BONUS: This edition includes an excerpt from James A. Michener's Hawaii.
Praise for The World Is My Home
“Michener’s own life makes one of his most engaging tales—a classic American success story.”—Entertainment Weekly
“The Michener saga is as full of twists as any of his monumental works. . . . His output, his political interests, his patriotic service, his diligence, and the breadth of his readership are matched only by the great nineteenth-century writers whose works he devoured as he grew up—Dickens, Balzac, Mark Twain.”—Chicago Tribune
“There are splendid yarns about [Michener’s] wartime doings in the South Pacific. There are hilarious cautionary tales about his service on government commissions. There are wonderful inside stories from the publishing business. And always there is Michener himself—analyzing his own character, assessing himself as a writer, chronicling his intellectual life, giving advice to young writers.”—The Plain Dealer
“A sweepingly interesting life . . . Whether he’s having an epiphany over a campout in New Guinea with head-hunting cannibals or getting politically charged by the melodrama of great opera, James A. Michener’s world is a place and a time worth reading about.”—The Christian Science Monitor
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About the Author
Date of Birth:February 3, 1907
Date of Death:October 16, 1997
Place of Death:Austin, Texas
Education:B.A. in English and history (summa cum laude), Swarthmore College, 1929; A.M., University of Northern Colorado, 1937.
Read an Excerpt
This will be a strange kind of autobiography because I I shall offer the first seven chapters as if I had never written a book, the last seven as if that were all I had done.
I segregate the material in this way for two reasons: I want the reader to see in careful detail the kind of ordinary human being who becomes a writer and then to see the complex and contradictory motivations that enable him to remain one.
I have been impelled to attempt this project because of an experience that occurred eighty years ago when I was a country lad of five, and was of such powerful import that the memory of it has never left me. The farmer living at the end of our lane had an aging apple tree that had once been abundantly productive but had now lost its energy and ability to bear any fruit at all. The farmer, on an early spring day I still remember, hammered eight nails, long and rusty, into the trunk of the tree. Four were knocked in close to the ground on four different sides of the trunk, four higher up and well spaced about the circumference.
That autumn a miracle happened. The tired old tree, having been goaded back to life, produced a bumper crop of juicy red apples, bigger and better than we had seen before. When I asked how this had happened, the farmer explained: “Hammerin’ in the rusty nails gave it a shock to remind it that its job is to produce apples.”
“Was it important that the nails were rusty?”
“Maybe it made the mineral in the nail easier to digest.”
“Was eight important?”
“If you’re goin’ to send a message, be sure it’s heard.”
“Could you do the same next year?”
“A substantial jolt lasts about ten years.”
“Will you knock in more nails then?”
“By that time we both may be finished,” he said, but I was unable to verify this prediction, for by that time our family had moved away from the lane.
In the 1980s, when I was nearly eighty years old, I had some fairly large rusty nails hammered into my trunk—a quintuple bypass heart surgery, a new left hip, a dental rebuilding, an attack of permanent vertigo—and, like a sensible apple tree, I resolved to resume bearing fruit. But before I started my concentrated effort I needed both a rationalization and a guide for the arduous work I planned to do.
As had happened so frequently in my lifetime, I found the intellectual and emotional guidance I needed not in the Bible, into which I dipped regularly, but rather in the great English poems on which I had been reared and many of which I had memorized. I was particularly impressed by the relevancy of the opening lines of that splendid sonnet which young John Keats had penned when he feared, with good cause as events proved, that he might die prematurely, which he did, at age twenty-six:
When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,
Before high-pilèd books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full-ripened grain…
How apt those words seemed because there was such a wealth of enticing subjects about which I wanted to write that my brain, too, could justly be termed teeming. But I was almost eighty years old; much of what I would like to do would have to be left unfinished. Since it took me about three years to write a long work, if I had thirty viable subjects the task would require ninety years. That would make me one hundred and seventy when I finished, and I could not recall any writers who continued working so long, not even the doughty ancients in the Old Testament.
