James Michener’s long and earnest novels, which can come to well over 800 pages, have not been found worthy of even the most casual mention in serious studies of contemporary American fiction, and neither do they appear on college-literature reading lists. None of this has made a particle of difference to his readers: as the New York Times recently reported, with understandable awe, his books have sold twenty million copies and earned eight million dollars. Precisely because James Michener is one of the most phenomenally popular writers in America today, it is a challenge to account for the enormous appeal of historical tomes like Centennial, The Source, Chesapeake, Hawaii, and his latest, The Covenant.1 Why do they zoom to first place on the best-seller list the moment they appear, and stay there, immovable as Fort Knox, for month after gold-bearing month? What does this popularity tell us about the vagaries of popular taste and culture?
Michener’s panoramic chronicles are a very different breed of fiction from the classic schlock—by the likes of Sidney Sheldon, Harold Robbins, or Stephen King—that ordinarily hogs the best-seller list, for Michener’s novels are short on sex and long on facts. Though he enlivens and simplifies the dusty record of the past by means of invented characters, incidents, and dialogue, and has a canny respect for the allure of romance and melodrama, his plots are braced with a solid rigging of expert knowledge about the history, archeology, religion, language, geology, wildlife, agriculture, and specialized social and economic lore of the particular region—Afghanistan or Colorado, Israel or South Africa—that he stakes out for exploration and proceeds to conquer.
Saturated in information and local color, Michener’s novels overflow with an instructive abundance of scrupulously vetted dates, customs, and statistics. In his “Jewish” novel, The Source (1965), he takes a present-day archeological dig in the western Galilee as his point of departure, and inundates the reader with centuries of reenacted Jewish, Christian, and Muslim history, plus maps, population tables, and scientific drawings of objects unearthed from the ancient mound. In Michener’s current blockbuster, which moves at an unhurried pace through 15,000 years of South African history, the reader’s task is eased by archeological reports, genealogical charts, and a glossary of Afrikaans words “without which the narrative would lack verisimilitude.”
In the course of the centuries spanned in the novel, we soak up an enormous amount of historical detail about matters ranging from the way the tiny Bushmen who roamed southern Africa thousands of years ago hunted rhinoceros to the humiliation and suffering inflicted on individual lives by the laws enforcing apartheid today. As we progress from the earliest 17th-century Dutch settlements at the Cape of Good Hope, to the arrival and eventual domination of the English colonists, and on to the Great Trek of the Boers into the Transvaal and the devastation on both sides that accompanied the white migration into black tribal lands, Michener’s fidelity to the factual truth of these dramatic events is obviously beyond cavil.
As if anyone would dream of doubting the author’s reliability and industry, Michener informs us, in four dense pages of acknowledgments, that in the course of his research he journeyed five thousand miles from Cape Town to the Transvaal; descended into gold mines; inspected archeological sites; toured wildlife preserves; “made continuous effort to meet with and understand black spokesmen,” including several visits to Soweto without government watchdogs; and traveled extensively over the sites of the Xhosa and Zulu wars. And then the seventy-three-year old novelist went home and wrote The Covenant, which is almost 900 pages long. Who can fail to admire such energy?
It does not seem unreasonable, though, to wish that he had paid as close attention to his prose as he does to his facts. His style is either workhorse-monotonous or banal-portentous, particularly when he peers, as he unfortunately does rather often, into the telescope of hindsight for a rueful forecast of things to come. A 17th-century Dutch colonist, “staring down the long corridor of Cape history,” foresees the end of the Hottentots, and tears of compassion flood his eyes as he realizes that “white men and brown were destined to live their different lives, one the master, one the outcast, and any attempt to bridge the gap would forever be doomed by the characters of the persons involved.”
It is difficult, however, to discuss Michener’s literary quality because none of the usual terms of critical judgment can be usefully applied. All the axiomatic givens seem to have passed him by: no ambiguity, no irony, no paradox, no conceits. His narrative devices, often shamelessly contrived, would have been scorned by the late Victorians. In dividing his principal fictitious characters into three fecund families—the Afrikaner Van Doorns, the English Saltwoods, and the black Nxumalos—Michener crudely attempts to demonstrate continuity in the different strains of the South African experience. The various members of these families who turn up without fail in each era are in the main drawn with stencils to clarify their didactic function in the narrative—some are brave, others weak, this one bigoted, that one noble. Down the long corridor of history they march, conveniently entwined at every bend of fate by that ancient drudge, the long arm of coincidence. And, of course, the schematically neat design deprives them of any convincing individuality. It is not surprising that only the actual people who enter the story now and then, such as those flamboyant buccaneers of the Kimberley diamond fields, Cecil Rhodes and Barney Barnato, have any genuine idiosyncratic vitality, because in portraying them Michener can rely on his lifeline, the historical record, instead of his own pale and homiletic imaginings.
