The historical novel seems to be enjoying a rebirth in our literary tradition. Particularly in the recent television broadcasts of James A. Michener’s Centennial and Alex Hailey’s Roots, we see the phenomenal success of watered-down history on the video screen. An accompanying surge in book sales suggests we may be in for more of the same rediscovery of our origins. Whether such a movement should be welcomed is debatable, but, in any case, writers are sure to come forth with all kinds of derivations on the already successful theme.
Some writers, of course, are old hands at employing the credibility of history as a basis for fiction. In doing so, they have sought to provoke realizations about where we are now based on where we were at some past time. The lessons of history, ignored or not, usually provide compelling reading matter, as wise novelists have long known.
Chesapeake, James Michener’s latest novel, in its examination of nearly four hundred years of American history, follows a pattern already familiar to his readers. Through strong characterization and an episodic organization, Michener weaves a compelling tale of a community on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Centered on a fictional town called Patamoke located on the very real Choptank River, the novel traces events from the period prior to English colonization through the Watergate years. It concentrates on the lives of several early families and their descendants, the generations that, along with later immigrants, populate the region. But perhaps most important, Chesapeake creates a scenic paradise through Michener’s masterful description. It is this powerful sense of place that unifies the book. At every turn, human interaction with the natural environment is an underlying theme of the narrative.
Michener’s love for the Chesapeake Bay and its environs is evident. His painstaking detail superbly captures the spirit of the place, surrounding readers with the sense of comfort which bay area inhabitants have long enjoyed. Moreover, Michener seems to adhere to E. M. Forster’s principle that a “spirit of place” informs the actions of those men and women who are sensitive to the spirit. Like Forster, Michener sees an inextricable bond between men and their surroundings, so that the generally tranquil setting encourages serenity in the affairs of men. Certainly there are tensions that arise, but they are subsumed to the overall tendency toward tranquillity. Very often the most tension-filled moments in the novel result from natural catastrophes, when men are pressed by elemental forces to overcome the power beyond their control. In general, however, Chesapeake emphasizes that this region is a land of pleasant living, a place conducive to human life and inviting habitation.
As a body of water, the Chesapeake Bay is unique in the world. Fed primarily by the Susquehanna River at the north, the bay maintains a variable mixture of salt and fresh water which changes concentrations with the seasons. For the most part, the waters are shallow except for a deep central channel and notches where various side rivers join the main current. In these broad expanses of shallow brackish water vast numbers of shellfish and finned fish make their homes. Along the extensive shoreline, wading birds and migratory waterfowl inhabit saltmarshes teeming with small fish and other wildlife. Situated midway along America’s east coast, the bay moderates both the winter’s cold and the summer’s heat by virtue of its constant sea-land breezes. Without doubt, life on the bay is comfortable, providing for man’s needs with everything from spectacular scenery to abundant food supplies.
Into this scene Michener first introduces a lone Susquehannock brave on his way south in search of a haven. Driven from his own warlike tribe because of his pacifist nature, Pentaquod comes to the Choptank in search of peace and finds a paradise. He soon learns that shellfish in the estuary waters are available for easy taking. He sees that waterfowl are everywhere. In time, he connects with the peace-loving Choptank Indians and is selected as their chief. What he recognizes at his first encounter with this region is how easy life here can be. Later, after he has encountered the first white men to explore the Chesapeake, he realizes that these new men will soon recognize what he has come to know, and their recognition means the doom of his people.
In part this doom is a threat to the ecology of the region, for with English colonization a change must occur. The early settlers carve plantations out of the wilderness, clearcutting virgin forests to make way for agriculture. Immense tobacco fields replace what were endless miles of timber. By nature tobacco production requires extensive land use because the plants quickly exhaust minerals from the soil, making mandatory further clearing operations. Combined with continual settling on the part of new immigrants and the proliferation of descendants, these land requirements make certain the destruction of valuable tracts of timber. In most cases the wood is merely burned, there being no ready use for the tremendous amounts of wood cut. To the modern mind such waste is appalling, a fact Michener emphasizes while establishing the necessity of the early practices.
Continually through the novel Michener underscores the characters’ reaction to the abundant resources at their disposal. As with the land, the wildlife is used rather recklessly, eventually hunted in wholesale slaughters to provide income for the hunters and supply restaurants in Baltimore and Annapolis, on the other side of the bay. A lengthy description of duck hunting and a special type of gun used to kill hundreds of ducks at a time vividly enforces the idea that environmental exploitation becomes a way of life in the region. In the midst of bountiful game, the gamest men make their fortunes.
(The entire section is 2436 words.)