Michener, James A.: Centennial
(researched by Jane Optie)

Assignment 1: Bibliographical Description
1 First edition publication information (publisher, place, date, etc.)
James A. Michener. Centennial. New York: Random House, Inc., 1974. The copyright is held by Marjay Productions, Inc. (1974) It was published at the same time by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto, in Toronto, Ontario. Sources: 1. Inspection of first edition 2. WorldCat 3. Edward Zempel, and Verkler, Linda A. First Editions: A Guide to Identification. 3rd ed. Peoria: Spoon River Press, 1995.
2 First edition published in cloth, paper, or both? If both, simultaneous or staggered?
This book is published in hardcover. Source: Inspection of first edition
3 JPEG image of cover art from first edition, if available
4 Pagination
464 leaves, pp. [i-vii] viii-x [6] [1-3] 4-23 [24-27] 28-47 [48-51] 52-107 [108-111] 112-169 [170-173] 174-241 [242-246] 247-349 [350-353] 354-428 [429-431] 432-498 [499-501] 502-554 [555-557] 558-630 [631-633] 634-669 [670-673] 674-727 [728-731] 732-830 [831-833] 834-909 [3] Source: Inspection of first edition
5 Edited or Introduced? If so, by whom?
There are several different types of introductory material in this book. On p. [ii] there is a list of 20 books written by James A. Michener. In addition to the copyright statement, the title page verso (p. [vi]) also has a note about the lyrics to a song in the novel. (See transcription of verso of title page, #12.) On p. [vii]-x there is an Acknowledgments section. Here Michener names several of the experts in fields such as paleontology, cattle farming, and the Oregon Trail that he worked with while doing research and writing the book. On the unnumbered page facing p. x, there is a dedication ?to three distinguished Colorado newspapermen,? who are then named. There is also a note on the third unnumbered page that states that the novel?s ?characters and scenes are imaginary? but that some of the background and historical events and characters were real. On the fifth unnumbered page, there is a table of contents listing the titles of the 14 chapters in the novel. Source: Inspection of first edition
6 Illustrated? If so, by whom?
On p. [iii] and the title page (see image of title page, #13), there is an illustration that shows an eagle perched on four arrows and holding a shield. This drawing is surrounded by a half-circle and sits over the title of the book. There are sepia-toned maps on both the front and back end papers. The map in front is a wide-angle map showing the location of the fictional town Centennial, Colorado. The map in the back is a more detailed map of the town of Centennial in 1973. Both maps are drawn by J. P. Tremblay. There is also an illustration at the beginning of each chapter (except for the first chapter). I cannot find any indication of the illustrator (they may also be by J. P. Tremblay.) These illustrations are as follows: -On p. [26] there is a drawing of two cones detailing the geologic structure of the earth at Centennial, Colorado. -On p. [50] there is a map titled ?The Land Bridge Between Asia and America 1,000,000 Years Ago? that also demonstrates the movement of bison and horses across the land. -On p. [110] there is a map titled ?Dissemination of the Horse among American Indians? detailing their arrival in North America with Cortez in 1519 and their subsequent movement throughout the continent. -On p. [172] there is a map titled ?The West 1795-1830? showing the geographic formations from the Pacific Coast to St. Louis. -On p. [244-245] there is a two-page map titled ?The Travels of Levi Zendt 1844? that tracks the character?s travels from the Great Salt Lake to Lampeter, Pennsylvania. -On p. [352] there is a map titled ?Indian Lands After the Treaty of 1851? outlining the Crow, Sioux, Arapaho and Cheyenne, Ute, Comanche, and Pawnee countries. -On p. [430] there is a map titled ?The Skimmerhorn Trail 1868? that shows the path of the trail from Venneford, Colorado, to Jacksborough, Texas. -On p. [500] there is a map titled ?Acquisition of the Land 1870? showing the land homesteaded by Seccombe and the land that was bought by homesteaders. -On p. [556] there is a map titled ?The Shepherds 1880-1889? that shows the location of certain characters. -On p. [632] there is a map titled ?The Entertainers 1889.? -On p. [672] there is a map titled ?The Travels of Tranquilino Marquez 1903-1914? that shows the places in the Southwestern United States and Northwestern Mexico to which the character traveled. -On p. [730] there is a map titled ?Line Camp 1911-1939.? -On p. [832] there is a family tree outlining the character Paul Garrett?s family back to his great-great grandparents. Source: Inspection of first edition
7 JPEG image of sample illustration, if available
8 General physical appearance of book (Is the physical presentation of the text attractive? Is the typography readable? Is the book well printed?)
The pages measure 23.3 cm x 15.5 cm. The text measures 18 cm x 11.5 cm. In general, the text is easy to read. There is a lot of text on each page, but the line spacing and margins are large enough to help the book read easily. The printing is generally clean, but my copy does have a few smudges in the text: one in the text on p. 201 and another in the running head on p. 219. The type size is 80R, and the type is a serif font. The running heads throughout the chapters are as follows: the verso has the title of the book [slash] the page number. The recto has the chapter title [slash] the page number. The running heads are in all capitals, italic, serif font. Verso example running head: CENTENNIAL / 52 Recto example running head: THE INHABITANTS / 53 The titles on the chapter title pages are in all capital serif font. The first line of each chapter is in all caps as well, the first letter of which is twice the size of the other letters in the first line. Also, chapter 4, "The Many Coups of Lame Beaver," is unique in that it is broken up into eight sub-sections, each of which is numbered and whose fond is all caps. The title of the sub-section is underined. The legends to the maps in both the beginnings of the chapters and on the end papers are in all capitals, serif font. In these maps, however, the names of geographic landforms are in a sans serif font (such as the Arkansas River on p. 352). Source: Inspection of first edition
9 JPEG image of sample chapter page, if available
10 Paper (Assess the original quality of the paper used for the book. Is the paper in the copy or copies you examined holding up physically over time?)
