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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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A Center for Writers

When Governor Clements invited Michener to Texas in the early ’80s, no one, Michener included, knew he would stay in Austin permanently. Although he went on to research books in other places, he and Mari bought a house in Austin and settled into creating a home there. Carleton said that from the beginning Michener really enjoyed Austin with its "atmosphere of inquiry and free-spiritedness." He found the city congenial in a number of ways.

Michener with Michener Center for Writers Director James Magnuson and students David Cleaves and Steve Blackburn
Michener with Michener Center for Writers Director James Magnuson and students David Cleaves and Steve Blackburn at the 1997 graduation celebration.
Photo: Robb Walsh

One way was as a haven for a perpetual seeker of knowledge. Carleton said that the richness of the university's library system, broadly speaking, was a major consideration in Michener's decision to stay in Austin. Michener had been in love with libraries since he'd taken out his first library card in Doylestown, and Carleton says he “marveled at the fact that he could get anything he wanted” through the university’s system.

It wasn't just the libraries that drew Michener again and again to The University of Texas at Austin campus, however. In the late ’80s, he requested permission to sit in on a graduate fiction workshop being taught by James Magnuson.

Magnuson remembers that Michener attended every class and gave students detailed notes on the stories. He handed out lists of common grammatical errors and responded to students with such enthusiasm that one student who was thinking about going to Bosnia to work with rape victims of the war was surprised to hear Michener telling her,“Go. Do it now. Drop out of school if you have to.”

Michener's enthusiasm for young writers became apparent when he gave $1 million in 1989 to create an interdisciplinary master of fine arts (MFA) degree at The University of Texas at Austin. Over the next four years he would give another $18 million, ultimately creating the Texas Center for Writers—known today as the Michener Center for Writers—a Master of Fine Arts program that is now the most competitive graduate program on the campus.

Again, the Michener approach was unique. It was interdisciplinary, requiring students to work in two genres. As 1996 graduate Bruce Snider notes, Michener recognized that not all writers are lucky enough to have their first book turned into a musical by Rogers and Hammerstein. Supporting oneself as a writer is a constant challenge, and Michener felt that learning to write in more than one genre would give writers, “another arrow in their quiver.”

I went to nine different universities, always at public expense. And when you have that experience, you're almost obligated to pay it back. It's as simple as that.

He also set up the program so that each writer admitted to the program—an average of 10 each year—receives a full fellowship for the entirety of the three-year program. For the 2002-03 school year, the fellowship amount of $17,500 is designed to cover the writer's expenses so that he or she can focus on writing.

To date, the Michener Center for Writers has graduated 65 students, many of whom have gone on to win major awards and other fellowships, and to publish countless plays, short stories, poems and novels. Michener Fellow plays have been staged in New York, New Orleans and Washington, D.C. Their films have earned awards at the Sundance Film Festival. A graduate recently won the Hodder Fellowship at Princeton University. In the year 2000 alone, two novels and two short story collections were published by former Michener Fellows.

Michener’s gift also allows students to work with some of the best writers writing today. The program funds two visiting professors each semester as well as dozens of writers who come to read from their works and meet with students. In the past several years, authors as prestigious as Booker Prize winners J.M. Coetzee and Michael Ondaatje, Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Cunningham, Adrienne Rich, Denis Johnson, Anne Rapp and others have visited the Michener Center for Writers.

While he was alive, Michener remained involved with the program, meeting with students, critiquing their works and inviting students to his home each year. Five years after his death, his presence is still felt, and his program prospers.

Michener remarked, at the time of his donation, “My career as a writer has been the mainstay of my life and the sole source of my earnings. Mari and I hope that this endowment will encourage and enable gifted young writers to develop their talents in a wide variety of writing skills. To be a writer, despite all its vicissitudes, is to pursue an ennobling way of life, and one which I recommend wholeheartedly.”

And finally...

James Michener gave more to The University of Texas at Austin than his art collection and the funding for the Blanton Museum and the Michener Center for Writers. He also gave money to the university's General Libraries as well as the University of Texas Press, establishing fellowships to train scholars in book publishing.

James Michener's “row of solid books”
James Michener's “row of solid books.”

He gave to other universities as well, donating an estimated $117 million in the last decades of his life. Michener felt a sense of duty in giving back what he had received.

“I went to nine different universities,” he said, “always at public expense. And when you have that experience, you're almost obligated to pay it back. It's as simple as that.”

This man who received more than 30 honorary doctorates in five fields, including Humane Letters, Law, Theology and Science, was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Gerald R. Ford in 1977, and met every president since Calvin Coolidge, considered himself simply a writer.

In his memoir, “The World is My Home,” he wrote, “Mostly I would want to be remembered by that row of solid books that rest on library shelves throughout the world.”

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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