Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Writings and Philosophy of James A. Michener

I presented James A. Michener - His Writings and Philosophy on 19 September 2014 to an interactive audience at the Philosophy Club in The Villages, FL. My Powerpoint Show is available in two parts (split up due to limits on file size) and may be downloaded at: Part 1 and Part 2.

Michener (1907 - 1997) was one of America's most productive and highly popular writers, with some 27 works of fiction published between 1947 and 2007, 31 non-fiction published between 1939 - 1997, and 14 adaptations, such as musicals, movies and TV series, produced between 1953 - 2001.


Like nearly everyone else, I've heard the unforgettable song You've Got to be Carefully Taught many times. It is from South Pacific, the 1949 musical and 1958 movie roughly based on Michener's breakout 1948 novel, Tales of the South Pacific. Of course, it was Oscar Hammerstein who wrote the lyrics, but they capture the theme of the novel, where he explores racial prejudice as an American nurse falls in love with an ex-patriot French plantation owner who has mixed-race children and an American lieutenant with an Asian lover. In the words of that song:
You've got to be taught
To hate and fear, ...
You've got to be taught to be afraid
people whose eyes are oddly made,
people whose skin is a diff'rent shade, ...
You've got to be taught before it's too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
hate all the people your relatives hate, ...
I have more to say about why it is literally true, in the words of that song, that children, prior to the age of 6 or 7 or 8, must be carefully taught the skills of racial and ethnic discrimination and prejudice for the sake of the survival and successful reproduction of long-lasting societies.

Click HERE to jump to that section of this Blog posting.


Of the 58 works of fiction and non-fiction written by Michener, I have read only five: The Source, Hawaii, Space, The World is My Home - A Memoir, and Poland.

The Source (published 1964)

In the 1960's, soon after it was published, I read The Source because it is the history of the Jewish people, from before Abraham to the 1960's. Three archeologists (a Jew, a Catholic and a Muslim) are digging at an ancient well in northern Israel. Each layer tells the stories of tribes, cults, religions, kingdoms, countries, and conquest as waves of invading peoples and ideas displace or merge in some way with the current ones.

Hawaii (published 1959)

My wife and attended a talk by Michener in Hawaii at a week-long IBM Golden Circle event in 1983, at which I was honored for leading the Technical Proposal for the avionics system that got our division into the Special Forces helicopter business. What a thrill it was to be at to be at Lahaina Beach on the island of Maui, reading the account, in our autographed copy of Hawaii, of the arrival of the "haoles" (white Protestant missionaries) at that very place, and to do so within view of the Indian Banyan tree planted in their honor. Of course the Americans who arrived in the 1800's disrupted the lives of the "native" Hawaiians with alien diseases and ideas that decimated their population and changed their culture. On the other hand, Hawaii was settled by successive waves of Polynesians who arrived prior to the year 1000, each in turn defeating or merging with the prior populations and cultures. And, the Americans were followed, in the 1900's, by Chinese and Japanese farm workers, whose descendants now own a significant fraction of the Hawaiian economy.

Space (published 1982)

At that IBM event we also had the pleasure of attending talks by husband and wife Astronauts William and Anna Lee Fischer and receiving autographed photos of them. We also received a copy of Space, autographed by Michener, in which he recounts the history of air- and space-flight from 1944 to the 1980's, highlighting the heroic accomplishments of NASA, as well as some of their failures. He acknowledges the contribution of our IBM division which produced the radiation-hardened and ultra-reliable computers and associated software used on the Space Shuttle. While I was not involved in IBM's spaceflight efforts in the 1970's and 1980's, I did spend several months in the late 1990's consulting with NASA Houston on modernizing the Space Shuttle hardware and software architecture.

The World is My Home - A Memoir (published 1991)

In 2014, over 30 years after reading Hawaii and Space, I reconnected and enjoyed reading two great Michener books: The World Is My Home - a Memoir and Poland. These treasures were among the discarded books our fellow residents at Freedom Point left in bookcases, such as the one in the photo above.

The World Is My Home - a Memoir is the primary source for the biographical and philosophical information in my presentation and this Blog posting, along with and

Poland (published 1983)

Poland traces the history of that beleaguered country from the 1100's when the Mongols and Tatars invaded Europe from the East, to the mid-1600's when Sweden invaded from the North, to the late 1600's when the Ottoman Empire invaded from the South, to the 1900's when Germany invaded again from the East in WWI and WWII, and 1945, when the Russians imposed Communism. Although Michener's book was published in 1983, after Lech Wałęsa and the Solidarity trade-union movement had made considerable progress in the struggle for freedom that eventually led to the overthrow of the Communist government and a transformation to a market economy, only general references to this movement appear in Poland.