The book is printed on smooth, creamy white paper. The top and bottom edges of the pages are straight, and the right edges are deckle. The paper in my copy is still in very good condition, with no yellowing or tears. Source: Inspection of first edition
11 Description of binding(s)
The binding is hardback (board) and is dark reddish. The stamping on the spine is a medium orange and includes the title in all caps (CENTENNIAL), a small crest of two feathers, the author's name on two lines (JAMES A.|MICHENER), the publisher's crest, and the publishing house (Random House). The text is horizontal on the spine. My copy does have a dust jacket. There are illustrations pasted on the insides of the covers, with 4 mm of the dark reddish cover showing on the top and sides. The maps pasted on the insides of the covers also extend to the end papers, which are of thicker stock. Sources: Inspection of first edition
12 Transcription of title page
recto: [illustration]|CENTENNIAL|[horizontal rule line]|JAMES A.|MICHENER|Random House [publisher?s crest]New York verso: Copyright © 1974 by Marjay Productions, Inc.|All rights reserved under International and Pan-|American Copyright Conventions. Published in the|United States by Random House, Inc., New York,|and simultaneously in Canada by Random House|of Canada Limited, Toronto.|Lyrics from ?The Buffalo Skinners? on page 858,|collected, adapted and arranged by John A. Lomax|and Alan Lomax. TRO?© Copyright 1934 and|renewed 1962 LUDLOW MUSIC, INC. New|York, N.Y. Used by permission.|Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data|Designed by Antonina Krass|Manufactured in the United States of America|468B975 Source: Inspection of first edition
13 JPEG image of title page, if available
14 Manuscript Holdings
Michener donated the original manuscript of Centennial, along with his research notes and other personal mementos, to the James A. Michener Library at the University of Northern Colorado in the fall of 1972. Source: Web site of the University of Northern Colorado (http://www.unco.edu)
15 Other (typograpical information from title page, etc.)
The dust jacket is glossy black paper with white front and back flyleaves. The title is yellow, and the author?s name is red. The crest described on the title page is white with a blue background. The name of the publisher is below the crest, in white font. (See image under Supplementary Materials.) The spine of the dust jacket has the title and author?s name in the same color fonts as the front. The text appears vertically on the spine of the dust jacket. The back of the dust jacket has a large black-and-white photo of James A. Michener taken by Tessa J. Dalton. The blurb that starts on the front flyleaf and continues to the back flyleaf explains briefly that this novel is similar to some of Michener?s earlier works in terms of its setting in the West. It also introduces ?a few of the more than seventy memorable chief characters? in the novel. The dust jacket also contains a sort of advertisement for the publishing house. The bottom of the black flyleaf says that Random House are ?Publishers of THE RANDOM HOUSE DICTIONARY OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE: the Unabridged and College Editions, The Modern Library and Vintage Books.? Source: Inspection of first edition/dust jacket
Assignment 2: Publication and Performance History
1 Did the original publisher issue the book in more than one edition? If so, briefly describe distinguishing features of each (illustrations, cover art, typography, etc.); if not, enter N/A
Random House published another edition of Centennial in 1975. This edition is 1086 pages and includes maps. Also, along with the first hardcover edition, Random House also published a limited boxed edition. Sources: WorldCat Publishers' Weekly
2 JPEG image of cover art from one subsequent edition, if available
3 JPEG image of sample illustration from one subsequent edition, if available
4 How many printings or impressions of the first edition?
Publishers' Weekly first printing: 250,000 copies (Aug. 26, 1974) second printing: 100,000 copies (Sept. 2, 1974) third printing: 25,000 copies (Sept. 16, 1974) fourth printing: 50,000 copies (Sept. 16, 1974) fifth printing: 50,000 copies (Sept. 16, 1974) New York Times first printing: 150,000 copies (Aug. 20, 1974) second printing: 50,000 copies (Aug. 20, 1974) third printing: 50,000 copies (Aug. 20, 1974) Sources: Publishers' Weekly (specific issues listed) New York Times (specific issues listed) Justice, Keith. Bestseller Index: All Books, Publishers Weekly and the New York Times Through 1990.
