CATEGORY: EDT Editorials
Editorial, Saturday, Oct. 18, 1997
James Michener wrote big big like the country he loved and the world he traveled to its most distant and exotic places.
The prolific novelist, who died Thursday at age 90, leaves a strong imprint and wonderful literary memories around the world and particularly in the United States.
Michener, in many ways, embodied the American dream. He was an orphan of uncertain parentage. He struggled in youth, and used his fine mind and academic scholarships finally to earn a degree from Swarthmore and, later, the University of Northern Colorado. His more than 40 books eventually made him immensely wealthy, but he was not obsessed with money or what it could buy.
He gave almost $50 million to the University of Texas for its writers program, and he had other major philanthropic interests. He had homes in Austin (near the university), in Florida, and in Maine. All his residences were close to major university research libraries to make it easier to get the facts and the historical perspective he needed to write books like "Centennial," "Texas," "Space," and "Alaska." He also wrote "Tales of the South Pacific," a 20th-century classic that won the Pulitzer Prize and inspired the still-popular musical, "South Pacific."
Critics seldom greeted his work with high acclaim, and he wasn't often heralded for literary genius. He was, indisputably, a great storyteller, and his appeal in a nation of story lovers was unbroken throughout his long, productive, creative life. His novels sometimes began in pre-history, and they frequently were lengthy. He developed a loyal readership, and his influence on many Americans' perceptions of our nation and the rest of the world have been shaped by his words.
Michener advanced literacy because his books had such wide-ranging appeal. People who might not read other novels read Michener and, in so doing, became more informed.
Michener also provided an example of what the term "life's work" can mean. He didn't stop working until very near the end of his life, and then only because infirmity forced it.
Americans like to celebrate big achievements, and Michener's achievements are worthy of accolade. His life spanned almost the whole 20th century, and he will be remembered well into the next one.