James A. Michener

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I was brought up in the great tradition of the late nineteenth century: that a writer never complains, never explains and never disdains.

James Albert Michener (3 February 1907 - 16 October 1997) was an American author of more than 40 titles, the majority of which are novels of sweeping sagas, covering the lives of many generations in a particular geographic locale and incorporating historical facts into the story as well.

Sourced

  • In 1948 I addressed some students at Washington and Lee University, and in the question-answer period one young man observed with asperity, "But it's easy for you to write. You've traveled."
    • Return to Paradise (1951) First lines
  • I was a Navy officer writing about Navy problems and I simply stole this lovely Army nurse and popped her into a Navy uniform, where she has done very well for herself.
    • On a heroine in Tales of the South Pacific (1947) in Commercial Appeal (31 December 1951)
  • A group of two dozen nurses completely surrounded by 100,000 unattached American men.
    • On the heroines of Tales of the South Pacific (1947) in Commercial Appeal (31 December 1951)
  • On a bleak wintry morning some years ago I was summoned to the office of our naval attache at the American embassy in Kabul.
  • On Tuesday the freighter steamed through the Straits of Gibraltar and for five days plowed eastward through the Mediterranean, past islands and peninsulas rich in history, so that on Saturday night the steward advised Dr. Cullinane, "If you wish an early sight of the Holy Land you must be up at dawn."
  • Only another writer, someone who had worked his heart out on a good book which sold three thousand copies, could appreciate the thrill that overcame me one April morning in 1973 when Dean Rivers of our small college in Georgia appeared at my classroom door.
  • For some time now they had been suspicious of him.
  • Character consists of what you do on the third and fourth tries.
    • Chesapeake (1978)
  • It was the silent time before dawn, along the shores of what had been one of the most beautiful lakes in southern Africa.
  • If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay home.
    • As quoted in Good Advice (1982) by William Safire and Leonard Safir
  • In a small Polish farm community, during the fall planting season of 1981, events occurred which electrified the world, sending reverberations of magnitude to capitals as diverse as Washington, Peking and especially Moscow.
  • No invader has ever conquered the heart of Poland, that spirit which is the inheritance of sons and daughters, the private passion of families and the ancient, unbreakable tie to all those who came before.
    • Poland (1983)
  • I was surprised when shortly after New Year's Day of 1983, the Governor of Texas summoned me to his office, because I hadn't been aware that he knew I was in town.
    • Texas (1985) First lines
  • Russia, France, Germany and China. They revere their writers. America is still a frontier country that almost shudders at the idea of creative expression.
    • "A Spelunker in the Caves of History" in Modern Maturity (August 1985)
  • The really great writers are people like Emily Brontë who sit in a room and write out of their limited experience and unlimited imagination.
    • As quoted in "The Michener Phenomenon" by Caryn James in The New York Times (8 September 1985)
  • The arrogance of the artist is a very profound thing, and it fortifies you.
    • As quoted in "The Michener Phenomenon" by Caryn James in The New York Times (8 September 1985)
  • About a billion years ago, long before the continents had separated to define the ancient oceans, or their own outlines had been determined, a small protuberance jutted out from the northwest corner of what would later become North America.
  • The chief character in this narrative is the Caribbean Sea, one of the world's most alluring bodies of water, a rare gem among the oceans, defined by the islands that form a chain of lovely jewels to the north and east.
  • I was brought up in the great tradition of the late nineteenth century: that a writer never complains, never explains and never disdains.
    • As quoted in The Observer (26 November 1989)
  • I decided (after listening to a "talk radio" commentator who abused, vilified, and scorned every noble cause to which I had devoted my entire life) that I was both a humanist and a liberal, each of the most dangerous and vilified type. I am a humanist because I think humanity can, with constant moral guidance, create a reasonably decent society. I am terrified of restrictive religious doctrine, having learned from history that when men who adhere to any form of it are in control, common men like me are in peril. I do not believe that pure reason can solve the perpetual problems unless it is modified by poetry and art and social vision. So I am a humanist. And if you want to charge me with being the most virulent kind—a secular humanist—I accept the accusation.
    • Interview, Parade magazine (24 November 1991)
  • I had been sent to Mexico to cover a murder, one of a remarkable kind.
  • I feel myself the inheritor of a great background of people. Just who, precisely, they were, I have never known. I might be part Negro, might be part Jew, part Muslim, part Irish. So I can't afford to be supercilious about any group of people because I may be that people.