5 Editions from other publishers? If so, list their dates and publishers; if not, enter N/A
Large Print/Condensed Version: 1976. Leicester, England : Ulverscroft. 405 p., 23 cm. This edition was part of The Ulvercroft Large Print Series Condensed Version: Reader's Digest Condensed Books : Volume 1, 1975. Includes: Our John Willie, by Catherine Cookson; Centennial, by James A. Michener; Harlequin, by Morris West; and Eric, by Doris Lund. 1975. The Association (Pleasantville, NY). 574 p., ill.; 20 cm. Paperback: 1983 by Ballantine Books. 1038 p., 18 cm. 1974, 1975 and 1978 by Fawcett Crest. 1086 p., 18 cm. 1975 by Corgi Books (London). 1100 p., 18 cm. 1976 by Corgi Books (London). 1100 p., 1 genealogy table, maps; 18 cm. 1983 by Corgi Books (London). 1100 p., maps; 18 cm. 1990 by Corgi Books (London); 1100 p.; 18 cm. *Note: It is likely that the four Corgi Books printings are reprintings of the same edition and that they were just cataloged differently in terms of the illustrations/maps. Since I did not have the pieces in hand and only had the bibliographic records to refer to, I chose to include all printings. Hardcover: 1988 Limited Edition by Easton Press. 909 p., ill. (some col.); 24 cm. This special edition is bound in leather with a special introduction by James A. Michener. This edition also includes illustrations by Jeff Fisher that only appear in this edition. 1975 by Book Club Associates (London). Sources: WorldCat The Independent Bookseller's Network Amazon.com
6 Last date in print?
This book is still in print as of March 2006; at this time it is a paperback published by Ballantine. Sources: Bowker's Books In Print Borders.com
7 Total copies sold? (source and date of information?)
The September 16, 1974 edition of Publishers' Weekly announced that the 150,000 copies of the first printing were sold out (subsequent printings were already in process). On November 25, 1974, PW states that there were 375,000 copies in print. Shortly thereafter, the December 16, 1974 issue states that there were 380,000 in print; 10,000 sold per week; and 325,000 total copies sold. PW notes the book's sales as 360,000 by April 14, 1975; 387,683 by May 26, 1975; 417,000 by September 22, 1975; and 420,000 by October 13, 1975. Also by October 13, 1975, 445,000 copies were in print. An article entitled "The Stakes Rise for Chart Toppers" in the March 22, 2004, issue of Publishers' Weekly, states that a total of 330,289 copies were sold. The first books sold for $10.95 each (plus a limited boxed edition for $25). After the first 175,000 books were sold, the priced was raised to a record-breaking $12.50. Sales did not slow after the price increase. (Hackett, 1977; PW, Sept. 16, 1974; Bowker Annual, 1975) Fawcett paid $1 million to publish Centennial in its paperback edition. (Tebbel, 1981) Sources: Publishers' Weekly (specific issues listed) *Note: Unfortunately, the January-February, 1975, issues of PW could not be found. Hackett, Alice. 80 Years of Best Sellers, 1895-1975. 1977. Bowker Annual. 1975. Tebbel, John. History of Book Publishing in the United States: Vol. IV : The Great Change, 1940-1980. 1981.
8 Sales figures by year? (source and date of information?)
Though I could not find exact figures by year, Publishers' Weekly noted at year's end on December 16, 1974, that 380,000 copies were in print and 325,000 had been sold. On September 22, 1975, approximately one year after Centennial's initial release, 442,000 copies were in print and 410,000 were sold. Source: Publishers' Weekly
9 Advertising copy (transcribe significant excerpts, briefly identify where ads were placed)
In the August 26, 1974, issue of Publishers' Weekly: Random House calls Centennial "a sweeping novel about the settlement of the American West, especially Colorado." (p. 248) An ad in the August 20, 1974, edition of the New York Times says the following: A magnificent new novel about the American West - by the author of HAWAII and THE SOURCE Only James Michener could write a novel like this: an enormous panorama of the West from prehistoric times to the present. It's almost a thousand pages brimming over with the glory and the greatness of the West - the land, the Indians who lived on the land, and the people of many nations who came to drive them out. Above all, Centennial is the story of the trappers, the traders, the homesteaders, the gold-seekers, the ranchers, the hunters - all caught up in the dramatic events and violent conflicts that founded, and ravaged, and built the West. In Centennial, James Michener has created a novel that is an enthralling celebration of our country's history. Sources: Publishers' Weekly New York Times
10 JPEG image of sample advertisement, if available
11 Other promotion
Published with the first edition of Centennial is a limited boxed edition selling for $25. Source: Publishers' Weekly (August 26, 1974)
12 Performances in other media? If so, list media, date, title, production information; if not, enter N/A
Videocassette recordings: 1997, 1978. James A. Michener's Centennial. Recorded in 12 volumes totaling 20 hours, 58 minutes. MCA Universal Home Video. The titles of the 12 volumes are significantly different than titles of 14 chapters in the book. 1980, 1978. Centennial. Recorded on 7 videocassettes. I could find no more info on these tapes. Sound recordings: 1993. Centennial. Audio on 4 cassette tapes totaling 6 hours. Pub. Mills, Dolby processed. 1994. Centennial. Audio on 35 cassettes, 90 minutes each. Books on Tape (B-O-T library ed.). 2004. Centennial. Audio on 41 CDs, 72 minutes each. Books on Tape (library ed.). 1995. Centennial. Audio on 35 cassettes, 90 minutes each. Books on Tape. 1976. Centennial This version is not a sound recording of Centennial but of James Michener talking about the novel Centennial. It is one 58-minute cassette tape. Minnesota Public Radio. Television 1978. Centennial. Television miniseries that appeared in 12 episodes on NBC from October 1978-February 1979. The script was written by John Wilder. Sources: WorldCat Wikipedia
13 Translations? If translated, give standard bibliographic information for each translation. If none, enter N/A
