James A Michener: Caribbean, etc.

Columbus sets off for the new world

Michener the traveler and teacher.

Members of our local readers group each chose a modern novelist. My choice was James A Michener. The book we were assigned was Caribbean, one of many I hadnt yet read.

I would say, tho, that Michener is not primarily for stay-at-homes like me. Michener is firstly for those, who want to learn about the world and its peoples, by travel. Apart from academic or official reports, the writing, on which his fame depends, didnt begin till middle age.

Also, he listened to any number of stories from people he met all over the world. He still had to practise the art of popular fiction but he had the advantage of really knowing what he was talking about.
After all, new knowledge comes from personal experience and sharing experiences with others. It doesnt come from reading this book review, which only hopes to point some reader in the right direction for him or her.

Anyone, who wants to be an inquisitive traveler like Michener, can learn from his life-story, The World Is My Home. Presumably, they would try, first, one of his novels about a country they are most interested in, to see if they find them readable.

All I can say is that Michener's writings would have been invaluable to me as a social science student - had I known about them; had they all been written and had I not let on, to my sociology teachers, that my new-found erudition was coming from 'literature'.
Of course, Michener was a professor but his novels would have been regarded as moon-lighting.

Moreover, sociologists liked to distinguish themselves from historians. And Michener, despite his social insights, might have provoked a demarcation dispute. This did happen, in my student days, when I tried to champion H G Wells, as a sociologist.
Wells and Michener, also, have their individual outlooks on the world and standards by which they measure human achievements and failures.
There didnt seem to be any purpose in the academic abandonment of purpose for 'value-neutral' or 'value-free' studies.

In fairness, I should add that there were empirical works of sociology that I could have enjoyed had I taken the trouble to find them. Nine-tenths of set books may not make great reading. But that is usually true of any category of literature, whether meant to inform or entertain - not to mention my own writings.


The Fires of Spring is a not entirely successful early novel. Otherwise, Michener goes on and on being readable. He is not so reviewable. In paper-back, some of his novels clear 1000 pages of close print. Consider Caribbean. The hard-back copy is 672 fairly large pages of fairly small print.
This works out at sixteen stories or novellas averaging 40 pages. Many are linked thru national and family traditions. Some characters have their story completed in another tale.

The genre, known as 'faction' may not be regarded as respectable scholarship by all academics. But Michener observes the highest standards. Caribbean begins with a note on 'Fact and Fiction', separating the two. We are told who the real persons and fictitious characters are. He also tells us when he has speculated on the activities of a historical figure.
Every care is taken to get his facts right. In The World Is My Home, he admits ruefully to a few errors, in his novels, that escaped the checking by experts and got into print, to be pointed-out by readers.

The weakest chapter is the one where the scholarship is weakest. That is not Michener's fault. As he says, nearly all the records of pre-Columban civilization were destroyed by the conquerors. We know that the astronomical calculations of the Maya were superior to those of their invaders.
Michener's story seems to treat the Mayan astronomer priests as academic devotees of pure science. Recent controversial study suggests an astrological interest in the heavens had a fatalistic influence on their history and attitude to the European explorers.

Michener wouldnt dream of writing about somewhere he hadnt been. No 'pure' scientist, himself, his descriptions of the ancient temples include judgements on how religious decline is reflected in the art.
Michener slipped a fictitious woman prophet, into his novel of Judaism, The Source. Here again paying his respects to women, a girl mathematical genius covertly does the calculations beyond the male inheritor of the task.

He gives her lineage the credit of being above the degradation of a religion corrupted by barbarians. However, there are growing claims about how global the practise of cannibalism and sacrificial rites were.
Sigmund Freud's amateur anthropology of Totem and Tabu has been derided. But his guilt psychology may contain an insight into a gruesome legacy from human pre-history.

So far, Ive reviewed one story ( the worst ) out of sixteen, in one of about thirty Michener novels. That is the scale of his work. I shall go on reading, not reviewing them.

Caribbean, like his other works, wouldnt be readable if he didnt like people, for all their faults. Despite all the greed, corruption, exploitation and oppression, you still are interested in the fates of the characters. They are limited by their situations but usually have redeeming traits.

In the conflicts of nations, Michener shows no partisanship. Only in the interests of good government, does he point out the weaknesses and strengths of their systems.
He is a good observer of the fact that individuals themselves are a battlefield of good and evil. The official investigation into the rule of Columbus in Hispaniola is a back-and-forth conflict of witnesses. His impositions are set-off against his ordeals. This character-searching is an essential reason why Michener's novels are so absorbing.

In extreme cases, there is an indecent promiscuity of good and evil in the same person. Michener shows a most unacademic loathing for the character whose hero is his ego.

In the Guadeloupe story, Victor Hugues was a very able historical figure who did much good and more evil, as it served his turn. Detestable, tho he no doubt was, he was after all a small-fry careerist, compared to his later master, Napoleon. ( H G Wells' chapter, in The Outline of History, is aptly called: The career of Napoleon Bonaparte. )

In the Haiti story, Michener detected the immoral nature of Bonaparte, in his treachery towards Toussaint L'Ouverture.
The black slave over-throwers themselves were to become despotic and corrupt, to the last degree. Even the evidence of zombies, intriguingly told, is an accusing relic of African slavery.

