Swarthmore Remembered

Swarthmore Remembered By James A. Michener '29.  Born 1907, died 1997


James A. Michener '29 had served in the Navy and worked as a teacher and editor before authoring the more than four dozen books that would cement his reputation as a gifted storyteller. His first, Tales of the South Pacific and published when he was 40, won the Pulitzer Prize. Michener received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and honorary doctorates in five fields, including one in humane letters from Swarthmore. He died in 1997 at age 90.

Upon its centenary in 1964, the College published Swarthmore Remembered, a collection of essays by alumni, including novelist James A. Michener '29. Although even Michener did not know exactly when he was born, February 3, 1907, is now widely accepted as the day. In honor of what would have been his 100th birthday, his essay appears below, adapted for the web.

I had come to college on a scholarship, but so many vital things were happening about me that I experienced much difficulty in settling down, and two faculty meetings were convened to discuss tossing me out altogether. I was saved by Professor Robert Spiller, who advanced one of the most unusual defenses of a student ever offered: "No young man can be completely bad who writes his term papers in Miltonian blank verse."

I am deeply grateful to Dr. Spiller for having kept me in college. For me, Swarthmore was the difference between intellectual salvation and the outer darkness. In my adult life I have sometimes rationalized: "If I hadn't gone to college, I'd probably have been drawn into the trade-union movement and had just about as good a life." Surely there is some truth in this guess, for my generation came along when men were needed in that burgeoning movement. I would have made myself socially useful somewhere, but the intellectual fullness that I have enjoyed would probably have been denied me had I not stumbled into Honors work at Swarthmore.


Michener  was one of the first students at Swarthmore to graduate with highest honors in English literature.

My life since college has consisted pretty much of giving myself one Honors course after another, in one field after another, and it is interesting to recall that not one course I took in college has ever been of much practical use to me, but that the systems of attack I learned there have been invaluable. I learned what library was, how to use an index, and the steps required for reaching an intellectual conclusion. So many of my contemporaries learned none of these things and have been the poorer for it.

I am therefore amused to recall that the two things I needed most in the kind of life I've led I did not get at college. It must have been pretty obvious when I was in school that I would go on to some kind of study, but I was allowed to slip through with no French or German, nor did anyone ever bother to tell me that I was going to need those vortex languages. I was allowed to take Spanish, instead, and at several crises in my professional life I have been sorely penalized for my lack of French and German. At one point I was even prevented from obtaining a Ph.D. and in a huff I quit teaching. If Swarthmore had had a functioning guidance system in my days, I would have had my languages and would now be a happy college professor in Denver, Colorado, and when the reviews are bad I wish I were.

On the other hand, the useless Spanish I took has been a constant joy to me. I read a little every week, use it Spain and Mexico, and will probably draw upon it in one of the next books I plan to do. I cannot believe that either French or German could have given me the quiet pleasure, the long hours of second-class contentment that I've had with Spanish. From this experience I conclude that college students ought to be allowed to make irremediable mistakes.


"I'm not impressed when someone praises me for having done research," Michener once said. "I had a good education. I was taught by some very good professors. It would be astonishing if I couldn't do research."

The second requirement that I obviously needed was instruction in writing, and I got none. Swarthmore in those days held, and rightly so I now think, that it was not the College's responsibility to teach specific skills, either typewriting or fancy writing. I therefore learned neither and there have been times when I was irritated by this lack. But in later years I have met many young men and women who had crammed with courses on creative writing and analyses of the novel, and they have almost always seemed to me lacking in that primitive fire that sends a James Jones or a Theodore Dreiser or an Honore de Balzac to the tough job of hacking out human experiences from a background not of skills but of perceptive understandings.

It has also interested me to discover that men who can type with ten fingers find that they are writing faster than they can think - they compose sentences with a frightful facility that outruns their control of what goes into the sentence - and they are forced to abandon the typewriter and put their words down in longhand at a rate which leaves them in control. Those who type with two fingers maintain just about the right relationship between manual and mental control; but, unfortunately, I have learned to type so fast with my two college-trained fingers that I have constantly to be on guard against mere physical speed. For me, one and a half fingers would be exactly right, and I am grateful that Swarthmore taught me no more than it did.


Michener was also known for his philanthropy and gave more than $100 million to schools and libraries, including Swarthmore.
Above, he talks with students on a 1976 return visit to campus.

As for the social dedication which has marked my adult life, this stems solely from Swarthmore, and I often fear that had I not gone to that specific college I might not have developed the commitments I have. This is probably in error; anyone who graduated from any college into the Depression of 1929 would likely have developed social attitudes of some kind, and I suppose I would have done so, too. The difficulty seems to me to have been that many of these others did develop the attitudes, but they developed the wrong ones: despair, revenge, communism.

I was very fortunate that in college, during days of calm and prosperity, I attended seminars where many social issues were discussed abstractly, outside the pressures of an immediate situation, and there I developed certain attitudes which permitted me to face the real thing, when it came along, with an equanimity that ought to be one of the ideals of any college education.