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James A. Michener
Author James A. Michener in 1991
Born (1907-02-03)February 3, 1907
Doylestown, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Died October 16, 1997(1997-10-16) (aged 90)
Austin, Texas, U.S.
Alma mater
  • Swarthmore College
  • University of St Andrews
  • University of Northern Colorado
Occupation Author, philanthropist, teacher, academic, naval officer and political advisor

James Albert Michener (/ˈmɪnər/;[1] February 3, 1907 – October 16, 1997) was an American author of more than 40 books, most of which were fictional, lengthy family sagas covering the lives of many generations in particular geographic locales and incorporating solid history. Michener had numerous bestsellers and works selected for Book of the Month Club, and was known for his meticulous research behind the books.[2]

Michener's novels include Tales of the South Pacific for which he won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1948, Hawaii, The Drifters, Centennial, The Source, The Fires of Spring, Chesapeake, Caribbean, Caravans, Alaska, Texas, and Poland. His non-fiction works include Iberia, about his travels in Spain and Portugal; his memoir titled The World Is My Home; and Sports in America. Return to Paradise combines fictional short stories with Michener's factual descriptions of the Pacific areas where they take place.[2]

His first book was adapted as the popular Broadway musical South Pacific by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, and later as eponymous feature films in 1958 and 2001, adding to his financial success. He also wrote an analysis of the United States' Electoral College system in a book which condemned it, entitled Presidential Lottery: The Reckless Gamble in Our Electoral System. It was published in 1969, and republished in 2014 and 2016.[3]


Michener wrote that he did not know who his biological parents were, or exactly when or where he was born.[2] He said he was raised a Quaker by an adoptive mother, Mabel Michener, in Doylestown, Bucks County, Pennsylvania.[4]

Michener graduated from Doylestown High School in 1925. He attended Swarthmore College, in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, where he played basketball and was a member of the Phi Delta Theta fraternity. After graduating summa cum laude in 1929, with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and History, he traveled and studied in Scotland at the University of St Andrews in the medieval town of St. Andrews, Fife on the coast of the North Sea for two years.[5]

Michener took a job as a high school English teacher at The Hill School in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. From 1933 to 1936, he taught English at George School in Newtown, Pennsylvania. He attended Colorado State College of Education in Greeley, Colorado, (in 1970 renamed the University of Northern Colorado), where he earned a Master of Arts degree in Education.[4] After graduation, he taught at the university and at College High School (the University Lab School) for several years. The library at the University of Northern Colorado was named after him in October 1972.[6][7][8]

In 1935, Michener married Patti Koon. He accepted a Guest Lecturer position at Harvard, from 1939 to 1940, but left to join Macmillan Publishers as their social studies education editor.[4]

Michener was called to active duty during World War II (1941–1945) in the United States Navy. He traveled throughout the South Pacific Ocean on various assignments which he gained because his base commanders mistakenly thought his father was Admiral Marc Mitscher.[9] His experiences during these travels inspired the stories published in his breakout work Tales of the South Pacific.[4]

In 1960, Michener was chairman of the Bucks County committee to elect Democrat John F. Kennedy as the 35th President. In 1962, he unsuccessfully ran as a Democratic Party candidate for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives from Pennsylvania, a decision he later considered a misstep. "My mistake was to run in 1962 as a Democratic candidate for Congress. [My wife] kept saying, 'Don't do it, don't do it.' I lost and went back to writing books."[4]

In 1968, Michener served as the campaign manager for the third-term run of the twice-elected U.S. Senator Joseph S. Clark of Pennsylvania.[10] Michener later served as Secretary for the 1967–1968 Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention.[4] Also that year, Michener was a member of the Electoral College, serving as a Pennsylvania Democrat. He wrote about that experience in a political science text Presidential Lottery: The Reckless Gamble in Our Electoral System, which was published the following year. In it, he suggested alternate systems, including using a direct popular vote by majority for the office of President of the United States.

Writing career

Michener's typewriter at the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, Pennsylvania

Michener began his writing career during World War II, when as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy he was assigned to the South Pacific as a naval historian. He later turned his notes and impressions into Tales of the South Pacific (1947), his first book, published when he was age 40. It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1948, and Rodgers and Hammerstein adapted it as the hit Broadway musical South Pacific, which premiered on Broadway in New York City in 1949.[11] The musical was also adapted as eponymous feature films in 1958 and 2001.

