This Day In Literary History
On February 3rd, 1907, the famous American writer James Michener was born. His birth date is a guesstimate; he knew neither who his parents were nor exactly when and where he was born. He was raised by his adoptive mother, Mabel Michener, in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. The Micheners were Quakers.
In 1929, James Michener graduated summa cum laude from Swarthmore College, earning a Master's degree in English and psychology. He spent the next two years traveling through and studying in Europe, then took a job as an English teacher at Hill High School in Pottstown, Pennsylvania.
From there, he taught English at George School in Newtown, Pennsylvania, then attended Colorado State Teachers College, (now known as the University of Northern Colorado) earned a Master's degree, and taught there for several years.
After a one-year teaching stint at Harvard from 1939-40, Michener left his teaching career to become a social studies education editor for Macmillan Publishers. When World War II broke out, he enlisted and became a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy.
Stationed in the South Pacific and assigned as a naval historian, he would use the experience to begin a writing career after the war ended. His first book was published in 1947. He was 40 years old at the time.
Tales of the South Pacific was a collection of related short stories set on the Solomon Islands in the Coral Sea during World War II. Though the stories deal with the Navy, most of the action takes place on shore.
The book was a huge success and made James Michener's name as a writer. It won him a Pulitzer Prize and was later adapted as the hit Rodgers & Hammerstein Broadway musical, South Pacific. A classic feature film adaptation of the musical was later released.
The extremely prolific Michener wrote numerous epic novels. His detail rich prose reflected his meticulous research. Some of his most memorable works include The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1953), a tale of American fighter pilots in action during the Korean War.
The novel was adapted as a feature film in 1954 - just one year after it was published. Hawaii (1959) traced the history of the Hawaiian Islands from prehistoric times through the 1950s. It would be adapted as a feature film in 1966.
Centennial (1974) explored the history of the northeast Colorado plains from prehistoric times through the 1970s. It would be adapted as a TV miniseries in 1978.
Space (1982) was an epic, fictionalized history of the American space program that began with the work of Nazi rocket scientists during the war. It would be adapted as an Emmy Award winning TV miniseries in 1985.
Texas (1985) traced the history of the Lone Star State, featuring both fictional and real historical characters, including explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca. It was adapted as a TV movie in 1994.
In 1960, James Michener got involved with politics, becoming chairman of the Bucks County, Pennsylvania committee to elect John F. Kennedy. Two years later, he ran as a Democratic candidate for Congress.
He would consider his foray into politics a mistake, saying "My mistake was to run in 1962 as a Democrat candidate for Congress. [My wife] kept saying, 'Don't do it, don't do it.' I lost and went back to writing books."
During Michener's lifetime, his novels sold an estimated 75,000,000 copies. He made a great deal of money, which he used for philanthropic endeavors, giving away more than one hundred million dollars to universities, museums, libraries, and other charitable causes.
In 1989, he donated all of his royalties from the Canadian edition of his novel Journey (which is set in the Canadian Yukon during the Gold Rush) and created the Journey Prize, which is awarded annually for the year's best short story published by an up-and-coming Canadian writer. The prize is worth $10,000 Canadian.
In his later years, James Michener suffered from kidney failure and required daily dialysis. In October of 1997, after suffering through four years of treatments, he decided to end them. He died soon afterward of kidney failure at the age of 91.
Quote Of The Day
"I love writing. I love the swirl and swing of words as they tangle with human emotions." - James Michener
Today's video features a nearly two hour interview with James Michener. Enjoy!