Centennial :Lla Saga del Colorado 1976. 3rd ed. [Spanish] Barcelona : Ediciones Grijalbo. 1451 p., ill., maps; 19 cm. [translated by Manuel Bartolomé López] Colorado Saga 1974. [German] Wien : Verlag Fritz Molden. 907 p.; 23 cm. Centennial 1989. 1st ed. [Polish] Warszawa : Kziazka i Wiedz. 557 p., ill., maps; 21 cm. [translated by Jan Aleksandrowicz] Colorado 1987. [Italian] Milano : Bompiani. 699 p., ill., maps; 24 cm. [translated by Silvia Accardi] Colorado Saga 1975. [French] Paris : Flammarion. 669 p.; 17 cm. [translated by Jacques Hall and Jacqueline Lagrange] Another version was printed by the same publisher in 1976. This edition has 925 p. and is 24 cm. Colorado Saga 1993. [German] Munchen : Goldmann Verlag. 909 p.; 18 cm. [translated by Hans E. Hausner, Hannelore Neves, and Gisela Stege] Centennial 1979. [Croatian] Zagreb : Globus. 3 volumes, ill.; 21 cm. [no translator found] Centennial 1979. [Dutch] Bussum : Van Holkema & Warendorf. 960 p., ill.; 24 cm. [translated by Olga de Marez Oyens] 1981. 6th ed. [Dutch] Bussum : Van Holkema & Warendorf ; Antwerpen : Standaard. 960 p., ill.; 25 cm. [translated by Olga de Marez Oyens] The same was again published in 1982, but the book was slightly smaller: 18 cm. Source: WorldCat
14 Serialization? If serialized, give standard bibliographic information for serial publication. If none, enter N/A
Lame Beaver : The Life of a Plains Indian. 1974. Pleasantville, N.Y. : Reader's Digest. This is a condensed version written by James A. Michener; it appeared in the April 1974 edition of Reader's Digest. p. [205]-256, col. ill.; 19 cm. Centennial was also serialized in other media such as on video and for television. (See #12, Performances in other media, above) Sources: WorldCat Wikipedia
15 Sequels/Prequels? Give standard bibliographic information for each. If none, enter N/A
N/A
Assignment 3: Biographical Sketch of the Author
1 Paste your biographical sketch here (maximum 500 words)
(For a general overview of James A. Michener's life, please see the biographical entries under his book Hawaii. For other interesting and relevant facts on his life, consult the entries under Alaska, Return to Paradise, and The Drifters.) James A. Michener loved traveling, especially throughout the United States?a passion that drove him even during his early years. At the age of 14, he began to hitchhike around the country with little to no money; by the time he was 20 he had been to all but three of the states. What he most loved about traveling was talking to the people he encountered, learning about their lives, and exploring their histories. Michener said of the people he met during his travels, "I had an insatiable love of hearing people tell stories, and what they didn't tell I made up" (NYT). He soaked up all he heard, combined this with his own observations and research, and using his seemingly inherent storytelling ability, wrote some of the greatest epic American novels to date. Michener was inspired to write Centennial while living in Greeley, Colorado, where he worked on his master's degree and taught social studies courses at the Colorado State College of Education (CSCE), now the University of Northern Colorado, from 1936 to 1941. Part of what drove Michener to CSCE was the chance to explore a new progressive educational philosophy that focused on students' individuality, education's impact on society, and freedom and democracy within one's education. (UNCO Web site) This type of educational democracy promoted coursework of an interdisciplinary nature. Michener clearly embraced and supported this philosophy, as he taught classes including The Growth of American Democracy, Family Relations, Great Music, and The Motion Pictures. (Dictionary) Michener's interdisciplinary interests are reflected in his "place novels," including Centennial. In the book, he attempted to trace the history of Colorado; what he ended up with was an epic drama celebrating the "lore of Colorado from the creation of the earth up to 1974" (Dictionary). This "lore" includes not only the story told by the fictional narrator Dr. Lewis Vernor but also a nonfiction account of the state's history including its geology, archaeology, and ecology. (Dictionary) Michener was unyielding in his extremely thorough research to get the factual details of his stories correct; this is evidenced within Centennial itself in the four pages of acknowledgements at the beginning of the book in which Michener extends his appreciation to the specialists?who often became friends?he consulted in several disciplines including geology, the Oregon Trail, irrigation, and the cattle industry. James A. Michener also had a great love for people; he enjoyed meeting new people and trying to understand social dynamics. He had simple humanitarian beliefs and felt that "all men and women are brothers and sisters" (Dictionary). He explores these dynamics through relationships between the 70 named characters of Centennial, who encounter and deal with social problems of their time. (Dictionary) As a result, the patriotic Michener's novel provided a positive outlook for the people of this nation just in time for the celebrations of Colorado's centennial and the USA's bicentennial. (NYT) Centennial was adapted into a 26-hour television mini-series that aired on NBC in 1978 and 1979. (Denver Post, Wikipedia) In 1972, James A. Michener donated the manuscript and his research notes for Centennial, along with personal mementos and papers, to the University of Northern Colorado. These items are still available to see at the university's library, the James A. Michener Library. (UNCO Web site) Sources: The Denver Post, obituary, October 17, 1997 Dictionary of Literary Biography New York Times, obituary, October 17, 1997 University of Northern Colorado Web site (www.unco.edu/library/) Wikipedia
Assignment 4: Reception History
1 Paste contemporary reception history in here (maximum 500 words)
As James Michener's previous books were quite well known and loved, it is not surprising that Centennial received a lot of attention at the time of its publication. No reviews seemed to completely disqualify the book as unworthy of any literary praise, but they were not quick to regard it as a literary masterpiece, either. Several of the contemporary reviews of Centennial compared the book to his Hawaii and The Source, making comments like "entire forests have been felled to produce such trunk-sized novels" (Time). While many of the reviews joke at the length of the book, it seems that Michener is still very well respected as one of the great storytellers of his time. Even though Centennial is lengthy, the large amount of accurate detail is recognized as an admirable quality in reviews such as the following from the Wall Street Journal:
In truth [Michener] is a bang-up storyteller?none better among his possible peers?with frequent veins and chunks of substantive intellectual matter not found at all in most of the big-selling talespinners. Centennial well earns the sales it is already rolling up.
