James A. Michener

On this date in 1907, writer James A. Michener was born in New York City. An orphan, he spent his first few years at the Buck's County Poorhouse in Doylestown, Penn., until adopted by Edwin and Mable Michener. As Quakers, they believed in social activism and took in several orphaned children. The family was extremely poor, moving often during Michener's childhood. Michener felt that this gave him a strong sense of character; an acceptance of what life really looked like. In an interview by the American Academy of Achievement, Michener stated, "I think the bottom line . . . is that if you get through a childhood like mine, it's not all bad . . . the sad part is, most of us don't come out." Michener credited his mother for reading to him every night. "I had all the Dickens and Thackeray and Charles Read and Sinkiewicz and the rest before I was the age of seven or eight." He also credits his good teachers: "[t]eachers who wanted to make kids learn." Michener realized at a young age that there was a bigger world to see and, when he was 14, started hitchhiking around the United States with only 35 cents in his pocket: "I went everywhere, and I did it on nothing." This interest in the world lasted a lifetime. Michener received a scholarship to study at Swarthmore College, graduating with highest honors. He studied at St. Andrew's University in Scotland, returned home to teach, and then went on to become Assistant Visiting Professor of History at Harvard University. At the onset of WWII, Michener joined the Navy and was stationed in the Pacific. In 1947, Michener wrote his first book, Tales of the South Pacific, relating some of his experiences in the Solomon Islands, for which he received a Pulitzer Prize. The story was subsequently turned into the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, "South Pacific," which also received a Pulitzer Prize. Spending many years living abroad and writing, he thoroughly researched whichever culture he was living in before beginning to write about it. Among his books: The Bridges at Toko-Ri, Sayonara, The Source (about religion), Hawaii, Chesapeake, The Covenant, Space, Poland,Texas and Alaska. In addition to his writing, Michener was also active in public service, was a member of the Advisory Council to the NASA and was cultural ambassador to various countries. He considered himself to be a humanist and during the 1960s spoke out, amid the concerns raised regarding Kennedy's Catholicism: "I've fought to defend every civil right that has come under attack in my lifetime. . . . I've stood for absolute equality, and it would be ridiculous for a man like me to be against a Catholic for President" (The Historian, 2001). Michener won several honors and awards, among them the Medal of Freedom, the United States' highest civilian award. Michener was married for 39 years to Mari Yoriko Sabusawa until his death at the age of 90. D.1997.

“ . . . I decided (after listening to a 'talk radio' commentator who abused, vilified, and scorned every noble cause to which I had devoted my entire life that) I was both a Humanist and a liberal, each of the most dangerous and vilified type. I am a Humanist because I think humanity can, with constant moral guidance, create a reasonably decent society. I am terrified of restrictive religious doctrine, having learned from history that when men who adhere to any form of it are in control, common men like me are in peril. I do not believe that pure reason can solve the perceptual problems unless it is modified by poetry and art and social vision. So I am a Humanist. And if you want to charge me with being the most virulent kind—a secular humanist—I accept the accusation.”

—James Michener, Interview, Parade Magazine (Nov. 24, 1991), cited in Who's Who in Hell edited by Warren Allen Smith. (A similar passage is found in The World Is My Home by Robert Michener, 1991.)

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

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