THE FANS OF James Michener should be grateful that he was a bad Quaker. Had Michener, who died of kidney failure last Thursday in his Austin, Texas, home, stuck by the pacifist precepts by which he was raised, he would not have enlisted in the navy after Pearl Harbor. He would not have shipped out to the Solomon Islands, where he collected the material for his first book, ""Tales of the South Pacific.'' There would have been no Pulitzer Prize, and no Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. But Michener did enlist, his book became ""South Pacific'' and he became the author of huge--and hugely popular--novels about states and countries, even outer space.
""Hawaii,'' Michener's first blockbuster best seller, appeared in 1959. Marrying fact with fiction to recount the history of the islands from the first volcanic burp through the arrival of everyone from the Polynesians to the pineapple barons, it was snapped up by the Book of the Month Club, condensed by Reader's Digest and sold to Hollywood for a then astronomical $1 million. The template from which most of his subsequent fiction was struck, ""Hawaii'' was the best of Michener's epics, and it made him a household name. Mixing romance with outrage at colonialism and religious bigotry, it's one of those books that somehow summon up the time when you read them--its multicolored dust jacket was once as much a fixture in Middle American living rooms as tole lamps and La-Z-Boys.
Michener was disarmingly honest about his drawbacks as a fiction writer. ""I'm weak on style, plot and form--all the things you're supposed to be good at.'' He wrote novels for people who felt guilty reading novels, tossing in enough facts so that a reader could go to bed confident that he had not frittered away his time.
A foundling raised in a foster home, Michener never knew his exact birthdate, but he was about 90 when he died. Footloose all his life, he figured that by the time he turned 20 he had seen every state except Washington, Oregon and Florida. Before he published his first book, at the age of 40, he had been a schoolteacher in Pennsylvania, a college professor in Colorado, a seaman on a coal barge in the Mediterranean and a folk-song collector in the Outer Hebrides. Later his addresses became his titles (""Chesapeake,'' ""Alaska,'' ""Iberia''). After ""Texas,'' he spent most of the last two decades of his life in Austin; he became the University of Texas's single biggest benefactor in 1992, when his gifts topped $37 million (his donations to schools and charities totaled more than $100 million). Earlier this month, having ""accomplished what he wanted to accomplish,'' according to an assistant, he elected to unhook himself from lifesaving dialysis. In the end, this real-life Horatio Alger was his own most interesting creation.