Five by Michener

The above is a corruption of a print by Hiroshige, generally considered to be the last great practitioner of ukiyo-e, which is one of the subjects of the first book in our countdown today:


Michener wrote this book on Japanese prints of the Edo period (roughly 1603 to 1868, or from just after Shogun to just before The Last Samurai). He focuses first on otsu-e, a folk art tradition aimed at commoners, typically brush-on-paper, then on ukiyo-e, a more formalized (though still aimed at the masses) affair of woodblock prints and colorful paintings. 

The most famous of the ukiyo-e is probably "The Great Wave Off Kanagawa" by Hokusai. Given the anonymous and mass-produced nature of otsu-e, there's no one print more famous than any other, though Michener gives the ten most popular subjects: "a devil beating a drum; a young hunter with a falcon on his wrist and a girl dancing with a bunch of wisteria held over one shoulder; the god of long life with a ladder propped against his enormous forehead while another god climbs to shave his hair; the god of thunder pulling up his drum from the sea; a blind man attacked by a mongrel dog; a monkey fishing for a catfish with a slippery gourd; the daimyo's pompous servant; the legendary hero Goro and his arrow; and finally, the wandering priest Benkei." 

So there you go - something to look for the next time you're at the museum: if you see any of these scenarios or personalities, you can impress your friends by pointing out "Oh these were the popular subjects of the Edo period. Given the crackdown on Japanese Christians during this time, many peasants made sure to prominently display anything that showed their allegiance to the folk heroes and mythology of Japan."

I won't get into any more detail other than that. This was something I knew little about before reading and found very interesting, both Michener's selections (approved in the afterword by scholars of the art form such as Howard Link: "his chapters come to life without being parodies of facts") and the history involved. 

The missus and I recently visited the impressive collection of Hiroshige prints at the Art Institute of Chicago. I neglected to write down the names, unfortunately - not all of these are Hiroshige - and the lighting is terrible, but here are some fun ones.
And an untruncated view of the Hiroshige print (from the Snow, Moon, and Flowers at Famous Place series, circa 1844-1845.)

"'From the age of six, I had a mania for drawing forms of things. By the time I was fifty I had published an infinity of designs, but all I had produced before the age of seventy is not worth taking into account. At seventy-five I had learned a little about the structure of nature - of animals, plants and trees, birds, fishes and insects. In consequence, when I am eighty I shall had made a little progress, At ninety I shall penetrate the mystery of things. At a hundred I shall certainly have reached a marvelous stage, and when I am one hundred and ten, everything I do - be it but a line or a dot - will be alive. I beg those who live as long as I to see if I do not keep my word. Written at the age of seventy-five by me, once Hokusai, today The Old Man Mad about Drawing.' He died at age ninety and shouted on his death bed: 'If heaven would only grant me ten more years I might still become a great artist.'"


I was fairly disappointed in this brief account of Michener's quick (and state-approved) visit to Cuba with John Kings while researching Caribbean. The photographs are great, but the prose is slight. I imagine there were some restrictions placed on him by state and/ or publisher, so all is forgiven, but so much of this reads more as a summary than actual writing. One example: before his departure he meets with prominent Cuban intellectuals at the end for a "most invigorating discussion." But that's it - no details. Seems like it might have worked better as a centerpiece of the book, but again, maybe other factors intervened for fear of offense or backlash.

Michener's collaborator John Kings worked with Michener on two Centennial-related projects (Notes on Centennial and In Search of Centennial.) Both seemed more like DVD Special Features (and slight - and hard to find - ones at that) rather than something to track down for this project. While we're here, here are some other Michener projects I won't be covering in this series:

- The Future of Social Studies, 1939. (Written prior to WW2 for an audience of academic publishers and historians. Those inclined to do so can read it here.)

- The Modern Japanese Print: An Appreciation, 1968. (A 57 page accompaniment to an exhibition. Looks cool and all but the library didn't have it, so meh. I'll cover his other one on Japanese prints, though, in a future post.)

- Adickes: A Portfolio with Critique, 1968. (Not much available info on this one.) 

- The Quality of Life, 1970. (Doesn't quite seem worth it. Looking at his bibliography, actually, it's rather amazing how many "James Michener Gives His Thoughts on America" peripheral reading there is.)

- Collectors, Forgers - and a Writer: A Memoir, 1983. (Seems to mostly have been reprinted in Literary Reflections or covered in The World Is My Home.)

- The Novel, 1991. (Saving this one as my Rainy Day Michener.)

- South Pacific, 1992. (An illustrated 40 page retelling of the plot to the musical.)

- William Penn, 1994. (Not an actual book, a 15 page pamphlet written to accompany or other.)

