James Albert Michener was born in New York City on February 3, 1907. Abandoned by his parents shortly after his birth, he was taken in by a widow named Mabel Michener, who made a meager living caring for orphaned children. He spent most of his childhood in Doylestown, Pennsylvania.
Michener must have been a born drifter, for by his teenage years he had already hitchhiked up and down the entire eastern seaboard. By the age of 20 he had visited all but three U.S. states, and had held a variety of odd jobs.
Despite his extended time on the road, Michener entered Swathmore College as a scholarship student, and graduated with highest honors. He went on to St. Andrew's University in Scotland, then taught at the George School in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. After earning a Master's Degree from the Colorado State Teachers College (now University of Northern Colorado), he spent two years "teaching others how to teach," first there and then as Assistant Visiting Professor of History at Harvard University. He then edited textbooks for a New York publishing firm until World War II intervened.
As a Navy seamen in the Pacific Theater, Michener visited 49 different South Pacific islands while on information-gathering missions. It was his time amongst the various peoples and cultures of these islands that inspired Michener to write his first novel. While on the island of Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides, he lived next door to a Tonkinese woman nicknamed Bloody Mary. This woman became a major character in his first book, a collection of short stories called Tales of the South Pacific, which earned him the 1948 Pulitzer Prize for Literature. The team of Rodgers and Hammerstein later adapted this novel for the long-running Broadway play "South Pacific," which was in turn made into a major motion picture.
Michener got his editing job back after the war, but didn't stay in New York long. In 1949 he took up residence in Honolulu, Hawaii, and soon became actively involved in Hawaiian civic affairs. He finished writing Hawaii the very day that Congress voted Hawaii into the Union.
Over the course of his lifetime Michener visited most countries of the world, and usually stayed long enough to become intimately familiar with the people and customs. These travels provided the basis for many of his novels.
But Michener was far more than a well-traveled author, he was also an occassional politician. In 1962 he ran for Congress as a liberal Democrat in a substantially conservative district, and lost. In 1968 he served as secretary of the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention.
An acute fascination with science led Michener to serve on the Advisory Council to NASA, from 1979 to 1983. At various times he also served as cultural ambassador to various nations, as well as on advisory committees for the U.S. Postal Service and the International Broadcasting Board.
Michener's many accomplishments earned him honorary doctorates in five different fields; the Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award; and, an award from the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities (1983), recognizing his long-standing and continuing support of the arts in America.
Health problems forced Michener to "settle down" in Austin, Texas, in 1985. After undergoing quintuple by-pass surgery and suffering an attack of permanent vertigo, he decided to concentrate more on his writing and less on his travels. He wrote almost as many books in his last 12 years of life (22) as he did in all of his previous 38 years (30), but the literary quality of his work never declined.
James A. Michener died on October 16, 1997, a few days after ordering his doctors to remove him from life-saving kidney dialysis. Mari Yoriko Sabusawa, his wife of 39 years, preceded him in death in 1994.
Tales of the South
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This page was last updated on 03/05/2014.