In trying to figure out the secret of Michener’s success, it is tempting to say that he is the ideal “middlebrow” novelist for a predominantly middlebrow culture whose typical reader is not in the least put off by his uninspired writing and characters or by his preachy habit of telling us how to think about the events he has transcribed with such diligent care. But Michener’s popularity is not limited to the United States; he has an enormous following in Europe, where he is apparently taken more seriously by critics than he is in his own country. (Maybe he reads better in translation.)
Michener’s novels would seem to be the perfect example of “mid-cult” in the categories of pop sociology that Dwight Macdonald proposed twenty years ago—those of masscult, midcult, and high culture. The difficulty here is that Macdonald confused three different aspects of the cultural issue: the taste of the audience, the intention of the writer, and the artistic quality of the work itself. Macdonald’s categories are suggestive, but they have to be used with caution. In recent years they have become much less helpful because writers themselves have been blurring the lines almost to the point of extinction.
Macdonald defined masscult as a parody of high art that was in essence anti-art and aimed only to please the crowd. But in the 60’s and beyond, in the heyday of the put-on, novelists belonging (at least in their own view) to high culture began to parody high art and its lofty aspirations, and embraced the mindlessness of mass culture (or pop-cult, as it came to be called) with defiant exhilaration. Writers like John Barth and Donald Barthelme turned the seriousness of traditional culture into a joke and ridiculed intellectual and sociological claims that any valid discriminations could be made about art or life. In the hands of the so-called “black humorists” like Bruce Jay Friedman and other absurdist birds of passage, up to and including Tom Robbins, the whole of American life serves as the butt of their quasi-nihilistic derision. By now, this form of literary chic has had its day, as the incoherent vulgarity of Joseph Heller’s Good as Gold makes dismally plain.
The essence of midcult writing, in Macdonald’s view, was the grandiose pretensions to be found in such work as Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, any novel by James Gould Cozzens, and Archibald MacLeish’s play J.B. The archetypical midcult profundity, in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, averred that. “There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.” Today such pretentiousness has become endemic in the work of all sorts of novelists taken with immense seriousness by people who should know better. In the 60’s and 70’s, many middlebrow writers, caught up in the political frenzy of those decades, tried to “deepen” their stories not with eternal verities but with radical pieties. E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime and Loon Lake are typical of this shift in midcult, with their exhausted attempts at stylistic experiment and their sentimental nostalgia for a noble past when the class struggle could still inflame the hearts of men. In the critical inflation of “serious” fiction, Doctorow, who in Macdonald’s scheme would have belonged among midcult writers, is taken for a highbrow novelist.
Where does all this leave a writer like James Michener? He does not fit into Macdonald’s midcult category since he does not imitate serious literary art, nor does he present himself and his work as part of high culture. His objective is the factually meticulous transcription of the past in easily comprehensible form, and if he does harbor any pretensions, they are aimed not at the tone and manner of literary artists but at the intellectual authority of the historian. It is in the appeal to his multitudes of readers, who do not think of themselves as consumers of high art, that Michener’s quintessential middlebrowness can be found.
Like all historical novels, Michener’s The Covenant mingles the real and fictitious, but the author’s obsession with accuracy even in the minutest trivia—how much did Cecil Rhodes pay Barney Barnato for his rights in the diamond mines (£5,338,650) and what did Lord Roberts, an English general in the Boer War, look like (five-feet-four, 123 pounds, blind in one eye)—and his determination to provide his readers with a flawlessly correct account of what actually happened in peace and war suggest that he regards himself as a teacher even more than a novelist.
It seems doubtful that most of the thousands shelling out $15.95 for The Covenant have a passionate curiosity about the history of South Africa. What perhaps draws them to Michener’s magnet is the thought that they are getting solid value for their money and learning a great deal without arduous intellectual effort. It is the unequivocal certainty that one can trust Michener to deliver the goods, that his facts, significant or trivial, are always right, that may in large part account for his stature among people hungry for authenticity. He knows this well, and to nip any doubts straight off—as though anyone would dare!—Michener confides, in an extraordinary note to The Covenant, that he read through the entire manuscript “with a distinguished South African editor and journalist” seven times, twice aloud, “to clarify historical and social factors which an outsider might misinterpret, to correct verbal usage, to verify data difficult to check.” Staggering though such Herculean labor in pursuit of accuracy may be, a nagging question pops up: why should it matter so much to a novelist?