- Ventures in Editing, 1995. (A limited edition and fairly unavailable.) 

I think that covers them all. There's one (James Michener's USA) that had no input from him and another (Creatures of the Kingdom) that collects previously-published material. I'll skip those, too, so that leaves (fiction) The Fires of Spring, Poland, Texas, Alaska, and Mexico, and (non-fiction) Japanese Prints, Sports in America, This Noble Land, Three Novels of WW2, and A Century of Sonnets

I list all these on the off chance some Michener fan out there finds this post/ these posts and directs me to something I (or Wiki/Google) may have overlooked.


Here's how Kirkus describes this one:

"A pretentious trifle from a writer whose fiction, whatever its artistic deficiencies, can at least usually be described as substantial. Michener was invited to visit Poland in 1988, ostensibly by the Writers' Union but actually by the government. Years earlier, he had recounted the buffer state's bloody, checkered history in a best-selling novel (Poland, 1983) that, while well received by the populace, had made him persona non grata with the Communist regime. Apparently eager for a reconciliation, Party officials awarded the octogenarian author an unspecified medal and gave him and his entourage the run of the country. Michener provides a cursory, consistently upbeat account of his VIP excursions in Poland during a period when winds of change were beginning to whistle through Eastern Europe, and in a subsequent trip to Rome, where he renewed acquaintances with Pope John Paul II as well as with the US ambassadors to the Vatican and Italy. The author also offers high-sounding asides on the coincidental nature of human life, socioeconomic events, and other weighty matters."

That's a fairly accurate sum-up. I enjoyed it a little more than the Kirkus reviewer did but not by a huge amount. Some things:

- Michener's anti-communist radio work for the US State Department resulted in his making an arch-nemesis of Jerzy Urban, who was the state's official answer to Michener's "propaganda."

At one time "the most hated man in Poland." Even by his fellow travelers! I like the idea of Michener having a commie bizarro counterpart. I hope he wrote dark Polish parodies of Chesapeake and what not.

- He saw 3 different Polands on a dozen visits to the country: first as "a tense occupied nation deadened by alien dictatorship of atheistic communism" as a minor member of Nixon's entourage (72 - 77); as a "vibrant, exuberant nation delighting in newly recovered freedoms with a population eager to talk about everything" (77 - 79); and "distraught with economic turmoil, and threat of imminent invasion from Soviets" (80 - 81). 

- It was during this middle visit (77-79) that he met and interviewed the Cardinal of Krakow, soon to become John Paul II. Upon the cardinal's ascension to the Holy See, the only interview in English that news programs had on hand was Michener's so that was the one flashed around the world, which made him a natural choice for a follow-up. Unfortunately, this section of the book (Michener and the Pope) isn't very substantial. I didn't expect the Catholic/Quaker version of Violence and Compassion or The Power of Myth (although that would have been great) but I was a little underwhelmed.

- While in Rome Michener and his entourage visited the American embassy, where they found Maxwell Rabb, US ambassador to Italy and an old friend from Michener's days in Tokyo. "It was a joyous reunion, filled with endless laughs about the old days and reminiscences of almost forgotten friends and rascals. Few foreign capitals provided a cast of characters like Tokyo in those early days of the occupation: MacArthur, his Prussian aide Willoughby, Hirohito, Maggie Higgins and her reporter adversary Homer Bigart, Marilyn Monroe, Syngman Rhee over in Korea, and notable diplomats and newsmen galore."


I didn't expect to enjoy this book, but I was pleasantly surprised. It takes place over the course of Holy Week in Spain and concerns an American writer who gets wrapped up in the quasi-mystical fortunes and faded glory of Spanish bullfighters, most specifically a family of breeders whose bulls no longer enjoy the reputation they once did.

As far as bullfighting goes, I know only the Hemingway books on the subject (and neither of those very well) but I remember from Michener's introduction to one of them (The Dangerous Summer) that he was an aficionado himself. Bullfighting is a completely foreign world for me, but I figured if he could sweep me up with his prose on Buzkashi in The Drifters he stood a good chance of interesting me in the corrida.

Not bad at all - and it's a short one, too, with some fantastic illustrations by John Fulton, an old friend of the author's and one of the few American bullfighters to achieve success in Spain.


"'If naughty Melissa were ever to act like a bad girl,' she whispered to her conscience, 'Joe would be one of the few men she'd let give her the spanking she deserved.'

Here's a damn oddity, published 10 years after the author's death and unlike anything else he wrote. The title comes from the name of two of the islands that comprise the town of Islamorada on Florida's Gulf coast. The plot is the parallel love/life stories of a mother and daughter as they find (and lose and regain) love in their later years.

