James Michener

He founded the Texas Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin and endowed it with $19 million. But he gave the students— and the state—something more valuable: himself.

December 1997By Comments

The day after the first newspaper articles appeared announcing James Michener’s decision to go off kidney dialysis, the students began to call me. Was there anything they could do? Could they bring him a cup of tea? Could they make him a dessert (they all knew that he loved sweets)? One former Michener fellow, now a successful screenwriter in Los Angeles, phoned, nearly in tears. She was flying to Austin for the weekend. Was there any way she could see him or speak to him, even for a minute? There wasn’t. He died on a Thursday night, at age ninety, twelve hours before she arrived.

Back in the early eighties, when James Michener came to the state to work on the novel Texas, he was given the red-carpet treatment. He was wined and dined by Governor Clements, flown to private airstrips in Marfa, taken on jeep tours of the biggest ranches. He was also given a ten- by ten-foot office at the University of Texas at Austin. It was a particularly astute move, because one thing you quickly learned about Michener was that he was a lover of universities. Soon thereafter he bought a house in Austin, and every so often a rumor would waft through the halls of the English department that he was considering endowing a creative-writing program.

I had just come to teach at the university myself; so when I was approached by an administrator who wanted to know if Michener could sit in on my graduate fiction workshop, it didn’t seem wise to say no. The students were in awe of him, and he took their work seriously. He was like a Dutch uncle—encouraging, but concerned that no one got too big for his britches. “I’m just your T.A.,” he told me, and he was a remarkable T.A. He attended every class and gave detailed notes on the stories. He passed out lists of the most common grammatical errors—the differences between “lie” and “lay,” between “there,” “their,” and “they’re.”

If he could be intimidating, it also quickly became apparent that he was an old-fashioned idealist and an enthusiast and that he had a lot more nerve than the students. One afternoon several young writers were talking about their plans after graduation. One woman said she was thinking about going to Bosnia to work with the rape victims of the war. Michener jumped right on it. “Go,” he said. “Do it now. Drop out of school if you have to.” Her eyes went wide. She stammered something about needing to finish her thesis, but Michener didn’t seem to understand that. There was an opportunity. It needed to be seized. He did not believe in half measures.

IN 1988 IT WAS ANNOUNCED THAT JAMES MICHENER was giving $1 million to create an interdisciplinary master of fine arts (MFA) degree at the University of Texas. Not only would it train students as screenwriters, poets, playwrights, and fiction writers, but it would ask them to work in more than one genre—“To give them another arrow in their quiver,” Michener said.

I remember how dubious I was. Having fellowships for our students would utterly revive our writing program, but it was hard enough to teach students in one writing discipline—how could we possibly do it in two? Wouldn’t our students be spreading themselves too thin? It sounded grand and Michenerean in its ambition, but it also sounded as if we’d just bitten off a lot more than we could chew.

The program, which we named the Texas Center for Writers, started small in 1989, offering writing fellowships but no master’s degrees to graduate students in the departments of English, theater and dance, and radio-television-film. In the summer of 1990 the university announced another Michener gift of $3 million. Two years later came the big one. Michener donated $15 million to fully fund the program: more students (ten would be admitted each year for three-year graduate programs and five for four-year postgraduate programs), richer fellowships, and most important, an MFA in writing. I was stunned—it was far and away the largest gift ever made to support creative writing anywhere.

In 1993 I became the director of the Texas Center for Writers, succeeding Rolando Hinojosa-Smith. The first class endowed under the new largesse was admitted to the center that fall. Within two years there would be forty students—each supported by a $12,000 annual fellowship. Michener’s gift would make it possible to bring in some of the finest writers in the world to teach and give seminars: J. M. Coetzee, David Hare, W. S. Merwin, and Michael Ondaatje.

I soon discovered that James Michener was not a man who was going to give you $19 million and then forget about it. Each fall he would invite the members of the entering class to his home. He would offer to read their work, give them advice about it, tell them stories. When we held our annual barbecue at the Salt Lick, he would always be there in his bolo tie, his Hobo Times baseball cap, and his tennis shoes with the Velcro straps, sitting at the center table, greeting everyone. He was well into his eighties and not in good health. He was not a meddler, but he was a man used to seeing results and there was not much time.

The students had a genuine admiration for him as well as an understandable gratitude. Yet they were often shy around him. There was something in him that didn’t invite intimacy, and he could be gruff. “Young lady,” he once told an aspiring fiction writer in front of the class, “your teachers had told me that you have talent, but I didn’t see it until this story.”

OUR PROGRAM WAS CERTAINLY NOT the only one to benefit from Michener’s generosity. Over the last decades of his life he gave an estimated $117 million to universities and museums, as well as individuals. He had amassed a fortune, and then set about, in his characteristically methodical way, to be sure that every penny was used.

The question I was never able to bring myself to ask Michener was why. What would motivate a person to give in such an unprecedented way? My guess is that a lot of it had to do with his Quaker background and that he grew up in a time and place where you could utter words like “service” and “duty” with a straight face. Constitutionally he was a man incapable of squandering anything. He had been an orphan and had grown up with absolutely nothing, he told the students more than once. He loved to eat at the Marimont Cafeteria, and if there were leftovers, he would have the waitress wrap them for his lunch the next day.

Part of it too was that he had been, throughout his life, in love with the grand enterprise. Michener was a man who enjoyed being feted. Even as he grew more feeble, he had an incredible ability to rally for an interview on Good Morning America or an appearance at Barnes and Noble, where two thousand people stood patiently for up to four hours to have their books stamped.

This fall, for the first time, he was too ill to meet the incoming students. There were so many things to tell him—two years after the first class had graduated, three had published books, one had a full-page rave review in the New York Times, another had a film at Sundance, another had her play produced Off-Broadway—but the last couple of times I called his house, he was sleeping.

At the funeral one of the students told me, “He was such a chronicler. Wherever he went, he would always come back and tell us everything he learned, everything he found. This is the first time he’s gone someplace where he can’t tell us what it was like.”

In early November forty young writers, all supported by Michener fellowships, met at the Salt Lick. The event was marked by the usual episodes: the vegetarians complained about having to eat all that meat, the professor of poetry got lost on her way out, someone broke up with her boyfriend in the parking lot. The only difference was that the center table was empty.

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