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Imagining the Past, Investing in the Future: Historical novelist James A. Michener's legacy creates new possibilities for artists and writers


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When the late James A. Michener came to Austin to research his epic novel “Texas,” he didn’t expect that the state and its people would have such an impact on him that he would make it his permanent home.

James A. Michener: writer, art collector and philanthropist
James A. Michener: writer, art collector and philanthropist.
Photo: Brad Doherty

Twenty years later and five years after Michener’s death, the acclaimed writer’s impact on Texas lives on.

Michener is renowned for writing expansive novels that delve deeply into the roots of their settings. At The University of Texas at Austin, he is remembered as well for his abundant philanthropy. The author of “Texas” and about 40 other books gave more than $30 million to the university, one of the largest gifts from an individual donor in its time.

At the groundbreaking on Saturday (Oct. 19) for the new Blanton Museum of Art, it was announced that one of the two new Blanton Museum buildings will be named in honor of James and his wife, Mari Michener.

It’s a fitting tribute for a couple who not only gave money to begin funding the new museum, but also donated an extensive collection of 20th-century American paintings to the university and funded an entire graduate writing program. The Michener gifts to artists and writers help insure that there will be artists and writers in the generations to come.

Michener and Texas

James Michener first became acquainted with Texas well before he came here to research his novel about the state. In 1936, as an editor for Macmillan, he worked with University of Texas at Austin faculty member George Sánchez on an upcoming textbook.

His return to Texas can be attributed to the efforts of two Texans: University of Texas at Austin Chancellor Harry Ransom and Texas Governor Bill Clements.

In the 1960s, Michener set up a foundation board to research possible homes for his collection of 20th-century American paintings. He was impressed by the publication program of The University of Texas at Austin’s University Art Museum and the frequency with which Museum Director Donald Goodall was making exhibitions throughout the world. He was even more impressed when Harry Ransom offered him the first two floors in the under-construction Humanities Research Center for his collection.

Michener had found what he was looking for. He worked directly with Ransom to place half of his collection on campus permanently and half on a loan that would become permanent in the 1990s.

Michener returned to Texas in the ’70s to research the cattle-drive section of his novel “Centennial.” But it was a call from Governor Bill Clements in the early 1980s that brought Michener to Texas in a move that would ultimately make Austin his permanent home and The University of Texas at Austin the recipient of his generous endowments.

Governor Clements was impressed by Michener's other “state” novels and offered him a commission to write a novel about Texas.

During his 45-year writing career, Michener published more than 40 books, a number made even more impressive by the fact that he didn't start writing until he was 40 years old.

“[Clements] was intrigued by these great novels that Michener wrote, starting with the basic geology, moving through these spans of time and generations of characters,” said Peter Flawn, then president of The University of Texas at Austin. “I believe the governor thought it would be beneficial to tell the story of Texas in the Michener style.”

Michener agreed to write the book, but maintained that he agreed because he thought it was a good idea, not because the governor of Texas was asking him.

Michener came to Austin 20 years ago this fall to begin work on “Texas.” For the more than three years that he spent researching and writing the novel, he and his assistant, John Kings, set up shop at the university’s Barker Texas History Center. There they pored through books, documents, maps and whatever they could get their hands on to uncover the story of Texas.

Don Carleton was director of the Barker and is now director of the university’s Center for American History. He explained that Michener essentially wrote the book out of the Barker, “mining the largest Texana collection in existence anywhere.” The novelist was aware that The University of Texas at Austin was “without peers” in its resources on Texas history.

The university opened its arms to Michener in other ways, providing both him and Kings with offices at the Barker, as well as with two graduate students who helped with the research. Michener was named the Jack G. Taylor Centennial Professor Emeritus. There was even a house on Mt. Bonnell where the Micheners could live.

Michener's research for Texas also involved crisscrossing the state by car to experience the land and the people firsthand. Governor Clements introduced Michener to all of Texas' VIPs, one of whom loaned Michener his plane. And Carleton himself accompanied Michener on several trips as a guide. Back in Austin, public figures such as then mayor of San Antonio Henry Cisneros would visit Michener at the Barker to be interviewed.

