James A. Michener, 1974

I first read Centennial in junior high, when a teacher recommended it to me.  I guess I would have been eleven at that point, so my understanding of the book was not particularly deep.  But it was still one of my great leveling‐up experiences as a reader.  This book is an epic.  The current paperback edition of Centennial runs to 1104 pages.  Perhaps more to the point, there is a paragraph in this book that begins with the phrase, “Three billion, six hundred million years ago”.  That is to say, this book is about the history of a town in Colorado, and Michener takes the bravura step of starting with the physical creation of Colorado.  That means that after a brief framing sequence it’s twenty‐six pages on geology.  The action consists of continents colliding, rivers eroding away mountains, glaciers carving out valleys.  Then come seventy pages in which all the characters are animals.  We start with a dinosaur and move on to horses, bison, beavers, rattlesnakes.  Humans finally appear on page 117.  Now instead of billions of years like chapter two, or millions of years like chapter three, we cover a mere eleven thousand or so, starting in the year 9268 BCE and continuing a bit past the first encounter between the Arapaho and Europeans in 1799.  And then we slow way down, and most of the rest of the novel takes place in the nineteenth century; the antepenultimate and penultimate chapters take us up to the Great Depression, and then the final chapter skips us ahead to the present of the 1970s.  Along the way we watch the transformation of the spot I marked on the map above, in the shadow of the Rockies of northern Colorado but far enough east of them to be decidedly on the plains, not in the mountains.  We meet fur traders and prospectors, soldiers and storekeepers, cowboys and cattle ranchers, beet farmers and wheat farmers.  We also run the socioeconomic gamut from titled English aristocrats to migrant Mexican field workers and from impoverished mothers psychologically disintegrating in the Dust Bowl to the oily real estate men who hold their mortgages.  The project of historical fiction tends to be diametrically opposed to that of many other stories, which regale us with tales of unusual people doing unusual things; historical fiction, or at least the type of which Centennial is a prime example, presents us with typical people doing typical things, so we can learn what everyday life was like in other places and times—​without the author having to rigorously source each line in the characters’ internal monologues the way a strict historian does.  Like I said in my last article, this is probably what I’m most interested in—​how our subjective experiences are shaped by history.  That is not what I was most interested in when I was eleven.  It was probably just the sheer entertainment value of settling into an multi‐generational saga that led me to then read Michener’s Texas and, when it came out, Alaska, books that covered different locations but that followed the same structure.  It wasn’t until after high school, and college, and grad school, that I got really into history, and for quite a while now I have wondered how Michener would hold up for me today.  Initially I thought I would try a Michener book I hadn’t read before—​he wrote so many in this format, from Hawaii to Chesapeake to The Covenant (about South Africa) to Poland to Caribbean and many more… but then I happened across the unabridged Centennial audiobook, and decided that, what the hey, I’d just revisit the one I imprinted on.

And it held up well!  At least for me, having become the sort of person for whom the question, “How would you like to read a book that gets into the minutiae of how absentee landlords gamed the Homestead Act of 1862 to construct huge cattle ranches on the cheap?” provokes a sincere, “Gadzooks, that sounds fascinating!”.  I had wondered whether I would end up wincing my way through the book, as so much of the popular fiction (and history!) I’d read by authors of Michener’s generation were basically showcases of casual, unexamined prejudice.  Not here; particularly where the main subaltern racial groups (indigenes in the nineteenth century, Mexicans in the twentieth) are concerned, Michener is ahead of his time in neither vilifying, ennobling, nor universalizing them.  He treats the members of those groups as, y’know, people, with their own agency and agendas… but also as members of distinct cultures, which he actually knows something about.  I had also feared that the book would be an example of sagebrush triumphalism, or perhaps just of American triumphalism in general.  It’s not.  Centennial doesn’t flinch in painting a portrait of America as a country built on enthusiastic genocide—​for Michener also avoids the formula we hear so often these days, when a politician says of a foreign power that “Our quarrel is with its government, not its people!” or of an organization that “The problem is the leadership, not the rank and file!”.  The people of the city of Centennial lustily cheer on the paramilitary squads who slaughter the unarmed Arapaho.  (They also lap up the far‐right invective in the local press, scoff at newfangled ideas about the dangers of unanchored topsoil, and fall prey to con men year after year.  Those looking to affirm Sarah Palin’s borrowed assertion that “we grow good people in our small towns” should try a different book.)  Most of the novel takes place along the frontier, and the frontier is a place where the default solution to any problem is murder—​a place where, as Hobbes wrote, people live with no security other than what their own strength and their own invention furnish them, and therefore live in continual fear and danger of violent death.  Their lives, while not always short, are invariably nasty and brutish.  Hobbes’s description of uncivilized life actually included two other adjectives: poor and solitary.  Not all the characters in Centennial are poor—​many become millionaires!—​but as for solitary, one of the most interesting meditations in the book is that which identifies the distinctive characteristic of American culture as loneliness.  Almost everywhere else in the world, a character muses, people live in extended families, clans, tribes; immigrants to the U.S. gather in communities of people with shared origins; but in the dominant culture of the place they’ve moved to, living on your own is what makes you an adult, and making it on your own with no help is the ideal which many claim, even though it can’t possibly ever be true.  Perhaps, this fellow speculates, this is the legacy of the frontier.  America was settled by people who struck out on their own: a cottage in a virgin forest, a farmhouse miles from the next one out on the desolate prairie.  If you didn’t have a predilection for that kind of solitary life, you wouldn’t survive.  It’s pop sociology to be sure, but for me at least it struck a chord.

