Underlying Themes In The Works Of James

A. Michener Essay, Research Paper

James A. Michener is often regarded as a literary outsider. Despite his vast works that have sold millions of copies and delighted readers everywhere, his blunt approach to literature has brought him much criticism. Despite his lack of many literary vehicles to convey his ideas, his works do contain several universal and underlying themes. These themes can often be applied to our lives and thought processes to benefit us for the better.

One of Michener?s most apparent and perennial underlying themes is on the issue of race. As literary critic Pearl K. Bell has said, ?He [Michener] tries to improve their [the readers] hearts by exposing the torment and destruction caused by racial intolerance? (Stine and Marowski, ed. 29: 314). Michener himself has said that one of his major themes has been man as a brother to all other men (The World is My Home, 507). In This Noble Land: My Vision for America, Michener says, ?No aspect of our society causes me greater apprehension than the lamentable state of our race relations? (49). Indeed, Michener has seen racial tensions as a great trouble in our society, and has written his works to deal with such.

The theme of race first comes up in Michener?s debut novel, Tales of the South Pacific. In ?Our Heroine?, Nellie Forbush, a nurse from Little Rock, Arkansas, falls in love with a French planter who has eight illegitimate, mixed-race children. She has trouble accepting these ?nigger? children because of her Southern roots, but in the end she overcomes this prejudice and accepts the children as her own. In ?Fo? Dolla??, Lieutenant Joe Cable falls in love with an island girl, but he is not allowed to marry her because of military regulations and American prejudice (Day 36-54).

The theme of overcoming racial tensions is central in Sayonara. In this novel, an army major is sent to Japan for rest and recovery during the Korean War, and while there he falls in love with a Japanese dancer. He defies orders and regulations and goes to live with her, risking his entire military career. In the end, however, he is forced to return to America without as much as even saying goodbye to his Japanese sweetheart (Day 81-85).

The theme of race is also apparent in Hawaii. In one part of the novel, missionary Abraham Hewlett is forced to resign from the mission because he married a Hawaiian girl, an act considered an abomination by his peers. He condemns them with the words, ?You love the Hawaiians as potential Christians, but you despise them as people? (Hawaii 290). Michener also describes races cooperating and mixing to advance Hawaii and allow it to ascend in power and greatness (Day 118-130).

In The Source, Michener chronicles the persecution of the Jews. In the town of Makor, during the Roman invasion, most Jews are executed and the rest become slaves. When the Muslim invaders come years later, they also execute and enslave Jews, and subject them to harsh rule. All of this suffering was simple because they were Jews (Becker 87-88).

The race issue is also dealt with in Centennial. The Indians and whites start out as peaceful on the frontier. However, bigot whites come to the frontier, see the Indians as meddlesome, and therefore want to exterminate them (Becker 121-126). This leads to much conflict between the whites and Indians.

In Chesapeake, Michener puts the theme of race in with black slavery. The horrors of slavery are chronicled, starting with the capture of slaves in Africa and moving on to plantation life. Shown is how the slaves were pulled down to a mournful level because the whites think they are inherently superior (Becker 144-149). Also described is how blacks live in a diminished state of life after the abolition of slavery due to discrimination by whites.

A less obvious and less persistent, but still prominent, underlying theme of Michener?s is the environmental issue. According to Frank N. Magill, ?Michener discusses the fragile bond that exists between the land and the people who live on it? (Magill?s Survey 1352). Indeed, in The Quality of Life, Michener says, ?The quality of a good life depends in large measure on how a man reacts to his natural environment, and we cannot destroy one without diminishing the other? (90). Throughout his works, he demonstrates that respect for the land is essential.

The environmental theme is shown in Hawaii. Great changes take place in the lives of the people of the islands when they deplete their supply of sandalwood, their only natural commodity (Magill, Magill?s Survey 1352). Enterprising men become too greedy and don?t recognize their impact on the environment. Also, Michener contrasts the beauty of the newly formed island at the beginning of the novel and the developed island at the end, drastically changed by the inhabitants (Day 128-130).

Michener also exhibits his environmental theme in The Source. This novel shows a rich promised land which is destroyed by human arrogance (Becker 180). Also, after learning to farm, man realizes that he is at the mercy of the rain and winds. He develops religion in hopes that this will make the environment allow him to thrive. However, he doesn?t use the land properly and doesn?t thrive (Magill, Masterplots II 1499).

In Centennial, the issue of environmental balance is one of the central themes of the novel. Michener makes a striking contrast between the unsettled frontier and the overfarmed, destroyed frontier. The land of the frontier is ruined when farmers tried dry farming and didn?t contour plow. When heavy winds hit, the soil turned to dust (Becker 116-131).