Hawaii (1959)

  • Millions upon millions of years ago, when the continents were already formed and the principal features of the earth had been decided, there existed, then as now, one aspect of the world that dwarfed all others… a mighty ocean, resting uneasily to the east of the largest continent, a restless ever-changing, gigantic body of water that would later be described as Pacific.
  • Therefore, men of Polynesia and Boston and China and Mount Fuji and the barrios of the Philippines, do not come to these islands empty-handed, or craven in spirit, or afraid to starve. There is no food here. In these islands there is no certainty. Bring your own food, your own gods, your own flowers and fruits and concepts. For if you come without resources to these islands you will perish... On these harsh terms the islands waited.
  • No man leaves where he is and seeks a distant place unless he is in some respect a failure.
  • It is difficult to be king when the gods are changing.
  • Others made jest of the missionary slogan, "They came to a nation in darkness; they left it in light," by pointing out: "Of course they left Hawaii lighter. They stole every goddamned thing that wasn't nailed down."

  ...there was a knock at his hotel room door, and a little man in an overcoat that reached down to his ankles entered. “My name's Overpeck, Milton Overpeck, and i hear you're interested in drilling a tunnel.”

  “That's right” Whip said. “Sit down, Mr. Overpeck. You like whiskey?”

  “I like anything,” Overpeck said.

  “You a tunnel man?”

  “Well, yes and no,” the little man replied, gulping a huge draft of whiskey. Coughing slightly he asked, “I understand you're drilling your tunnel in order to get water.”

  “You've followed me around pretty well, Mr. Overpeck. Another whiskey?”

  “Look, son, if you calculate on getting me drunk and outsmarting me, quit now, because you simply can't do it.”

  “I'm offering it in hospitality,” Whip assured him.

  “I never accept hospitality unless the host joins me. Now you gulp one down and catch up, and we can have a fine talk.”

  The two men, Whip Hoxworth twenty-four years old and Milton Overpeck in his early fifties, guzzled straight whiskey for several hours, during which the little engineer fascinated the Hawaiian landowner with a completely new theory about water. The doughty drinker, whose eyes were bright and clear after three quarters of a bottle, apparently knew more about Hawaii than Whip did, at least about the island of Oahu.

  “My theory is this,” he explained, using pillows, books and newspapers to build his island. “This volcano here and this one here built Oahu. That's perfectly obvious. Now, as they built, one surely must have overflowed the rightful terrain of the other. I judge all volcanic rock to be porous, so in Oahu it seems to me you have got to have a complex substructure, the bulk of it porous. All the fine water that falls on your island doesn't run immediately out to sea.”

  “Well, the engineer I sent out there did say that he thought the mountains were probably porous,” Whip remembered.

  “I'm not interested in the mountains you see above land,” Overpeck snapped. “I'm interested in the subterranean ones. Because if, as I suspect, there was a rising and a falling of the entire mountain mass...” He stopped, studied his friend and said, “Sorry, you're drunk. I'll be back in the morning.” But as he was about to leave he said, “Don't sleep on a pillow tonight. Leave everything just as it is.”

  Whip, through bleary eyes, tried to focus on the turmoil in his room and asked, “What's all this got to do with tunnels?”

  “I wouldn't know,” Overpeck replied, “I'm a well man meself.”

  He appeared at seven next morning, chipper as a woodchuck, his long overcoat flapping about his ankles in the cold San Francisco weather. He surprised Whip by completely dismissing the intricate construction of pillows, books and newspapers. “Best thing is to show you,” he said cheerily. “Wells'll be the making of Hawaii.” And he led Whip down to the foot of Market Street, where grimy ferries left for the other side of the bay, and when after a long walk through Oakland they stood before a well he had recently dug he pointed with unconcealed admiration at a pipe protruding from the ground, from which gushed a steady volume of water that rose fourteen feet into the air.

  “Does it run like this all the time?” Whip asked.

  “Day and night,” Overpeck replied.

  “What does it?”

  “Artesian, that's what it is. Artesian.”

  “How many gallons a day?”