It is as though Michener takes with astonishing literalness Mary McCarthy’s observation that “the distinctive mark of the novel is its concern with the actual world, the world of fact, of the verifiable, of figures, even, and statistics.” But the literalness of fact or the indisputable transcription of historical events, even for the sake of verisimilitude, pales beside the novelist’s art. What punctilious exposition of the facts can compare with the richly expressive portrayal of revolutionary motives and the shadow world of anarchist conspiracy that one finds in James’s The Princess Casamassima and Conrad’s The Secret Agent} In the preface to his novel, James claimed that he did no research for his story of anarchist politics. As it happens, his guesswork was inspired, but this does not alter the truth of his argument that “if you haven’t, for fiction, the root of the matter in you, haven’t the sense of life and the penetrating imagination, you are a fool in the very presence of the revealed and assured.”
For the true novelist, imagination does the work of the literal, and does it more competently. Even in such popular historical fiction as Robert Graves’s I, Claudius and Mary Renault’s The Last of the Wine, there is no attempt to demonstrate beyond all possible doubt that the stories adhere faithfully to the record. Novelists can plunder the past for their transfigurations of reality, but they need not, and should not, revere it. So what if Graves took the most high-handed liberties in his account of imperial Rome? He brought Augustus and Claudius and their attendant vipers to a high pitch of psychological and dramatic power, and even pedants must acknowledge that he did not violate history, he transcended it. This does not happen in The Covenant, which is too “authentic” for its own good.
To be fair, let us admit that there is nothing much to be gained from comparing James Michener with novelists of a kind he has never pretended to be. His shortcomings of style and characterization, the stilted dialogue, the sentimental indulgence in what-might-have-been if at some point in those 15,000 years someone had been farsighted enough to act in a way that would, as he likes to put it, “have altered the course of history”—why hit Michener over the head with all this when he modestly refuses to inflate his talents? Though one might wish his devices less simplistic, it is surely not dishonorable that along with all the self-improving information he offers his readers, he tries to improve their hearts as well by exposing, as he has done in many of his books, the torment and destruction caused by racial intolerance and religious bigotry.
What is not at all creditable, however, is his urge to reinforce the soggy liberal optimism of his middlebrow audience, not because he panders to its craving for reassurance in a confusing and heartless world, but because he shares its values and attitudes so completely. To allow that the burden of history’s lessons may be anything but comforting—that the triumph of reason and justice is far from inevitable—goes against the grain of the sort of middlebrow entertainment that resists any threat to the bright side. In the concluding pages of The Source, after the Israeli archeologist and the Arab archeologist have exchanged bitter words about the Palestinians, Michener reaches instinctively for the silver lining. After all, declares the wise Israeli, Arab and Jew are not all that far apart, since they both believe in “the same partnership of God, and a particular land, and a chosen people. We’re very old brothers . . . and in the future we shall meet many times, for we understand each other.”
In The Covenant, perhaps because the problematic uncertainties of South Africa’s future lend themselves so easily to prophecies of doom, Michener sounds his customary note of hope more cautiously. He brings his own political commentary into the final chapter in the voice of an American geologist, Philip Smallwood, who makes a valiant effort to be objective and fair-minded to all sides. Though he is appalled by the gun-toting intransigence of the Afrikaner Nationalists and the monstrous injustice of apartheid, nonetheless he can foresee a time in which “a grand coalition of black capacity, Colored adaptability, English skill, and Afrikaner force could forge a nation that would be one of the most powerful on earth . . . with a way of life that most other people would envy.” None of Michener’s facts lends any credence to this sanguine vision, and it is ironic that in the end all that labor to get things right counts for less than the need to end on an upbeat.
What, then, are these hefty tomes of Michener’s, since they are not really novels and not really history, not genuine art nor awful kitsch? If we lift our eyes from the printed page to the brightly lit television screen, it is apparent that they are “docudramas,” the fictional equivalent of Roots, Holocaust, and Shogun (the last advertised by the network as a “TV novel”). Like the TV docudramas, his books convey the sweep of history through its high moments, enacted in simple, dramatic, pictorially vivid scenes whose moral and meaning are immediately and unambiguously clear. A great, or even serious, novel, as we have seen repeatedly, cannot be translated into a movie or television special because the visual form works through images, and the serious novel works through language. Novels have to be read. No such obstacles face television in assimilating the fact/fiction of a Michener. In the end, the printed docudrama and its TV version are interchangeable. One might almost say that they were literally made for each other. What we have here is a new genre of the information age.
1 Random House, 874 pp., $15.95.