thumbnail of In Person; James Michener
Hide -
If this transcript has significant errors that should be corrected, let us know, so we can add it to FIX IT+
In person is brought the Marylanders regrets by Waverley press incorporated the Williams and Wilkins company and the members of the Marlon Sutter for Public Broadcasting. This is Maryland's Eastern Shore on the bay side. This water here leads right into the Chesapeake Bay in 1927 a young Swarthmore student came down from Pennsylvania and sailed these waters for the first time. His interest in the area grew over the years and ultimately he wrote a novel about it. Of course by then he was an internationally admired author so his book called Chesapeake was a mere addition to what was already a list of award winning publications in person. James Michener. James Michener was a foundling and was raised in Pennsylvania by a foster mother Mabel
Michener. He and the first four year scholarship granted by Swarthmore and went on to study at nine other universities before settling down to a career as a teacher a merchant mariner and a textbook editor. He didn't turn to writing as a profession until he was 40. But he's surely made up for the delay since then. Jim I understand that the first manuscript you sold was submitted under the name David Harper now. How did that happen. I worked for a publishing company in New York and they had an ironclad rule that they would not publish any manuscript written by one of their employees. So I sent mine a poem and it was accepted. And when they found out who I was they are rather irritated. And that was the only manuscript I ever published with that company. Well they did publish it and they did and it won the Pulitzer Prize for them so they were happy they relaxed their attitude later where you were and
you weren't a spring chicken then at age 40 taking up a writing career what was your teaching career like early on did you enjoy that. I did. I think teaching is a marvelous profession. I think those of us who can do it ought to do it. I had great fun in my career. I taught some wonderful students and a wide variety of places and hope that I made a contribution. What made you switch from English to history when you were 28 years old. You know I need grew up strictly in English. I taught English for a while and then when I was 28 I stopped abruptly and went back to college. Almost three educate myself in history. I did it I think because I felt too restrictive. It was too close a corporation. I didn't want to spend my life and that the smaller.
There one would assume that the new I had in their version to all kinds of closeness by the time you left high school as I understand it you had visited all but three of the then 48 United States how on earth does it as a youngster of that age do all that. I wouldn't say that I ran away from home but actually I lived in a. Oh it was a broken part of the time and was rather natural for me to get out on the road it was very easy to do that. We're talking about 1920s I guess what it had to do it. Hitchhike. I never rode boxcars. I don't think I had the courage to do that I was there a bit of a dick the brave man that scared me. But it had sight of the thought that in those days people were proud of their automobiles. Only the wealthier people in town had them. How would you eat a bumming pretty much you know. I would often Rick relate in those years I leave home with a dollar
28. Go down to Florida without any hesitation whatever. I remember once coming home from Detroit with others with less than a dollar. But you could get handouts in restaurants or you could work a little present will God you know. I wore clean clothes and I like to talk with people and they want to invite me to have dinner with them. Just a wonder lasts I don't know what drove me wanderlust and all that is the right word I think I was sort of expelled from where I was. You get that same mad to get that same travel feeling when you join the merchant marine the British my canary. Well that was one of the high points and you've done all kinds of things I would suppose. So my wife and I are ready to take a trip around the world on five hours notice all the time. No probably just get up and go.
Life is that way. Things happen. Some years ago I was asked by President Ford to be an ambassador or two at a fair and open ended. We had. 14 hours notice. Leave here and go to Japan. We went. I I just love the world I love all the whole experience. When you were young. I read that you developed two ideas one having to do with resources and the other having to do with workforces What were those ideas and how young were you when you reach those goals. I had a belief that the average human being never has more than two or three original ideas in his life time. They better be good. Mine were profound I was lucky enough to see at a very early age that the world was finite that we have only so much water so much gas so much coal so much air so much space
only so many nations can exist only so many people can exist on the world. And I have never deviated from that. The other idea was a social one and I adhere to it now more than I did when I first realized it. And that is that the most expensive commodity a nation can have. It is a cheap labor force. If you're going to hire these people who work with you for a dollar and a quarter a debt you're destroying yourself. Now what's the process what's the subtle because unless you pay them money then you can't tax them unless they have a share and the movement they aren't going to stay with it. As a breeder revolution if you don't if you don't distribute your goods well enough I think that taxes are the fees we've paid to buy off the revolution. Your you have a very good job you're a college professor you have you get a job there in the
salary. OK part of that had better go to buying off the dissent from people less fortunate than yourself. I pay huge taxes and it's very good for me that I do. You sound as if you come from a democracy and as if you believe in it and said something about populations once and of course the division is artificial and I'll grant you that. You said 70 percent of the people are educated via television. Oh yeah 30 percent are educated in the traditional manner with books yes. Where do our leaders come from from which a bracket. First of all I believe this thoroughly. I believe it for the future. We're seeing it right now though I think about 70 percent of our people can be educated by popular forums without going through the college routine. If they do go through the college would see that it will be in any great depth.
