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.
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
"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.
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.
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.