In the late 1950s, Michener began working as a roving editor for the Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature. He gave up that work in 1970.[citation needed]

Michener tried television writing but was unsuccessful. American television producer Bob Mann wanted Michener to co-create a weekly anthology series from Tales of the South Pacific and serve as narrator. Rodgers and Hammerstein, however, had bought all dramatic rights to the novel and did not relinquish their ownership.[12] Michener did lend his name to a different television series, Adventures in Paradise, in 1959, starring Gardner McKay as Captain Adam Troy in the sailing ship Tiki III.[13]

Michener was a popular writer during his lifetime; his novels sold an estimated 75 million copies worldwide.[14] His novel Hawaii (1959), well-timed on its publication when Hawaii became the 50th state, was based on extensive research. He used this approach for nearly all of his subsequent novels, which were based on detailed historical, cultural, and even geological research. Centennial (1974), which documented several generations of families in the Rocky Mountains of the American West, was adapted as a popular 12-part television miniseries of the same name and aired on the National Broadcasting Company (NBC television network) from October 1978 through February 1979.[15]

In 1996, State House Press published James A. Michener: A Bibliography, compiled by David A. Groseclose. Its more than 2,500 entries from 1923 to 1995 include magazine articles, forewords, and other works.[16]

Michener's prodigious output made for lengthy novels, several of which run more than 1,000 pages. The author states in My Lost Mexico (1992) that at times he would spend 12 to 15 hours per day at his typewriter for weeks on end, and that he used so much paper, his filing system had trouble keeping up.[page needed]


Michener was married three times. In 1935, he married Patti Koon. In 1948, they divorced, and the same year Michener married his second wife, Vange Nord.[2]

Michener met his third wife, Mari Yoriko Sabusawa, at a luncheon in Chicago. An American, she and her Japanese parents had suffered internment in western camps that the U.S. government set up during the early years of World War II to hold ethnic Japanese from West Coast / Pacific communities. Michener divorced Nord in 1955 and married Sabusawa the same year. She died in 1994.[2]

Michener's novel Sayonara (1954) is quasi-autobiographical.[4] Set during the early 1950s, it tells the story of Major Lloyd Gruver, a United States Air Force ace jet pilot in the Korean War (1950–1953), now stationed in Japan, who falls in love with Hana-Ogi, a Japanese woman. The novel follows their cross-cultural romance and illuminates the racism of the post-World War II time period. It also was adapted into a highly successful 1957 movie of the same name, starring Marlon Brando, James Garner, Miko Taka, and Red Buttons, who won the 1958 Academy Award ("Oscar") for best supporting actor.[17]


Michener became a major philanthropist, donating more than $100 million to educational, cultural, and writing institutions, including his alma mater, Swarthmore College, the Iowa Writers Workshop, and the James A. Michener Art Museum,[18] and more than $37 million to University of Texas at Austin. By 1992, his gifts made him UT Austin's largest single donor to that time. Over the years, Mari Michener played a major role in helping direct his donations.[2]

In 1989, Michener donated the royalty earnings from the Canadian edition of his novel Journey (1989), published in Canada by McClelland & Stewart, to create the Journey Prize, an annual Canadian literary prize worth $10,000 (CDN) that is awarded for the year's best short story published by an emerging Canadian writer.[19]

Final years and death

The creative team and star of South Pacific, L–R: Joshua Logan, Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II, Mary Martin, and Michener (1949)

In the Micheners' final years, he and his wife lived in Austin, Texas, and they endowed the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin. The Center provides three-year Michener Fellowships in fiction, poetry, playwriting and screenwriting to a small number of students.[20][21]

Suffering from terminal kidney disease, in October 1997, Michener ended the daily dialysis treatment that had kept him alive for four years. He said he had accomplished what he wanted and did not want further physical complications. On October 16, 1997, he died of kidney failure, at age 90.[2][11] Michener was cremated, and his ashes were placed next to those of his wife at Austin Memorial Park Cemetery in Austin, Texas.[22]


Michener left most of his estate and book copyrights to Swarthmore College, where he earned his bachelor's degree.[23] He had donated his papers to the University of Northern Colorado, where he earned his master's degree.[2]


  • In 1981, Michener was awarded the St. Louis Literary Award from the Saint Louis University Library Associates in St. Louis, Missouri.[24][25]
  • In 1993, the U.S. Navy Memorial Foundation awarded Michener its "Lone Sailor Award" for his naval war service and his literary achievements.[26]
  • In 1994, Michener endorsed the naming as "Michener's" the restaurant at Iririki Island Resort, Port Vila, Vanuatu. He wrote:

"Many of the fondest memories of my travels stem back to my years of military service in the New Hebrides – (now Vanuatu) – during the Pacific War years of the early 1940s...While those beautiful islands have changed much with progress in the ensuing years, I know from subsequent visits that the friendliness of the peoples, their infectious smiles and their open-heartedness will remain forever one of life's treasures."[27]