There is something about Michener's blending fictional elements with historical fact and cultural relevance that reviewers immediately tend pick up on as an extremely valuable quality. He is regarded as a good teller because he uses truth to make fiction interesting and fiction to make the truth enjoyable as something other that a statement of fact; in other words, he makes both the story and the history accessible. Perhaps this is why Booklist also recommends it as a young adult novel. The New York Times Book Review, however, states that this mixture could have perhaps been less about facts and more about the story, stating that Centennial "wasn't 'written,' it was compiled." A good storyteller also creates interesting characters about whom the reader wants to hear and learn more. Critics note that Michener does this well with Centennial in that, even though there are countless characters, each is introduced as a minor character in a previous episode so the reader has some sense of who the character is before his or her particular story is introduced, adding to its dramatic effect. (NYT) While some praise Michener's storytelling ability, including his characters, Centennial does have its critics. Many of the criticisms of the book stem from the same issues of characterization. The same review as above, for example, goes on to say the following:
After about the tenth episode or so, the novel has accumulated so many characters and situations that things begin to come apart. So preoccupied grows the narrator with keeping it all straight that the succeeding episodes lose their dramatic unity, characters under go sudden changes to fit into startling new developments, developments occur to accommodate startling character changes. (NYT)
It seems as though the critics, well aware and respectful of Michener's previous works, were hesitant to be too harsh on Centennial, but they often did feel something was lacking and that the length of the book detracted from its potential strength. Centennial's popularity was also boosted by the creation of the 1978 miniseries based on the book. The 26-hour television drama aired over a period of 12 weeks and had a budget of $25 million. (Wikipedia) It was well publicized, and critics loved it:
For once Hollywood superlatives were justified. The film was faithful to the novel and at the same time transcended it by using additional dimensions of cinematic technique. The scenic background was authentic and brilliantly reproduced?. The movie is probably more epic than the novel in its sweeping panorama of the developing West. (Becker 131)
The miniseries wasn't the only way that television helped increase the popularity and public awareness of Michener and his novels. In the late 1970s he had his own television programs that were travelogues of the places he had visited as well as written about. (Becker 25-6) These shows undoubtedly heightened the public's interest in and love for all things Michener. Sources cited: Becker, George J. James A. Michener. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1983. The Booklist 71.5 (November 1, 1974): 269. Frakes, J.R. New York Times Book Review, 8 September 1974: 6. Fuller, Edmund. "A Historical Novel From the Year One." Wall Street Journal 2 Oct. 1974: 16. Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher. "From Heroic Acts to Hiccups." New York Times 27 Sept. 1974: 39. Morrow, Lance. "Happy Birthday, America." Time 23 Sept. 1974: 96. Reviews also worth reading: Bannon, Barbara A. "Centennial." Publishers' Weekly 208.16 (October 20, 1975): 75. Barnes, Julian. "Passing Pterodactyl." Times Literary Supplement Centenary Archive 3974 (November 22, 1974): 1308. Eyth, M.J. Library Journal 99 (September 1, 1974): 2091. Saturday Evening Post March 1978: 74. Weeks, Edward. "Centennial." The Atlantic Monthly 234.5 (November 1974): 118-120. Wilkinson, Burke. Christian Science Monitor 25 Sept. 1974: 11.
2 Paste subsequent reception history in here (maximum 500 words)
As James Michener's previous books were quite well known and loved, it is not surprising that Centennial received a lot of attention at the time of its publication. No reviews seemed to completely disqualify the book as unworthy of any literary praise, but they were not quick to regard it as a literary masterpiece, either. Several of the contemporary reviews of Centennial compared the book to his Hawaii and The Source, making comments like "entire forests have been felled to produce such trunk-sized novels" (Time). While many of the reviews joke at the length of the book, it seems that Michener is still very well respected as one of the great storytellers of his time. Even though Centennial is lengthy, the large amount of accurate detail is recognized as an admirable quality in reviews such as the following from the Wall Street Journal:
In truth [Michener] is a bang-up storyteller?none better among his possible peers?with frequent veins and chunks of substantive intellectual matter not found at all in most of the big-selling talespinners. Centennial well earns the sales it is already rolling up.
