James Michener Essays

Character consists of what you do on the third and fourth tries. ~James Michener

As an archaeology grad student, I decided to reread one of my favorite novels, The Source, to judge its accuracy.

The story takes place in Israel, on a mound (also known as a tel) formed by millennia of habitation. As each artifact comes to light, the story flashes back to its origin. The Source depicts awful excavation standards, even for the 1960s.  But the artifacts reveal some incredible human stories.

Of course, you might think.That’s what archaeology does.

Not really.

In the early ’90s, archaeology still aspired to be a hard science. The “publish or perish” academic journals preferred articles steeped in the jargon of scientific method. For my masters thesis, I statistically analyzed thousands of flint waste flakes to discover signs of “sickle craft specialization as an indication of  increasing social complexity.” Not like you see on TV.

I eventually chose storytelling over science, and skipped the Ph.d. program. I blame James Michener (1907-1997), author of The Source.

A Childhood Out of Dickens

The man who derailed my archaeology career didn’t know where or when he was born, but his best guess was around 1907. He was raised as a Quaker in Doylestown, Pennsylvania by an adoptive mother. They lived in extreme poverty and relocated often.

At Christmas, we rarely had anything. As a boy, I never had a pair of skates, never had a bicycle, never had a little wagon, never had a baseball glove, never had a pair of sneakers. I didn’t have anything. And do you know, at about seven or eight, I just decided, “Well, that’s the way it is. And I’m not going to beat my brains out about it.”

His mother loved literature, however, and often read to Michener from Dickens, Thackeray and Balzac.

Before Michener entered Swathmore College on a full scholarship, he peddled chestnuts, traveled America on a boxcar and did carnival private detective work. During college he was employed as a night watchman.

He graduated Swathmore with honors, and taught English and History for several years. In 1941, he became a textbook editor at Macmillan Publishing.

A Quaker Goes To War

Later that same year, Japanese military forces attacked Pearl Harbor. Michener waived his Quaker principles and volunteered for service. “I had taught about Hitler, and I had taught about the Japanese war machine, and I knew that this was a battle to the death, so I enlisted.”

The U.S. Navy assigned him to the Solomon Islands as a war historian.  Each night, in his Quonset hut, he recorded his impressions of life around him:

Sitting there in the darkness, illuminated only by the flickering lamplight, I visualized the aviation scenes in which I had participated, the landing beaches I’d seen, the remote outposts, the exquisite islands with bending palms, and especially the valiant people I’d known: the French planters, the Australian coast watchers, the Navy nurses, the Tonkinese laborers, the ordinary sailors and soldiers who were doing the work, and the primitive natives to whose jungle fastnesses I had traveled.

Michener Lived By His Own Rules

Michener anonymously mailed his manuscript to Macmillan in 1947, since they had a strict policy against accepting employee submissions.  He planned to return to his job after the war, but decided he was not technically their employee at the time.

Macmillan found him out, but decided to publish Tales of the South Pacific anyway. Michener was 40.

The following year, in 1948, it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

The book was not a huge financial success, however, until it became the basis for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical, South Pacific.

In 1949, Michener quit Macmillan to write full time.

He penned 40 books over 50 years.  Many were epics with evocative settings that spanned several generations. Some required so many years of research that Michener would spend months on location or even move there to finish them—Hawaii (1959), Iberia (1968), Poland (1983), Texas (1985), Alaska (1988), Mexico (1992).

Michener Wrote His Own Ending

Even at age 90, he maintained a disciplined writing schedule. He awoke at 7:00 a.m., ate a light breakfast and wrote until 1:00 pm.

On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, Michener underwent kidney dialysis treatment, which confined him to the environs of his clinic in Austin, Texas. “I sit in the TV room and see shows on the big ships I used to travel or areas that I used to wander, and a tear comes to my eye.”

In October 1997, he chose to discontinue dialysis and died shortly thereafter of renal failure.

A close friend said,

He felt he had accomplished what he wanted to accomplish in terms of his life’s work. He did not want to suffer a long series of complications.”

Lessons From James Michener

  • Use your day job to advance your later blooming.
  • If you begin at 40, you could have another good 50 years—over half your life—to live it.

Further Reading

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by James Michener, 1962


During the summer vacation a fine-looking young man, who was majoring in literature at a top university, asked for an interview, and before we had talked for five minutes, he launched into his complaint.

'Can you imagine?' he lamented. 'During vacation I have to write a three-thousand-word term paper about your books.' He felt very sorry for himself.

His whimpering irritated me, and on the spur of the moment I shoved at him a card which had become famous in World War II. It was once used on me while I was 'bitching' to a chaplain on Guadalcanal. It read:

My complaining visitor reacted as I had done twenty years earlier. He burst into laughter and asked, 'Did I sound that bad?'

'Worse!' I snapped. Then I pointed to a novel of mine which he was using as the basis for his term paper. 'You're bellyaching about a three-thousand-word paper which at most will occupy you for a month. When I started work on Hawaii, I faced the prospect of a three-million-word term paper. And five years of work. Frankly, you sound silly.'