  • Michener is honored by a memorial headstone at the Texas State Cemetery in Austin.[28]
  • On May 12, 2008, the United States Postal Service honored him with a 59¢ Distinguished Americans series postage stamp.[29]
  • The Library at The University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, Colorado, his alma mater, is named "The James Michener Library" in his honor. On the mezzanine, there is a small display of his effects, including one of his typewriters.[30]
  • In 1998, the Raffles Hotel in Singapore named one of their suites after the author, in memory of his patronage and affection for the hotel. Michener first stayed at the Singapore hotel in 1949 after World War II. In a 1987 interview, he said it was a luxury for him, a young man, to stay at the Raffles Hotel then, and that he had the time of his life. He returned on a later trip. The suite was officially christened by Steven J. Green, Ambassador of United States to Singapore.[11]

James A. Michener Art Museum

James Michener Museum in Doylestown, Pennsylvania

Opened in 1988, in Michener's hometown of Doylestown, Pennsylvania, the James A. Michener Art Museum houses collections of local and well-known artists. Michener pledged $5.5 million to the museum in 1996.[2] Constructed from the remains of an old state prison, the museum is a non-profit organization with both permanent and rotating collections. Two prominent permanent fixtures are the James A. Michener display room and the Nakashima Reading Room, constructed in honor of his third wife's Japanese heritage. The museum is known for its permanent collection of Pennsylvania Impressionist paintings.

James A. Michener Society

The James A. Michener Society was formed in the fall of 1998. It comprises people who share a common interest and admirers of Michener's life and work.[31] The society sponsors a variety of activities and publishes an electronic internet newsletter. Annual meetings of members are held at locations closely associated with Michener's life.[31] The society's purpose is to:[31]

  • Preserve the intellectual legacy of James A. Michener as a writer, teacher, historian, public servant, patriot, and philanthropist
  • Ensure that future generations have full access to all his writings
  • Promote the exchange of ideas and information about his writings
  • Encourage fellowship among readers of his writings
  • Inform devotees and members of the Society about recent publications and critiques of his writings


In addition to writing novels, short stories, and non-fiction, Michener was very involved with movies, TV series, and radio. The following is only a selection of the listings in the Library of Congress files.[citation needed]

Books — fiction

Title Year published
Tales of the South Pacific 1947
The Fires of Spring 1949
Return to Paradise 1950
The Bridges at Toko-ri 1953
Sayonara 1954
Hawaii 1959
Caravans 1963
The Source 1965
The Drifters 1971
Centennial 1974
Chesapeake 1978
The Watermen 1978
The Covenant 1980
Space 1982
Poland 1983
Texas 1985
Legacy 1987
Alaska 1988
Caribbean 1989
Journey 1989
The Novel 1991
South Pacific 1992
Mexico 1992
Recessional 1994
Miracle in Seville 1995
Matecumbe 2007

Books — non-fiction

Title Year published Notes
The Future of the Social Studies ("The Problem of the Social Studies") 1939 Editor
The Voice of Asia 1951
The Floating World 1954
The Bridge at Andau 1957
Rascals in Paradise 1957
Japanese Prints: From the Early Masters to the Modern 1959 With notes by Richard Lane
Report of the County Chairman 1961
The Modern Japanese Print: An Appreciation 1968
Iberia 1968 Travelogue
Presidential Lottery 1969
The Quality of Life 1970
Kent State: What Happened and Why 1971
Michener Miscellany – 1950/1970 1973
Firstfruits, A Harvest of 25 Years of Israeli Writing 1973
Sports in America 1976
About Centennial: Some Notes on the Novel 1978
James A Michener's USA: The People and the Land 1981 Edited by Peter Chaitin; foreword by Michener
Collectors, Forgers — And A Writer: A Memoir 1983
Michener Anthology 1985
Six Days in Havana 1989
PilgrFile: A Memoir of Poland and Rome 1990
The Eagle and the Raven 1990
My Lost Mexico 1992
The World Is My Home 1992 Autobiography
Creatures of the Kingdom 1993 Collection of fifteen animal-focused segments from Hawaii, Centennial, Chesapeake, The Covenant, Texas and Alaska, and one original story.
Literary Reflections 1993
William Penn 1994
Ventures in Editing 1995
This Noble Land 1996
Three Great Novels of World War II 1996
A Century of Sonnets 1997


