Traveler, Writer, Citizen: The James Michener Museum in Doylestown, PA

by Jennifer Ciotta

Donning Texan-style bolo ties and large-brimmed cowboy hats, James Michener appeared as if he just stepped out of a Western movie.  Spending some of his last years in Texas and Alaska, the American frontier meant a great deal to Michener, even spurring the inspiration for his monolithic Alaska.  Yet through all his travels and marriages, 3, the writer embraced his roots in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

Dedicated to his contributions to the literary and art worlds, the James A. Michener Art Museum is located in historic Doylestown, PA.  A small village in the midst of rural farmlands and charming wineries, Doylestown’s lovely ambience is set by trendy restaurants, antique shops and small boutiques.  The Michener Museum, a town favorite, showcases tiny galleries of various paintings, photographs, etc.  Art work focuses on Bucks County itself by including paintings such as The Burning of Center Bridgeby Edward W. Redfield (1923).

In early July 2007 is the exhibit: James A. Michener: Traveler, Writer, Citizen.  This centennial celebration commomerates Michener’s birth, and the title of the exhibit is the three words the author himself chose for his epitaph.  These three little words complete the image of Michener as he lived in an outstanding amount of places, making sure to document his travels in his forty books of both fiction and nonfiction.  As a travel writer, Michener went to great lengths in order to precisely describe a place’s history such as in Hawaii or Alaska.  Sometimes stemming up to seven years to research one book, Michener’s precision was eventually rewarded by a Pulitzer Prize.

The exhibit displays intriguing facts about the writer’s life.  Perhaps the strangest is that there is no record of Michener’s birth.  Throughout wall excerpts, his difficult early years are apparent since the author was raised by a woman named Mabel, who also brought up other abandoned children, even as many as twelve under one roof.  Michener knew too well the horrors of going hungry and poverty.  Thus he vowed to never be in this situation as an adult.  A voracious reader, young James became self-educated, thereby, earning himself a scholarship to Swathmore College, only to graduate with honors.

As his deep dedication to the pursuit of education continued, Michener began to express himself through travel writing.  He enlisted in the navy, and thus spent two years on an island in the South Pacific.  Creating a Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of stories based on his adventures there, Michener also garnered success from the musical South Pacific, adapted by Rodgers and Hammerstein.  Propelled by his thirst for knowledge and love of culture, Michener proceeded to live amongst various peoples and tribes, as shown in photographs in the exhibit.  Black-and-white pictures capture Michener’s spirit as he cohabits with tribes in war paint.

Another large part of the writer’s life was art, especially the art work produced in Bucks County.  Touring through the galleries, natural settings splashed in watercolors adorn the walls.  Paintings of Buck County’s farmlands during summer and winter beautify the space, including a 22-foot lunette-shaped mural by Daniel Barber named A Wooded Watershed.  Yet the most exquisite work of art may not be the scenic paintings.  The Nakashima Reading Room brings Japanese woodworking culture to the Museum, providing a place of Zen.  Michener’s third and final wife, Mari, was a Japanese-American who endured internment camps of World War II.

A surprise photography exhibit which lasts until the end of June is Aging in America: The Years Aheadby Ed Kashi and Julie Winokur.  A stark contrast of the amusement and despair of becoming elderly is featured with photos of geriatric prisons, burlesque dancers above the retirement age and the reality of senility and illness.  One photo in particular is haunting.  It shows an elderly woman with Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s.  She is frightened, wide-eyed, lying on her bed, while hugging a child’s doll with tiny braids.  Encapsulating the human life cycle from beginning as an infant to ending as an infant, another disturbing photo has a son changing his father’s diaper, focusing upon a pained expression on the father’s face.  Or perhaps, a more comical, yet still taboo photo features elderly women dressed in revealing clothing, even a bikini, for an erotica contest.

Leaving his beloved Doylestown behind, Michener lived out his last years in Austin, Texas.  Consequently, he wrote a book with the same name, thus showing his love for the state.  James Michener passed away in 1997 with a literary legacy unlike many before him, producing masterpieces which spanned a multitude of generations and literary travelers.

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