As you know that leaves 30 percent who I believe will be educated in the traditional Aristotelian Socratic method of question and their answer and research and the study of what people have done in the past and they are absolutely essential right. I sometimes say that I cannot conceive of a society which could have a good sewer system unless it had some people in the society who had been trained as engineers. Do our best people run for office. No I don't think so. Now why is that. Well now by best people we have to modify that somewhat. I do think that the people who do run for office are the best and the charismatic manipulative feel. I think they're very good indeed. And a democracy is that manipulative Well necessary. Yes I think it's inescapable. I think that we warn our leaders to have certain qualifications and a supreme brainpower is not one of them. We want other things. And therefore
a man like Einstein or. A radical thinker like open Homer or somebody like Charles Beard cannot be elected to public office and maybe they shouldn't be. Maybe our leadership should always be somebody like Franklin Roosevelt or Dwight Eisenhower. Neither man I think of for a supreme intellectual of today the 30 percent or the 70 or 70 percent. They they were educated in. The grab bag of popular experience street smart very able managers men of good character. I think you can do that without ever having gone to college. I read recently and I'm sorry I can't read the name of a philosopher. That day in our country we seem to be struggling for one of two alternatives either no schools at all or schools for everyone in which nobody gets educated. Now you've said that some people simply don't belong in the schools is that is that
is that is that fit in a device you know if I'm worried about any one thing Rick it is the decline of our educational system in both elementary school and high school and also in the many colleges where the whole thing has been deteriorated. I read of of a graduating class of which over 60 percent of people got straight A's. But all that means is that A doesn't mean anything. It doesn't mean a day that I got when I was at Swarthmore which is a very rigorous school. Or the University of Pennsylvania or Harvard they didn't get out A's like playing. You're a tough teacher to which I was taught every grade level from a from the kindergarten to two years beyond the Ph.D. and the wide variety of areas. I love that I was a tough teacher told students to write high standards of both departments and performance and
I would try to do it again today but I don't think I would be acceptable in a in a Baltimore or Washington High School. I don't think the kids would permit that. Oh I would insist that they write papers I would insist that they use the library. I would insist that they come in the school with ideas that had been at least passed through the brain not just lying on the counter and picked up for the moment. Can you teach writing. I don't want to teach writing. I don't think so. I think there have been several people. Like. White's. And. Baker at Harvard. Strong Cornell I believe it was a gentleman down in Alabama who are very good if they got somebody who already had capacity. They showed him how to use that capacity better talent. I doubt that they ever got generalised.
I don't think there were generated. I don't think that can be done so I don't think writing can be taught. I think it can be improved. Interesting that you and I think you once said that any any authentic person who is going to be a writer will probably break all the rules in the book. Yes and yet all we can really teach are the rules. Yes. Is there a dearth of young writers now. No I think America is in a rather rich posture particularly when our young women people like Joyce Carol Oates and Joan Didion and and Rice who wrote the dialogue the interview with a. Vampire and so on. I think these are people then in the men's field bellow and. Updike Alamuddin Roth where the training grounds that you had all those magazines you sent manuscripts to do you know if I were a young fellow in Baltimore today in Washington the suburbs trying to become a writer I don't know how I would go because in my day you had do you know 15
20 magazines that were publishing short stories that was the tradition you get published in Collier's you get published and Saturday Evening Post and everybody said gee there's a talent that wants that kid because he's going to be pretty good. And then they came to you to write books with me all of the guys that even post not to publish a common sense of them. But now where are those where is college. Where is Woman's Home Companion all the magazines I started with are down the two. About all those wonderful westerns and mystery stories too they all done. I don't think there's a need for a serial magazine publications westerns and zeroes I think. Television does a much better so I know our profession has changed totally. I'm sometimes hard put to it to keep up with him. Well you're a writer you're a historian you're also a journalist. 1059 I think it was you suggested that maybe a writer wouldn't make a good elected
official. And in 62 you ran for Congress in a very Republican district as I as I understand it. What brought about that's that switch in and kind of place. Well like many writers I'm fascinated with processes. Today watching you at work and watching everything you do and you get these people here how to set the lights how do you how do you do your job. I think writers are people who are fascinated with with the way the world works. And the more you are of that turn of mind the more you're thrown in the politics. I have enormous respect. I can think of sister you know 20 million in the Congress of Washington that I would like to be and I would sacrifice quite a few of my books to be one of them and I would not in my head rottenness and ran the process and I don't gauge in that yes you know in the decision making. Was it brutal for you was it painful. I know it's always painful to lose an election but did you
stand a chance to win. And retrospect I didn't have much chance but I didn't know it at the time I deluded myself what a marvelous experience. Never regretted it. Was bitterly disappointed when I lost and then subsequently I ran for three or four other offices and won so I rewriting Pennsylvania's Constitution. I was one of the Democratic leaders and rewriting the constitution of the survey. I would think that's the best piece of writing I've done in my life. I think it means more I think it's the heavier responsibility. I'm awfully glad I took the two that I took two years out just just dropped everything. It took nine months I have to do the Kent State reporting to tell me about the personality of America has it has it changed. I think we're in a downward sweep of a trough right now.
