Michener’s Best Seller Explores Jewish History

James A. Michener’s The Source, a massive and profound novel using the device of a fictional archaeological dig to explore the history of the Jewish people, remained at the top of best-seller lists for thirty-nine weeks. Its popularity showed how the new state of Israel, built on ancient foundations, had captured the imaginations and sympathies of many Americans.

Summary of Event

James A. Michener first gained widespread literary attention for his Tales of the South Pacific
Tales of the South Pacific (Michener) (1947), which he wrote based on experiences and lore accumulated while stationed in the southern Pacific islands during 1944 and 1945. Its success—as a book it won the Pulitzer Prize Pulitzer Prizes;literature , and it was made into a musical theater production and a film—established him as. one of the leading American writers to emerge from the crucible of World War II. In some ways, it set precedents for the equally popular novels he subsequently wrote. Shining through all of these works is the author’s fascination with different ethnic groups and their histories, and his ability to empathize with those on both—or all—sides of most political and cultural conflicts. He also became known for using a distinctive structure of vignettes or short stories to illuminate a larger theme. Source, The (Michener)
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[kw]Michener’s Best Seller The Source Explores Jewish History (June, 1965)
[kw]Source Explores Jewish History, Michener’s Best Seller The (June, 1965)
[kw]History, Michener’s Best Seller The Source Explores Jewish (June, 1965)[History, Micheners Best Seller The Source Explores Jewish]
Source, The (Michener)
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Michener, James A.
Strauss, Helen

By the time he began The Source (1965), Michener was a writer at the top of his game in almost every way. For the previous ten years, he had wanted to write a novel about the Middle East, dealing with both the region’s history and its current quandaries. Strange enough, for almost all this time he had envisioned the novel centered on Islam. Shortly before starting to write the novel, though, he visited the ruins of a crusader’s castle near Haifa and the basic idea of The Source took shape all at once in his mind.

Following his usual work methods, in the summer of 1963, Michener settled into a room on the twelfth floor of the Dan Carmel Hotel in Haifa. Surrounded by his typewriter, books, and the urban streets and distant hills of the new Israel, he began to write The Source. Working “on location” near its setting—a method only a minority of authors use—suited Michener well, as many of the experts he needed to consult for background were near at hand. He could travel easily to the real cities like Akko and Jerusalem that frame the story he was creating of the imaginary city Makor. Most of all, he could concentrate on writing. This is what he did for virtually every day in the mornings and early afternoons, with the rest of the day spent on research.

Michener had planned to complete the book by January, 1964, and to return home to Pennsylvania to work on President John F. Kennedy’s reelection campaign for the rest of the year. However, when Kennedy was assassinated, Michener lost interest in politics and threw all his efforts into writing, making The Source perhaps a longer and more complex book than it might otherwise have been.

The Source explores the history of the Jewish people by following their vicissitudes in Makor, a fictional town in “the Galilee.” The story centers on members of the Ur family over many centuries. The first Ur dwelled in a cave almost 12,000 years b.c.e., but Ur and his family made the first innovations that led to civilization: raiding beehives for honey, building a primitive house near a spring, and saving grains from wild wheat and planting them. Ur’s wife was the first to recognize that nature’s bounties were at the mercy of mysterious natural forces, and was the first to offer wheat—first to the elements and then to a rock that served as humankind’s “spokesman to the storm.”

The beginnings of Jewish identity did not come until many centuries later, when a walled town had grown up on the site, with an olive grove and an olive press outside its walls; the grove and press were operated by Ur’s descendant Urbaal. To the town came Joktan, a wanderer from the desert, bringing his extended family and his flocks, and his idea of a god called El, who lives nowhere and everywhere and who talks to him. Joktan was the first of the Habiru to settle in the Canaanite town. As the centuries went on his descendants took up agriculture and sometimes trades, intermarried with the townspeople, and sometimes took part in the rites of their neighbors’ place-bound deities.

