, to prove his manhood, is required to have sexual intercourse with a maximum number of young women, and where a brother is obligated to kill any man who violates his sister, there are bound to be disturbances on a Saturday night. Often they were settled with flashing knives. To shoot a man from a distance would be unmanly; to rely upon a mechanical tool like a revolver instead of one's own face-to-face bravery would be cowardly.

"To the western Anglo, accustomed to gunning down his foes from afar, the use of a knife was abhorrent and even shameful. There was something noble and dignified in being able to pump six quick bullets into an enemy at sixty paces, but to grapple with him at close quarters, he with his knife, you with yours, was somehow contemptible."

One fun tidbit - during the cattle drive, the cowboys decide to bypass Raton Pass, which in those days was operated as a toll road by Uncle Dick Wooton. Ten cents a head, plus all those cattle? Highway robbery! So they range out and discover Capulin Pass so they can cross for free, "as God intended." Uncle Dick was ahead of his time, though, as nowadays, under the stern eye of Uncle Sam, Capulin is a toll road, too.

In 1978, NBC premiered:

It was not considered a success at the time, though you'd never know from watching it now. The amount of star power on display is considerable.

Of special note: Barbara Carrera, Robert Conrad, and Michael Ansara -
Cristina Raines, Donald Pleasance, Timothy Dalton, and Richard Chamberlain.
That's just the tip of the iceberg, though; click here and scroll through the parade of names and faces. Michener must've been delighted.
Also: William Atherton (as a hero, no less) and Mark Harmon.
Special kudos to both Conrad and Pleasance, who really lose themselves in their roles.
Also Raines (pictured with Stephanie Zimbalist) and Gregory Harrison do commendable work.

As mentioned at this comprehensive review from DVDtalk: "At times, it's a surprisingly shoddy production, not only in the editing, but the rote, 1-2-3 TV directing (lots of talking heads close-ups and zooms on the action), and the surprisingly stiff, unconvincing production design (25 million was supposedly spent, but it's hard to see where, because it's not "up on the screen - typified by the unconvincing, mocked-up town sets and the ludicrous aging make-up effects). This is logistics more than "art," and many times, watching Centennial feels like watching the center panel only of Cinerama's How the West Was Won."

I thought the location shooting and costumes were all top notch, although the grainy footage could use some remastering.
Easy to see where the $25m was spent, IMO, just from adding up the costumes.

It's no Shogun, but it's a decent miniseries. Part of its problem is also something of a virtue - it follows the novel so closely that some of Michener's unhurried spots could have been compartmentalized or skipped altogether. (Ditto for the last episode with Andy Griffith, which follows the book's framing mechanism off the same unfortunate cliff.) The cattle drive episode (featuring a nice performance from Dennis Weaver) is probably the best one.

Among the directors: Bernard McEveety, who more than likely directed at least one of your favorite things. 

Until next time.


  1. I remember reading that awhile ago. Had a similar reaction to it - nice in places, plodding in others. I wonder if the fort pic you posted from the miniseries was the "Fort" restaurant that's on the outskirts of Denver. Will have to look that up!


  2. Bent's Old Fort was the location (historic site). The restaurant was patterned after Bent's, though, that's why I had that stuck in my head.


    1. Very interesting! We'll have to hit that place up next time we're in CO.

      I thought of that mining town you took me to a few times while reading this.

      It gladdens me to hear you read this - I wasn't sure if you'd ever read any Michener, but I figured anyone moving to CO would look up stuff to read about it and thought well, if he's read any, perhaps this is the one.

  3. (1) That reminiscence at Goodreads is terrific. Bless you, Internet -- you're a frustrating place, but also a wonderful one, sometimes.

    (2) "You! Abou Ben Adhem led the rest!" -- I suspect that if I had read this, I would also have been confused, but in a different way and much more briefly. I'd have interpreted it to mean that Abou Ben Adhem was the runner-up, but would have been confused as to why they would have felt the need to tell Volmer who was the top-ranked among the guys he beat out. Never would have occurred to me that was a reference. Weird!

    (3) Having read zero Michener, I cannot speak to him in any way. But my take on him based on what you've written is that his career seemed to exist primarily as a delivery system for him to spend time exhaustively researching various subjects, in the way historians or biographers would do. From there, he perhaps decided -- early on, I'd guess -- that the best way for him to do so would be to couch all his research in a fictional narrative, and turn what he was doing into fiction. But it's heavily non-fictional fiction, is how it strikes me. How close would you say I am?

    (4) If I'm close at all, then I'm starting to really dig this guy, if only at a remove.

    (5) Boy, the days when somebody would a 12-tape VHS box-set are long fuckin' gone, eh? And all things considered, that's for the best -- but box-sets like that always had an appeal to me, even if I didn't much care what was in them. If I'd seen that on a shelf around the time I was first falling in love with "Lonesome Dove," I betcha I'd have bought it without even knowing a thing about it.

    (6) Michael Ansara makes for a good-looking Indian! (In the passing-for sense.) Less so Barbara Carrera, which is the only way in which she's not good-looking.

    1. (1) Too true.

      (2) Reading it your way, I can see that, too - such needless confusion! Was the Abou Ben Adhem poem so well-known in days of yore that no one even thought this might be misconstrued?

      (3) Pretty close! Right on the money, you might say. He has a fine sense of dramatic detail and I think he grokked early on that if he could "enhance" the historical / comparative narrative with some tweaked details gleamed from High Literature/ Drama, then all the better.

      (5) Oh absolutely. Hell, I remember being dumbfounded when I bought AN ENTIRE SEASON of Star Trek in one package! What??? No more 1-2 episodes per VHS/ Laser Disc? I can free up all that room in my closet??? (Oh don't worry - I'll fill it up again...)

      (6) She looks pretty good throughout, so let's blame the screencap on that one!