He started with less than nothing - he did not even have a birth certificate - and was raised in Doylestown, (near Philadelphia) PA, by Mabel Michener, a widow who supported herself doing laundry, sewing, and as a foster mother. She adopted some of her foster children, including James. When he needed a birth certificate to get into the Navy, they used a made-up date of birth and claimed that Mabel was his birth mother and her husband (who had been dead about five years when James was born) was his father. He was raised as a Quaker.

In 1921, at the age of 14, he and a friend set off on a hitchhiking adventure to 45 states, with only the change in their pockets, depending upon odd jobs and the good will of people they met along the way. Michener did very well in high school and attended Swathmore (also near Philadelphia) on scholarship, graduating with a degree in English and Psychology at the age of 23. He spent the next two years traveling in Europe, again with virtually no money, working on a cargo ship and touring with bullfighters. Then he taught high school for a few years, and married the first of his three wives.

After teaching at Colorado State Teachers College, and earning a Masters degree in English there, he taught at Harvard and edited a book on Social Studies for Macmillan Education. That turned into a full-time job at Macmillan until he joined the Navy in 1943, see second and third photos below.


Michener had a knack for being in the right place at the right time, or, more likely, he worked smart and hard to earn his "luck". In the Navy, he was assigned to the South Pacific. His writing skills and knowledge of how to deal with all sorts of people (from merchant marine sailors on a cargo ship to Spanish bull fighters) and love of travel, got him a job where he went from island to island investigating leadership and other issues and writing reports to the Navy brass. During these assignments, he utilized his spare time (third photo above) to write stories of life in the South Pacific. 

In 1947, one again a civilian, he published his breakout book Tales of the South Pacific which won the Pulitzer the following year and was adapted into a musical the year after that (and a movie in 1958). There is no doubt Michener is a great writer, but he was fantastically lucky having his very first novel published within two years of his return from WWII, winning the Pulitzer the following year, and having it adapted into a hit musical the year after that!


As lucky and skillful Michener was in writing, he was unlucky in love, until his third marriage.

He and his first wife, Patti Koon, were married in 1935 and divorced in 1948. He married his second, Vange Nord, that same year and divorced her in 1955. Soon after, he married his third, Mari Yorico Sabusawa, in 1955. The third marriage turned out to be the charm, lasting some 37 years until she passed away in 1994. 


Michener was a lifelong Democrat, but he was well-regarded by both major political parties.

His political activities for the Democrats include: 

1959-60 - Bucks County Pennsylvania Chairman for John F. Kennedy's successful 1960 run for the Presidency.

1962 - Michener's unsuccessful run for Congress.

1967-68 - Secretary of the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention.

1968 - Campaign Manager for Joseph S. Clark's losing run for re-election to the US Senate seat that Clark had held since 1956.

1969 - Michener wrote a book Presidential Lottery - The Reckless Gamble In Our Electoral System based on his experience as a Democratic Elector for John F. Kennedy's successful run for the Presidency. At the time, he took a pledge that he would cast his Elector vote for the Republican candidate in the event that neither party won a majority and the GOP won a plurality of the Electoral votes. He was concerned that there would be unscrupulous deal making if a third-party won enough Electoral votes to throw the election either way, or if the election was thrown into the House of Representatives, or if the candidate with the most votes passed away between election day and the day the Electors cast their votes. His solution was not to do away with the Electoral vote system where each state gets one vote for each Senator and each Representative. He was opposed to changing the system to a direct popular vote because he was concerned it might be "vulnerable to demagoguery". As I understand his preferred solution, it would be to eliminate the Electors, as individuals who could decide how to cast their vote, and instead formalize how the Electoral votes would be counted such that, if the candidate with the plurality of Electoral votes had at least 40% of them, that candidate would be the winner. That seems to be a reasonable approach to me.

Michener was well regarded by Republicans as well:

1972 - Correspondent for President Nixon's historic trips to Russia and China.

1977 - Awarded US Medal of Freedom, the highest honor that may be bestowed by a civilian, by President Ford.


