James Michener: Fact or Fiction?

One of the best known late 20th-century authors is Bucks County’s own James Michener. When he was first out of college, my husband worked for the Bucks County Planning Commission. I remember hearing the local lore that Michener had come from humble beginnings next door—the old stone “Poorhouse” that’s part of the Neshaminy Manor complex. Like one of Michener’s novels, though, it can be hard to separate fact from fiction in author’s life story. What’s the true story of Michener’s personal history?
James Michener at the 50th anniversary commemoration of Pearl Harbor in 1991

James Michener was born February 3, 1907 to Mabel Haddock Michener, during her widowhood.  It is uncertain who his father was. Mabel did the best she could to provide for James and his older brother Louis, taking in laundry and sewing. Although it’s not clear whether the Micheners actually lived in the poorhouse, it seems young Jim did spend some time at the local almshouse when he stayed with an aunt whose husband worked there.

The Micheners lived in a variety of residences in Doylestown. Mabel operated a boardinghouse for children who needed temporary shelter. During a 10-year period, Mabel cared for more than 30 youngsters, some born to unwed mothers; others who needed a place to stay while their parents traveled abroad. By all accounts, Mabel was a loving mother, and she spent a lot of time reading to Jim and the other children in her care.

Young Jim, as you might expect, was exceedingly curious. He observed trials at the Bucks County Courthouse. He hitched rides on barges and boxcars. He explored the construction site of the Mercer Museum, reportedly even striking up a conversation with the eccentric Henry Mercer once or twice. He used his paper and lawn mowing money to ride the streetcar to Willow Grove Park, and even worked there as a less-than-scrupulous cashier one summer.

Though Michener was monetarily poor, he was intellectually rich. A model student with a photographic memory, Michener was editor-in-chief of The Torch, Doylestown High School’s magazine. He was also elected senior class president and helped the basketball team capture the Bux-Mont Cup in 1924.

When Michener graduated in 1925, he was off to Swarthmore College on a full academic scholarship. He gained a bit of a reputation as a rebel when he spearheaded a revolt against Swarthmore’s fraternities and their discriminatory practices.

Michener's Swarthmore graduation photo

Michener really hit his stride when he was accepted to the Honors Program for his last two years of college. The program meant that Michener attended no lectures or classes, but instead independently studied two subjects each semester. In the process, Jim found work that he loved and could make a career out of—conducting copious amounts of research about subjects that interested him and turning them into books.

The summa cum laude graduate began his post-collegiate career as a teacher at the Hill School in Pottstown. Eventually he became a high school textbook editor at the Macmillan Company before he enlisted in the Navy and served during World War II.  

Michener’s wartime experiences in the Pacific provided material for his first novel, “Tales of the South Pacific,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1948. Book sales really took off once Rodgers and Hammerstein turned it into the musical “South Pacific.” Michener spent the rest of life, traveling the world to research his settings, and produced more than 40 books. The public devoured his historical sagas, like “Centennial,” “Hawaii” and “Chesapeake,” and his books spent more time of the best-seller list than those of any other 20th-century writer.
Joshua Logan, Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein, Mary Martin and Michener at "South Pacific" rehearsal in 1949

His terrific popularity was especially noteworthy since Michener’s books were born during the age of television. This is even more remarkable when you consider how long his novels are and that Michener was no critic’s darling. (One quipped of a Michener novel, “My best advice is don’t read it; my second best is don’t drop it on your foot.”)

For all of his fame, Michener remained rather humble. “I don’t think of myself as famous, ever, and I am constantly amazed when other people do…I don’t think of writing as a particularly meritorious career…I shouldn’t get any more points for being a writer than for being a damned good dentist.”

Before this post turns into a Michener-length novel, let’s let the author have the last word. Here’s Michener on whether he was bummed that he never received a Nobel Prize for Literature: “When I think of the great men of my generation who did not get the prize—Proust, Henry James, Conrad, Tolstoy—and compare them with some of the clowns who did, I would much rather stand with the former than with the latter.”

What’s your opinion of James Michener’s work? Tell us in our comments.

Want to read more tales of the life of Michener? Check out John P. Hayes’ definitive biography for a good read. Want to save your life story so that those who come after you will know your real deal? Contact Personal Chronicles for help.

1 comment:

  1. Having found Michener in my retirement years, I am thrilled and impacted by "Poland" and "The Source." Having done my ancestry dna it has been more amazing as I found 4% Jewish and Eastern European dna from a Polish grandfather who has no oral history from his daughters. I now have historical information that makes him a real person although he died when I was 2 years old. Thank you for the hiographical material. Anne