Ur had only to battle wild animals and nature, but in almost each later episode, a Jew stands up to a superior force and says “No!” in the name of this God. The consequences of this “no” can be torture and death for many, and dispersion of the other Jews. Makor is destroyed four times before its final demise in the chaos of the crusader wars. Each time, kin of former inhabitants straggle back, to build a new town on the ruins of the old.

James A. Michener.

(© John Kings)

The novel answers the question of how the Jews survived centuries of disaster, persecutions, and dispersal, while other cultural groups fell into the dust of history. They survived precisely because they clung to their deity and his difficult law, because doing so kept alive their identity as a people. Michener raises another question in the novel: How, and if, will all the diverse groups with a claim on the land of Israel manage to get along, now that a modern Jewish state is established there? Despite his hopes for the venture, Michener does not answer this question.

The Source is written as fifteen chapters of episodes from the past history of Makor. These are framed by scenes from a present-day archaeological dig at its site. The expedition’s three leaders are from the area’s three faiths: John Cullinane, an Irish American Catholic archaeologist in charge of the project; Dr. Ilan Eliav, the Israeli government’s representative at the site; and Jemail Tabari, an Arab, Oxford-trained archaeologist, who is coincidentally a lineal descendant of Ur. These three professionals can argue passionately about the issues but still remain friendly. It is by no means certain that the other inhabitants, whom they represent, can or will do the same. At best the author seems to hold out the hope that, with the same type of hard-won goodwill (Tabari and Eliav fought on opposite sides in the 1948 struggle that led to Israel’s statehood) and rationality, peace can be reached.

Michener finished the novel and hand delivered it to his agent Helen Strauss in Jerusalem in late spring, 1964. Months of meticulous editing followed. The Source was eagerly awaited by the American reading public—and by the press. Few plot details had leaked out before the book’s release in June, 1965. When it did appear, reviews were mixed. Sales of the book, however, were spectacular. The Source immediately shot to the top of fiction best-seller lists. It stayed in this position for thirty-nine weeks, and on the top-seller lists altogether for seventy weeks.

For high book sales, an author usually needs to be well known and the publisher willing to promote the book with a large advertising budget. Both were the case with The Source. However, these conditions are necessary, but not sufficient, to attain best-seller status. The book’s topic also needs to touch readers. The Source did this as well. Of all the new nations that emerged after World War II, Israel evoked the most complex reactions beyond its own boundaries. The courage and romance of a persecuted people returning to their ancestral homeland, the misery and anger of Arabs summarily ejected from their homeland, and the claim of three religions to the same Holy Land—all combined to make a novel about Israel’s history a focus of intense interest. Added to this was the public’s perpetual fascination with archaeology, and the recent discoveries of the Nag Hammadi material and Dead Sea scrolls that spurred interest in biblical origins even more.

The Source succeeded in informing readers about Middle Eastern and Jewish history, while at the same time entertaining readers and evoking sympathy for the hard work of nation building. Altogether, The Source was one of Michener’s most ambitious and most successful works.


Unfortunately the era of Jewish-Arab reconciliation that The Source’s archaeologists hoped for did not occur. The state of Israel has been wracked by several wars and by long periods of violent Palestinian protest in the years since 1965. However, the historical background portrayed so eloquently in The Source remains relevant.

Perhaps the book’s biggest long-term impact—although impossible to measure—is its contribution to understanding among its readers who belong to different faith groups. It remains one of the crowning achievements of Michener’s long and prolific career. Source, The (Michener)
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Further Reading

  • Becker, George J. James A. Michener. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1983. A biographical and critical study that includes brief summaries and interpretations of The Source’s individual chapters.
  • Joseph, Richard A. Richard Joseph’s Bestsellers: Top Writers Tell How. West Sussex, England: Summersdale, 1998. In turnaround fashion, Michener talks about the work habits and stylistic choices he believes have contributed to his success as a writer.
  • May, Stephen J. Michener: A Writer’s Journey. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2005. Accounts tell how the author’s geographic journeys parallel his literary ventures. Describes the social and intellectual influences on writing the novel.

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