Centennial, by James Michener

Centennial is a massive, but quite well detailed book by James Michener. The book is meant to focus on a single town in Wyoming, but through the history of that town and the people who lived there, the book covers much of the natural history of the United States and The Westward Expansion, as well as detailed events in Native American History and a good deal of the politics that were involved in many decisions regarding the Natives. Michener does admit, in a pre-note before the first chapter, that many of the characters in Centennial are fictional characters, but are also based off of existent people and/or groups.

Centennial is no easy read, and I don't suggest it for those of you who dont have patience, a good ability to absorb information, and those of you who have a great deal of time on your hands. I have included below, an excerpt from an examination of the book, which I wrote some time ago. The excerpt includes partial examinations of chapters 4 through 8, and some of the overall comparison of the book to Michener's own life. If you wish for a full copy of the examination, please feel free to e-mail me at bloodyscriptures@yahoo.com and I will do my best to dig it up.

Centennial shows many of Micheners creative talents, through an intricate narration of several creatures:

  • A Diplodocus, I believe, and her last few days of life.
  • An illustration/narration of the social heirarchy of a Buffalo herd, and two of it's male leaders. This section also includes an extended amount of info regarding the instinctual inadequacies and adequacies of the herds, and shows just how dedicated Michener is to his books, and the keeping of accurate information.
  • A glance at how the Beaver's came to North America and the story of a female beaver's search for a mate and for security.
  • A detailed (and oh god is it detailed) look at how many of the mountain ranges in N. America were formed, as well as what is going on under your feet even now. (Particularly with the tectonic plates)
  • And oh so much more...

Among some of the best things about this book, as I see it, are the included history behind the book, and the notes to the reader before and after each chapter. Most of them include details regarding inconsistencies between Michener's book and the real history, and work to correct them or address them as best as they can. In this Michener earns my utmost respect for his responsibility to the truth.

There is much more that I could say on this phenomenally and yet excruciatingly superb and well written novel. James Michener lives up to his reputation for being thorough and detailed to an extreme level, and if his book isn't exactly concise- well it's probably just as well because if it had been, then none of the characters would have been so well written that one almost wants to cry at the death of some. I recommend this book to anyone who wishes to look at our history through the eyes and ears of the people who lived it, and not necessarily the people who wrote about it.


Excerpt from: "Examination of J. Michener's Centennial" by BloodyScriptures

..I feel that Michener portrayed the Indians, in ‘The many coup of Lame Beaver’ as being much more civilized than most of the other places I’ve learned about them. Michener almost characterizes them as a somewhat primitive version of the Ancient Japanese Samurai- the Natives have their coups, much like the Samurai and their honor system. Michener also credits the early men with quite a bit of intelligence. On page 122, he writes of the early natives;

“He had a working vocabulary of twelve or thirteen-hundred words, few of which would be intelligible even a short time after his death, for in language a swift change was in process. He had considerable powers of thought, could plan ahead, could devise tactics for hunting animals which required co-operative movements carried out at precise intervals…”

Michener also credits to the Natives intelligence that few other sources portray, especially displayed with Lame Beaver’s many non-violent solutions to conflicts. He also shows a great deal of courage, as does Blue Leaf, when Lame Beaver knows that he will die if tied to a post and Blue Leaf knows that she will be cast out without a home when he dies.

The majority of the sources that I have seen have portrayed the Natives, or ‘Injuns’ as ruthless bloodthirsty savages who care nothing for treaties, and kill, rape, and pillage for entertainment, using only instinct as justification and as having conscience. Michener gives them advanced tactics, politics of a sort, social hierarchy, and above all else reason. This is important because it shows that the Natives had extreme amounts of intelligence, developed during brutal warfare, which more often than credited had fairly solid justification.

On that same note, however, Michener also shows the white man or non-native as being considerately more courteous to the ways of the Natives than most other sources (with the obvious exception of Sam Purchas) had previously shown them. It would seem that the old games of ‘Cowboys and Injuns’ that we played in our youth are both totally inaccurate and in some aspects not that far off.

Michener most definitely bridges the gap between the all too common belief that all Indian Natives were bloodthirsty, brutal, scalping savages, and the truth that, while sometimes violent, most of the Indians were much more noble and primarily more peaceful than the misconceptions had allowed. Micheners insight continually proves more and more helpful to the reader showing the flaws in the old stereotypes, as he acknowledges the bloodthirsty (at some points) Pawnee and Cheyenne, but also shows that there were peace loving tribes, such as the Arapaho, or “Our People.” Michener is seemingly unable to surrender to the former beliefs and this steadfast opinion assists one in discovering just how unique and honorable the Native American tribes of the late seventeen and early eighteen hundreds were...


..I must admit that while reading chapter 7, I was plagued with sorrow and depression. This chapter is so utterly sickening, the feeling that you know what’s coming and know what the solution is, but can do nothing to stop it has caused my stomach to turn over many times. I cannot say that what is written is not true, for I am certain that much of it is, and that disgusts me. The treatment of the Native Americans is, for the most part, appalling.