  “A million four.”

  “How long will it last?”

  “Forever.”

  This was what Wild Whip had been dreaming of, a steady source of fresh water, but he had imagined that the only way to get it was to drive a tunnel through the mountains. If Overpeck were correct,where the water really lay was at his feet, but in business Whip was both daring and cautious. He was willing to take almost any gamble to obtain water, but he wanted assurance that he had at least a fair chance of winning. Carefully he asked, “Why did you have to bring me all the way over here to show me this well? Why didn't you show me one in San Francisco?”

  “Artesian water don't happen everywhere,” Overpeck replied.

  “Suppose there isn't any on my land in Hawaii?”

  “My job is to guess where it is,” Overpeck answered. “And I guess it's under your land.”

  “Why?”

  “That's what I was explaining with the pillows and the newspapers,” he said.

  “I think we better go back to the hotel,” Whip said. “But wait a minute. How did you get the well down there?”

  “A special rig I invented.”

  “How far down did you go?”

  “Hundred and eighty feet.”

  “You want to sell the rig?”

  “Nope.”

  “I didn't think so.” The two men returned to the ferry, and as Whip studied the cold and windy hills of San Francisco, imagining them to be Hawaii, he became increasingly excited, but when little Mr. Overpeck assured him that a layer of cap rock must have imprisoned enormous stores of sweet water under the sloping flatlands of Oahu, Whip could feel actual perspiration break out on his forehead.

  “What kind of deal can we make, Overpeck?” he asked bluntly.

  “You're sweating, son. If I find water, I'm handing you millions of dollars, ain't I?”

  “You are.”

  “I'm a gambler, Mr. Hoxworth. What I want is the land next to yours.”

  “How much?”

  “You pay for getting the rig over there. You give me three dollars a day. And you buy, before we start, one thousand acres of land. If we get water, I buy it from you for what you paid. If we don't you keep it.”

  “Are the chances good?”

  “There's one way we can test my theory without spending a cent.”

  “How?”

  “Think a minute. If there really is a pool of inexhaustible water hiding under your land, the overflow has got to be escaping somewhere. Logically, it's running away under the sea level, but some of it must be seeping out over the upmost edge of the cap rock. Go out to your land. Tell people you're going to raise cattle. Walk along the upper areas until you find a spring. Calculate how high above sea level you are, and the walk back and forth along that elevation. If you find half a dozen more springs, it's not even a gamble, Mr. Hoxworth. Because then you know the water's hiding down below you.”

  “You come out and check,” Whip suggested.

  “People might guess. Then land values go up.”

  Whip reflected on this shrewd observation and made a quick decision. “ Buy yourself a good bull. Bring him to the islands with you and we'll announce that you're going to help me raise cattle. Then everybody'll feel sorry for me, because lots of people have gone bust trying that on the barren lands. Takes twenty of our acres to support one cow, and nobody makes money.”

  Three weeks later little Mr. Overpeck arrived in Honolulu with a bull and announced to the Honolulu Mail that he was going to advise Mr. Whipple Hoxworth in the raising of cattle on the latter's big ranch west of the city. He led his bull out to the vast, arid, useless acres, and as soon as he got there he told Whip “Buy that land over there for me.” And Whip did, for practically nothing, and the next day he concluded that he had been victimized by the shrewd little man, for they tramped both Whip's acres and Overpeck's, and there were no springs.

  “Why the hell did you bother me with your nonsense?” the young man railed.

  “I didn't expect any springs today,” Overpeck said calmly. “But I know where they'll crop out after the next big storm up in the mountains,” and sure enough, three days after the rain clouds left, along the line that Overpeck had predicted, he and Whip discovered sure evidences of seepage. They stood on the hillside looking down over the bleak and barren acres, Whip's four thousand and Overpeck's one, and the little man said, “We're standing on a gold mine, Mr. Hoxworth. I'm mortally certain there's water below. Buy up all the land you can afford.”

  Eight weeks later the little man reappeared in Hawaii without any cattle, but with nine large boxes of gear. This time he informed the Mail: “It looks as if Mr. Hoxworth's investment in cattle is going to be lost unless somehow we can find water on those acres.”

