How accurate was Michener's The Source when it was written?
March 12, 2022 10:40 PM   Subscribe

I've recently been (re-)reading James Michener's The Source, and have noticed a number of inaccuracies in its historical account. Does Michener's writing reflect genuine historical consensus (or informed reasonable opinion) from the 1960s? Or was his take as a novelist idiosyncratic even when he wrote it?

I've recently been enjoying learning more ancient history of the Bronze and Neolithic Ages in Mesopotamia and the Levant, and for some reason this kindled a hankering to re-read The Source. In addition to its very 1965 casual sexism in talking about female archaeologists (seriously creepy male gaze and minimization of female expertise), I'm also noticing a number of discrepancies in both historical details and general historical perspective between Michener's presentation versus the more recent historical accounts I've been exposed to recently. This has made me curious: how carefully researched was this novel, really? Are these inaccuracies due to improvements in our understanding over the last 60 years of archaeology, or would archaeologists at the time have also recognized these things as incorrect?

I'm not too far into the book yet, but so far I've noticed a number of things that make me go "huh?" as I'm reading. For example, his description of the first Neolithic farmers in the Levant strikes me as almost quaint in how simplistically he paints their society. My understanding of late Mesolithic and early Neolithic societies, as described from more recent archaeological and anthropological evidence, is that they were highly sophisticated and complex, albeit technologically limited, as would be expected from anatomically modern humans. Michener portrays them as child-like naifs, only barely beginning to grapple with concepts about the forces governing their world and their place within it. This seems quite silly now, but does seem plausible to me that this could represent a mainstream academic perspective from the 1960s.

On a less interpretive and more factual level, in the second story of the novel, set in 2200 BCE, there's a character who is a Hittite merchant living in the Levant. However if I'm understanding the other sources I've been learning from, the people who would become the Hittites were only just migrating into Anatolia at around this time, and the Hittites as a people and empire wouldn't exist for several hundred years to come. This has made me wonder if the discrepancy is due to improved dating of archaeological sites over the last 60 years, or if Michener either didn't understand or didn't properly research the timeline as it was known in the early 1960s when he was writing. Or perhaps I'm misunderstanding my other sources, and the Hittites were indeed already well-established as a people by the end of the 23rd century BCE.

This is of course just a novel, and I'm not looking to The Source to be an accurate source (pun not intended) of historical information. I'm just curious to know whether its inaccuracies or anachronisms reflect a less complete picture of the history at the time it was written, or if it never accurately reflected the best academic knowledge of the time.
posted by biogeo to Media & Arts (6 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
His research was good for the time and the sexism and lack of perspective was reflected also in academic writers of the time.

Historical viewpoints have changed enormously since then.
posted by Jane the Brown at 9:54 AM on March 13, 2022 [2 favorites]

At my synagogue the 10th grade religious school class used it as a text....and the woman my parents hired to look after me and my brother while they went to Scotland hid it with my copy of Fear of Flying.
posted by brujita at 2:48 PM on March 13, 2022 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: As a follow-up, I'd be curious to learn more about when some of the relevant archaeological knowledge was discovered. I was particularly surprised by the Hittites appearing so many centuries earlier than would now seem plausible, since Hattusa had already been under excavation for decades by that time and I would have thought that the relevant dates were already reasonably well narrowed down by the 1960s. But on further thought it occurred to me that the Anatolian hypothesis for the origin of Indo-European languages was only ruled out within the last 10-20 years, and perhaps in the 1960s it was thought that the Hittites were indigenous there and already well established long before Hattusa was founded. Knowing when and how we learned about ancient history can be as interesting as the history itself, hence my curiosity.
posted by biogeo at 5:34 PM on March 13, 2022

Best answer: Here is a critical review of The Source from The Jewish Observer (p. 14). They have a lot of the same type of issues that you do, except directed towards the things that are relevant to Jewish history, practice, etc. They don't like his portrayal of King David, the Judaism of that time, or a portrayal of a religious woman. Later on, he gets a bunch of details about Jewish law & practice all wrong (in particular regarding a child born of an adulterous union). Etc etc.

Frankly, none of those things bother me at all.

BUT. Whenever reading any "fact" in the book, or any particular historical detail, I would assume that Michener is using his license as a historian and . . . making it up. It might happen to be literally true but it is just as likely to be unknown or perhaps even completely wrong.

That's because Michener is telling a story as a novelist not writing history as a historian. He is telling big stories that make the major points that he wants to make, and shifting all details as needed in service to that.

Talk about research and verisimilitude are part of a novelist's stock in trade. Their job is to make the story believable - to make you buy it. It's the same level as claiming that they received a mysterious manuscript that they are now publishing, or received a series of letters outlining a fantastic story that they are now publishing, or found a videocassette made by three people going out to make a documentary who disappeared and never returned, and so on.

These are devices intended to frame the story and help the reader suspend belief and accept the story as a real occurrence.

This goes for Michener, too. The whole story of all the research, etc etc etc, is designed to encourage the reader to take the story seriously. And you certainly can take it seriously as Michener's story - his versions - of the major themes and ideas of the history of this area. But I totally would not take any specific detail as being correct (or, really, as intended to be correct in the historical sense). He's telling the story he wants to tell.

