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Austin Chronicle Articulations

By Robert Faires

OCTOBER 27, 1997: 

The Michener Legacy

The death last week of James Michener was not one of those celebrity passings that catches the world off-guard. In this case, the celebrity was 90 years old and had been in ill health for years. When he removed himself from dialysis earlier this month, Michener as much as signaled the world that he would be leaving it soon. The death we were ready for. But as the news of his death circulated and people began to recall the man and what he had done, something did take us by surprise: the astonishing scope of his achievements and his contributions to the world in general and Austin in particular. The basics came to most everyone easily -- the Pulitzer for Tales of the South Pacific, which became the basis for the popular Rodgers & Hammerstein musical; the sprawling epics of place that topped the bestseller lists for three decades: Hawaii, Centennial, Chesapeake, Texas, et al. But we didn't know or we managed to forget so much else: two dozen non-fiction books, ranging from war reportage to art appreciation; the gift of 376 works of American art to UT's Huntington Gallery, a gift second in value only to the 5,400 Japanese prints that he and his wife Mari gave to the Honolulu Academy of Art; the founding of the Texas Center for Writers; the $10 million commitment to UT's Blanton Museum of Art; support in millions of dollars to institutions which were significant in his life. Maybe because he came to Austin late in life after living many other places, maybe because he did not seek the local spotlight, it was easy to assume that he was not deeply involved in the life of this city. His gifts remind us that James Michener took root here as solidly as a live oak, and he made sure that generations of Austinites will be able to enjoy great art and to pursue careers in writing.


I've read a few of Mr. Michener's novels, in fact, had a serious fling with his writing in my teens, but I'll leave it to others to ponder his literary legacy (Next week's "Books" will have a piece on Michener.). Instead, I'll share two personal notes about Michener the arts patron. In the early Eighties, when Michener had just come to town to write Texas, Capitol City Playhouse staged a production of South Pacific and invited the writer to see it. God bless him, he came, though who knows how many productions (and bad ones) of that show he'd had to sit through. I saw him nod off during the performance, which I couldn't begrudge him. I just marveled that he made the effort to come to see one more community group do the show from his book. Then there's the Michener Collection housed in the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center. I've been visiting it for a full 20 years now, and through its ongoing display, I've been able not only to see an impressive range of 20th-century American art and learn what it means, but to develop, for lack of a better word, relationships with the paintings in the collection. I have grown familiar with them, and certain of them have become old friends that comfort me, renew me, inspire me when I am in their presence. Through James Michener, I have learned how to be friends with art. That too is part of his legacy. Rest in peace.


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