James Michener Speculates on Soviet Satellites, the U.S., and 'The Bridge at Andau'

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James Michener, circa 1950.

Hungary's abortive 1956 revolution provides the subject for this talk given by the journalist and novelist James Michener at a 1957 New York Herald Tribune Books and Authors Luncheon. 

Promoting his account of the uprising, The Bridge at Andau (1957), Michener chooses to dwell not on the tales of heroism and tragedy recounted in his book, nor upon the future of Hungary, but rather on what the events mean for the future of Russia itself and, in turn, "what the impact on Russia might be on us." Michener offers three observations. The first is that despite having its officer class trained in the Soviet Union, at the time of the crisis the Hungarian army "turned against communism about 98 percent." The second is that the Russian troops stationed in Hungary refused to take arms against the people; new "uncontaminated" troops had to be brought in. Finally, he points out that this was "a revolution of young people," not a capitalist counter-revolution or a romantic yearning for some nostalgic regime of the past. These were people who knew only communism and decided that "their system wasn't working." 

Michener then asks what this means for the future. Many learned people believe that these warning factors will lead to a gradual relaxation of Russian rule. He does not share this view. In fact, he believes the Kremlin will abandon de-Stalinization and take a more hard-line approach with its satellites, at least in the short term. The rapprochement between the West and Russia that so many people look forward to will not, he predicts, come about until "after four or five years."

Michener was born in 1907. He never knew his birth parents. He was adopted by a widow and raised in extreme poverty. There were times when, because of financial hardship, his adoptive mother had to send him to the local poorhouse for weeks at a time. Michener left home and worked his way across the United States. As the Academy of Achievement website reports:

The great variety of odd jobs and experiences that followed formed an important part of his early education. He traveled across the land by boxcar, worked in carnival shows, and before he was 20 years old, had visited all but three of the States in the Union.

Eventually Michener received a college scholarship, becoming a teacher and then a professor of history. World War II took Michener to the South Pacific, where he served in the Navy. The book he wrote based on his experiences, Tales of the South Pacific (1947), won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1948. It provided the basis for the Broadway musical hit South Pacific (1949).

The Bridge at Andau, more a work of reportage, is not the kind of book Michener is remembered for today. He pioneered a type of novel that was usually focused on a geographical locale rather than on individual characters and that relied heavily on research, in some cases blurring the line between fiction and nonfiction. Hawaii (1959) was the first of these. Michener lived in Hawaii for 10 years while researching and then writing the book. He finished it on the day Hawaii became a state. This provided a pattern for his succeeding works. The British newspaper The Independent describes Michener's method:

Most of his epic fiction follows the same formula: focus on a specific geographical location and tell a story based there over decades, even centuries -- for Centennial he started with the geological formation of the North America land mass in prehistoric times and made his slow but fascinating way forward from there. To research such doorstop books he would settle in the place he was studying for as long as it took -- he once likened his research method to that of a "total-immersion Baptist."

Michener was fantastically successful during his lifetime and, in contrast to the hero of many a "rags-to-riches" story, gave most of his money away, particularly to libraries, museums, and universities. His attitude toward his mainstream popularity (and the concomitant condescension shown him by the literary establishment) is explored in his late novel The Novel (1991), which, in typical Michener fashion, follows the production of a novel from its author to its editor, to the critic reviewing it. Here, the tension depicted between the Modernist notion of a novel that "tests" its own medium (language) and the more populist aim of instead pleasing the widest possible audience (through storytelling) shows that Michener was not unalterably opposed to the objections people made about his work. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, reviewing the book in The New York Times, notes:

"I have written my last book," Yoder announces at a Mecklenberg symposium on literature, "and I've written in a style that is clearly old-fashioned, even outmoded. ...But if I were starting over tonight as a beginning writer I wouldn't dream of doing it the way I did. I would be adventurous. I'd use new styles, new forms, new discoveries in psychology, new approaches to the reader, new everything. I am addicted to constant change in all things." It is only at the end of The Novel that you learn where Mr. Michener's sentiments really lie, when he shows Lukas Yoder being drawn against his will into beginning yet another book. Never mind all the esthetic talk, Mr. Michener seems to be saying at the end. It is the compulsion to tell stories that finally matters. The true artist just creates.

James Michener died in 1997, at the age of 90.


Audio courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives WNYC Collection.