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Brief 1-2 sentence answer: The novel Hawaii was written by American author James Michener, first published in 1959

Overview of key details the article will cover about the novelist, writing process, publication history, plot summary, legacy and impact of the novel Hawaii

About the Author James Michener

Background and Early Writing Career

James A. Michener (1907-1997) was an American writer who started his career as a journalist in the 1930s. He worked for various newspapers and magazines, writing hundreds of articles, short stories, essays, and profiles.

He experimented with a wide variety of writing styles and topics before deciding to focus on historical fiction.

Michener’s first major work was a book about his experiences as a naval officer during World War II called Tales of the South Pacific (1947). The book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and was adapted into the popular Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific. It marked his transition into becoming a full-time fiction author.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Michener continued writing popular historical novels. These often followed families across generations while exploring the social and political histories of countries and regions.

Some examples include The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1953), Sayonara (1954), Hawaii (1959), and Caravans (1963). His books were meticulously researched and known for transporting readers into the places and time periods he wrote about.

He traveled extensively to personally experience the locations featured in his work.

Shift to Historical Fiction Genre

Michener began writing historical fiction in response to criticism that his early novels were “loosely constructed and uneven in quality” (Encyclopaedia Britannica). He purposefully transitioned into writing sprawling, complex sagas anchored in extensive historical research.

His books in the 1960s and beyond focused on creating accurate representations of people and places through history.

Novels such as Hawaii, The Source (1965), Centennial (1974), Chesapeake (1978), The Covenant (1980), and Alaska (1988) cemented Michener as a leading historical fiction writer. Many of his books covered a single location over centuries, managing to bring history to life through the lens of people living in those times and places.

His dedication to understanding the facts and details before fictionalizing was incredibly influential.

By the time Michener passed away in 1997, he had published over 40 books. His legacy lives on through the vivid, informative, and dramatized looks at history found across his body of work. From obscure political squabbles to cultural turning points, Michener transported and educated generations of readers.

His commitment to extensive research fundamentally shaped public understanding of the histories of regions like Hawaii, Alaska, Iberia, Poland, and Chesapeake Bay.

Writing and Publication History of Hawaii

Inspiration and Research

The author James Michener was inspired to write Hawaii after visiting the islands in the late 1940s. He was fascinated by the rich history and diverse cultures he encountered. Michener conducted extensive research over the next several years, reading hundreds of books, interviewing locals, and traveling across the islands.

Key sources of inspiration and research included:

  • Hawaiian myths, legends, and oral histories
  • Archival documents and letters from missionaries and travelers
  • Ethnographic studies of Native Hawaiian culture and traditions
  • Books on Hawaiian geology, agriculture, and wildlife

Michener aimed to capture the epic scale of Hawaii’s natural beauty and tell the saga of its people in a single sweeping narrative. His research gave him tremendous insight into events spanning several centuries – from the islands’ volcanic origins to the arrival of explorers, whalers, missionaries, and entrepreneurs.

Publication and Reaction

After nearly five years of exhaustive research and writing, Hawaii was finally published in 1959. The epic historical fiction novel was over 1,000 pages long and featured more than 100 characters.

The book received widespread critical acclaim and quickly became a national bestseller. Within a year, the novel had sold over 500,000 copies. Readers were engrossed by Michener’s lush depictions of the islands and the ambitious scope of the narrative.

However, there was some controversy over Michener’s portrayal of certain historical figures as villains. A few historians also took issue with some minor inaccuracies and the compression of certain events.

Overview of Hawaii’s Plot and Key Themes

The novel “Hawaii”, written by James Michener, tells the epic story of the island state of Hawaii from its geological origins to statehood in 1959. Here is an overview of the plot and some of the key themes that run throughout the narrative:

Plot Summary

The novel opens with the creation of the Hawaiian islands from volcanic activity underneath the Pacific Ocean. It then jumps to the arrival of the first Polynesian settlers, who travel from other Pacific islands on canoes and establish communities on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Over the generations, the different Polynesian groups interact, sometimes peacefully and sometimes violently as they compete for resources and power. New waves of settlers arrive from Tahiti, including the eventually dominant Tahitian aliʻi (royalty) who establish the Kingdom of Hawaii ruled by the Kamehameha dynasty.

As Western explorers begin arriving in the late 18th century, there are dramatic cultural clashes between the Native Hawaiians and these haole (foreigners). American missionaries arrive, preaching Christianity and trying to suppress Native Hawaiian religion, music, dance and other cultural practices.

Whaling ships and merchants set up trade, bringing Western goods and disease.

With the support of British and American military might, the Hawaiian monarchy is eventually overthrown (1893) and Hawaii is annexed as an American territory (1898). The novel ends as Hawaii gains statehood in 1959, completing its complex history from an isolated island kingdom to an integrated part of the United States.


Throughout this epic story, Michener weaves together several important themes:

  • Origins and Migration: The novel emphasizes how the Hawaiian islands arose from volcanic geologic processes and how the first settlers migrated across the seas to discover and inhabit the islands.
  • Cultural Interaction and Change: The various cultures – from Native Hawaiian, to Tahitian, Western/American – interact, influence and change each other dramatically over time.
  • Power and Resistance: The Native Hawaiian people at times resist and fight against encroaching Western powers, while at other times they tragically lose power or are decimated by disease.
  • Environment and History: The natural beauty and bounty of the Hawaiian ecological environment plays a starring role, influencing all aspects of Hawaiian culture and history.

Woven through this broad sweep of Hawaiian history focusing on origins, migrations and cultural collisions is an engaging narrative with memorable characters and scenic descriptions that educate as much as entertain the reader.

Cultural Legacy and Impact

Effect on Tourism

The publication of Hawaii catalyzed a boom in tourism to the Hawaiian islands in the 1960s. Captivated by Michener’s vivid descriptions of lush landscapes, vibrant cultures, and romantic adventures, droves of mainland Americans booked tickets to Honolulu, Maui, Kauai and the Big Island.

By 1970, the number of annual visitors to Hawaii doubled from pre-novel levels to over 2 million. Nearly six decades later, Hawaii continues to be one of the most popular tropical vacation destinations in the world, hosting close to 10 million tourists every year–an enduring testament to the influential power of Michener’s writing.

Michener’s novel increased public awareness of many breathtaking spots which then became major sightseeing attractions. For example, picturesque Waimea Canyon on Kauai, vividly described in the book, went from relative obscurity to a must-see for visitors that continues today.

Scenic locales like Waipiʻo Valley, Waiʻanae Range, and Nā Pali Coast also saw major upticks in popularity after being featured prominently in Hawaii.


The legacy of Hawaii extends beyond the page and into both TV and film. Most notably, the novel was adapted into a 1966 movie of the same name starring Julie Andrews and Max von Sydow. The lush scenery and costumes won an Academy Award, transporting viewers much like Michener did readers.

Though failing to match the novel’s level of detail and cultural commentary, the movie expanded the story’s exposure–over 50 million tickets were sold.

Additionally, a short-lived TV show titled “Hawaii Five-O” ran briefly in the late 70’s and early 80’s. More recently, the novel helped inspire ABC’s hit series “Lost” which debuted in 2004. With a plane crash setting the plot into motion much like in Hawaii‘s opening chapter “From the Boundless Deeps”, the show echoed major themes like the islands’ air of mystery and adventure–albeit with doses of sci-fi twists.


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Discussion of the novel’s lasting significance and impression made

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