We're in some trouble. The presumption is we will rise on the cross that will be on the top of the wave again in five or six or seven years I certainly think so. We used to have a tradition of exploring and adventure especially when our western borders were just being opened. Do we still have it. Well we obviously don't have the funds here that we can set up there. Now we have to leave this planet and go to the other planets that are in or by that there is space to do that and I think we should we should always be on the cutting edge of the human experience. But the earlier example let's say Portugal when all those explorers left there as they did leave from some other countries. NEAL WOOLRICH we can say one thing. So now in about 5000 years of recorded history. No nation or no
society has ever come along that existed forever. There is no reason in the world to think that we are God's unique lucky people and that the way the Maryland and Ohio and California are run today will be the way they will always be run or I don't believe that for a minute. I think that we are subject to change. Radical revolution eraser of so many of the things we want and then rebuilding and some other pattern. I'm always aware of this I'm always alert. So what. And I hope we make the right choices when those great moments of this is come is a strenuous effort in space exploration in the right mold. Do you think what I think is one of them. I think I think a people and a democracy must keep pushing ahead. Because when they stagnate then they become bitter and they become jealous of one another. Derogative does and they worry too much about their
deficiencies. And we're almost reaching that point. We want to go out and build some was on some ships or so new types of airplanes to get our minds off the petty problems that perhaps we could did devise a way to save energy or make new energy. Well we made nylon in World War 2 and Leanne got to the moon in 10 years when we were when we felt like it. You know when I went to Japan at the end of World War 2 they had all the taxicabs they ever had they had no gasoline at all. They all burn charcoal you got into a taxi cab in the whole back and was charcoal. What a boiler of something you know you had a boiler on a run on steam and the types of cabs were just as good as those you have in New York today. Now they were throwing a lot of garbage. I know taxi driver when he is joining us. It was pretty black heads but the types of cabs were still running as
they filled up the main water and a little cold water and charcoal because it varies as we can be able to harness the sun. Yes no question. It's just a matter of time. We sit here today almost burning the temperature must be down to 65 66 as of like that and the heat from the sun must do what it would if we stayed out here much longer with the in trouble. But certainly that is usable. Speaking of that being outdoors by your own words when you were about 14 you became a hotshot athlete which which is totally believable but then you wrote a thing it called sports in America which was quite a statement about about the way we treat sports in our country are we still as guilty as we seem to be then I think things have deteriorated rather sharply since I wrote my book.
By that I mean the manipulation over salaries is gotten out of hand. The sifting of franchises is a very serious detriment to orderly sport. I think the aggrandizement of the young man who has a hook shot or can run through a line is stupid really. Should we pay these people less. Do you know the Brookings Institute made a study which has impressed me very much of proving without question that the salary we pay somebody like Kareem or Bill Russell or Mickey Mantle is lower than it should be. In other words at the gate they earned that salary. Therefore it becomes a question whether it is good for the team to have some one person who gets so much of the others get a conspicuously less. I would think that the Phillies baseball team this year has hit the rocks primarily because of the
Pete Rose deal. You bring in a man and give him three times as much as anybody else's god and so the other guys about to sit back and say okay bigshot do it all right now I got it let me play the other side here Mr. Michener it's easy for you to say that but I'm going to be out of steam when I'm 28 and now 25 I got three more good years maybe I can play ball till I'm 30 35 if I handle it right now I've just got so many years. The owner of this club is making all kinds of money and isn't it right that I should demand a contract that I can get the contracts of the rest of the team are good enough. But if you're going to come to my team of the say seven fellows I don't wouldn't support we're playing let's say seven and you're getting four million dollars. And I'm getting ninety three thousand. I'm very tempted to sit back and say to big boy you put out let me see you in these last four million dollars with you once said that
writing gets tougher as you get older is that still the case it is with the house. The demands of society are higher. They hold you to because you're so successful that whatever they are they're gunning for you and you are gunning for your self. You're looking for those signs of the inevitable being. 7 3 almost. I obviously can't go on forever. And most. Productive men at 73 begin to taper off. Yes. As a prudent man I look for those that I feel of physically I don't have the energy I used to believe there have to be careful of what is there and I was good as they were. Intellectually I don't feel they have a decline yet. But I'm not sure that the individual is the judge of that.