  He set up a pyramidal wooden derrick about twelve feet high, at the bottom of which were slung two large iron wheels connected by an axle upon which rope could be wound when the wheels were turned by hand. This rope went from the axle and up to the top of the derrick, where it crossed on a pulley and dropped down to be lashed to the end of a heavy iron drill. Laboriously Overpeck cranked the heavy wheels until the iron drill was hauled to the top of the derrick. Then he tripped a catch and jumped back as the drill plunged downward, biting its way through sand and rock. Laboriously he turned the wheels and lifted the drill back into position; then a swift whirrrrr, and the next bite was taken.

  “How long will this take?” Hoxworth asked, amazed at the effort required.

  “A long time.”

  “Have you the strength?”

  “I'm boring for a million dollars,” the wiry little man replied. “I got the strength.”

  Days passed and weeks, and the determined engineer kept hoisting his drills, breaking their points on almost impenetrable hard pan, sharpening them by hand, and hoisting them once more. “You ought to have an engine,” Whip growled as the work made slow progress.

  “When I get some money, I'll get an engine.” Overpeck snapped.

  Now Whip saw the little fighter in a new light. “All your life you've been broke, haven't you?”

  “Yep. All my life I was waiting for a man like you.”

  “Are we going to hit water?”

  “Yep.”

  At two hundred feet the drills were hammering their way through cap rock, once soft ocean mud but now, millions of years later, rock as hard as diamonds. Whip grew despondent and was afraid to pass through the streets of Honolulu, where people already hated him for the way he had treated his former wife Iliki Janders, and where they now laughed at him for his folly in trying to raise cattle on his barren acres. At first, when those who had sold additional land saw Overpeck's drilling rig, there had been consternation: “Has Whip bamboozled us? Did he know there was water below that rubble?” Such fears relaxed when it was apparent that no water existed. “He's down to two hundred and fifty feet and is running out of rope,” spies reported.

  And then on the fourteenth of September, 1881, Milton Overpeck's plunging drill crashed through the last two inches of cap rock, and up past the iron, past the rope, gushed cold sweet water at the rate of one million three hundred thousand gallons a day. When it gurgled to the top of the well it kept rising until it reached the apex of the twelve-foot derrick and stood a steady fourteen feet in the air, hour after hour, month after month.

  When Whip saw the glorious sight he became agitated and cried “We must save that water!” But little Mr. Overpeck assured him. “Son, it'll run forever.” They scooped out a large depression in which the water was impounded and then pumped to wherever it was needed. They drilled additional wells, all by hand, and Whip said, “Overpeck, it's ridiculous for you to do so much work. Let's buy an engine that'll do it for you,” but the determined little man replied, “I finish these wells, I'm never going to work again. I'm going to get a hotel room, lease my land to you, and live easy.”

    • "IV: From the starving village", Fawcett Crest Book. New York: Ballantine Books, pp.591-596. ISBN 0-449-21335-8

Space (1982)

  • On 24 October 1944 Planet Earth was following its orbit about the sun as it has obediently done for nearly five billion years.
    • First lines
  • An age is called Dark not because the light fails to shine, but because people refuse to see it.

Academy of Achievement interview (1991)

Interview, St. Petersburg, Florida (10 January 1991)

  • I don't know who my parents were. I know nothing about my inheritance. I could be Jewish; I could be part Negro; I could be Irish; I could be Russian. I am spiritually a mix anyway, but I did have a solid childhood fortunately, because of some wonderful women who brought me up. I never had a father or a man in the house, and that was a loss, but you live with that loss.
  • I do believe that everyone growing up faces differential opportunities. With me, it was books and travel and some good teachers. With somebody else, it may be a boy scout master. With somebody else, it will be a clergyman. Somebody else, an uncle who was wiser than the father. I think young people ought to seek that differential experience that is going to knock them off dead center. I was a typical American school boy. I happened to get straight A's and be pretty good in sports. But I had no great vision of what I could be. And I never had any yearning.
    My job was to live through Friday afternoon, get through the week, and eat something. And then along came these differential experiences that you don't look for, that you don't plan for, but, boy, you better not miss them. The things that make you bigger than you are. The things that give you a vision. The things that give you a challenge.
  • Not too many people work in a job where, waiting out there are three or four hundred people who are paid to tear apart what you've done. And often they are brighter than you are, or they know more about the subject than you do, or they wish they had written a book themselves, or done a lot better. Or they just don't like it! And you have to live with it. I have been very well treated by the critics in the long haul.
  • Things are going to go wrong, and I think we are false to life if we don't portray it. But there is also the hope that some lucky clown is going to come along and stumble into the gold mine. And I think you are also entitled to hold out that hope.

