The weight of the place didn’t hit me until I put the old man’s glasses to my eyes. My father had found them in a white box, tucked into a faux leather case next to a plastic-wrapped package of Kleenex and some loose-leaf paper. The glasses were powerful and made everything appear as if I were looking through a fuzzy microscope.
My father and I had come up to Greeley—to this room deep inside the library at the University of Northern Colorado—to look through manuscripts and personal notes that once belonged to the late novelist James A. Michener. Now, after hours of reading, my father had come across something wholly different. As I looked through the glasses, a streak of excitement shot through me: I was literally seeing the world through the lenses of one of America’s most prolific writers.
Few authors covered as much literary and geographical ground as Michener. During his career, which spanned six decades and more than 40 novels—including nine best-sellers—the Pulitzer Prize-winner wrote exhaustively about topics from Spain to space, and he penned Centennial, one of the most acclaimed books ever written about Colorado and the Rocky Mountain West.
So it was fitting that late in his life, Michener spread his wealth across the country to help preserve his legacy. In Austin, Texas, where he was buried after his death in 1997 at age 90, the University of Texas named its writing program for him; it owns Michener’s extensive 20th century American art collection. The Honolulu Academy of Arts houses his set of almost 6,000 Japanese woodblock prints. And the James A. Michener Art Museum in his hometown of Doylestown, Pennsylvania, displays a fully furnished reproduction of his old Bucks County office.
But there is no greater repository for the man’s life than the climate-controlled room at UNC’s James A. Michener Library in Greeley, the municipal muse for Centennial. Encompassing a stunning one million-plus items, the archive is storage central for the author’s personal possessions, and one morning this summer, I decided to check them out.
Along with my father, a Michener-phile since he first read Centennial decades ago, I met Jay Trask, the library’s head of archival services. Trask led us through a maze of underground hallways to a windowless room where a nondescript collection of cardboard boxes sat atop gray metal shelves. It had been almost 12 years since Michener died, but inside the room it felt as if his legacy had been frozen in time.
Although UNC’s library has a modest reputation, its shelves hold one of the largest intellectual warehouses of Michener’s writing anywhere in the world. He chose Greeley as the home for his possessions because of his love for everything Colorado, and included with his Olympia typewriter, research notes, personal letters—even his stained dentures—are full, hand-edited manuscripts of Centennial, Poland, Space, Texas, and The Covenant, all of which reached number one on the New York Times best-seller list.
In 1936, Michener and his first wife, Patti, arrived in Greeley. He taught high school social studies and earned a master’s degree at what would later become UNC. He also wrote articles for education trade magazines (including one on the benefits of sex education) and penned his first short story, about a teacher who was shunned by his peers but beloved by his students.
Michener traveled Colorado extensively while living here, and his notes are painstakingly stored in the archive—ephemera that later would be used to create Centennial. He explored caves, irrigation ditches, rivers, “the highest trails of the Rockies, and time after time, the lonely reaches of the prairie,” he wrote shortly after finishing the book. During his trips he photographed natural landmarks, and the Kodachrome photos often reflected the endless scope of land and sky, which likely was a breathtaking source of inspiration for the East Coast native.
In 1941, Michener left Colorado for New York. He joined the Navy after Pearl Harbor and continued writing. His first novel, Tales of the South Pacific, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1948, and over the next 25 years he wrote dozens more books, novels and nonfiction, establishing a reputation for extensive research and a tendency toward lengthy narratives. “Don’t drop one on your foot,” a critic once panned.
The author returned to Colorado in the early 1970s to begin Centennial, a novel he envisioned would be his “birthday gift to America” in advance of the 1976 bicentennial, which also happened to be Colorado’s centennial. The book, which Michener first attempted to write in 1950, focused on a fictional South Platte River town. It details how mountain ranges developed, how settlers arrived, and how immigration became a flash point in the region. Michener wrote much of it from a high-rise condominium near the Denver Public Library, where he frequented the Western History collection. Spiral-bound notebooks in the archives illustrate Michener’s attention to detail—they include pages of time lines and characters with fictional birth and death years, some crossed out and changed as he reshaped his story.
The collection is exhilarating and, at times, exasperating. Nothing seems too mundane to have been saved, and occasionally I found myself shuffling through Christmas cards from the 1960s or letters from Michener’s third wife to her friends. Michener regularly kept carbon copies of his own letters, which he signed “Jim Mich,” and include everything from thoughts to a friend about a winter storm while writing Centennial in Denver in 1972 (“It’s like working in a dead metropolis…nothing moving”) to fan letters (“I was glad your teacher told you to write to me, because I do like to hear the reactions of people who read my books. You can tell your teacher I think you write a good letter and that you deserve an A”).
After Centennial‘s publication and the library’s dedication in his name, Michener donated thousands of pages of the book’s drafts and notes to UNC. The other letters and personal items arrived after Michener’s death, when his friends in Texas simply packed up boxes with everything in sight and sent them to Greeley. The hand-edited manuscripts alone are worth the visit, and there still are more than 20 that have yet to be processed. Undoubtedly, there will be surprises: UNC archivists have found the beginnings of two manuscripts, one set in Egypt, the other in Russia. They hope the unsearched boxes might reveal more information about another novel, Matecumbe, a love story set in the Florida Keys that was published posthumously in 2007, after the manuscript surfaced dubiously in the safe-deposit box of a Florida sportswriter who claimed to have ghostwritten for Michener. The author’s friends have disputed this claim, and thus far the documents at the UNC archives make no mention of the story.
Inspired by the chance to find some answers to the Matecumbe mystery, my father and I went back to the storage room with Trask. Dad dug into one of the boxes as the archivist stood by. There were letters from the 1950s, sorted by month, which could be one of the earliest collections of Michener’s thoughts after his Pulitzer. Then there was the Kleenex, and paper, and the faux leather case with the label “spare reading glasses” taped to its side.
We each spent a few moments examining them: brown stems with discolored white tape at the corners, near the frame. They were chunky and comforting and familiar, like something a grandpa might wear. It was an unexpected moment in which the most important—or most surprising—thing was that Michener ceased to be a famous author. Forget the books and the money and the celebrity. In an exhilarating instant, we realized that for all his reputation and wealth, the author also was simply human, a bookish guy with bad eyesight who also just happened to be able to spin a good yarn. m
Robert Sanchez is 5280’s staff writer. E-mail him at [email protected].