This strong language encouraged an excellent discussion of the preparation it takes to write a major novel. Five years of research, months of character development, extensive work on plot and setting, endless speculation on psychology and concentrated work on historical backgrounds.

'When I was finally ready to write,' I replied under questioning, 'I holed up in a bare-wall, no-telephone Waikiki room and stuck at my typewriter every morning for eighteen months. Seven days a week I wrestled with the words that would not come, with ideas that refused to jell. When I broke a tooth, I told the dentist I'd have to see him at night. When DeWitt Wallace, the editor of the Reader's Digest and a man to whom I am much indebted, came to Hawaii on vacation, I wanted to hike with him but had to say, "In the late afternoon. In the morning I work."'

I explained to my caller that I write all my books slowly, with two fingers on an old typewriter, and the actual task of getting the words on paper is difficult. Nothing I write is good enough to be used in first draft, not even important personal letters, so I am required to rewrite everything at least twice. Important work, like a novel, must be written over and over again, up to six or seven times. For example, Hawaii went very slowly and needed constant revision. Since the final version contained about 500,000 words, and since I wrote it all many times, I had to type in my painstaking fashion about 3,000,000 words.

At this news, my visitor whistled and asked, 'How many research books did you have to consult?'

'Several thousand. When I started the actual writing, there were about five hundred that I kept in my office.'

'How many personal interviews?'

'About two hundred. Each two or three hours long.'

'Did you write much that you weren't able to use?'

'I had to throw away about half a million words.'

The young scholar looked again at the chaplain's card and returned it reverently to my desk. 'Would you have the energy to undertake such a task again?' he asked.

'I would always like to be engaged in such tasks,' I replied, and he turned to other questions.


Young people, especially those in college who should know better, frequently fail to realize that men and women who wish to accomplish anything must apply themselves to tasks of tremendous magnitude. A new vaccine may take years to perfect. A Broadway play is never written, cast and produced in a week. A foreign policy is never evolved in a brief time by diplomats relaxing in Washington, London or Geneva.

The good work of the world is accomplished principally by people who dedicate themselves unstintingly to the big job at hand. Weeks, months, years pass, but the good workman knows that he is gambling on an ultimate achievement which cannot be measured in time spent. Responsible men and women leap to the challenge of jobs that require enormous dedication and years to fulfill, and are happiest when they are so involved.

This means that men and women who hope to make a real contribution to American life must prepare themselves to tackle big jobs, and the interesting fact is that no college or university in the world can give anyone the specific education he will ultimately need. Adults who are unwilling to reeducate themselves periodically are doomed to mediocrity.

For in American life, the average man - let's leave out doctors and highly specialized scientists - can expect to work in three radically different fields before he retires. The trained lawyer is dragged into a business reorganization and winds up a college president. The engineer uses his slide rule for a short time, finds himself a sales expert and ends his career in labor relations. The schoolteacher becomes a principal and later on heads the town's Buick agency.

Obviously no college education could prepare a young man for all that he will have to do in his years of employment. The best a college can do is to inspire him with the urge to reeducate himself constantly.

I first discovered this fact on Guadalcanal in 1945, when the war had passed us by and we could see certain victory ahead. Relieved of pressure, our top admirals and generals could have been excused if they loafed, but the ones I knew well in those days took free time and gave themselves orderly courses in new fields. One carrier admiral studied everything he could get on tank warfare. The head of our outfit, William Lowndes Calhoun, spent six hours a day learning French.

I asked him about this. 'Admiral, what's this big deal with French?'

'How do I know where I'll be sent when the war's over?' he countered.

But what impressed me most was the next tier of officers, the young Army colonels and the Navy commanders. They divided sharply into two groups: those who spent their spare time learning something and those who didn't. In the years that followed, I noticed in the newspapers that whenever President Truman or President Eisenhower chose men for military positions of great power, they always picked from the officers who had reeducated themselves.

More significant to me personally was my stay with the brilliant doctors of an Army hospital in the jungles of Espiritu Santo. The entire staff of a general hospital in Denver, Colorado, had been picked up and flown out to care for our wounded, and they experienced days of overwork followed by weeks of tedium. In the latter periods the doctors organized voluntary study groups by which to further their professional competence.

By good luck, I was allowed to participate in a group that was analyzing alcoholism, and one night the leader asked me, as we were breaking up, 'What are you studying, Michener?' The question stunned me, for I had been studying exactly nothing.

I drove back through the jungle and that very night started working on something that I had been toying with for some months. In a lantern-lit, mosquito-filled tin shack, I started writing Tales of the South Pacific.

I have been the typical American in that I have had widely scattered jobs: teacher, businessman, soldier, traveler, writer. And my college education gave me no specific preparation for any of these jobs.

But it gave me something much better. I attended Swarthmore College, outside Philadelphia, and by fantastic luck, I got there just as the college was launching an experiment which was to transform the institution and those of us who participated. At the end of my sophomore year the faculty assembled a group of us and said, 'Life does not consist of taking courses in small segments. A productive life consists of finding huge tasks and mastering them with whatever tools of intelligence and energy we have. We are going to turn you loose on some huge tasks. Let's see what you can do with them.'