There is something about Michener's blending fictional elements with historical fact and cultural relevance that reviewers immediately tend pick up on as an extremely valuable quality. He is regarded as a good teller because he uses truth to make fiction interesting and fiction to make the truth enjoyable as something other that a statement of fact; in other words, he makes both the story and the history accessible. Perhaps this is why Booklist also recommends it as a young adult novel. The New York Times Book Review, however, states that this mixture could have perhaps been less about facts and more about the story, stating that Centennial "wasn't 'written,' it was compiled." A good storyteller also creates interesting characters about whom the reader wants to hear and learn more. Critics note that Michener does this well with Centennial in that, even though there are countless characters, each is introduced as a minor character in a previous episode so the reader has some sense of who the character is before his or her particular story is introduced, adding to its dramatic effect. (NYT) While some praise Michener's storytelling ability, including his characters, Centennial does have its critics. Many of the criticisms of the book stem from the same issues of characterization. The same review as above, for example, goes on to say the following:
After about the tenth episode or so, the novel has accumulated so many characters and situations that things begin to come apart. So preoccupied grows the narrator with keeping it all straight that the succeeding episodes lose their dramatic unity, characters under go sudden changes to fit into startling new developments, developments occur to accommodate startling character changes. (NYT)
It seems as though the critics, well aware and respectful of Michener's previous works, were hesitant to be too harsh on Centennial, but they often did feel something was lacking and that the length of the book detracted from its potential strength. Centennial's popularity was also boosted by the creation of the 1978 miniseries based on the book. The 26-hour television drama aired over a period of 12 weeks and had a budget of $25 million. (Wikipedia) It was well publicized, and critics loved it:
For once Hollywood superlatives were justified. The film was faithful to the novel and at the same time transcended it by using additional dimensions of cinematic technique. The scenic background was authentic and brilliantly reproduced?. The movie is probably more epic than the novel in its sweeping panorama of the developing West. (Becker 131)
The miniseries wasn't the only way that television helped increase the popularity and public awareness of Michener and his novels. In the late 1970s he had his own television programs that were travelogues of the places he had visited as well as written about. (Becker 25-6) These shows undoubtedly heightened the public's interest in and love for all things Michener. Sources cited: Becker, George J. James A. Michener. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1983. The Booklist 71.5 (November 1, 1974): 269. Frakes, J.R. New York Times Book Review, 8 September 1974: 6. Fuller, Edmund. "A Historical Novel From the Year One." Wall Street Journal 2 Oct. 1974: 16. Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher. "From Heroic Acts to Hiccups." New York Times 27 Sept. 1974: 39. Morrow, Lance. "Happy Birthday, America." Time 23 Sept. 1974: 96. Reviews also worth reading: Bannon, Barbara A. "Centennial." Publishers' Weekly 208.16 (October 20, 1975): 75. Barnes, Julian. "Passing Pterodactyl." Times Literary Supplement Centenary Archive 3974 (November 22, 1974): 1308. Eyth, M.J. Library Journal 99 (September 1, 1974): 2091. Saturday Evening Post March 1978: 74. Weeks, Edward. "Centennial." The Atlantic Monthly 234.5 (November 1974): 118-120. Wilkinson, Burke. Christian Science Monitor 25 Sept. 1974: 11.
Assignment 5: Critical Analysis
1 Paste your critical analysis in here (maximum 2500 words)
James A. Michener's Centennial was an immediate bestseller, and it topped the weekly charts for more than a year. After the first 175,000 copies were sold for $10.95 each, the publisher increased the price to a record-breaking $12.50. (Hackett) More than a year after its initial release and success, Fawcett Crest published the first paperback edition for which there was an advance sale of 2,600,000 copies and a promotional budget of $150,000. (PW) Michener's novel was clearly a hit. But why was this novel any different than his others? Or was it different at all? Centennial undoubtedly achieved its astounding bestseller status due to several factors including James A. Michener's previous fame, the publicity the book received, and the timeliness of the story and its themes. At the time Centennial was released, Michener was no stranger to the bestsellers list. As a matter of fact, five of his novels before Centennial achieved such popularity: Return to Paradise (#8 in 1951), Hawaii (#3 in 1959, #2 in 1960), Caravans (#4 in 1963), The Source (#1 in 1965), and The Drifters (#8 in 1971). In a 1972 New York Times article titled "Seven Ways Not to Make a Bestseller," the number one tactic for achieving bestseller status is to "start with a well-known author." Other well-known writers acknowledged Michener's fame and very wide fan base; Arthur Miller says of the novelist's fame, "I have seen people reading Michener on airplanes and in airports all over the world" (First Citizen 32). He was no stranger to the publishing industry or the bestsellers list. Based on his previous popularity, James A. Michener was obviously quite well known at the time of Centennial's publication. Surely many of Michener's previous readers picked up his new novel without knowing much about the book or reading reviews; rather, people simply depended on his solid reputation as an epic novelist. As one biography states, "Michener may best be remembered for his family sagas in which men and women of many heritages intermingle in far-off places" (Dictionary). James Michener left behind a very specific legacy; his readers knew what to expect from him, and he always delivered. Centennial was not the first of Michener's books to achieve such popularity partly because of the author's name. The Drifters, for example, was not extremely well reviewed, but it still sold more than 100,000 copies in its first five months of publication (see entry for The Drifters). James Michener was also known for his timeliness; his books seemed to touch on events or themes very