Ultimately, Centennial is not even an example of human triumphalism.  On the positive side of the ledger, somehow the locale of the story does get more civilized with each generation, to the point that by the early twentieth century people are fleeing there from other countries in search of safety.  Crime still pays and cheaters still prosper, but unlike in revolutionary Mexico, rarely do the trains get blown up.  But as the region finally finds a respite from endless war—​from the millennia of wars between the different indigenous peoples, to the wars between those peoples and the white settlers, to the wars between the ranchers and farmers, and between the ranchers and sheepmen—​another issue comes to the fore, namely the environment (though since this book is from the ’70s, the word everyone uses is “ecology”).  This doesn’t come out of nowhere; a running theme throughout the book is the extent to which the newcomers throw off the balance of the ecosystem.  At first this is an adjunct to the theme of murderousness.  When trappers arrive looking for beavers, they kill them and kill them until they’ve been exterminated from the region, because their pelts make fashionable hats.  When hunters arrive looking for buffalo, they kill them and kill them until they’ve been exterminated from the region, because killing a few hundred animals in one sitting and leaving their corpses to rot in the sun is their idea of fun.  There’s a subplot about a trial in the 1970s chapter that covers the same ground, but by then the more pressing issues are things like air pollution, endangerment of the rivers, soil degradation.  One character comes up with a nifty phrase that sums up this thread running through the book by dividing up the types of people who have come to this land into “the takers and the caretakers”.  But surprisingly, that line isn’t from the book.  It’s from the TV series.

James A. Michener, John Wilder, Charles Larson, Jerry Ziegman, Paul Krasny, Harry Falk, Bernard McEveety, and Virgil W. Vogel, 1978-1979

I seem to recall that my teacher had mentioned that Centennial had been a big TV event a few years before—​if not, the cover of my copy, declaring it “A UNIVERSAL SPECTACULAR ON NBC”, would have brought it to my attention.  Attempting to capitalize on the enormous popularity of the 1977 miniseries Roots, Centennial ran for over twenty hours total (plus more than six additional hours of commercials!), and having cost $25 million to make (about $100 million in today’s dollars), it was the biggest‐budget television program up to that time.  Since it is much easier to watch television from the 1970s in 2018 than it was in 1985, I thought I’d finally check it out. 

After I’d finished, I looked at some recent reviews, and it looks like some people can’t get past the fact that this is a TV movie series from the ’70s.  I can understand that; my Pattern 22 admits that I have a hard time with the conventions of older films myself.  So, sure, some of the accents here are dodgy, the music cues are heavy‐handed in 1970s fashion, and many of the actors end up doing several episodes in old age makeup that is less than totally convincing.  (Interestingly, the thirtysomething actors William Atherton and Lynn Redgrave only really come into their own when they’re playing the elderly versions of their characters.)  Nevertheless, I give it a thumbs‐up.  I don’t have a very strong visual imagination, so it really did add something to see the events of this novel I’ve come to know so well taking place against the backdrop of real‐life Colorado.  It turns out that the miniseries is pretty much a straight translation of the book, with a lot of the dialogue drawn directly from its pages—​that surprised me, because when I’ve worked on projects adapting books for the screen, we would read the source material, keep a couple of the character names, and write a new story more or less from scratch.  The main change here is that several characters have been given more dramatic deaths than they get in the book.  A few characters—​surprisingly few!—​have been conflated, and some things are elided: a couple of minutes on geology, a few seconds on animals, and less than six minutes after the opening credits have concluded, white men have already arrived.  The sections on hunting, farming, and the Mexican Revolution are mostly or entirely gone, and a lot of material is reduced to flashbacks or even just references in dialogue.  This, too, is understandable—​even with over twenty hours to play with, not every last thing in an 1104‐page novel is going to make the cut.  My main complaint is that a lot more could have been included if so much of the second half of the series hadn’t been a flippin’ clip show!  “Hey, remember that sequence in episode six? That was pretty exciting, huh? Well, here it is episode eight, so let’s enjoy that again!”  This was clearly not a series designed for the era of binge‐watching.

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