1948 Pulitzer Prize Review: Tales of the South Pacific by James Michener

“I wish I could tell you about the South Pacific. The way it actually it was. The endless ocean. The infinite specks of coral we call islands. Coconut palms nodding gracefully toward the ocean. Reefs upon which waves broke into spray, and inner lagoons, lovely beyond description. I wish I could tell you about the sweating jungle, the full moon rising behind the volcanoes, and the waiting. The waiting. The timeless repetitive waiting” (opening lines).

In a collection of partly autobiographical sketches, James Michener’s debut book Tales of the South Pacific (1947) invites us to consider the often-overlooked lives of Allied soldiers stationed in the South Pacific during World War II. This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is structured to be a panoramic series of interconnected vignettes which present a unique portrait of the era. This was also the book that caused the Pulitzer Prize to change its award title from the “Novel” to “Fiction” in order to allow for broader groupings of short stories to be considered. To this day, this title has remained unchanged since 1948.

In truth, Tales of the South Pacific represents a cohesive whole –each of the nineteen short stories carry consistent themes, subject matter, characters, and they take place sequentially culminating in a dramatic invasion of fictional island called Kuralei. Our main narrator is an anonymous “Commander” who delivers paperwork from island to island, serving in those “bitter” years between ’41 and ’43. Perhaps this is intended to be James Michener himself. In fact, it was Mr. Michener’s own experiences as a Naval Historian in the Pacific Theater during World War II which inspired the Tales. During his time in the Navy, he carefully collected observations from the Espiritu Santo Naval Base on the island of Espiritu Santo in the “New Hebrides Islands” (today called Vanuatu). These scattered fragments became Tales of the South Pacific. After the book’s success, the story was later adapted by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein into a wildly successful Broadway play, and a popular musical film released in 1958 (a second film version was released in 2001).

In the book, each of the short stories unfolds like a series of digressions –we see soldiers battling foot fungus and malaria, loneliness and boredom, depression and anxiety, hope and fatalism. Rumors fly amidst the ever-present fear of a Japanese attack while soldiers dream of pretty girls and letters from the homefront. The mise en scène removes us far away from home to the edge of civilization in a series of islands dotting the South Pacific, a beautiful tropical locale where scattered bands of Navy crewmen find themselves in an endless period of waiting –waiting for battle, waiting for reinforcements, waiting for news, waiting for letters, waiting for the war to end.

The overarching plot which binds the Tales together is a top secret plan known as “Alligator” which intends to launch a surprise attack on the Japanese forces on Kuralei, not unlike the Battle of Guadalcanal, the first major Allied land invasion in the South Pacific. However, rather than focusing exclusively on the battle, the Tales weave us in and out of individual lives and particular moments of note. We begin as the U.S. Navy routes the Japanese and prevents an invasion of New Zealand. The men eagerly await regular news updates from an unknown Englishmen radioing from behind enemy lines. In another story, our anonymous “Commander” is sent off to a tiny island called “Norfolk” situated off the coast of Auckland in order to persuade the natives to build an airstrip, however upon arrival he soon learns that the natives are actually the descendants of Fletcher Christian and the other notorious 18th century mutineers of the H.M.S. Bounty (from the famous novel Mutiny on the Bounty). Their ancestors fled Pitcairn Island briefly and arrived on Norfolk where Fletcher Christian planted a cathedral of trees which must now be destroyed to make way for an Allied airstrip. This allusion to one of the great swashbuckling stories of all time was a truly unexpected delight for me in this book.   

However, Michener’s Tales are not merely the ramblings of yet another starry-eyed jingoist-triumphalist. There is considerable nuance in these tales, for example, in the character of Nurse Nellie Forbush. With Nellie, we are introduced to an optimistic young lady from a small town near Little Rock, Arkansas called Otolousa. She is hailed as a “heroine” in her hometown paper. She initially joined the Navy hoping to see the world and meet interesting people, but instead she is entrapped by a revolving door of sexually aggressive male soldiers (most of them married), like Bill Harbison, a man who attempts to foist himself upon her one evening. “…But that isn’t what Nellie Forbush meant when she said she wanted to see the world. She had meant that she wanted to talk with strange people, to find out how they lived, and what they dreamed about, interesting little things that she could treasure as experience” (94). We are led to believe that all the nurses are sexually assaulted at one point or another in the South Pacific. Later, Nellie meets a wealthy Frenchman named Emile De Becque who owns a vast coastal plantation on the island. However, when Nellie discovers that Mr. de Becque has sired a variety of children from several native women, the thought of non-white children tainting her white southern family causes her “revulsion.” However, after briefly considering a return to Arkansas to marry her small-town beau, Charlie, Nellie has a change of heart (with little help of Dinah) and decides to overcome her prejudice in order to wed Mr. de Becque. Although Nellie only appears in two of the stories, her narrative stands out as unique among the Tales, and her character features prominently in the musical with a notable Hollywood-styled redemption arc. While reading, we reject Nellie’s racial prejudice but sympathize with her struggle against the Bill Harbisons of the world.