Much of chapters 6, 7, and 8 take place around the time that the Civil War was being started, being fought, and then being concluded. During this time period, the characters are given the advances or learn about the advances, such as The Revolver which was developed by Smith&Wesson and instituted into the Colt .45 pistol. The steam engine becomes part of the book as well, during this time period. The technology isn't nearly as important as what is going on in Washington D.C. and in the governmental politics, however. Because of the rapid change in the administration, and the bloody battles going on between different states, the natives are tossed around like rag dolls, and nearly every promise made to them is broken during this time of political anarchy. The government does try to make peace, but the majority of the attempts fail, due to many reasons above, and even more below.

I will admit that it seemed that the government had good intentions, but as we can see today, doing the right thing isn’t always doing the right thing. Even if they had another war going on, there was still no excuse for the way the Natives were treated. The flagrant violations of the treaties established were completely contradictory to the principles that the United States did, and still does express to hold true. As with many things in the current events, the U.S. had good intentions but little to back them up with. They had planned to help the Natives, but from what I can pull from the inter linea, the change in presidents did exactly what Broken Thumb had predicted. The new administration no longer acknowledged the previous treaty and acted without thinking, putting new and inexperienced men in charge of their future and the future of thousands of natives. We can see, once again in current events, that this does not go over well with anyone and often has unpredictable outcomes, but with predictably bad results.

Before I mention the positive actions taken, I must say that I am disgusted, but not surprised by the lack of commitment to follow through that the government expressed in these things. Many good actions and ideas were put to work, but few of them were followed through, and most of the ones that were followed through, did not last for long, nor work in the way intended. Among the positive actions taken were these:

  • The government attempted to form a treaty to unite all of the Indian Tribes, giving them the status of Nations. They sanctioned large amounts of land to each tribe, some getting in perpetuity as much as ninety thousand square miles or fifty-seven million acres. This act was, however, undermined by the lack of understanding pertaining to the land that was given, and as the United States began to realize how much potential the land they had given away possessed, they began thinking on ways to take it back. It is my belief that much of this scheming was subtly advocated by the new administration and the new president, James Buchanan.
  • The government sent some of the promised annual compensation money, but as with most of the promises, they whittled away the amount of time they would pay from fifty years to ten, and finally to none. Zendt spoke of a change in president bringing a breaking of the treaty, which was correct even before the new president had taken office. From what I can see is not written in a passage on page 430, Michener also holds James Buchanan for some responsibility before he became president;
  • “We can draft a good treaty…but when those Lancaster lawyers James Buchanan and Thaddeus Stevens get through with it in Congress, it won’t amount to much…"

    I must admit that I have probably just mentioned both the most prominent best, and the most obvious worst actions taken by the government. There were many other incidents, but few of them were sanctioned by the government, and most were carried out by non-government men. Although he was a government soldier, I don’t believe that Coloel Frank Skimmerhorn’s actions were truly sanctioned by the government, at least not initially—after General Asher was recalled, there was the pretense of military backup in his actions, though I think that the heads of the military back in Washington must have been mislead in what reports they received from the Colonel, and they must have been ignorant of how insane the lunatic was.

    It seems that the U.S. was merely absentminded, but I must reemphasize just how brutal the actions they took were, and how inexcusable the treatment was. I can think of no word that adequately describes how vile and deceitful the acts committed were. Particularly the ignorance of the administration regarding General Wade’s report, and the “fowl god damned cowardice” of the witnesses of the murder of Jimmy Clark sadden me beyond description. Col. Skimmerhorn appears to be one of the most despicably, insanely, contemptibly cruel men I know of, and his lack of conscience, and likewise the lack of conscience on the parts of Capt. Abel Tanner and the men under their command, show just how despicable men can be. This reminds me greatly, and I think that it must be based on The Massacre at Wounded Knee...


    ..Chapter 8 presents the cowboys of the 1800’s in a peculiar light. The cowboys of chapter 8 were very different from the stereotype cowboys of the John Wayne and Joel McCrea movie-era; they seem to be much less the gun-totin’ belly-washin’ lady-leavin’ break yer’ heart cowboys that old Westerns portrayed them to be. They are not, however, portrayed as any less skilled with the horse and lasso than the movies, and stories portray them to be. Actually Centennial probably gives more credit to their skill than most other sources.

    Centennial takes the majority of the good attributes, as well as some of the bad, and amplifies them. Michener does allow drinking to play a part in the story, but he paints the cowboys as being much more responsible and less careless than stories and movies portray them to be. The cowboys of Centennial seem to be much more the silent poet who lived in harmony with the prairies and the horses and the cattle than the cowboys of the older movies and stories.