Accordingly, we were excused from all future class attendance and were told, 'Pick out three fields that interest you.' I chose logic, English history and the novel. The faculty said, 'For the next two years go to the library and learn what you can about your fields. At the end of two years we'll bring in some outside experts from Harvard and Yale, whom you've never seen, and they will determine whether or not you have educated yourselves.'

What followed was an experience in intellectual grandeur. The Swarthmore professors, realizing that when I was tested they would be tested too, helped me to gain as thorough an education as a young man could absorb. For it was in their interest to see that I understood the fine points of the fields I had chosen.

When the two years ended, the visiting experts arrived and for a week they probed and tested and heckled. At the end of this exciting time one of the examiners told me, 'You have the beginning of a real education.'

He was right. Nothing that I studied in college has been of use to me in my various jobs. But what I did learn was how to learn, how to organize, how to write term papers. If my education had ended the week I stood before those strange examiners, I would have proved a fairly useless citizen.


While I was reflecting on these matters, my young scholar asked, 'If you were a young man today and wanted to be a writer, what kind of education would you seek?'

I replied, 'I'd choose some very difficult field and try to master it. I'd seek out professors who really poured it on. Long term papers and many of them, tough laboratory work.'

'Why?' he pressed.

'Because we learn only those things at which we have to work very hard. It's ridiculous to give a bright fellow like you a three-thousand-word term paper. It ought to be fifteen thousand words - or thirty. Tackle a real job. Then, when you're through, you're on the way to facing big jobs in adult life.'

My visitor made a few marks in his notebook, then asked, 'When you were in college, the scientific revolution hadn't occurred yet. Today, would you stick with liberal arts - things like logic and history - or would you switch to science, where the good jobs are?'

I didn't hesitate a minute on this one. 'Unless I had extraordinary aptitude in the sciences, I'd stick with liberal arts every time. The pay isn't as good. The jobs aren't waiting when you graduate. And when you want to get married, it's tough to tell your girl's father, "I'm studying philosophy." But forty years from now the scientists in your class will be scientists. And the liberal arts men will be governing the world.'

The idea was so startling that my young visitor wished to discuss it further. 'You mean there's a chance for fellows like me?'

'Every year your prospects grow brighter,' I insisted. 'The more complex the world becomes, the more desperately it needs men trained in liberal arts. For the government of the world must always rely upon the man with broad human knowledge. And the government of a business or a university or a newspaper requires the same kind of man.'

'Why?' he asked, forgetting his notebook.

'Because governing anything requires knowledge of men, a balanced judgment, a gift for conciliation and, above all, a constant weighing of good versus bad. Only men with broad educations can perform such tasks.'

'Can't scientists do this?' he asked.

'They surely can. If, after they graduate, they give themselves courses in the humanities.'

I finished our interview by telling a story. 'In 1942 the United States Navy was hungry for talent, and four of us were taken into a small room where we sat around shivering in our shorts. A grim-faced selection committee asked the first wouldbe officer, "What can you do?" and the man replied, "I'm a buyer for Macy's, and I can judge very quickly between markets and prices and trends." The selection board replied, "But you can't do anything practical?" The man said no, and he was shunted off to one side.

'The next man was a lawyer, and when the board asked him if he could do anything practical, he had to confess, "I can weigh evidence and organize information," and he was rejected.

'I was the third in line, and when I answered, "I know language and a good deal of history," the board groaned and I was sent shivering away.

'But when the fourth man said boldly, "I'm from Georgia Tech and I can overhaul diesel engines," the committee jumped up, practically embraced him and made him an officer on the spot.'

'That's what I mean,' my young scholar pointed out.

'At the end of the war,' I continued, 'the buyer from Macy's was assistant to the Secretary of the Navy, in charge of many complex responsibilities requiring instant good judgment. He gave himself courses in naval management and government procedures until he became one of the nation's real experts.

'The lawyer wound up as assistant to Admiral Halsey, and in a crucial battle, deducted where the Japanese fleet had to be. He came out covered with medals.

'I was given the job of naval secretary to several Congressional committees who were determining the future of America in the South Pacific. And what was the engineer doing at the end of the war? He was still overhauling diesel engines.'

'You're sure there's hope for the liberal-arts man?' the young scholar repeated.

'If he learns to tackle the big jobs - the big ones historically or morally or culturally or politically.'


We parted on that note, but when he had gone, I realized that I had not made my statement nearly strong enough. I should have said, 'The world is positively hungry for young men who have dedicated themselves to big jobs. If your present professors aren't training you for such work, quit them and find others who will drive you. If your present college isn't making you work to the limit of your ability, drop out and go to another that will. Because if you don't discipline your brain now, you'll never be prepared for the years when it's a question of work or perish.'

Parents or professors who do not encourage their young to tackle big jobs commit a moral crime against those young people. For we know that when the young are properly challenged, they will rise to the occasion and they will prepare themselves for the great work that remains to be done.


Copyright 1962 by Reader's Digest Association, Inc.

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