Michener was clear in his conversations with Carleton and others that he couldn't have written Texas without the generous assistance of the university. For his part, Carleton describes Michener as “part of the Center family,” working closely with everyone involved to gather information and approach the state in his own comprehensive fashion.

Don Carleton and Michener in November 1982
Don Carleton and Michener in November 1982 at the library of the San Jacinto Museum at the San Jacinto Battleground. Carleton accompanied Michener on many of his research trips throughout Texas.

“Texas” was published in 1985. It begins with the arrival of early Spanish explorers in 1527 and brings Texas history to the present. It is a “a book about oil and water, rangers and outlaws, Anglos and Hispanics, frontier and settlement, money and power,” wrote The Boston Globe, that “views the state's history through the fictional eyes of a governor's task force appointed in early 1983 to prepare teaching materials for the Texas school system in time for the 1986 sesquicentennial celebration of its declaration of independence from Mexico.” The book is typical Michener: long and methodical, compelling yet thorough, and full of unforgettable Texans.

After completing “Texas,” Michener moved on to his next book, “Alaska.” But he never quite moved on from The University of Texas at Austin and Austin. His relationship with both, begun in the 1960s, was solidified while writing the novel and would remain strong until his death in 1997 at the age of 90.

A Meandering Road

Texas is a long way from Doylestown, Pa., where Michener lived for most of his childhood in the home of Mabel Michener, a widow who made her living by taking in abandoned children and doing other families' laundry. They were humble beginnings, but they offered the young Michener much of what he needed. Mabel read the books of Charles Dickens aloud to the children in her home and tried to provide them with all the comforts she could.

Michener also remembered when a small library was opened in town and he and Margaret Mead were the first two children to apply for cards. He remembered the librarian saying, “Goodness, Margaret and James, I believe you've read all the children's books we have. If you wish, you can start on the other shelves.”

The library full of books and Mabel Michener's Dickens readings appear to have made an early impression on the future novelist. His passion for travel also developed early, and by the time he had graduated from high school in 1925, he had already been to all but three of the 48 states. A brilliant student who served three years on his high school newspaper, played basketball and was elected class president, Michener was awarded a four-year scholarship to Swarthmore College, from which he graduated summa cum laude in 1929 with a bachelor of arts degree in English and history.

He spent the 1930s traveling and teaching. He continued his own education, all of which was funded entirely by scholarship, at nine universities in the U.S. and Europe, primarily at St. Andrews University in Scotland. Later, Michener taught in Pennsylvania, Colorado and at the Harvard School of Education.

The gallery building of the new Blanton Museum will be named in honor of James and Mari Michener
The new Blanton Museum will be composed of two buildings that will face each other across an open pedestrian passageway and civic plaza. The gallery building will be named in honor of James and Mari Michener.

After a stint as a textbook editor with Macmillan in New York, Michener enlisted in the U.S. Navy, rising to the rank of lieutenant commander and serving on some 49 different islands in the South Pacific during World War II.

While living on the New Hebrides island of Espiritu Santo, Michener wrote a series of interrelated stories titled “Tales of the South Pacific.” He claims to have started writing the book when he realized what a unique experience it was to serve in the Pacific. Though the popularity of “Tales of the South Pacific” grew slowly, it eventually won the 1947 Pulitzer Prize for literature. In 1949, Rogers and Hammerstein turned the novel into one of Broadway's most popular musicals, “South Pacific.” The movie version, starring Mitzi Gaynor and Rossano Brazzi, was released in 1958.

During his 45-year writing career, Michener published more than 40 books, a number made even more impressive by the fact that he didn't start writing until he was 40 years old. Many of his books are more than 1,000 pages long. They have been sold in hardcover and paperback in almost every language of the world, with sales running into the millions. Not bad for a man who wrote the same way for 50 years—churning out books on his old manual typewriter, using only his two index fingers.

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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