I think you know I think that it will night. I think we kid ourselves but you are embarking upon a new project now which is a very energetic when you're off to another continent. Yes a deckchair East India Company 300 years ago is the beginning of hearing a look at Africa. Yes years ago I lived in Java Marlow the most heavily populated place on earth of its size. And incredible society. Half Muslim half. Hindu. It had a great effect and I always studied the Dutch East India Company always wanted to write about it. And here 25 years later I'm writing about the Dutch East India Company in South Africa which amazes me I never intended that I thought I would write about the deal
and doubt I love what you said when you said that. I'll know more when my characters are through with me because you know which is the statement of a writer obviously. But you're going to be forced one with a still to hit that governing issue that the apartheid. If you went into my study now you would see some 500 major books on South Africa dealing with those problems. I've been there over extended tours I've been in all the surrounding countries. But when you sit down at that typewriter start to type out that first paragraph you realize that you really don't know anything at all starts over again and then you really go to work. That's the position I didn't know well. If you look at that if you look at the South Africa problem one of the the word crunch comes to mind I don't know whether it comes from your book The drifters or not but in the drift as you began to to get at this. Yes racial problem and now it seems to me
you're going to go right into it. Are we headed toward some kind of revolution in a place like South Africa. No I think there are very very bright people in South Africa the Afrikaners are a superb group of people. The English component is first class the blacks are some of the finest people and for. Them a cause. And one hopes that these groups can. Work out some step by step procedure. Now if the whites believe that they can stop it all as of the 1st of January 1980 there will be blood in the streets no question about that. But I don't know any whites in the south that are picks up some nuts out in the boondocks who believe that it's then therefore becomes a question of speed. Will the whites be intelligent enough fast enough and that is the great problem we're all engaged in every stage of my life. Is
America fast enough on the uptake to handle the energy crisis. Well if we aren't We're going to go down. You know that well one can only pray that there's enough intelligence here to handle the problem. The oil well and the same way as South Africa one can pray that among these wonderful white people in these these these very very considerate blacks there will be enough intelligent. Get through the next 15 20 years which I think is the time of decision. If nothing happens by the end of the century then you will see a black revolution which will take control of the whole Southern. This is James Michener who truly needs no introduction. Given the Medal of Freedom by the United States of America and perhaps you can see why. Here's something you once said. I'm very lucky I found what I like to do and I can do it for the rest of my life.
Well just imagine if perhaps you are lucky. But it is we who are lucky because you have found what you like to do at your library there are upwards of two dozen books by James Michener most of them have been award winners in one way or another. Thanks very much for this privilege. I make. In person is brought to my orders through grants by Waverley press incorporated. The Williams and Wilkins company and the members of the website are for Public Broadcasting.
In Person
James Michener
Producing Organization
Maryland Public Television
Contributing Organization
Maryland Public Television (Owings Mills, Maryland)
If you have more information about this item than what is given here, or if you have concerns about this record, we want to know! Contact us, indicating the AAPB ID (cpb-aacip/394-79h44v36).
Episode Description
James Michener
Broadcast Date
Created Date
Asset type
Media type
Moving Image
Embed Code
Copy and paste this HTML to include AAPB content on your blog or webpage.
Copyright Holder: MPT
Producing Organization: Maryland Public Television
AAPB Contributor Holdings
Maryland Public Television
Identifier: 35213.0 (MPT)
Format: U-matic
Generation: Master
Duration: 00:30:00?
If you have a copy of this asset and would like us to add it to our catalog, please contact us.
Chicago: “In Person; James Michener,” 1980-06-17, Maryland Public Television, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed June 9, 2023,
MLA: “In Person; James Michener.” 1980-06-17. Maryland Public Television, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. June 9, 2023. <>.
APA: In Person; James Michener. Boston, MA: Maryland Public Television, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from