Pound for pound, James A. Michener is certainly the most popular and least influential American novelist of this century. Popular, that is, among millions of readers around the world, many of whom read little or no other fiction, yet disdained almost universally by literary critics, who find vast Michener sagas like Hawaii, Centennial, and Texas clumsy and tedious. So the best-selling author (to use a phrase Michener detests) must be wallowing in greenbacks and as indifferent to scorn as a Wall Street bond daddy, right?
Wrong. For an author who claims to read no reviews of his work, Michener turns out to be extraordinarily touchy about his critical reputation, and devotes a sizable portion of his sizable memoirs, The World Is My Home: A Memoir, to explaining and defending himself. ”If these characters are cardboard,” he observes testily, ”I imagine a lot of writers would like to know where I get my supply of that commodity.” The ”best-selling author” tag irritates him in two ways. ”Best-selling” he dislikes because its meaning ”has come to be pejorative, implying that the author is interested only in big sales and making money; what is worse, it suggests that the books he or she writes are junk.” ”Author,” he thinks, implies pomposity.
The real James Michener wants you to see him as just a regular guy. And regular guys of both sexes make up the bulk of his readership. Indeed, according to a recent survey cited by the author, ”the well-educated mature men who run the nation’s largest industries” said that ”when they found time they habitually read a book by Michener because they knew it would be readable and reward them with knowledge of value.” Ditto for young fighter pilots. ”If a writer can keep the old lions and the young tigers with him,” Michener figures, ”he must know something about narration.”
Indeed he must. And for all his personal reticence, his repetitiousness, and his fondness for digressions, Michener’s own life makes one of his most engaging tales — a classic American success story in an almost forgotten mode. As an orphan who has always refused to unravel the mystery of his birth, Michener has spent the bulk of his 84 years in a proud quest for legitimacy and acceptance on his own terms.
What’s more, despite his testiness about critics, the author has a remarkably clear-eyed view of his virtues and shortcomings as an artist. Possessed of a mind like an ”intellectual vacuum cleaner,” his intentions as a novelist are not so much aesthetic as they are moral and political. A self-professed ”knee-jerk liberal,” who has given much of the vast wealth his books have brought him to museums and universities, Michener invariably promotes ”the brotherhood of man and the virtue of striving to keep society peaceful and stable.”
Okay, so Michener’s style is pedestrian; his lack of psychological insight is something even he acknowledges. Still, for millions of readers his collected works have provided a sort of one-man liberal arts education. Both personally and in his work, he has represented the best of what his generation of Americans had to give: a wide-ranging curiosity; an almost naive open-mindedness about other cultures, races, and religions; practicality; optimism; and generosity of spirit. If the nation were seeking an official literary ambassador, it could do a whole lot worse. B+