Image Credit: C.P. Vaughn, Portrait of James A. Michener, n.d., pencil and charcoal on paper, H. 24.625 x W. 20.625 inches, James A. Michener Art Museum. Museum purchase.
About James A. Michener
James A. Michener was the Pulitzer-Prize winning writer who first dreamed of a regional art museum in the early 1960s. He was born February 3, 1907, New York, New York and died October 16, 1997, Austin, Texas.
James Michener was an author of novels, short fiction, and nonfiction, much of which was based on his extensive research and travel. He sold more than 75 million books and is considered one of the most prolific and popular writers of the 20 century. His most popular novels, such as Hawaii, Centennial, Texas, and Chesapeake, were constructed as epics, tracing the history of a region from primordial times to the recent past. Typically, Michener focused on a few families, exploring their place among the region’s different cultures and the impact of major historical events upon them. Establishing this pattern, Michener’s first work of fiction, Tales of the South Pacific, drew on the research he had done as a naval historian during World War II. This set of short stories earned Michener a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1948 and served as the model for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s popular musical, South Pacific. Much of the author’s nonfiction, such as books about Japanese art, and political memoirs, likewise drew on his travels. He taught cultural diversity.
Michener was also actively involved in public service. He ran for Congress from Bucks County in 1962, served as Secretary of the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention from 1967 to 1968, and advised the government on issues ranging from the space program to postage stamps. Michener gave away more than $100 million to museums, schools, libraries and other institutions, including the James A. Michener Art Museum. In 2007, the Museum commemorated the 100th anniversary of Michener’s birth with the exhibition James A. Michener: Traveler/Citizen/Writer.
Both his Quaker heritage and his own impoverished youth led Michener to a remarkable “second” career in philanthropy. A lifelong supporter of the arts, he and his wife donated more than $117 million to universities, libraries and museums. When it was proposed that the former Bucks County Jail in Doylestown be transformed into a museum site, Michener agreed to lend his name to the project that would become—with extensive renovation and rebuilding—the James A. Michener Arts Center, which opened to the public in 1988. It was later renamed the James A. Michener Art Museum. Michener donated $1 million as the first endowment gift, and continued to provide endowment gifts for the rest of his life.
“James Michener seems to me a true American classic–his enormous success has not hardened his heart but seems to have had quite the reverse effect upon him. Surely he has touched every man, woman and child in the United States over the decades.” –Joyce Carol Oates
When you first enter the James A. Michener Art Museum you will see the James A. Michener: A Living Legacy exhibit. This permanent exhibit recreates James A. Michener’s Bucks County office where he wrote Tales of the South Pacific. This room features the desk, chair, typewriter, dictionary and other objects from the office in Michener’s Bucks County home where he lived and worked for more than 35 years. It was at this desk that he wrote some of his best-known fiction and non-fiction works, including Sayonara, The Floating World, Caravans, and Sports in America. Other objects on this desk include two autographed baseballs from the Baltimore Orioles, a dog license issued in 1965 for his 9-year-old terrier, his Gypsy Witch, Fortune Telling Playing Cards, and his Doylestown High School T-Shirt.
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- If you were to create your own “Living Legacy” exhibition, what would it look like and what would you include? What photos, memorabilia, collections, awards or work would you put on display? Choose 5-10 important objects that represent your “legacy” and design this exhibit. Use a program such as SketchUp to create a three-dimensional rendering of it. Create text panels to explain the significance of each object.
- Michener traveled to many of the locations of the books he wrote during his career as a writer. Is there a place you would like to travel to? Where would that be? Write about this place as if you were a travel guide – describe its geographical characteristics, its history, the language, specific notable sites worth visiting, and some information about it’s cuisine.