The World Is My Home (1991)

  • I am a humanist because I think humanity can, with constant moral guidance, create reasonably decent societies. I think that young people who want to understand the world can profit from the works of Plato and Socrates, the behaviour of the three Thomases, Aquinas, More and Jefferson — the austere analyses of Immanuel Kant and the political leadership of Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt.
  • I am terrified of restrictive religious doctrine, having learned from history that when men who adhere to any form of it are in control, common men like me are in peril.

Unsourced

  • A writer can make a fortune in America, but he can't make a living.
  • Although most of us know Vincent van Gogh in Arles and Paul Gauguin in Tahiti as if they were neighbors — somewhat disreputable but endlessly fascinating — none of us can name two French generals or department store owners of that period. I take enormous pride in considering myself an artist, one of the necessaries.
  • As a boy I was saved from a life of ignorance by my library
  • Character consists of what you do on the third and fourth tries.
  • Gore Vidal, who wrote Williwaw at only nineteen, was another whose early book could well have been his last, but instead he wrote a series of books that varied in subject matter from the critical days of early Christianity to the dramatic eras of American history to outrageous sexual games. I envy him two novels on whose subjects I also did a great deal of work: Julian, which deals with the apostate who tried to turn back Christianity in ancient Antiochea, and 1876, which covers the amazing incident in American history that year when the Republican Rutherford B. Hayes stole the presidential election from the Democrat Samuel J.Tilden.
  • I am always interested in why young people become writers, and from talking with many I have concluded that most do not want to be writers working eight and ten hours a day and accomplishing little; they want to have been writers, garnering the rewards of having completed a best-seller. They aspire to the rewards of writing but not to the travail.
  • I am right now in the middle of a difficult writing project. And it's just as difficult now as when I started. But when I get up in the morning I am really qualified to say, 'Well, Jim, it isn't going too well, but there is nobody on the block who is better able to wrestle with it than you are, so let's get on with it.'
  • I had been educated with free scholarships. I went to nine different universities, always at public expense, and when you have that experience, you are almost obligated to give it back. It's as simple as that.
  • I have never thought of myself as a good writer. Anyone who wants reassurance of that should read one of my first drafts. But I'm one of the world's great rewriters.
  • I love writing. I love the swirl and swing of words as they tangle with human emotions.
  • I think the crucial thing in the writing career is to find what you want to do and how you fit in. What somebody else does is of no concern whatever except as an interesting variation.
  • I think young people ought to seek that experience that is going to knock them off center.
  • If a man happens to find himself, he has a mansion which he can inhabit with dignity all the days of his life.
  • It is unimaginable that I graduated from one of America's better colleges, yet I am totally incapable of understanding tax returns.
  • It takes courage to know when you ought to be afraid.
  • Russia, France, Germany and China. They revere their writers. America is still a frontier country that almost shudders at the idea of creative expression.
  • Scientists dream about doing great things. Engineers do them.
  • The arrogance of the artist is a very profound thing, and it fortifies you.
  • The master in the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his information and his recreation, his love and his religion. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence at whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him he's always doing both.
  • The permanent temptation of life is to confuse dreams with reality. The permanent defeat of life comes when dreams are surrendered to reality.
  • There are no insoluble problems. Only time-consuming ones.
  • Unless you think you can do better than Tolstoy, we don't need you.

About James A. Michener

  • Rice Krispies happens to be one of my favorite junk foods, just as I regard Michener as superior among junk writers.
    • Christopher Lehmann-Haupt reviewing Chesapeake (1978) in the International Herald Tribune (8 August 1978)
  • Mr Michener, as timeless as a stack of National Geographics, is the ultimate Summer Writer. Just as one goes back to the cottage in Maine, so one goes back to one's Michener.
  • Texas is … "trotting" journalism, history in a hurry.
    • Hughes Rudd reviewing Texas (1985) in The New York Times (13 October 1985)

External links

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