specific to the time periods in which his audience would be reading the book. For example, in the example of The Drifters above, James Michener explores the phenomenon of a "youth revolution" conveniently only one year after the Kent State protests (NYT Book Review). People who read any of Michener's previous books were confident that if they picked up another, something they would read would be particularly applicable to their lives. In a way people may have used his books as an escape from real life, but more likely his readers knew they could count on seeing their real lives more clearly through the characters and events in his books. Here one can see how Michener's timeliness gave him a reputation that made his name and therefore his books popular; more will be said of Michener's timeliness specifically in writing Centennial later in this essay. While Centennial's success could only have been helped by Michener's popularity, the author likes to give the books a little more credit. He did not think Centennial nor any of his other books could have attained such success had they not been solid novels. He says in his autobiography,
My books have certainly been commercial, despite what my first agent predicted, but not because that was my aim. I have written difficult books on difficult subjects, and the reader has to have a certain degree of willpower to get through to the final pages; the commercial success has been a fortunate accident, and I believe that a writer is better off with some success than without it. (Memoir 386-7)
It is true that part of Centennial's success hinged on the fact that Michener was already a prolific writer, but the author himself warns that it is also important to give credibility to the text as well as to the reader who takes the time and effort to read, enjoy, and delve into the stories. Centennial's popularity can also be partly attributed to the publicity the book received, though this publicity might not be entirely disconnected from the fact that Michener was already a fruitful and popular writer. As a matter of fact, many of the praising reviews of the novel allude to this legacy as part of their admiration of the book. An article in the Wall Street Journal, for example, mentions the following in a story about Centennial:
The prolific, varied Mr. Michener is in his top form here as a fiction writer. (Our own favorite among all his works is the superb, non-fiction "Iberia," one of the best books ever written about Spain.) (WSJ)
Apparently Michener's fame was not only a factor in the public's reception of Centennial but also in the critics' reception. The critics had a positive effect on the book's success aside from the fact that they often dwelled on the fact that it was written by the well-reputed Michener. Interestingly, not all the reviews were very positive, which, in turn, may give more credit to Michener's popularity. A review in The Atlantic Monthly calls Centennial "a grandiose undertaking that simply doesn't work," noting how the different storylines are "thinly connected novellas" and that "the continuity and the illusion are repeatedly interrupted by the chatty advice to [Lewis Vernor's] New York editors" (Atlantic Monthly). Such reviews do not acclaim Michener's narrative skill and suggest that Michener's missed something crucial in writing Centennial but they do not entirely discredit it. The same occurrence can be seen in a review in Time (see Assignment 4: Contemporary Reception). Not all the reviews criticized the book; actually, several more acclaimed it as a literary masterpiece and one of Michener's best. If a potential reader was, by chance, unfamiliar with the name if James A. Michener, he or she may be less intimidated by the sheer size of the novel after reading positive reviews like the one in Time:
Michener paces his narrative well. He organizes the book as a series of interconnected novellas, focusing each on one or two central characters?. Michener brings pageantry to the ancient cliché of the cattle drovers beset by thirst and outlaws on the long trail from Jacksborough, Texas, to the South Platte. (Time)
This review is not unlike others in which the reviewer focuses on the fact that, in order to keep the novel flowing and the characters straight in the readers' mind, Michener introduces characters as minor characters connected in some way to the lives of the current protagonists and then slowly builds the plot to center around this new character. It is important to also consider the nature of characterization in the novel. As the book covers a very large period of time, Michener does not have the space to fully develop all of his characters; rather, he develops in his characters only those qualities which make them seem like real people living within their specific historical period. One scholar writes that the characters in the book "are representative of their time, place, and situation, but also are individualized, and the reader appreciates them for making history more authentic because it happens to ?real' people" (Severson 76). While some critics noted characterization as negative aspect of Centennial, others gave it credit as the very thing that kept the book moving. In addition to Michener's popularity and the critics' reviews of Centennial, perhaps the greatest reason for the novel's success and long tenure at the top of the bestseller list is the fact that the book was very timely. It was published at a time in American history in which people could relate specific events in their lives to particular events in the book, whether the connections are timeless themes presented in historical times in the novel or specific actual events mentioned in the chapters covering present-day (1970s) Colorado and America. Perhaps most obviously, the very title of the book Centennial was something which may have immediately caught readers' attention. The book was published on the eve of the nation's bicentennial, a theme around which the narrative is framed. Within the first few pages of the book, the reader learns that Lewis Vernor, the narrator and compiler of the book's stories, has been contracted by a magazine to do in-depth research for their special bicentennial double-issue. (Centennial 6) Throughout the rest of the novel there are examples of a growing national pride that would resonate with the contemporary reader. In 1876, for example, Miss Keller, the schoolteacher, proclaims, "Zendt's Farm is no name for a town that's destined to be a city. Let's celebrate the double birthday and rename ourselves