At any rate, amidst milk and alcohol runs, in PT boats and dilapidated airplanes like The Bouncing Belch, we are also greeted by a colorful band of merry soldiers. There is Joe Cable, a hard-drinking shoemaker from Philadelphia who is stuck on “the rock” gassing up planes and falling in love with girls who write letters to him. In a later tale, he has a love affair with a teenage Tonkinese girl named Liat on the mythically pristine island of Bali-Ha’i. In this tropical paradise, we meet Liat’s mother whom the men call “Bloody Mary” –a toothless, sloppy, ineloquent, middle-aged woman described as having juice running down the sides of her mouth. We also meet Luther Billis, a large and crass “SeaBee,” and a mechanic who is caught by the censors writing ribald letters to his wife. One of the silent heroes of the book is Tony Fry, a reckless officer who is nevertheless respected by all. He paints beer bottles on the side of his plane The Bouncing Belch for every alcohol mission that he completes. He sabotages a bulldozer to prevent the destruction of the trees planted by Christian Fletcher (as told in the aforementioned tale), and he is obsessed with the elusive British “Remittance Man” broadcasting enemy intelligence over the radio. Tony Fry embodies the kind of joie de vivre that, in truth, the U.S. military seeks to quash.

As the Tales come to a crescendo, the slightly mad Commander Hoag and the snappy Admiral Kester direct an invasion of Konora to build a bomber strip and the “Alligator” operation goes into full effect. The Navy amasses a large invasion of Kuralei where many of our beloved friends on this journey tragically die during the assault. Bill Harbison suffers from shock and then is sent home, but sadly Tony Fry, Commander Hoag, and Lt. Joe Cable are all killed as numerous waves of Allied soldiers barrel down upon the island and torch the Japanese trenches. Those who don’t survive have their throats slit by the Japanese, those who do survive are scarred forever, but the operation is ultimately a victory. The victorious dead are buried in a solemn graveyard at Hoga Point, far away from home in the South Pacific.

As is the case in all great writing about war, from Herodotus to Hemingway, there exists a certain degree of anxiety about war ever being forgotten. People who have actually participated in the heat of battle and who have performed great acts of extraordinary courage –from Marathon to Gettysburg to Guadalcanal– long for their sacrifice to be remembered forever. However, there is a somber, bittersweet tone to the book as it openly acknowledges that much will be forgotten. In risking everything, war comes to light as a horrid teacher of unpleasant lessons, so long as it is remembered. But as one generation gives way to the next, and the fog of war lifts, and the quietude of ordinary life resumes, people do forget. How many Americans today can recall the Battle of Guadalcanal? We forget the thousands of heroic deeds accomplished by young men and women from towns and cities all across the United States. Many of their stories, now lost forever, are swallowed up by this great pageant as it marches onward, turning its gaze elsewhere. At least, James Michener’s wonderful collection of Tales Of The South Pacific will continue to stand as an homage to their sacrifices and struggles, triumphs and failures.   

On The 1948 Pulitzer Prize Decision
The 1948 Pulitzer Prize Jury included the returning trio of John Chamberlain, Maxwell S. Geismar, and Orville Prescott. Based on their recommendation of James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific for the then-$500 prize, the decision was made to change the award title from “Novel” to “Fiction” in order to better incorporate the consideration of short story collections like Mr. Michener’s.

This was also the year that Frank D. Fackenthal received a special scroll of citation for his many years of service to the Pulitzer Prizes. Her had served as Secretary and then Provost of Columbia University from 1910 to 1945 where he administered the Pulitzer Prizes by fulfilling Joseph Pulitzer’s wishes, implementing the jury system and serving as their central coordinator, and he managed the occasionally fraught relationship between the various constituencies. At the time, the Advisory Board only convened once per year before passing their selections onto the Trustees for final approval, thus it was incumbent upon a timely and organized process. From 1945 to 1948, Mr. Fackenthal served as Acting President of the University during the search for Nicholas Murray Butler’s successor following Butler’s ailing decline, and after an unfortunate conflict with Butler, Mr. Fackenthal was followed in tenure by General Dwight D. Eisenhower who served as President of Columbia University from 1948 to 1953, prior to being elected President of the United States. A Brooklynite and life-long bachelor, Mr. Fackenthal received honorary degrees from Franklin & Marshall College, Columbia University, Syracuse, Rutgers, NYU and Union College; he was involved in the Manhattan Project; he oversaw the coalescence of such Cold War initiatives as the School of International Affairs and the Russian Institute, later under the Rockefeller Foundation. He received the Alexander Hamilton Medal—Columbia University’s highest honor; thereafter, Mr. Fackenthal served as an educational consultant for the Carnegie Foundation, and as president and director of the Bushwick Savings Bank (where his father had also served on the board of directors), and then as a director at Tayler, Stiles, & Company, a financial services firm, as well as a trustee at various institutions such as Barnard College, Franklin and Marshall College, the Riverdale Country School and International House. In 1965, he was critically injured when his car collided with a tractor-trailer. He died several years later in 1968.

