Saturday, 30 January 2021

James A Michener and the musical 'South Pacific'


The photograph is of a book that has been on my shelves for many years as you can see from the fact that it is priced at 5/- (five shillings) and it’s one of those that I have been rereading while this Covid-19 pandemic has been raging through the world (and recently we in the UK recorded over 100,000 deaths, one of the highest in the world).

The author, James A Michener, has long been one of my favourites. Admittedly his books can be quite lengthy which will put many people off but the depth of detail and immense scope of his novels make them worthwhile. So why this one then, a much slimmer book? Because from this one book was born the idea of the stage musical and subsequent movie ‘South Pacific’ (incidentally one of my all-time favourites). But first let me give you some background details of the man himself, whom I greatly respect and admire.

His origins are obscure but he was born around 1907 and was 'sort-of' adopted by a kind woman whom he knew as Mrs Michener and who fostered many children during her lifetime. As a child, he was inquisitive and interested in the world around him so much so that, young as he was, he hitch-hiked around various parts of the United States during the summer vacations and later, signed on as a merchant seaman so that he could travel around Europe before going to college on a scholarship. After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour in 1941, he joined the US Navy and spent the rest of the war years as a sort of liaison officer going round the South Pacific islands. From those years, came these Tales of the South Pacific. While these are fiction, there is no doubt that they are based on his own and other people’s experiences.

From his memoir, ‘The World is my Home’ comes this memorable experience ‘We came upon one of the most miserable Melanesian villages…….a truly pitiful place…….someone had affixed a cardboard sign with the settlements name………..I borrowed a pencil and jotted the name against the day when I might want to use it for some purpose I could not imagine, - Bali H’ai.’

In the ‘Tales’ many of the characters are there – Nellie Forbush, Emile Du Beque, Lieutenant Joe Cable, Liat, Bloody Mary, and that larger than life character Luther Billis. In fact, there is a soliloquy between Nellie and Emile in their tale that is almost word for word as it is in the song ‘Twin Soliquies.’ Daringly for the time, racism is there too, in the way that Cable cannot countenance marriage with Liat and how initially Nellie is horrified that Emile has had children by Polynesian women, personified in the song Cable and Nellie duet in ‘You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught.’ These two videos are from the 2001 version of the film which I found to be much more dramatic and grittier.

So how did these seemingly disparate stories come to be blended together to make up the story of South Pacific? And incidentally, the book won the American Pulitzer Prize of 1947 although Michener himself believed that to be a fluke of timing. It was taken up by the magical team of Rodgers and Hammerstein and, although originally, they had wondered how they could make a dramatic story out of such loosely connected stories, somehow they managed it. And to quote again from Michener’s memoir ‘The World is my Home’: ‘What they devised was a spirited musical drama about a contingent of American sailors waiting on a South Sea Island for a major battle against Japanese forces………..The action was rowdy, romantic and tragic and the public loved it.’ Incidentally, Michener was persuaded to invest some money in the show and it was the rewards from this that enabled him to become a full-time author.

James A Michener had a good and adventurous life and died at the age of 90, 3 years after the death of his beloved Japanese wife Mari. Throughout his life he was a philanthropist, endowing scholarships and supporting the arts. After he died, the copyright of his books and his papers were passed to his old college, Swarthmore, in Pennysylvania.

 As you can see from the photo, I still have plenty more books to reread!


  1. Thanks for this Anne. I have enjoyed so many of his books. And when I was last in Austin, Tx, (2019 boo hoo!) I visited the museum and art gallery at the University as I always do. Very interested to note the presence of The Michener Centre for Writers, endowed by James Michener and his wife, which provides one of the top creative writing programmes in the world.

  2. Thanks for your kind comments. Despite the 'unknown' label, I do know who you are by your comments on Texas! I would love to have met him because he sounds a wonderful man and so inspiring.

  3. This is fascinating. I didn't know where South Pacific came from, nor did I know they had done an updated version. It looks terrific. I remember the original from my childhood and knew most of the songs as we had a record of the film music. I might have to read this book now! Thank you.

    1. Thank you for your interest, Elizabeth, and I'm glad you enjoyed it. I saw the 2001 version on TV a few years ago but when I checked, it hasn't been released in this country which is a shame. Mistakenly, I bought the US version only to find it's a different region from Europe!