Monday, March 12, 2007

Novelist James Michener dies
October 17, 1997

AUSTIN, Texas (CNN) -- Internationally acclaimed novelist James A. Michener died Thursday in Texas, just days after removing himself from life-sustaining kidney dialysis, his assistant said. He was 90.

Longtime friend and assistant John Kings said the author died of renal failure. Michener last week ordered doctors to disconnect him from dialysis.

"His loss will be great not only the literary scene but to the many colleges he has nurtured through the years and the many thousands of people who feel he is their friend," Kings said.

William Livingston, a friend who was with Michener in his last days, said Michener's body would be cremated after a funeral in an Austin church Tuesday.

Consumate traveler
Born in New York City in 1907, Michener had more than 40 titles to his name. His latest book, "A Century of Sonnets," was released earlier this year. But the writer will be best remembered for his novels, which read like diaries chronicling his wanderlust.

CNN's Steve Nettleton reports on Michener's life
7 min., 37 sec. VXtreme streaming video
Most have simple, one-word titles like "Mexico," "Chesapeake," and "Alaska." But between the covers, the pages take the reader on an obsessively detailed journey across time and continents, often retracing the author's own steps to the far corners of the planet.

Michener was the consummate traveler.

In his memoirs, "The World is My Home," he wrote that he was determined to explore the world once he saw the road outside his childhood home in Doylestown, Pennsylvania.

To the east, it led to a dead-end. But to the west, Michener said the road seemed to continue forever, to strange lands and adventures he could not yet imagine.

Before he was old enough to drive, he had already hitchhiked his way up and down the entire eastern seaboard, a trip that fueled his desire to travel even farther.

"I lived in a kind of dream world that's vanished," Michener once said. "But it was the making of me."

Abandoned at birth
Abandoned by his parents shortly after birth, he never knew his roots. It was a mystery that played a key role in Michener's life.

"I feel myself the inheritor of a great background of people," he said. "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."

He was taken in by a kind widow named Mabel Michener, who made a living caring for orphaned children.

Her second occupation, doing laundry, didn't bring in much money. Food for the family often was in scant supply.

But where there was a shortage of wealth, there was a surplus of affection.

"I grew up in a bundle of love, always seven or eight kids around," Michener recalled. "Great yakkity-yakking and laughter all the time. I grew up maybe the best way a kid could if he wanted to be a writer, just surrounded by excitement."

First novel becomes musical
It wasn't until he was in his 30s that James Michener found his calling as a writer.

By then, he was half-way around the world from Pennsylvania, watching the fierce battle for the Pacific in World War II.

His service in the U.S. Navy sent him on numerous information-gathering missions, introducing him to 49 islands throughout the South Pacific.

His visits to Melanesia, Micronesia and French Polynesia, to name just a few, would later provide the backdrop for some of Michener's most memorable stories.

"These islands were primitive," he remembered. "They are at the beginning of history, and that's what made them exciting. This was the real frontier of human living."

It was perhaps the people Michener met who influenced him most. On the island of Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides, he lived next to a Tonkinese woman nicknamed Bloody Mary. She would become an unforgettable character in his first book, a collection of short stories called "Tales of the South Pacific."

His debut won the 1948 Pulitzer Prize for literature and was later adapted to "South Pacific," a long-running Broadway musical and later a motion picture.

Although he went on to write dozens of novels about Europe, Africa and the Americas, Michener's heart never strayed far from his literary birthplace in the Pacific Ocean. "The last time I was there, I wanted to visit a spot where I had camped (but) we could not find it," he said.

"The roads had been overgrown. A place I knew well absolutely vanished. It's sort of symbolic of the way the rest of the history of that part of the world has been overgrown by time. It vanished."

Donations to schools in Texas, Colorado
Michener spent his later years in Austin, Texas, where he began living while working on his 1985 novel "Texas."

The Austin-based University of Texas is among his biggest beneficiaries, having received more than $37 million in gifts.

On October 3, the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley announced that Michener was donating manuscripts and other writings to the school to establish the only official repository of his works.

Michener earned a master's degree and taught at the school from 1936 to 1941. A library on the school's campus already bears his name.

Motivated by health problems

Encountering serious health problems in the mid 1980s, Michener underwent quintuple by-pass surgery, and suffered an attack of permanent vertigo.

He wrote that his failing health served as a sort of wake-up call and it sparked one of the most industrious periods of his life.

Between 1986 and 1991, he wrote 11 books, a dramatic contrast to the three years he usually spent writing a single novel.

At the end of his autobiography Michener expressed his hope that young travelers aspiring to become writers would be encouraged by his life. But most of all, he said he wanted to be remembered by the row of his books resting on library shelves throughout the world.

'Unexpected' rewards
For Michener, his own adventures were compensation enough. Proof of that lies in his return visit years ago to the Pacific island of Bora Bora, where his cruise ship was welcomed by flotilla of native islanders in canoes.

"In the lead canoe they had a big throne," the writer recalled. "And a guy down among the warriors had a walkie-talkie. He shouted, 'James Michener, welcome to your island.'"

"They took me down the steps, put me on the throne (and) covered me with flowers. That's one of the rewards of writing a book about something. Your rewards reach you in the most unexpected ways."

Correspondent Steve Nettleton, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

No comments: