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"James Michener seems to me a true American classic- his enormous success has not hardened his heart but seems to have had quite the reverse effect upon him. Surely he has touched every man, woman, and child in the United States over the decades."
-Joyce Carol Oates
James A. Michener was an author of novels, short fiction, and nonfiction, much of which was based on his extensive research and travel. He sold more than 75 million books and is considered one of the most prolific and popular writers of the 20th century. His most popular novels, such as Hawaii, Centennial, Texas, and Chesapeake, were constructed as epics, tracing the history of a region from primordial times to the recent past. Typically, Michener focused on a few families, exploring their place among the region's different cultures and the impact of major historical events upon them.
Establishing this pattern, Michener's first work of fiction, Tales of the South Pacific, drew on the research he had done as a naval historian during World War II. This set of short stories earned Michener a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1948 and served as the model for Rodgers and Hammerstein's popular musical, South Pacific. Much of the author's nonfiction, such as books about Japanese art and political memoirs, likewise drew on his travels. He taught cultural diversity.
Michener was also actively involved in public service. He ran for Congress from Bucks County in 1962, served as Secretary of the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention from 1967 to 1968, and advised the government on issues ranging from the space program to postage stamps. Michener gave away more than $100 million to museums, schools, libraries and other institutions, including the James A. Michener Art Museum. In 2007, the Museum commemorated the 100th anniversary of Michener's birth with the exhibition James A. Michener: Traveler/Citizen/Writer.
James A. Michener at the desk of his Bucks County home. Courtesy of Urban Archives, Temple University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Education and Training
B.A., summa cum laude, Swarthmore College,Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania, 1929
M.A., Colorado State College of Education (now University of Northern Colorado), Greely, Colorado, 1936
Additional research and study: University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia; Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio; Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts; St. Andrews University, Scotland; University of Siena, Italy
Teachers and Influences
Honor Balzac, Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy, Dostoievsky, and Gustave Flaubert
Connection to Bucks County
Michener once boasted of Bucks County that "it is one of the few counties, in the thousands of counties in America, which is known unto itself." He resided here much of his life. Michener was adopted and raised in Doylestown by the widow, Mabel Michener. Because the family was poor, they moved often- all in all eight times during Michener's boyhood. At Doylestown High School, young Michener distinguished himself as a basketball star, editor of the school magazine, senior class president, and as a gifted pupil. Michener briefly interrupted the extensive travels of his young adulthood to teach in Newtown at the George School. As an established writer, Michener built himself a modest home on Red Hill Road in Tinicum Township, near Pipersville. He lived there from 1948 to 1985.
Michener incorporated Bucks County into his fiction, using it as the setting for his autobiographical novel, The Fires of Spring. Wherever he traveled or lived, Bucks County was the place he always called home. He and Mari last visited Bucks County together in 1993.
A devoted admirer of the visual arts, Michener contributed generously to the endowment of the James A. Michener Art Museum. Mari Sabusawa Michener died in 1994. The Museum's second expansion in 1996 was funded by a bequest from Mari Sabusawa Michener.
Colleagues and Affiliations
Michener, along with his friend, the lyricist, Oscar Hammerstein, helped author Pearl S. Buck launch various philanthropic projects, including the adoption agency, Welcome House.
Michener also knew George S. Kaufman, Moss Hart, S.J. Perelman, Dorothy Parker, Lee Gatch, Elsie Driggs, and Herman Silverman- a friend and fellow patron of the arts.
Michener and his wife Mari both had roles in the Lambertville Music Circus, 1960 production of South Pacific. He was also well-known for his appearances at the Tinicum Arts Fair as "Mitch, The Witch," the fortune teller.
Educated on free scholarships, Michener attended nine different schools and universities, including Swarthmore College and George School. He has given money to many local and national institutions including Bucks County Historical Society, Bucks County Free Library, George School, Swarthmore College and the James A. Michener Art Museum.
"I have always wanted to be a good citizen in all the definitions of that word...I have put that ahead of writing, but I've also used writing to achieve it, and I have been consistent."
Raised in poverty, Michener devoted himself to easing others' wants through philanthropy and civic duty. He took an active role in politics, serving as John F. Kennedy's regional campaign chair and as presidential elector in 1968. In 1962, Michener ran for Congress, canvassing every square mile of Bucks County in his old station wagon in an unsuccessful attempt to unseat the Republican incumbent. He was most proud of his work as secretary of the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention, enacting several important changes in state government.
In gratitude for the wealth he earned as a writer, Michener returned a large portion of it to the arts. He gave over $100 million to various university creative writing programs and museums, including the Bucks County regional art museum that bears his name. The Micheners donated their extensive art collection to the University of Texas and to the Honolulu Academy of Art.
Michener achieved recognition for his philanthropy and public service. In 1977, he received the highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He was given the 1996 Outstanding Philanthropist Award from the National Society of Fund Raising Executives. Such rewards meant more to Michener than the millions of dollars he earned as an author.
Novels and Short Stories
Tales of the South Pacific, 1947; adapted for the stage by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein as South Pacific and was filmed in 1958
Return to Paradise, 1951; adapted for the screen as Until They Sail, 1957, Mr. Morgan, and Return to Paradise, 1953
The Fires of Spring, 1949
The Bridges at Toko-Ri, 1953; adapted for the screen, 1954
Sayonara, 1954; adapted for the screen, 1957
Hawaii, 1959; adapted for the screen as Hawaii, 1966, and as The Hawaiians, 1970
The Source, illustrated by Richard Sparks, 1965
The Drifters, 1971
Centennial, 1974, adapted for television, 1978-1979
The Covenant, 1980
Space, 1982; adapted for television mini-series, 1985
Texas, 1985; adapted for the screen, 1995
South Pacific, a retelling of the musical South Pacific, illustrated by Michael Hague, 1992
James A. Michener: Traveler/Citizen/Writer, Michener Art Museum, Doylestown, PA, 2007