Title Notes
South Pacific 1949 Broadway musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein based on the novel Tales of the South Pacific (1946)
The Bridges at Toko-Ri 1954 film based on the novella The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1953)
Return to Paradise 1953 film based on the short story "Mr. Morgan" in the collection Return to Paradise (1951)
Men of the Fighting Lady (also known as Panther Squadron) 1954 film inspired by Michener's Saturday Evening Post article, "The Forgotten Heroes of Korea"
Until They Sail 1957 film based on a short story included in Return to Paradise
Sayonara 1957 film nominated for 10 Academy Awards, won four; including Best Supporting Actress, for Miyoshi Umeki, the first and, as of 2016, the only East Asian Actress to win an Oscar. Based on the semi-autobiographical novel Sayonara (1954).
South Pacific 1958 film based on the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical in turn based on the novel Tales of the South Pacific (1946)
Adventures in Paradise 1959–62 television series created by Michener
Hawaii 1966 film based on the novel Hawaii (1959)
The Hawaiians 1970 film based on the novel Hawaii (1959)
Centennial 1978 TV miniseries based on the novel Centennial (1974)
Caravans 1978 film starring Anthony Quinn based on the novel Caravans (1963)
Space 1985 TV miniseries based on the novel Space (1982)
James A. Michener's Texas 1994 TV miniseries based on the novel Texas (1985)
South Pacific 2001 television movie based on the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical in turn based on the novel Tales of the South Pacific (1946)


  1. "Michener". The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Houghton Mifflin. 2004. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 2.7 2.8 Albin Krebs (October 17, 1997). "James Michener, Author of Novels That Sweep Through the History of Places, Is Dead". The New York Times. Retrieved November 5, 2009. 
  3. Michener, James (1969). Presidential Lottery. Penguin Random House. Retrieved March 1, 2017. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 4.6 "James Michener Biography". Penn State University Libraries. 
  5. "Biographical Sketch, James A. Michener Papers". 
  6. May, Kalen (October 30, 2012). "UNC Celebrating Michener Library’s First 40 Years". 
  7. 21
  8. "Michener". 
  9. Michener, James A. (1951). Return to Paradise. Random House. 
  10. Beers, Paul B. (March 31, 1976). Pennsylvania Politics Today and Yesterday: The Tolerable Accommodation. Penn State University Press. p. 198. ISBN 978-0271002385. 
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 "Get Me Michener at Raffles". The New Paper. Singapore. September 16, 1998. 
  12. Hayes, John Michael (1984). James A. Michener: A Biography. Bobbs-Merrill. p. 158. 
  13. Hayes, p. 159.
  14. "James Michener Biography". Retrieved May 3, 2009. 
  15. "Centennial: The Complete Miniseries". Retrieved March 1, 2017. 
  16. "James A. Michener, A Bibliography". Retrieved March 1, 2017. 
  17. "The 30th Academy Awards (1958) Nominees and Winners". Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS). Retrieved August 27, 2013. 
  18. "James A. Michener Art Museum". 
  19. "Journey Prize". 
  20. "The Michener Center for Writers and its Master of Fine Arts program at the University of Texas at Austin". Retrieved May 28, 2014. 
  21. "The Michener Fellowship at the University of Texas at Austin". Retrieved May 28, 2014. 
  22. "Memorial headstone details for James Michener". Retrieved May 28, 2014. 
  23. O'Neill, James (March 1, 1998). "Michener's gift keeps on giving". 
  24. "Saint Louis Literary Award". Saint Louis University. 
  25. "Recipients of the Saint Louis Literary Award". Retrieved July 25, 2016. 
  26. "Lone Sailor Award Recipients". Retrieved 29 November 2014. 
  27. "Michener's". 
  28. "James Albert Michener". Retrieved March 1, 2017. 
  29. "Two American Legends Appearing on Stamps: The Postal Service Honors James Michener and Dr. Edward Trudeau". 2008. 
  30. "Michener Library". Retrieved 29 November 2014. 
  31. 31.0 31.1 31.2 "Michener Society". 

Further reading

  • Dybwad, G.L. & Bliss, Joy V. & Michener, James A. (Contributor) (1995). James A. Michener: The Beginning Teacher and His Textboos. The Book Stops Here.  (His formative school years with Michener's personal reminiscences.)
  • Grobel, Lawrence (1999). Conversations with Michener (hardcover titled Talking with Michener). 
  • Groseclose, David A. & Michener, James A. (1996). James A. Michener: A Bibliography. 
  • Hayes, John Phillip (1985). James A. Michener: A Biography. Bobbs Merrill. 
  • May, Steven J. & Hemingway, Valerie (2005). Michener: A Writer's Journey. University of Oklahoma Press. 
  • Roberts, F.X. (1995). James A. Michener: A Checklist of His Works, with a Selected, Annotated Bibliography. Greenwood Press. 
  • Silverman, Herman (1999). Michener and Me: A Memoir (Hardcover ed.).  (Memoir by a long-time friend of Michener's.)
  • Vavra, Robert (Photographer) (2006). Michener's The Name.  (Photo essay and commentary on Michener's writing of Iberia in Spain.)

External links

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