The following are some of the many notable quotations I came across while reading Tales of the South Pacific:

“They will live a long time, these men of the South Pacific. They had an American quality. They, like their victories, will be remembered as long as our generation lives. After that, like the men of the Confederacy, they will become strangers. Longer and longer shadows will obscure them, until their Guadalcanal sounds distant on the ear like Shiloh and Valley Forge” (3-4).

“In strange ways they discovered that their lovers were married men, or in jubilation they found they were not. But rarely did they ask the simple question: ‘Are you married?’ For they knew that most men would tell them the truth, and they did not wish to know the truth” (50, on Naval women in the South Pacific).

“D-Day would be selected later, and some officer-messenger like me would fly to various islands and move under heavy guard. He would, like me, be some unlikely candidate for the job, and to each copy of Alligator in circulation he would add one page. It would contain the date of D-Day. From that moment on, there would be no turning back. A truly immense project would be in motion. Ships that sailed four months before from Algiers, or Bath, or San Diego would be committed to deathless battle… The intensity, the inevitability, the grindingness of Alligator were too great for any one man to comprehend. It changed lives in every country in the world. It exacted a cost from every country in Japan and American” (92-93).

“The world was beautiful that night. It was beautiful as only a tropic night on some distant island can be beautiful. A million men in the South Seas would deny it to one another, would ridicule it in their letters home. But it was beautiful. Perhaps some of the million would deny the beauty because, like Joe, they had never seen it” (126).

“It was sometimes terrifying for me to see the mental hunger that men experienced for companionship on the island… Throughout their existence on the edge of a foreign and forbidding jungle, perched right on the edge of a relentless ocean, men lived in highly tense conditions. Throbbing nature was all about them. Life grew apace, like the papyrus trees, a generation in five months.
“And in all this super-pulsating life there were no women. Only half-scented folded bits of paper called letters.
“As a result sensible men shoved back into unassailable corners of their souls thoughts that otherwise would have surged through and wracked them. They very rarely told dirty jokes. They fought against expressing friendliness or interest in any other man. From time to time horrifying stories would creep around a unit. ‘Two men down at Noumea. Officers, too. Dishonorable discharge! Couple years at Portsmouth!’ And everyone would shudder… and wonder’
“And so men in the tropics, with life running riot about them, read books, and wrote letters, and learned to love dogs better than good food, and went on long hikes, and went swimming, and wrote letters, and wrote letters, and slept. Of course, sometimes a terrible passion would well up, and there would be a murder, or a suicide” (145-146).

“I think Segi Point, at the southern end of New Georgia, is my favorite spot in the South Pacific” (222).

“I was on the LCS-108 when we hit Kuralei… We made rendezvous at D-minus-two. It was a glorious feeling. You went to bed alone on the vast ocean. In the morning you were surrounded by big important ships of the line” (297).

“When the smoky room was emptied, I went on deck. In the gray twilight of D-Day the first wave was going in. Fire raked them as they hit the coral. Jap guns roared in the gray dawn. But some of them got in! They were in! And now the battleships lay silent. The airplanes withdrew. Men, human beings on two feet, men, crawling on their bellies over coral, with minds and doubtful thoughts and terrible longings… men took over” (304).

“In my bitterness I dimly perceived what battle means. In civilian life I was ashamed until I went into uniform. In the states I was uncomfortable while others were overseas. At Noumea I thought, ‘The guys on Guadal! They’re the heroes!’ But when I reached Guadal I found that all the heroes were somewhere farther up the line. And while I sat in safety aboard the LCS-108 I knew where the heroes were. They were on Kuralei. Yet, on the beach itself only a few men ever really fought the Japs. I suddenly realized. That from the farms, and towns, and cities all over America an unbroken line ran straight to the few who storm the blockhouses. No matter where along that line you stood, if you were not the man at the end of it, he ultimate man with his sweating hands upon the blockhouse, you didn’t know what war was. You had only an intimation, as of a bugle blown far in the distance. You might have flashing insights, but you did not know. By the grace of God you would never know” (317).