The Puritan work ethic is another apparent underlying theme in Michener?s works. Frank Magill believes that Michener admires hard work because Michener himself has had to work hard to pull himself up from humble beginnings (Magill?s Survey 1352). According to George J. Becker, ?What Michener admires is drive. What he cannot stand is apathy, inertia? (181). Many of Michener?s characters are successful because they are willing to exert themselves in full.

Michener?s belief in the Puritan work ethic comes out in Hawaii. In this novel, the Kee children succeed through working hard and following the old Yankee virtues. Kamejiro Sakagawa works hard to make a living for himself and his family, and it is because of this hard work that he can get his children an education and allow them to advance (Day 123-127). It is implied in the novel that the natives lose control of the island because they are slothful, so the more industrious Chinese and Japanese overtake these natives easily (Becker, 181).

The work ethic is more candidly dealt with in The Source. In this novel, it is only through tolerance of suffering and rigid adherence to the law that Judaism is allowed to survive. Despite their religion telling them to take God?s punishment lying down, the Jews fight for their right to live and are not willing to lie down in the face of persecution and suffering (Becker 126-128).

In Centennial, a good work ethic gives several characters success. Hans ?Potato? Brumbaugh fights for his land and tends it with unequaled passion. He builds canals for irrigation, and prospers from the previously barren land because of hard work. Frank Skimmerhorn, a villain in the story, has a goal of extermination of Indians. He works hard at his goal and has much success because he worked so hard at it, despite this goal not being of good morals (Becker 126-128).

In Chesapeake, the value of the Puritan work ethic is also evident. Edward Paxmore?s life is made more prosperous when he sets out to be industrious and work as hard and as faithfully as he is capable of working. Pirate Bonfleur has success in his evil work because he puts his entire self into it. It is implied in the novel that the colony begins to fall into ruin when the plantation owners use slaves to do all the work rather than doing it themselves (Becker 137-139).

Part of Michener?s wisdom is his acceptance of change as inevitable, and even as a sign of health. Because of this, another of Michener?s major underlying themes has been the wisdom and courage of the young. As Michener can be quoted as saying, ?Before the end of this century, the young people?will be running every institution in our nation? (The Quality 70). This reflects Michener?s belief that the young people are more capable than often given credit for and can accomplish more that most people would believe.

In The Fires of Spring, Michener reflects his belief in the youth. Young David Harper, who many believe was based on Michener himself, learns from other inmates at the local poorhouse and works hard in life. Because of this he is able to better himself and get out of the cycle of poverty.

The youth theme is also present in Hawaii. The Sakagawa children make progress and overcome many barriers. Also, the older generation of Hawaiians want marriage to stay within the race, but it is the openness of the younger generation that helps Hawaiian society to progress (Day 125). The children of Japanese immigrants revitalize the culture by changing with the times (Magill, Magill?s Survey 1352).

The belief in youth and acceptance of change is also present in Centennial. Levi Zendt leaves his traditional Pennsylvania Dutch Community because he is against their tyrannical bigotry. He leaves so he can go somewhere (in this case, out west) that he can abide by what he feels is right.

The Drifters also focuses on the issue of youth. The novel chronicles the saga of six drifters, who are youth supposedly without a purpose. It shows that these youth are not worthless degenerates; on the contrary, they are intelligent and are going against the ideals of the generation before them because they do not believe in these values. They accept their own world that emphasizes their own ideals, such as communal sharing and the rejection of war (Fadiman 1-3).

Becker, George J. James A. Michener. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1983.

Day, A. Grove. James A. Michener. New York: Twayne Publishing, 1964.

Fadiman, Clifton. ?The Drifters.? Book-of-the-Month Club News May 1971: 1-3.

Magill, Frank, ed. Masterplots II. Vol. 4. ?The Source.? Englewood Cliffs: Salem Press, 1986.


Magill, Frank, ed. Magill?s Survey of American Literature. Vol. 4. ?James A. Michener.? New

York: Marshall Cavendish Corporation, 1991. 1348-62.

Marowski, Daniel S. and Jean C. Stine, ed. Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 29. ?James

A. Michener.? Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1984. 309-17.

Michener, James A. Hawaii. New York: Random House, 1959.

Michener, James A. This Noble Land: My Vision for America. New York: Random House,


Michener, James A. The Quality of Life. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co., 1970.

Michener, James A. The World is My Home. New York: Random House, 1992


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