James A. Michener, a prolific author whose best-selling works ranged from poignant and compassionate stories of men and women in love and war to weighty novels spanning centuries and millennia while combining fiction and historical fact, died yesterday of kidney failure at his home in Austin. He was 90.
Michener was 40 before he wrote his first book, "Tales of the South Pacific," but it made an immediate and lasting impact. It won the 1948 Pulitzer Prize for literature and became the basis for the hit musical "South Pacific," by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. The show, starring Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza, ran on Broadway for more than five years beginning in 1949, and it included some of the most popular music of the post-World War II era.
Michener also wrote travel articles, essays, novellas and short stories. But he became best known as a specialist in narrative epics that dramatized the social and political evolution of nations and regions as experienced over generations by real and imaginary participants, a technique he first developed with his 1959 bestseller, "Hawaii."
In that novel, Michener traced the history of the Hawaiian islands from their earliest geological formations through the arrivals of diverse immigrants from Polynesia, Japan, the Philippines, the Asian mainland and the United States.
Published only months after Hawaii was granted statehood in August 1959, the book was praised by reviewers as a superlative account of the amalgamation of dissimilar people into an integrated society. It also provided Michener with a formula that he followed to varying degrees with such subsequent bestsellers as "The Source," a 1965 novel covering 12,000 years of successive civilizations in Israel; "Centennial," a 1974 novel about Colorado; "Chesapeake" (1978); "Poland" (1983); "Texas" (1986); Alaska" (1988); and "Caribbean" (1989).
Those books and others earned Michener a reputation as a gifted storyteller with a panoramic vision, an eye for detail and a capacity for painstaking research. He was a solid craftsman but not an eloquent literary stylist, and some critics said his characters lacked dimension. He was, nevertheless, one of America's all-time best-selling authors, with more than 50 million books in print.
It was his World War II experience in the Navy that gave Michener the idea for "Tales of the South Pacific," a collection of 18 loosely linked stories about U.S. Marines, Seabees, nurses and native islanders of the South Pacific during the war. Royalties from the Broadway musical and a 1958 film adaptation of his story made him independently wealthy and permitted him to devote himself full time to writing.
"I have only one bit of advice to the beginning writer: Be sure your novel is read by Rodgers and Hammerstein," he later told a friend and colleague, A. Grove Day.
His second novel, "The Fires of Spring," published in 1949, was a critical disappointment, partly because of the high level of expectation after "Tales of the South Pacific." It told the story of a creative artist's search for identity and included many autobiographical details, including attendance at a Quaker College and traveling with a tent show.
After a series of short stories and essays combined in a 1951 book, "Return to Paradise," as well as travel articles and features about the Pacific and Far East, Michener wrote an immensely popular novella, "The Bridges at Toko-ri," which later became a hit movie starring William Holden. Initially, the story appeared in Life magazine in the summer of 1953, and it later was released in book form. It was about a Navy jet pilot and his family during the Korean War. The pilot is killed after completing a mission to destroy four vital bridges.
Michener's next book, "Sayonara," published in 1954, was a tender and compassionate story of the ill-fated love of a U.S. Air Force officer for a beautiful young Japanese woman during the Korean War. It, too, became a popular movie, starring Marlon Brando.
Among Michener's other works adapted for film were the short stories "Until They Sail" and "Mr. Morgan" (from "Return to Paradise"). His novel "Hawaii" was made into two films, "Hawaii," and "Hawaiians," both released by United Artists. "Centennial" was adapted for television in the 1978-79 season. "Space," Michener's best-selling 1982 novel about the U.S. space program, became a television miniseries in 1985.
Born on Feb. 3, 1907, in New York, Michener was taken as an infant to an orphanage in Bucks County, Pa., where he later was raised by Quaker foster parents, Edwin and Mabel Michener, whose surname he took. He was an avid reader as a youth, and at the age of 15, he hitchhiked and rode boxcars across the United States.
He won a $2,000 scholarship to Swarthmore College, where he graduated summa cum laude in 1929 with a degree in English literature. In 1984, declaring that he had always considered the scholarship "a loan against future earnings," Michener gave Swarthmore $2 million as repayment.
After college, he taught for two years at the Hill School in Pottstown, Pa., then in 1931 won a fellowship to study and travel in Europe. In this period, he worked as a chart corrector aboard a coal carrier in the Mediterranean, studied at St. Andrews University in Scotland, spent a winter in the Outer Hebrides collecting folk songs and studied Italian art in Siena and at the British Museum in London.
In 1933, Michener returned to the United States, taught three years at the George School in Newtown, Pa., then taught for five years at Colorado State College of Education at Greeley. In 1940, he served as a visiting professor of history at Harvard's School of Education.
He wrote several scholarly articles for professional journals, work that he found unrewarding, he would later say, except that it taught him what many authors never learn, "how to explain something so that somebody else can understand it."
When the United States entered World War II, Michener was working as an editor in the education division of the Macmillan publishing house in New York. He enlisted in the Navy and was assigned to the South Pacific, initially as a keeper of records on naval aircraft maintenance and later as a naval historian. Both assignments required travel from island to island, and he recorded his impressions as he went.
Near the end of the war, Michener went off by himself to one of the smaller islands, where he began writing fictional vignettes based on his experiences. He offered his manuscript to Macmillan after leaving the Navy, and the stories were published as "Tales of the South Pacific" in 1947.
During the 1950s and into the early 1960s, Michener continued to set much of his writing in the Pacific and Far East. He lived in Hawaii for much of this time, accumulating material for "Hawaii," but he also traveled extensively. He went to Europe at the time of the Hungarian uprising in the fall of 1956, and a year later, he published "The Bridge at Andau," a dramatic account of the escape of 20,000 Hungarian refugees across the bridge at Andau, Austria, during the uprising.
He became involved in national politics during the 1960 presidential campaign of John F. Kennedy, then wrote about his experience in "Report of the County Chairman," an account of national politics at the local level and of Michener's work as manager of the Kennedy campaign in Bucks County, Pa.
Americans and their experiences in far-off and exotic lands were among Michener's favorite subjects. He wrote about them in "Caravans," a 1963 novel based on a trip to Afghanistan several years earlier; "The Drifters," a 1971 novel about the wanderings and lifestyles of six alienated young people, three of them from the United States; and "Iberia: Spanish Travels and Reflections," a 1968 book based upon Michener's own many visits to Spain since his student days of the 1930s. With the aid of a large staff from Reader's Digest, he wrote about the killing of four students by Ohio National Guardsmen during a 1970 anti-war protest, "Kent State: What Happened and Why" (1971). A 1980 novel about the history and development of race relations in South Africa, "The Covenant," was criticized as lacking the crispness of some of his earlier work.
"I don't think the way I write books is the best or even second best," Michener once said. "The really great writers are people like Emily Bronte, who sit in a room and write out of their limited experience and unlimited imagination. But people in my position also do some very good work." Michener's marriages to the former Patti Koon and Vange Nord ended in divorce. In 1955, he married Mari Yoriko Sabusawa. She died in 1994. CAPTION: JAMES A. MICHENER