Published in 1978, James Michener's Chesapeake found its way immediately to the top positions on bestseller lists. The novel leaped to the number one spot on the Publisher's Weekly Bestseller List 10 days even before it's publication date, on July 24, 1978, and remained there for 18 weeks. The success of James Michener's Chesapeake explains three major elements about the nature of best-selling fiction: successful bestsellers are often based upon the authors previous fan base, bestseller lists are dominated by authors with a series of books that follow a recipe, and finally Michener's happy history, is a popular selling tool.
By 1978 Michener had created a strong and loyal fan base. When Chesapeake was published Michener had written 27 books, sold 20 million copies, made eight million dollars, and won a Pulitzer Prize for Tales of the South Pacific. His work had been adapted into 12 movies, T.V. specials, and one musical; not to mention published in 52 languages around the world. Michener is often referred to according to statistics, simply because they are so phenomenal.
Books that make it to bestseller lists even before they are scheduled for publication, represent a group of bestsellers whose success is purely based on the authors previous reputation. When Michener's devoted readers found out that Chesapeake was coming they did not stop and wait for reviews or even for it to arrive in books stores for that matter. The early anticipation surrounding Chesapeake's release required very little advertising on Random House's part.
Bestseller lists are flooded by authors with faithful followings of Michener's magnitude. Strong fan bases can be brought on by many factors, sometimes it is a specific formula that authors utilize, such as John Grisham's legal thrillers. Sometimes it is the use of a specific character that readers are drawn to, such as the James Bond type in Ian Fleming's You Only Live Once. Best-selling fan bases can also be built on literary merit, as is the case with authors such as Faulkner. James Michener's fan base is no doubt built on a combination of elements, but one in particular is unique to him. Readers are not specifically drawn to any of his characters in his book, it is more Michener's own character that has created such a loyal and devoted mass following.
Michener's life was an impressive one and appeals to so many Americans because he ultimately lived the American dream. Born an orphan, raised in poverty with other foster kids, hitchhiked across the country, played an a championship basketball team, graduated from collage summa cum laude, served in World War II, ran for Congress, won a Pulitzer Prize, and died a philanthropist. His biographer John King refers to him a man of "good solid American values."
Michener became a best-selling author based on his own character and appeal of his integrity sold books. John Hayes explains, "people feel they can depend on him. He's a nice guy, a gentleman writer, someone they can trust." Michener earned his popularity with out writing about sex, violence, or intrigue. He wrote lengthy well researched, novels that cover centuries of history. Often even his harsh reviews end by commending him for his honorable nature, strength of conviction, and decency. Jonathan Yardley of the New York Times Book Review states "Mr. Michener deserves more respect than he usually gets" and his readers firmly believe this.
Michener discovered his bestseller formula in 1959 when he published Hawaii and has reconstructed that recipe with different ingredients ever since. Michener's recipe is for historical fiction. His novels fictionalize the history of a place from the beginning of time to the present day, creating a panoramic view of an area. Webster Scott writes in the New York Times Book Review that Michener "has found a formula. It delivers everywhere-Hawaii, Africa, Afghanistan, America, Israel, even outer space. The formula calls for experts, vast research, travel to faraway places and fraternizing with locals. And it calls for good guys and bad guys (both real and imagined) to hold the whole works together. It's a formula millions love. Mr. Michener gratifies their curiosity."
Chesapeake incorporates all the typical Michener ingredients. He spent two years living on the eastern shore compiling research about everything from duck hunting to the Civil War. Michener begins the novel with Pentaquad, a Suquehanna Indian who migrated to the eastern shore in 1583, and ends the novel with man committing suicide on the Bay because of his involvement in Watergate. In between theses the reader encounters Cudjo a rebellious slave, George Washington, Geese, wealthy Catholic landowners (the Steeds), and the Quaker shipbuilders (the Paxamores.) Their lives fly buy and we endure their fortunes and catastrophes with them in whirlwind fashion. After finishing Chesapeake one understands many aspects of the Bay area, from its ecology to Labrador retrievers.
Michener's recipe can be seen in his other bestsellers: Alaska, Centennial, The Source, The Covenant, and Space. His recipe calls for a lush and exotic place with a rich history, an all encompassing time period, many characters of strength and morals, and a very readable text. He brings up questions about politics, justice, religion, and ecology. In Centennial Michener used the same formula but altered the place to Colorado and the reader gets the same panorama of the West that they did in Chesapeake of the Eastern shore.
Bestseller lists are dominated by authors who have found a formula. Michener can be compared to a series of best-selling authors who have created their own unique, yet formulaic style with recognizable components. Tom Clancy for example has written a series of novels using a factual military based prose to explain past events in United States history. Red Storm Rising, The Hunt for Red October, and Patriot Games all cover similar situations involving the same breed of character and Clancy's formula has proven to make enticing best sellers. John Grisham's bestsellers can also be compared to Michener's. The Firm, The Chamber, Pelican Brief, and The Client are the same type of legal thriller with different components. They all tell a great story, involve a moral aspect, and end with a pleasant resolution. The repetition of recipe that these authors exemplify creates a certain reading environment which people return to and is consistent across bestseller lists.
The third aspect Michener's Chesapeake reveals about bestsellers is simply: history is hot to market. Chesapeake is a blur between fact and fiction, but it is the factual quality that accounts for Michener's mass appeal. The sociologist Andrew Hacker states, "Out there are people who want to improve themselves, and they're very earnest about that, and Michener knows his constituency. Perhaps they feel as though they're getting a little bit of quality. In a way, his books are like a history course for people in Middle America- this is the way they continue their education."
The history presented in Chesapeake is called happy history. The non-fiction books he wrote such as Kent State: What Happened and Why, were not bestsellers. Because in Chesapeake Michener blurs his factual information in a fictional, very readable way, he is able to discard the dull facts and embellish the interesting ones. Alfred Kazan says, "People read for information these days and with Michener books they probably feel they are getting information painlessly and pleasingly. A lot of people feel undereducated, and this sort of book appeals to them." Happy history makes a great story and people want to read about it. It is a way to escape into something bigger and grander when people find themselves worrying about the trivialities of everyday present life.
The happy history in Michener's Chesapeake is a comforting, almost moral choice when confronted with other bestsellers such as The Exorcist or a Daniel Steel romance. Chesapeake was published after the Watergate scandal when Americans wanted to return to the glory and greatness of previous American life. It was also published at a time when developers and pollution are starting to take over the Chesapeake Bay. Michener's Chesapeake gave readers exactly what they wanted, happy history. Michener explains "the advent of TV convinced me that readers would be hungry for longer books of substance . . . I want the reader to span time an ideas and concepts that matter and I have been willing to fill my pages with a wealth of data in order to give that reader the pleasure of becoming more knowledgeable."