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University of Mannheim School of Humanities Lecture ICS
Take Home Essay on Michener, Centennial
Michener’s Centennial describes the history of the American West based on the fictional city Centennial, which is located in the plains of northeast Colorado. In this connection, the author uses a particular viewpoint to trace the development of that region and its inhabitants. This essay will consider the question what constitutes the specific point of view which makes this novel so interesting and outstanding.
The first specific characteristic drawing the reader’s attention is the fact that the novel consists of a framing narrative and an embedded narrative. The framing narrative tells the story from the perspectives of Dr. Lewis Vernor as well as Paul Garrett and occupies mostly the first and last chapter, but the ends of the chapters between them also include scientific insertions of Dr. Vernor - every single one introduced with the words “caution to US editors” (Michener 116). In the preface respectively the first chapter the reader finds out that Dr. Vernor is an historian and does a research report for some editors of the US magazine who want to publish a book written by Carol Endermann (cf. Michener 5). He has to verify the historical facts which is why he travels to Centennial. In the last chapter he meets Paul Garrett, a descendant of many of the characters from previous chapters (cf. Michener 949 et seqq.). In contrast to the framing narrative, the embedded narrative comprises of the majority of the text including a set of stories. Many characters tell this part of the novel, for example several settlers like Levi Zendt, a Mennonite from Pennsylvania (cf. Michener 276 et seqq.), or Hans “Potato” Brumbaugh, a Volga German farmer who establishes the sugar beet industry in Colorado (cf. Michener 567 et seqq.). Because of the novel’s structure - the embedded narrative, the framing narrative and the insertions - the reader experiences very differentiating views on the history of Colorado. The insertions are especially important because they pull the reader back to reality with their scientific criticism.
Composed of many points of view through the use of a lot of different protagonists, Michener draws an all-embracing portrait of the American West from prehistory until 1973, which is why the novel is written in an omniscient point of view. He involves not only human beings, but also animals and the land itself and illustrates this at the beginning of every chapter with a fictional graphic or map. For example, the second chapter broaches the issue of the formation and change of the earth and the landscape of the later Colorado (cf. Michener 26 et seqq.) and one can study the graphic “structure of earth” (Mich- ener 27) at the beginning of the chapter. After these geological viewings, Michener passes over to the animals and devotes the chapter “The Inhabitants” (Michener 51) to them. He describes the time before the arrival of humans from the viewpoints of a female dinosaur of the species “diplodocus” (cf. Michener 55 et seqq.), an eohippus - an ancestor of the horse -, a bison named Rufous, a beaver, an eagle and a rattlesnake. The following chapters center on humans and their points of view with an enormous spectrum of many diverse protagonists giving an impression of the development of the plains. Michener creates a link between past and present uniting the paths of lives of women, men, children, Native Americans, European settlers and Hispanic Americans. He does justice to the ethical pluralism of the American West by respecting not just one point of view. As a result, the reader participates in the life of the Arapaho Native American Lame Beaver (cf. Michener 119 et seqq.) as well as in the life of Frank Skimmerhorn, a Colonel who directs his troops to massacre Native Americans (cf. Michener 462 seqq.). The author leads the reader through exciting times and let him among other things make the acquaintance of the cowboy James “Jim” Lloyd (cf. Michener 515 et seqq.), the trappers and fur traders Jacques “Jake” Pasquinel and Alexander McKeag (cf. Michener 189 et seqq.), the criminal Wendells, a family of actors (cf. Michener 729 et seqq.) that makes its luck in Centennial, or the Grebe family which attempts dryland farming and slips into misery (cf. Michener 834 et seqq.). For this reason it can be said that Michener depicts the interdependencies of land, animals and humans by means of several viewpoints and creates in this way a microcosm which maps the development of the American West.
The different points of view that form the novel have one specificity in common, namely the mixture of fictional and non-fictional elements which make Michener’s novel not historical, but historizing. On the whole, the story is based on actual historical events and Michener uses his literary freedom to create fictional protagonists and events which make the history more thrilling. For example, the historian Peter Iverson writes about the impact of the arrival of the horse on Native American culture, that “[...] the horse changed them by giving them greater mobility. It increased the territory they could try to control and expanded their capacity to hunt bison and carry out raids” (Iverson 31). Michener takes this up and let Dr. Vernor explain that the arrival of the horse is important for the Arapaho not because it changes their customs but because it makes their lives easier:
[.] the arrival of the horse within a tribe like the Arapaho changed not one degree the basic attitudes which the Arapaho had developed over the preceding two thousand years. They were already nomads; the horse merely increased their range. They already had the travois; the horse could merely lug a bigger load. They were already tied to the bison; the horse allowed them to get to him more swiftly and to kill him in a less wasteful way. They already had a society constructed around coup and war party; the horse merely encouraged them to engage in raids which covered more territory. [...] The horse merely intensified customs already in existence. (Michener 185 et seq.)
This excerpt shows that Michener’s fictional novel contains non-fictional elements which are based on a real background. The mixture produces an interesting view on the development of the American West and whereas the reader gets involved in the storyline of Centennial he also learns some historical facts.
In the end it’s the melange of framing and embedded narrative, several perspectives, real background and fictional elements that constitutes the specific point of view which captivates the reader and makes Michener’s work unique.
Iverson, Peter, Native Peoples, Native Histories, New York 1994.
Michener, James A., Centennial, New York 1974.
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