I mentioned above that:
... it is literally true, in the words of [the song You Have to be Carefully Taught], that children, prior to the age of 6 or 7 or 8, must be carefully taught the skills of racial and ethnic discrimination and prejudice for the sake of the survival and successful reproduction of long-lasting societies. ... 
You've got to be taught
To hate and fear, ...
You've got to be taught to be afraid
people whose eyes are oddly made,
people whose skin is a diff'rent shade, ...
You've got to be taught before it's too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
hate all the people your relatives hate, ...

No, I'm not in favor of racial or ethnic discrimination within our society, but I understand the biological (genetic) and cultural (memetic) imperatives. Please stick with me here because this may take some time, but I think it may be worth your while.

In the Natural food chain, animals are either predators or prey, or some combination of these categories. You can generally tell which category an animal belongs to by the location of their eyes:
  • If the eyes are on the front of the face, mainly looking forward, that animal is a PREDATOR.
  • If the eyes are on the sides of the face, mainly looking sideways, they are PREY. 
  • Have a look in the mirror to confirm that you are a PREDATOR.
To take a simplified example, Foxes are predators and Rabbits are prey.

On average, the smarter and/or faster Foxes tend to catch, kill, and eat the slower and/or dumber Rabbits. Conversely, again on the average, it is the slower and dumber Foxes who starve to death when they fail to catch the faster and smarter Rabbits. It is this system, red and raw as it is, that stabilizes both the Rabbit and Fox populations and matches them to the available resources, while at the same time, keeping the genetic systems of both species tuned up to fit best to the environment.

That is why Nature has evolved Rabbits (and other prey) to be wary and watchful and FEAR Foxes (and other predators). Rabbits must learn, as infants, to FEAR Foxes. 

That is why Nature has evolved Foxes (and other predators) to rapidly recognize  members of their own troop, and protect their territories from competitors. Foxes must learn, as infants, to HATE competitors for available food resources, such as Foxes in a foreign troop, and other carnivores that feed on small rodents and similar prey. 

Paraphrasing Tennyson, Nature is red and raw of tooth and claw.

Whether you like it or not, we humans (smart and highly evolved as we may be) are part of NATURE. We therefore have  evolved to honor Nature's imperatives.

Humans are great apes, and our closest relatives are the Chimpanzees, which live in troops of a dozen to several dozen individuals. While mostly herbivorous, they will eat small mammals, including other primates, which they hunt in organized groups of drivers, blockers, chasers, and ambushers. They share their catches with others in their group. Their social arrangements are complex. They have a hierarchy and engage in mutual grooming. Male patrol parties protect their territories from other groups of chimps and may take over a smaller group's territory to increase their access to resources such as food and females.

Hominids and Chimpanzees have a common ancestor who lived some five to seven million years ago. A succession of hominids began with Homo habilis, the tool user, who was displaced by a series of more intelligent hominids that led to Homo erectus, who walked upright, and continued the evolution to Homo neanderthalensis, which we Homo sapiens displaced some 40,000 years ago.

Until about 10,000 years ago we humans were organized into nomadic hunter-gatherer societies. Some anthropologists estimate that up to 30% of the deaths in such societies were due to homicide. The advent of agriculture and domestication of animals led to more settled and complex societies, developing into larger tribes and specialization and trade between nearby tribes that had access to different resources.

According to Wikipedia: Human tribes depend upon shared memes (the cultural analog of genes):
Tribalism implies the possession of a strong cultural or ethnic identity that separates one member of a group from the members of another group. Based on strong relations of proximity and kinship, members of a tribe tend to possess a strong feeling of identity.
When inevitable conflicts arose within and between primitive tribes they were settled by one group being driven away, a stronger displacing or dominating a weaker, and/or a merger or coalition of tribes. As nearby tribes associated and developed mutually-beneficial trading relationships with neighboring tribes, more and more complex hierarchies and social relationships arose, leading to the formation of nation-states. These highly complex political and economic entities cooperate, compete, and, all to often, war with each other. 
... complex societies (and corporations) rely upon the tribal instincts of their members for their organization and survival. For example, a representative democracy relies on the ability of a "tribe" of representatives to organize and deal with the problems of an entire nation. The instincts that these representatives are using to deal with national problems have been highly developed in the long course of human evolution on a small tribal scale, and this is the source of both their usefulness and their disutility. Indeed, much of the political tension in modern societies is the conflict between the desire to organize a nation-state using the tribal values of egalitarianism and unity and the simple fact that large societies are unavoidably impersonal and sometimes not amenable to small-society rules.
I was reminded of the tribal nature of humanity when my wife and I were visiting relatives in Israel. We were in a crowded area and everyone looked about the same to me when my cousin suddenly alerted and pointed to some individuals and said they were Arabs. Although my cousin was raised in Brooklyn, NY, like my wife and me, years of living with and surviving terrorist violence in Israel had sharpened his ability to sense differences that were opaque to me.

