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James M. Fenwick

Books You Should Know ...

Tales of the South Pacific

(28 June 1948)

From Labor Action, Vol. 12 No. 26, 28 June 1948, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the ETOL.

Tales of the South Pacific
by James A. Michener
Pocket Books. 312 pages, 25 cents

This is a Pulitzer Prize winner – not the great novel of World War II whose appearance is still being awaited.

Tales of the South Pacific is a collection of fourteen short stories (five fewer than in the original edition), given a rough continuity through successively leading up to a story of an assault landing, the account of which forms the climax of the book.

Only two stories have much value. The first is An Officer and a Gentle-man. It is the neatly laid-in story of a Princeton man, woman-hungry on a Pacific island, whose Philadelphia Main Line snobbishness prevents him from taking a pretty nurse. The second is Fo ‘Oolla’, a variation of the East-is-East-and-West-is-West theme involving a marine lieutenant, a betel-juice-stained Tokinese named Bloody Mary, and her vision of a daughter.

These are good because Michener obviously understands the type involved (John O’Hara’s country-club set from Appointment in Samara who have beaten the draft into the navy) and the problems which confront them.

The other stories are not so good. Wine for the Mess at Segi is a banal story of island-hopping by plane all over the jungle circuit searching for Christmas liquor. A Boar’s Tooth is little more than a lecture in anthropology. Frisco is a patronizing description of enlisted men before an assault landing.


What have we the right to demand of a story coming out of World War II?

If would seem that if should, at least, accomplish what the great novels of World War I did – debunk the glory. Yet The Landing on Kuralei, the climax of these tales, is crude patriotism, amateurishly evoked. The characters should be authentic. Yet Michener (like the far subtler Stephen Spender in European Witness) treats enlisted men like Shakespearean rustics – as comedy relief. Nor does the author achieve the specific atmosphere of war: loneliness, hopelessness, fear, death.

We have the right to expect more, in one respect or another – small things like more realistic dialogue, some understanding of the plight of the enemy, some sort of social insight into the war, an integrating concept – even Ernst Jünger’s fiery vision of the war of matèriel – suitable to the vast totality of this war.

Michener does occasionally strike a suggestive chord: the unvoiced fear and the inner gratefulness for those who voice it, the transmission of courage by example, the “inner caves” men fled to, the chain of causation ending at the attack on the pillbox, the chain of consequences which follow, the island loneliness, the primal magnetism exerted by women in combat areas, departures, the jump-off moment, the arbitrariness of death.

But these insights are never deepened. What emerges is a marketable collection of gags, alcoholics, the currently fashionable anti-racism, hard-boiled patriotism, sexual freedom (with natives), and musings of the Ye Olde Spittoone Philosopher type.

Hollywood take it away!

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