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Michener's wide world

February 04, 2007|Christopher Reynolds | Christopher Reynolds is a Times staff writer.

CALL them the Michener scholars. In Europe, Polynesia, Asia and Africa I've seen them, Americans abroad bearing battered, brick-sized paperbacks with that familiar name on the spine.

They're a demographer's nightmare -- young, old, privileged, penny-pinching, with and without college educations -- and for every one I came across as a travel writer for this newspaper from 1992 to 2001, there must have been another million who hadn't left home but glimpsed that world nevertheless. James A. Michener's 40-some books have sold more than 75 million copies in more than 50 languages.

Yet for all the fame and wealth that came his way, I'm here to argue that the author hasn't gotten the credit he deserves.

This man -- who was born on or about Feb. 3, 1907, and died in 1997 -- may have taught more Americans more about the rest of the world than any other writer in his century. And once that teaching made him rich, he plowed the money back into charity, perhaps as much as $100 million, with the lion's share going to the University of Texas at Austin, home of the James A. Michener Center for Writers.

For his centennial, he'll also be remembered at the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, Pa., and the James A. Michener Library at the University of Northern Colorado. Last month Random House reissued "The World Is My Home: A Memoir" (528 pp., $15.95 paper) and a Broadway revival of "South Pacific" is scheduled for next year.

But how much respect does he get among book people? One critic (writing in this newspaper) lamented that Michener's plots moved "at a pace a glacier would enjoy." Another, struck by the sheer volume of characters and data in his work, called him the Cecil B. DeMille of American novelists.

My first instinct is to invoke Norman Rockwell. But that too may underestimate what Michener did for us. Beginning with "Tales of the South Pacific" in 1947 and accelerating in 1959 -- when "Hawaii" became a bestseller and he realized its epic formula could be applied elsewhere -- Michener delivered a 50-year seminar in pop geography. Half a dozen American states, the Caribbean and Cuba, Hawaii and the Holy Land, Japan and Mexico, Hungary and Poland, Spain, South Africa and space: He covered them all.

"I wish I could tell you about the South Pacific," his most famous work begins. "The way it actually was. The endless ocean. The infinite specks of coral we called islands. Coconut palms nodding gracefully toward the ocean. Reefs upon which waves broke into spray, and inner lagoons, lovely beyond description. I wish I could tell you about the sweating jungle, the full moon rising behind the volcanoes, and the waiting. The waiting. The timeless, repetitive waiting."

Many of his books passed through the same editor that William Faulkner's did -- Albert Erskine of Random House -- but Michener made no literary claims for himself. He just wrote long and fast in a plain journalistic voice. "I'm the guy who can see the thing through," he told one reporter. "I know how to organize material. That's different from the sheer brilliance of a Norman Mailer or a Truman Capote."

Michener often recounted the story of how he'd been found as an infant and raised in Doylestown by Mabel Michener, a Quaker widow who earned her living by doing laundry and taking in abandoned children. His official birthday, he wrote, was the product of guesswork. "I've never felt in a position to reject anybody," he once said. "I could be Jewish, part Negro, probably not Oriental but almost anything else."

After earning top marks as a scholarship undergrad at Swarthmore College and going on to graduate school in Colorado and elsewhere, Michener spent several years as a teacher and textbook editor. After Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the Navy and was assigned to the South Pacific. When it dawned on him to write about what surrounded him, a new career was launched. "Tales of the South Pacific" won a Pulitzer Prize and inspired a Broadway musical and film whose frothy songs (in which Michener played no part) continue to resonate in pop culture.

This book of interconnected stories also marked the beginning of Michener's long exploration of what happens when cultures connect, or fail to. One of the central elements in "South Pacific," though many forget it now, was the journey of nurse Nellie Forbush, who starts out scorning miscegenation and winds up joining a multicultural family.

And the author's outreach didn't end on the page. In 1949, Michener joined author Pearl S. Buck, lyricist Oscar Hammerstein and seed-family philanthropist Lois Burpee in the founding of Welcome House, the first interracial adoption organization in the U.S. By 1951, Michener was arguing that the future of the United States would depend on the ability of its leaders and citizens to understand the leaders and citizens of Asia. In 1963, when most Americans couldn't hope to find Afghanistan on a map, Michener set a novel there ("Caravans") and featured a CIA agent as a central character.

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