A friend told me he had been raised in inner city Los Angeles, and had been, for a time, a member of the street gang known as the "Crips", whose rival gang was and is the "Bloods". That was decades ago, but his alert response is still active. During the recent Michael Brown controversy, where a policeman shot and killed an unarmed black man, my friend told me that the TV coverage had alerted him to the possibility of gang involvement. He noticed that one of the first locals to approach Brown's body was wearing the red colors of the "Bloods". It also struck him that some photos of Michael Brown showed him giving hand signals that, to my friend, indicated that he was a member of the "Bloods"! That aspect of the controversy was opaque to me and never reported by the major media, as far as I can tell. (However, some fringe websites do make that point.)

As a final example, my wife is especially alert to people with New York accents and Jewish or Hungarian names. Quite often, when she overhears a stranger speaking, she will approach them and ask if they, like she, are from New York. Almost always, they will confirm her suspicions, and she will engage them as if they were old friends, particularly if they are from Brooklyn! When she reads the credits after a movie, or a news story about people honored with the Nobel prize or similar high honors, she will note with pride how many are Jewish. She has an uncanny ability to identify movie stars who have Jewish backgrounds, even if their names have been changed. She also recognizes and identifies with people who have Hungarian names, and is ecstatic when she meets or reads about a person who is both Hungarian and Jewish, particularly if they have excellent accomplishments. Although I can identify many Jewish names, much of the time these situations are opaque to me.

I think it is fair to say that each of us has special abilities to identify and become attracted to people with whom we share some affinity. For example, when travelling in a foreign country, we are especially happy to meet another American, or even a person from an English-speaking country. Or a person with whom we share the same hobby, sports, or profession. Earlier this year, I was in Helsinki, Finland on a kayak adventure with my granddaughter and son-in-law, and I was very happy to discovered that one of the other participants, a young woman who happened to be from Australia, was studying engineering, which is my profession.

The point of this long diversion from the writings of Michener is that we humans are still "tribal" in the best sense of that word. That kind of affinity is an absolutely necessary element in the social glue that keeps societies united and strong. By "society" I include everything from your neighborhood, city, state, and country; to your religion and philosophy; to your language group; your college, your corporation, your favorite sports, the teams you root for, and so on and on.

Furthermore, as that song from South Pacific reminds us:
You've got to be taught before it's too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight, ...
It is well known that the things you learn as a child, before your reasoning abilities develop, will become "imprinted" or "indoctrinated" in the very structure of your brain, to the point that it is very difficult to undo those beliefs with rational arguments.

In the case of many birds, the individual they see during a critical number of hours after their birth becomes "imprinted" as their "mother". Normally, they will see their actual biological mother during that critical time, and will follow her in particular, and, in general be attracted to birds of the same species, an evolutionary adaptation that strengthens the species.  However, if they happen to get "imprinted" with the image of a white-coated scientist, they will follow that person and others like him or her for the rest of their lives. As another example, each flock of birds has a particular variant of the species song that becomes "imprinted" early in a bird's life. If a bird of the same species, but a different flock, intrudes, it will be recognized as "foreign" and be chased away.

Human brains are much more complex than bird brains. Our "imprinting" or "indoctrination" period spans the first several years of our lives, and is not quite as permanent. However, everything we regularly experience during our early formative years becomes deeply embedded in our psyche. That includes positive values such as family loyalty, caring for helpless children, respect for parents and the elderly, a good work ethic, healthy eating and drinking habits, and so on. However, if young children are repeatedly exposed to spousal and child abuse, or bad eating and drinking habits, or lazy work habits, they are likely to repeat those destructive behaviors when they grow up.

Which brings us to racial (and ethnic) discrimination:
You've got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
people whose skin is a diff'rent shade, ...
Of course, even after your critical reasoning faculties have developed, you can still be taught to fear and hate people of different races, religions, and national origins.  However, if these destructive prejudices are learned after childhood, they may generally be unlearned by rational argument.

Ira Glickstein

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