I knew what my ambitions were, but I was doubtful about my capacity to fulfill them. Fortunately, I had in my teens memorized those powerful lines composed by John Milton when, in midlife, he was struck blind. I had recited them to myself a thousand times, and now they rushed back to give me the kind of strength that he had found:
When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide,
Lodged with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present,
My true account, lest he returning chide…
That ringing challenge, that determination to “present my true account,” had defined the goal of my writing, so firmly grounded that it had become a permanent ambition. At Kent State I endeavored to render an unbiased account of the tragic killings, in South Africa an honest report of the racial injustices, in Israel the deadly duel between religions, in Hungary the unembellished facts about the revolution, and in Poland a factual account of that nation’s long struggle.
Any explanation for my prolific output these last four years thus relies upon the precept of Keats, whom I think of as a gifted friend pondering his future, and upon the stern admonition of Milton, whom I regard as a mentor, encouraging me to give “a true account.” Much of what I am about to say will sound improbable or even preposterous, but it is true. It can best be considered a hesitant apologia pro vita mea, and I hope it will be so received.
Between the years 1986 and 1991 I would write eleven books, publish seven of them, including two very long ones, and have the other three completed in their third revisions and awaiting publication. It was an almost indecent display of frenzied industry, but it was carried out slowly, carefully, each morning at the typewriter and each afternoon at research or quiet reflection.
This piling up of manuscripts was not entirely my fault and certainly was not engineered by me. My longtime and trusted editor in New York faced health problems that necessitated postponing work on one of my long books; uncertainties in the publishing business caused other delays; and my own confusion as to what I ought to do next added to the problems. But that I did this prodigious amount of work, keeping all things in order, there can be no doubt. There the manuscripts are, and this one was the most persistent. I wrote it in three different offices in three different states, on three different typewriters assisted by three different secretaries with their word processors, and three new editors with keen skills. This is a book that almost forced itself to be written.
One nagging question remains. Did the old tree get back to work producing apples only because the shock of the rusty nails reminded it of death? By analogy, did I labor so diligently because of my age and the approach of a time when I could work no more? Was I, like Keats at twenty-six, apprehensive of work-ending death?
I think not. I write at eighty-five for the same reasons that impelled me to write at forty-five: I was born with a passionate desire to communicate, to organize experience, to tell tales that dramatize the adventures which readers might have had. I have been that ancient man who sat by the campfire at night and regaled the hunters with imaginative recitations about their prowess. The job of an apple tree is to bear apples. The job of a storyteller is to tell stories, and I have concentrated on that obligation.
Because the Pacific Ocean would play such a dominant role in both my life and my writing, I will feel most at ease if I explain how I became intimately involved with that part of the world. I discovered it late, never venturing on it until the middle stages of World War II, when I was sent as a Navy lieutenant to the battle zone in the Solomon Islands northwest of Guadalcanal. As a Quaker I was exempt from actual military service but had declined to use my religion as an excuse to avoid the conflict because as a college professor of history I knew all too well that Hitler and Japan posed major threats to world civilization. I volunteered for the Navy.
But I must not cloak myself in glory. My draft board had decided to grab me for the Army, as one of the oldest men to be so taken, because the unsavory chairman of my local board despised me and saw a chance to do me in. I outsmarted him. Two days before he ordered me to report to Fort Dix I took refuge in the Navy on the principle that I would rather sail to war than march. Actually, I had served for some years in Europe as an ordinary seaman (honorary) in the English merchant fleet in the Mediterranean, a sea I knew intimately, and the Navy was glad to get me for that theater of war, but by the time I was in uniform it was obvious that we had our war in the Mediterranean well in hand, so I was shipped out to the Pacific.
A large group of us civilians who happened to be in Navy uniforms were placed aboard a battered troop transport of the Cape class, and since it was one of the sorriest ships in service it had been given one of the sorriest names, Cape Horn, that bleak and forbidding rocky tip at the far end of South America that terrifies mariners.