The style is really odd. The women spend an awful lot of time talking out loud to themselves as well as apprising their own attractiveness or what they plan to wear and how men might regard it. There's also a conspicuous amount of time lounging around in "negligees," perhaps the unsexiest word in the English language when written by an old man. Maybe any man. Or woman. The dialogue/ inner monologue-ing itself is just weird overall.

The one bit that made me smile is when Joe and Melissa are leaving a movie and Joe starts talking like Rocky Balboa to try and make her smile. ("Awww come on Melissa, TV News don't mean much to me unless youse the one who's watchin'.")

And then there's the Afterword by Joe Avenick where the following bombshells are dropped:
- the character of Melissa is based on Melissa DeMaio, Michener's real life Florida Keys mistress. (Suddenly, all the negligees made a gross amount of sense.)

- Avenick was an uncredited ghostwriter for Michener who wrote large sections of Chesapeake and Sports in America, possibly more, and he was just one of many assistants whose work Michener appropriated on other books.

I've seen rumors of both of these things before, but Michener pointedly denies the second of these allegations in The World Is My Home. (He doesn't mention the first, but I guess that's understandable.) What's the truth? Did he have an arrangement with these assistants of any kind, like James Paterson or other authors are rumored to have? (I hear Paterson's deal is pretty above-board, but I don't know the details.) 

Or did he plagiarize the work of others and pass it off as his own? Did he lie about it The World Is My Home? Did Random House ever officially address this? Were there legal settlements? 

You'd figure, if true, one of the above things would have been remarked upon somewhere, but googling it produces nothing. It's entirely possible that all of this did happen and radio silence was just part of the settlement or that the info is out there but I just haven't discovered it. Disappointing if so. Avenick seems rather nonchalant about this in the Afterword. He also claims the work is highly symbolic and fully edited and up to the snuff of his other work. It clearly isn't. He (Avenick) lists many of Matecumbe's symbolic points ("observe the number of seeds of the watermelons") but none swayed me. 

There's more to the story here, but overall this left a bad taste in my mouth. Like the reviewer notes in that link
"Avenick tells us that Michener wanted him to have and make use of Matecumbe, that he remained friends with Michener to the end, and that (the novel) is a rescued and revealing gem, every word of it Michener's. Yet Avenick was instrumental in raising questions about Michener's authorship of his own works, and now stands to profit from a book he's publicly describing as a literary consequence of Michener's infidelity as a husband.

Oh, and the book is being released in Michener's centennial year. Nice work all around, everybody."

At the very least, it says something about Matecumbe that the most memorable things about it are somewhat icky.


  1. (1) I'd never heard of Hiroshige, but I'd seen a few of the pieces on that Wikipedia page. Good stuff. I continue to marvel at how diverse -- and I don't mean that in the 2017-buzz-word sense of things -- Michener's interests were. It's a very enviable character trait, and I wish I shared it. (I actually DO share it, I guess, I just lack the self-motivation to actually pursue it.)

    (2) "his chapters come to life without being parodies of facts" -- How quaint!

    (3) That Hokusai anecdote is gold. A bummer, but gold.

    (4) My hypothesis based on your appropriately brief thoughts on "Six Days in Havana" is that the book must have been some sort of contractual-obligation-fulfillment release. Maybe Michener had his hands tied and couldn't actually make it the book he wanted it to be, but was obligated to release SOMETHING, so he settled for this? Based on what I've about him via you, it certainly sounds atypical.

    (5) Is/was Jerzy Urban a Ferengi?!? (Unlikely, I guess, given the incompatibility of communism with Ferengi doctrine. Lookit them ears, though!) Either way, he looks like a sonofabitch.

    (6) My knowledge of bullfighting comes entirely from the filmography of George Lazenby.

    (7) All of that about "Matecumbe" sounds gross. The whole ghostwriting thing is weird to me. Like, there's a whole line of Tom Clancy books that somebody else wrote; his name's right there on the cover, too. How stupid/desperate are Tom Clancy fans?!? Anyways, I don't want any of that to be true of Michener, even though I'm not actually a fan in the literal sense. I inherently distrust this Avenick character.

    1. (4) Could be, for sure. I wonder, too, the way Stephen King will do sometimes, if this wasn't some kind of gift to his buddy John Kings, i.e. "my name will likely get this on the bestseller lists - sign on as my collaborator and enjoy the royalties."

      (Mr. King/ any-and-all-bestselling others: I am at your disposal for such collaborations...)

      (5) What a set of lobes on that guy! It's too bad he loved communism and not B-movies, as he'd have had a stellar career.

      (6) Nice.

      (7) I don't get that, either.