James Michener

Biography of James Michener


Author James Albert Michener attends an observance commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1991.

James Michener (“a story teller”) published his first book, “Tales of the South Pacific”, when he was 40 years old. During the next 45 years he would write many “monumental” best sellers: Sayonara, The Bridges at Toko-Ri, Hawaii, The Source, Iberia, The Covenant, Centennial, Chesapeake, Space, Texas, Alaska, Poland, Caribbean and The Drifters. During the last ten years of his life he published 12 books.

He was brought up as an orphan by Mabel Michener, a single parent who made her living by taking care and bringing up orphaned children along with doing laundry for other families. Mabel and her family lived in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. She would read to James aloud from 19th century novels, especially Dickens.

James was well educated, graduating from Swarthmore College with a Bachelor of Arts. He focused his studies on Philosophy, History and English. Swarthmore College, 11 miles from Philadelphia, was founded as a private institution in 1864. Its goal is to give its students the knowledge, insight, skills, and experience to become leaders for the common good. In addition James spent 2 years at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and then achieved a Master of Arts in Education from the University of Northern Colorado. He taught in High Schools and Colleges before joining the navy. He spent the Second World War in the South Pacific doing special projects for senior naval commanders. He travelled throughout the South Pacific and kept detailed notes about his experiences. These notes would become “Tales of the South Pacific”.

After the war he rejoined MacMillan Publishers in New York as an editor of academic textbooks. In his memoir, “The World is My Home”, he describes one memorable day as opening up with a letter saying that he had lost a literary contest together with a letter from his agent dropping him as a client as “he never will become an author”. Getting to work, he is drilled by a senior editor on how to write a “Dear John” letter properly. During this drilling a person comes to the office door and announces that the Pulitzer Prize winner had been announced, it is 1948 and the winner was James Michener for “Tales of the South Pacific. All’s well that ends well. Tales of the South Pacific would become a best seller and would be made into a movie and a Broadway show. His career as an author had begun.

He wrote historic novels, big “Narratives involving generations of fictional characters as they moved through expertly documented historical events”. He often moved to the location he was writing about. A number of his books were adapted for TV and movies. He started more books than he finished.

He never forgot where he came from. He had been a poor orphan. He gave away much of the wealth he had accumulated; approximately $100 million to educational institutions. He never had children. He was married for 39 years to Mari Yorike Sabusawa. His first two marriages were for shorter periods.

He thought that much of success can be attributed to being prepared (education and experience) when luck comes your way. He gave examples of preparation: being able to type, being able with mathematics, being able to write a convincing letter, broaden your mind, and take on all challenges (say yes or why not). Even if luck doesn’t come your way the effort to prepare for it will be well worth it.

This last thought struck a chord with me; so many successful people have said the same thing.

References Consulted:

  1. “The World is My Home”, A Memoir, James A. Michener, Random House, NY, 1992.
  2. “James Michener, Author of Novels That Sweep Through the History of Places, Is Dead”, Albin Krebs, October 17, 1997.
  3. https://www.swarthmore.edu