The formative years, of Napoleon's repeated foil, were partly spent in the Caribbean. They are related in chapter eight.
Young Nelson's priggish aggression, for protocol and unworkable laws makes him a terror, as much to his own government as to the French and American colonists. He is snobbish and calculating in seeking a marriage alliance to further his career of patriotic glory. This rebounded on him, as he deserved, and was to leave his romantic nature prey to an affair.

Beyond the conventions, he lacks moral insight. Nothing, that is, beyond an evident freedom from fear and frenzied belief in his destiny and daring ability to inspire others, in his commands, therewith. He is England's real patron saint.

The Caribbean exploits of his predecessors, Drake and Hawkins prove worth the re-telling. Hawkins comes out as much the better man. Drake's fame has out-lasted his follies - for Englishmen.

Unheroic careerists, who see no further than their own opportunities, seem to particularly afflict the running to ruin of the modern world.
Occasionally, Michener's novels turn out the female careerist. Her charms exploit men, she has no genuine interest in, except to advance herself. Equal opportunities being denied, this is the traditional recourse of the ambitious woman.

It is tempting to stop at that moral but this would be unjust to the variety of human interest in Caribbean, a typical Michener product, in this respect. This is the more so, when you consider it is the work of an old man. Note his generous sympathy, without sentimentality, for teenage first love and the unsuspected wisdom and humanity of the inquisitorial priest, towards it.
This is all the more remarkable, considering Michener knew neither parents nor children of his own: he was an orphan, rendered sterile by an illness.

( Later stories show relationships between the various human groups, failing or succeeding, but again with the same warmth of good-will, which imaginatively shares their inner-most hopes and needs, as if they were his own. )

The tragi-comedy of two small groups, at odds by nation, religion and class, trying to keep apart two star-crossed young lovers is in the story about Buccaneers. Their crews elected - and re-elected their captain, as they saw fit. Michener makes a sly democratic comedy - but not an anti-democratic comedy - of this.

A lesser writer would have scored some cheap points against democracy. Michener makes democracy, on board, funny and fallible. He also shows, without lecturing the attentive reader, that this flexibility can be a gain.

The apprentice navigator opines that the English method of captaincy is the best. Captains should be absolute rulers, who know that if they sink the ship, they'll have to go down with it.
Unfortunately, this anticipation of evolution by natural selection is flawed. The incompetant captain also will sink potentially able people, rendered helpless by the autocracy.
An ordinary seaman was so concerned that his ship was off-course, that he dared to advise the captain, and was hanged for insubordination. The consequences were dreadful. This mishap begins Dava Sobel's best-seller, Longtitude.

So, the buccaneers' 'parliamentary' institutions had positive value. Civilization must supplement natural selection with popular election.

Michener gives an honest account of the state of humanity and inhumanity between national rivals, such as the Spanish and the English. But the writer doesnt parade his feelings, like a ritual mourner, at every further atrocity.

Michener is a moralist but always in the context of an informed discussion. And always there is an appeal to the reader's imagination from the constant supply of geographical and historical settings, which dont seep thru into this review.

The chapter on martial law, in Jamaica against a slave rampage, is one I actually know a little about, having read Mill's autobiography. When the excesses of Governor Eyre's martial law were finally rewarded by a handsome pension, Mill was so disgusted he vowed never again to support the Liberal government.

M. St J. Packe's standard biography, The Life of John Stuart Mill gives a typically satirical account of the incident. With all the sense of humor and imagination lacking in its subject, this pains-takingly researched book is a fitting tribute to the great man.

But Michener's novel makes the reader realise just how excessive those excesses in Jamaica were. At the same time, he gives a judicious picture of the extent and limits of Eyre's involvement. One feels that had Michener been alive at the time, his diplomacy would have been equal to visiting the pro- and anti-Eyre camps, as his eye-witness character does.

By a slip of the pen, this character is made to address Mill as 'Professor'. Michener knew perfectly well that Mill only taught personally his younger siblings. Tho, such teachings were carried to lengths almost as heroic as his own learning schedule from infancy.

This chapter is just one example, in Caribbean of the writer's short-story telling skill, lulling the reader into a settled opinion, which he is then shaken out of.

The last five stories reach Michener's lifetime and are told with the assurance of one who knows and has felt times, when they could have turned out differently. He invents an isle, called All Saints. This phantom is even fictiously placed on a map of the Caribbean. Socially, it is race- and class-riddled, a genteel left-over of the old order. Tho, things are not quite as they seem. Also, cricket is beginning to promote inter-national ties of sportsmanship.

In this tale, even the Germans get a look-in, after stories on the various European sea-faring nations, including the Dutch traders and freebooters or 'privateers', and the Danes with their draconian slave-laws. The Graf Spee enters All Saints harbor, making the occasional flag-showing visit by a British destroyer, in comparison, 'laughable'.

Immigrants to Trinidad from India, thrifty, hard-working shop-keepers, who were almost substitute slaves, are not forgotten. A gifted but naive scholar falls foul of US immigration law.
A rastafarian meets the law head-on.
Even Fidel Castro gets his say, as do the Cuban refugees to Florida, who hate him or anyone of their own people associated with him.

Caribbean ends with an academics' cruise round 'the golden sea'. ( Learning by companionable travel perhaps is the author's idea of paradise. ) After heart-searching and indecision, a scholarly love-match is made.

Richard Lung

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