“Before me lay the dead, the heroic dead who took the island. Upon a strange plateau, on a strange island, in a strange sea, far from their farms and villages, they slept forever beside the lagoon which bore them to their day of battle. Over them the sea birds dipped in endless homage. Above them the deep sky erected a cathedral. I cannot put into words the emotions that captured me as I looked upon the graves of my friends” (321).

Who Is James Michener?

Born in New York City in 1907, James “Jim” Michener (1907-1997) was adopted into a Pennsylvania foster family. Throughout his long life, he never managed to discover the true identity of his birth parents. His upbringing was difficult and, as such, he sought refuge in classic literature, such as the novels of Dickens and Balzac. As a teenager, he was hit with wanderlust, hitch-hiking and hopping boxcars across the country and working odd jobs before he entered Swarthmore College on a scholarship. He graduated with distinction in 1929, and subsequently traveled all over Europe. He became a teacher and married his first wife Patti Koon (they divorced in 1948) and then he accepted a lecturer position at Harvard University and worked as a social studies editor at Macmillan Publishers (which would eventually publish Tales of the South Pacific).  

Upon the outbreak of World War II, Mr. Michener joined the U.S. Navy and was promptly shipped off to the Pacific which would later become the setting for several of his celebrated novels (especially Tales of the South Pacific). By accident, he became a Naval Historian which took him on long journeys across South Pacific Ocean. He made diligent efforts to record his impressions and experiences in the form of notes which he later successfully transformed into Tales of the South Pacific, which he published at the age of forty.

Over his lifetime, he published more than four dozen books, the most popular of which were large tomes of historical fiction, each one distinguished and thoroughly researched: The Bridges at Toko-Ri, Sayonara, The Source, Centennial, Chesapeake, The Covenant, Space, Poland, Texas and Alaska. Mr. Michener also devoted much of his time to public service. In 1962, he ran for Congress as a liberal Democrat, but he lost in a decidedly conservative district. He continued to serve in a variety of public capacities.

In addition to the Pulitzer Prize, his many honors and awards include honorary doctorates, the Medal of Freedom, and an award from the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities.

He was married for a second time to Vange Nord (they divorced in 1955), he then married Mari Yoriko Sabsawa, a Japanese-American woman whose family had been placed in an American internment camp. They remained married for 39 years. Mr. Michener’s novel Sayonara (1954) was a partly fictionalized account of a cross-cultural romance not unlike his own. The great success of Mr. Michener’s books afforded him considerable financial freedom. In 1989, he donated the royalty earnings from the Canadian edition of his novel Journey to create the Journey Prize, an annual Canadian short story literary prize worth $10,000. He continued to give huge sums of money away throughout his lifetime. After his wife passed away in 1994, Mr. Michener contracted kidney disease. After several years, he allowed himself to end daily dialysis treatments and he quietly died at the age of 90 on October 16, 1997. He never had children.

As an aside, there is a truly powerful 60 Minutes segment wherein Diane Sawyer and James Michener (then in his 70s) return to the South Pacific together. Mr. Michener leads the camera around his old haunts along the port of Santo on Vanuatu, a place where some 500,000 troops once landed en route to Guadalcanal. With the war long over, the island now seems quiet, even solemn, containing only vague traces of the great movement that once was. The true “Frenchman’s” estate now lies in disrepair, all that remains are some tin shacks, as James Michener tearfully recalls the great gaiety that once consumed this hallowed place, and he fondly remembers all the souls who once toasted the future together. However, the show’s crowning achievement comes when they track down the real woman upon whom the character “Bloody Mary” is based. She is a 90 year-old woman living at the edge of a wooded enclosure on the island, and she and Mr. Michener sing one last song together, a fond memory of old times. It is a fitting conclusion to an extraordinary chapter in James Michener’s remarkable life.

Michener, James A. Tales of the South Pacific. International Collector’s Edition, The Curtis Publishing Company, Garden City, New York, 1947.

Click here to return to my survey of the Pulitzer Prize Winners.

Click here to read my review of the 1958 musical South Pacific.

5 thoughts on “1948 Pulitzer Prize Review: Tales of the South Pacific by James Michener

      • The chapter “Our Heroine”: ~11 paragraphs from the end, beginning with “What’s the use of bluffing, Dinah?” Nellie tells Dinah “I want to marry him … so very much!” This conversation follows the paragraph where Nellie picks up her unfinished letter to Charlie Benedict , crumples it into a little ball, and cries “So long Charlie!”
        Last paragraph: Nellie joins Emile and his four youngest daughters singing “Au clair de la lune”.
        The reader is left with the happy ending of Nellie, Emile, and the four younger daughters living happily ever after in the tropical paradise. There is no passage in Michener’s book where Nellie goes back to Arkansas.

        Liked by 1 person

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