Centennial!" (Centennial 550) Here the reader celebrates with the town the nation's first one hundred years. The reader celebrates this national pride again when Vernor visits Garrett in 1973 and notes, "Garrett prized his vote. It seemed to him the noblest ritual of American life, and he had never failed to vote, nor had he voted carelessly" (Centennial 840). This is an example of the American values represented within the novel that would have been particularly meaningful for Americans reading the book on the eve of celebrating the nation's 200th birthday. While the novel does represent significant American ideals, it also depicts some of the shameful American occasions that would resonate with readers in the early 1970s. The Watergate scandal, for example, was one that would have been fresh in the minds of anyone in the United States at the time Centennial was published. Throughout the final chapter, November Elegy, Vernor and Garret tie together the events of the present with those of the past, noting how history tends to come full circle. Their discussion of Nixon is no exception. In response to Nixon's telling the nation he is not a crook, Garrett says,
No man should ever find it necessary to make such a statement in public. It's like a doctor assuring everyone in Centennial that he doesn't give his patients strychnine. Who in hell said he did? A President of the United States buttonholing a bunch of editors and telling them, ?I'm not a crook.' Who said he was? (Centennial 868)
Perhaps a little less subtly than he does with his other modern-day references but no less successfully, Michener here makes direct mention of events real to his readers part of his story. This tactic unquestionably caused Michener's readers to see his work as much more than a recitation of irrelevant historical facts. In the early 1970s there was heightened concern with protecting the environment. The first earth day was celebrated and the Environmental Protection Agency were created in 1970. Legislation representing this sense of environmentalism emerged in the form of the Clean Water Act (1972) and the Endangered Species Act (1973). These developments are both evidence of people's interest and involvement in environmental matters in the early 1970s and reason for people's more heightened awareness of issues dealing with natural resources and living creatures. Taking these events into account, it is easy to see how Centennial addressed the passions and emotions of people with environmental concerns when the novel hit the shelves and circulated among the public in fall of 1974. Throughout the novel the characters encounter various struggles with the land: How could they get water to their crops? Could wheat be grown in the drylands? What types of cows would do best on their prairie? The characters try to learn to live with the land. Some, like the Volkemas and Grebes who try to grow wheat in the drylands and contributed to the dreadful Dust Bowl (Centennial, Chapter 13), take advantage of and exploit the land. Others, like James Lloyd who said on his deathbed, "I despise watching nature altered to suite a passing fad" (Centennial 786), try to protect their environment and live within the land's limits. At the end of Centennial, Paul Garrett reflects on his life and those of his ancestors and says that his great-grandfather and an earlier protagonist in the novel, James Lloyd, "loved the earth and never wanted to do anything to disturb its balance" and that "we've got to get back to that sense of responsibility toward the earth" (Centennial 873). An environmentalist reading the book in the 1970s would undoubtedly have appreciated and connected with this concern and theme throughout the book. The book does have very somber undertones as it takes a critical look at environmental issues, but it is also important to note that Michener, "in evoking a stirring past, calls attention to qualities and values that helped many realize the American dream" (Severson 80). Centennial shows how those who lived in the past had the ability to make mistakes, to learn, and to help determine their own futures whether their problems stemmed from environmental issues, political concerns, or social conflicts. The timeliness of the themes Michener presents, the positive and negative reviews of the book, as well as Michener's fame were all contributing factors to Centennial's success and its status as a bestseller in the 1970s. For years to come, Michener received letters from fans, many of which sounded like of the examples he gives in his autobiography: "If you make rural Nebraska come alive so beautifully in Centennial, think what you could do with Minnesota!" (Memoir 504) By the time the reader reaches the final page, page 909, he or she cannot deny that this book is a prototypical Michener novel; he lived up to his reputation as an epic American novelist. By the time the reader reaches page 909, Michener has made sure that he explores a theme or topic that would resonate with any reader who has any connection whatsoever with what the nation was going through at that time. By page 909 of Centennial, Michener has created a bestselling novel that has left its place in American literary history. Works Cited Bannon, Barbara A. "Centennial." Publishers' Weekly 208.16 (October 20, 1975): 75. Dictionary of Literary Biography. Fuller, Edmund. "A Historical Novel From the Year One." Wall Street Journal 2 Oct. 1974: 16. Hackett, Alice. 80 Years of Best Sellers, 1895-1975. 1977. James A. Michener: First Citizen of the Republic of Letters, A Tribute by his Writing Colleagues. New York: Authors League Fund, 1990. Michener, James A. Centennial. New York: Random House, 1974. Michener, James A. The World Is My Home: A Memoir. New York: Random House, 1992. Morrow, Lance. "Happy Birthday, America." Time 23 Sept. 1974: 96. The New York Times Book Review (June 27, 1971). Severson, Marilyn S. James A. Michener: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996. Walters, Raymond Jr. "Seven Ways Not to Make a Bestseller." The New York Times 23 July 1972: BR4. Weeks, Edward. "Centennial." The Atlantic Monthly 234.5 (November 1974): 118-120. Other Interesting and Useful Sources: Becker, George J. James A. Michener. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1983. Day, A. Grove. James Michener. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1977.
Supplemental Material
This image is of the book's dust jacket.
This image is the map that appears on the inside of the front cover.
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