Regarding the second story of the novel, set in 2200 BCE, and the Hittite etc found there:

- Clearly here he is trying to tell a story about the people and religious ideas that were in the Levant area a little bit before the time documented in the Bible, for example starting with the story of Abraham. He's giving sort of a backstory to where did the various gods and idols of the bible come from (particularly this is a story about the development of Malek), how did the various ways of worshipping these gods start and what function did they play, where the idea of the God of Abraham/the Israelites came from, where the various peoples of the area came from, etc.

- In doing this he's clearly trying to push the time frame to a few hundred years before the time of Abraham etc, so that he can tell the story he wants to tell without being bound too much by actual historical things.

- He is clearly trying to give his own view in a fictionalized of how all these things might have worked or might have developed but I don't think you can give the ideas any more particular historical validity than they. It's an imaginative exploration of "how things might have happened."

- Specifically regarding the "Hittites": Michener clearly has the "Biblical Hittites" in mind and NOT the Hittite Kingdom you mention that has been identified via archaeology. Partly he is using the term Hittite - and also other groups like Amorite - because they are mentioned in the Bible and thus will be familiar to his readers in that context.

So he's using Hittites in the biblical sense of "a people living among the Israelites". Those people may or may not bear any relationship to the Hittite Empire that developed in Anatolia and that scholars study (in fact there is debate on that point still).

And in this story he's not really even telling the story of Israelites, Hittites, and Amorites per se but rather of proto-Israelites, proto-Hittites, proto-Amorites, etc - the ancestors of those people mentioned in the Bible as living in Canaan, but a few hundreds years before those Biblical mentions, so that we can see the origin of the beliefs and practices that are mentioned in the Bible.

Part of this story is how worship of various gods like Malek developed, the role they played in society, and how the Israelite belief in one god might have started to develop as a reaction to these other gods. Human sacrifice is mentioned in the Bible, so are temple prostitutes, so are numerous gods of various things. How did all those things develop and what societal purpose did they serve?

Those are the kinds of things the story is addressing.

Another important part of the story is how the land of Israel is a focal point of the three continents, a place where all sorts of people meet and mingle and sometimes live together comfortably or uncomfortably, and where the major empires tend to meet and clash. (If it wasn't clear enough from the story itself there is a short interlude back at "The Tell" that lays the theme out very specifically.)

In that sense the various nationalities mentioned here - Hittites, Amorites, Egyptians, the "Habirus," etc - are maybe or maybe not historically accurate to this time period etc. That is not the point. The point is to illustrate the land of Israel/Canaan as a big old mixing pot where the people of the north (Hittites), south (Egypt), mountains (Amorites), sea (Sea Peoples), and so on all mix together and sometimes clash but also sometimes just live together, trade, and so on.

When he talks about it being 'historically accurate' it's because he believes he is communicating the big ideas and major themes of the history of the area accurately - not because he thinks he is getting the exact dates and places of the Hittites, Amorites, Sea People, early Hebrew precursors, etc etc etc, exactly right.

That was a very long rant, but:

TL;DR: Michener believes he was getting the major themes and great ideas of the history of this area right. I definitely would not trust that he is getting any specific historical fact or detail correct - he is bending all of those things as needed to his narrative purposes.
posted by flug at 11:59 PM on March 13, 2022 [5 favorites]

Best answer: P.S. If you want a decent idea of what a synthesis of the history, archeaology, etc, of this area might have looked like around the time Michener was writing The Source, you could have a look at Asimov's The Near East: 10,000 Years of History.

I could be wrong, but I do almost get the idea that Michener might have been consulting this book or others that make similar points. Take a look, for example, at the section "The Changing of the Gods" in Chapter 3. Asimov describes the various gods, their function, how they developed over time, and so on.

This is the same type of thing that Michener is trying to do in the second story of The Source, but in fictional rather than factual form.

Even the story of Marduk as outlined by Asimov there is one that Michener is pretty clearly telling in this second story (Level XIV). Asimov tells how each city had its own god and as cities conglomerated into empires the various local gods tended to agglomerate into a pantheon. The god associated with the pre-eminent city became the head god.

Marduk started out as a minor god associated with the city of Babylon. But as Babylon ascended to the head of a great empire, Marduk ascended to become head of the pantheon.

In Level XIV, Michener is pretty clearly casting his fictional Makor as Babylon in its early days as it developed the proto-diety Marduk (or Malek as Michener spells it). In its earliest form, why did this particular bloodthirsty god develop? What was its purpose in society? And so on.

Similarly with Astarte/goddess of love & fertility.

This was the starting point of gods like this in a single small city. He's showing how they started. Later they become widely known - dominant.

That is the exact story that Asimov is telling, too.

Coincidence? Maybe.

It's also a sort of just-so story of the type fiction authors love. "How did this thing that you read about in the Bible get started? Here is the story . . . "
posted by flug at 12:18 AM on March 14, 2022 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: flug, thank you so much for that detailed and thoughtful response, it's exactly what I was hoping for! I'm marking as best answer but if there's anyone else who has thoughts on the subject I'm very interested to hear more.

One of the things that kindled my interest in picking this book up again was an offhand positive reference to it by an archaeologist during a lecture I was watching about excavations at Megiddo. That plus the book's reputation for being well-researched led me to think of it as being perhaps more strongly anchored in established historical details than it seems to be.

I can think of one or two works of popular media that portray my own field in ways that, while highly fictionalized at the level of details, nevertheless give an accurate and rich portrayal of the human experience of working in the field, and which I routinely recommend on that basis. In retrospect I imagine the positive recommendation of The Source by the archaeologist was probably in that vein.
posted by biogeo at 9:22 AM on March 14, 2022 [1 favorite]

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