    You may have noticed how the majority of my references to outside sources are to movies, and I think that that is primarily because the majority of the places that cowboys (as well as Indians) are referenced to is in movies, because it glorifies the ultimate tough guy, who can whip off a gunshot fastest. Michener takes a much more liberal, if you will, view and depicts the (as I see it) much more positive aspects of the cowboys, i.e. the non-violent skills, and fairly peaceful solutions, as well as showing the wide variety of men who rode the cattle runs of the west. In Chapter 8 alone, I believe that there were {The Confederacy|Confederate] and Union Soldiers, an Englishman, a former slave, a Mexican, several Texan's, and several hermit-like men, all of whom knew what they were doing, and for the most part did it without any mishaps.

    Unlike other sources, Centennial shows just how rough-and-tumble the cowboys were. He speaks of one thing that most other sources do not touch upon. Size;

    “Do not allow your artists to portray these cowboys as big men. Most of the good ones were slight. Boone McClure of that admirable Panhandle Plains Historical Museum…is my authority for the statement: ‘We had this convocation of famous living cowboys and three were picked as most representative. I’m only five-feet-six, and every one of those men was no taller than I.’

    Few Towering cowboys like those depicted by John Wayne and Joel McCrea, existed in those early days…John Skimmerhorn was tall, like his father, say 6-1, but he was not a Texas cowboy. R. J. Poteet was not over 5-6, with Canby, Person, Calendar and Savage coming in at about that level too…”

    As we can see from the above passage of Centennial, out of the outfit of 13 men that Chapter 8 revolves around, the tallest is 6’ 1’’ and of the rest, the 5 mentioned are the tallest- Micheners cowboys were not big men- just lean and skilled. The movies depicted the gruff, but well sophisticated if often drunk men as the cowboys of the west. Michener challenges this depiction in what I believe is a much more accurate portrayal of the cowboys of The Bull Runs.

    Quiet, restless and uneasy in towns, at home on the prairies. Appreciative of both the bad and the good of nature, determined and steady, and overall friendly, but not overly relaxed men, who know the value of a good horse, a good gun, and a good open sky. These are Michener’s cowboys...


    Interesting similarities between Centennial and Michener's own life...

    ..It would appear that many of the characters in Centennial share certain aspects of their lives with Michener. Almost every one of the characters had a major problem, usually a lack of money or some other aspect of their direct life impoverished, and almost all of them were helped out of kindness by a stranger who ended up becoming a large part of their lives. Elly Zahm came from an orphanage and became the writer of many famous letters regarding the western trail, including “The Litany of the Loser.” She came from a place of no hope and no real future, and became the ideal travelers wife with a good husband and hope for a good life.

    Also the majority of the positive or well-liked characters in Centennial shared a contempt for racism, with some exceptions. In Chapter 8 even the Confederate Soldiers and the Texans who had a racial bias towards Negroes and Mexicans, overcame them by the end of the chapter, and the two most obviously racist men (Sam Purchas and Col. Skimmerhorn) both ended up at the short end of the rope, Purchas literally. Michener expressed much sensitivity toward racism and cultural corruption in the articles about him, and likewise wrote in a way that put down both of those ideas in Centennial.

    Another very curious similarity between Michener and many of his characters is their shared view of philanthropy, though not necessarily in the same way. Michener donated millions of dollars to colleges, and to education. Many of his characters donated land to towns, money to charities (of a sort) and supplies to the Indian tribes who had begun to parish, resulting from a vehement lack of money, food, or land. Michener and his characters hold varied but often parallel views on charity, and what could be summed up as philanthropy.

    Michener also displays a love of education in Centennial, though in his novel he depicts it more as a passing on of knowledge of the trades, land, skills, and secrets rather than an education of language, geography, history. The characters in Centennial are often happy to teach younger men and women how to speak different languages, secrets in trapping beaver, how to conduct a good trade and how to direct a herd of cattle to name a few. Michener taught generations of students the complexities of history, while in his books he passed on knowledge of geography, psychology, literature and botany, among other skills.

    Michener did a most excellent thing when he wrote the massive, intricate, and extensive book that is Centennial. He showed what a person could be and do, while examining both the positive and negative aspects of the choices that accompanied such ideas and concepts. He also teaches the reader to appreciate what isn’t always presented, what isn’t always “in your face.” He asks you to examine what you read for things that are left unsaid but still spoken. In Centennial, Michener shows much of the value of his own experiences and those that we share, as well as what is to come. And Michener has taught me to read between the lines, or inter linea not only in what is written, but in people as well...


    Sources:

  • Centennial, by James Michener
  • The Panhandle Plains Historical Museum
  • The Michener Family
  • Cen*ten"ni*al (?), a. [L. centum a hundred + annus year.]

    1.

    Relating to, or associated with, the commemoration of an event that happened a hundred years before; as, a centennial ode.

    2.

    Happening once in a hundred years; as, centennial jubilee; a centennial celebration.

    3.

    Lasting or aged a hundred years.

    Thet opened through long lines Of sacred ilex and centennial pines. Longfellow.

     

    © Webster 1913.


    Cen*ten"ni*al, n.

    The celebration of the hundredth anniversary of any event; a centenary.

    [U. S.]

     

    © Webster 1913.

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