How James Michener Derailed My Career

How James Michener Derailed My Career

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

19 Responses

  1. Katie Mack
    | Reply

    Thank you for sharing this story! He is a great inspiration. I have to admire someone who, at such a young age, can say, “Well, that’s just the way it is. And I’m not going to beat my brains out about it”. What a perfect example of someone who had nothing and turned it into everything.

    • Debra Eve
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      Thanks, Katie! I’m blown away by how he had this whole amazing second career from ages 40 to 90. Truly proves it’s never too late.

  2. Julia Indigo
    | Reply

    Thank you for writing this blogpost, Debra!
    I didn’t know all that about Michener. It’s inspirational to another late bloomer like me. 🙂

    • Debra Eve
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      Thanks, Julia! Michener’s definitely ranks up there with my favorite writers. I think you’d like his books.

  3. Julia
    | Reply

    LOVED James Michener’s books. I like his work schedule too. Done at one. Sounds good. Gosh, if I wrote until I was 90, there would still be um … never mind how many years left — Enough years. Nice post.

    • Debra Eve
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      Thanks, Julia. I’m such a fan of Michener’s too and hope a whole new generation discovers him. I can’t imagine being that prolific, but plan to try!

  4. Lisa Rothstein
    | Reply

    I love this story. So many (including me!) feel “it’s too late” to do a creative project or have a career. This proves that that is just an excuse! Thanks for posting. I’m going to do a blog on late blooming and link back to this post…or maybe we can repost it? What is your policy?

    • Debra Eve
      |

      Thank you, Lisa! I’m pretty wide open with reblogging — please do! There’s an interesting postscript to this article and I plan to update it accordingly when I’ve worked through it — I was just diagnosed with the same kidney disease that Michener died from (at age 90 and after 40 years writing), so he’s my role model in every way now!

  5. Micaela Bensko
    | Reply

    This just made my night. I can almost smell Hawaii now 😉 Plus I can sleep better now knowing I have 50 years ahead of me. Life is good!

    • Debra Eve
      |

      Thanks, Micaela. Interesting epilogue to this I need to add — two months ago I was diagnosed with Chronic Kidney Disease, very early stages. It will probably never effect my life in any immense way if I take care of myself, but now I appreciate Michener even more.

  6. appu joseph jose
    | Reply

    Liked your post on Michener. I share your interest in Michener. To see my article on Michener please visit appujosephjose.wordpress.com

  7. Bonnie W
    | Reply

    I am reading The Source right now and am curious about how James Mitchner researched all the information and how accurate it is.

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve
      |

      The Source was probably a decent portrayal of the type of archaeology conducted in the early 1960s in the middle east. There, stratigraphic mounds like the one portrayed in the book were quite common. I do know that Michener heavily researched all his novels and I’m sure The Source was no different.

      But archaeology as a discipline evolved during the ’60s and ’70s as use of radiocarbon dating and scientific methods became more common. The Source wouldn’t be considered accurate today.

      So in the end, only Michener’s great storytelling will withstand the test of time, since archaeological theories and methods change. Hope you’re enjoying it, Bonnie!

  8. Mike
    | Reply

    Reading his novel “The Source” now. I cannot put it down. What a tremendous writer, will definitely try to read his other works.

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve
      |

      So glad you enjoyed it, Mike. It still rates up there with my top 5 favorite books. I’ve found a few of Michener’s books hit and miss (couldn’t get through Poland), but generally, he’s superb. Thanks for stopping by!

  9. Eric V. Gonnason
    | Reply

    Debra,
    Thank you for your thoughtful piece on Michener. Like you, The Source had a dramatic impact- it made the single biggest impact on my life of any literature. My younger sister Carla started reading it when we were in high school and the things she was discovering intrigued me, and she gave me her copy and even mailed it to me when I forgot it on a hitchhiking trip around the Western United States in 1971. It is a remarkably accurate, secular history of the Jewish people, as confirmed by my complete reading of Will and Ariel Durant’s 11-volume Story of Civilization. It even led me to finding the God of the Jews, which led to my becoming Christian some years later. Even saw Michener on the old Dick Cavett show – impressive character. Am just now finishing the manuscript of what I call a historical autobiography, The Compleat History of the United States. Though his many other works are sure to be as good on their respective areas, if you only read one Michener work, make it The Source – you will not be the same. And especially recommend it to younger people. I read it at age 18, and am forever grateful for how it directed the course of my life. And thanks again, Carla – rest in peace.

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve
      |

      How fascinating, Eric. I still have my paperback of The Source. Its pages have yellowed around the edges. You are very lucky to have had a such an influence in your sister. Good luck on your book and thanks for stopping by!

  10. Jackie Humphrey
    | Reply

    I was thinking about the first book that made a significant impact on me and it was The Source. I am a New Zealander and was in my 20s and travelling the Greek Islands in the early 19 70s. Gave such a fascinating insight into the way generations had occupied the site and NZ is such a new country it was something I had never previously considered. I still have my battered copy and am now in my 70 and still travelling. This year India, Spain, France, Ireland and UK. I am in awe of the writers of this world
    They have enriched my life. Jackie H

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve
      |

      I still have my falling-apart paperback too, Jackie! I love stories that move between a past and present storyline. Sounds like you’re having a great time in your 70s! I’m inspired. Thanks for stopping by!

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