What is the general subject and thesis of the essay "Maps and Legends," and what is the author's tone in this essay in Maps and Legends by Chabon?

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Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

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The subject matter of the second essay in Maps and Legends is the map, with its legends, of the "unfinished, ongoing act of imagination" of Columbia, Maryland, a wholly designed city, that would become Michael Chabon's home. It is not so much the city that is the subject as it was not completed when Michael, while young, toured Exhibit Center with his parents to learn the inner wonders and truths of the city that was to be. It was the maps and legends of that city that Michael saw on display and has reproduced in the first pages of the book that are the subject. These inspired young Michael to make a connection between stories and maps, to see maps as suggestive stories and stories as detailed maps.

This leads to the thesis vaguely interwoven in this reminiscence, yet explicit in the title and confirmed in the third, following, essay about the story "maps" Sir Author Conan Doyle drew in his innovative and imaginative stories. Chabon's understanding came to be that stories provide maps to characters' journeys through the "landscaped open plaza(s)" and Lake Kittamanqundi-centered streets of their own fictional lives just as the cartographer's renderings in the Exhibit Center provided maps to the "People Tree," plaza and streets of not-yet-built Columbia. Each, too, has it's feel of airy unfinished potentiality, of mystery awaiting. This is the foundational basis of Chabon's famous protestation that he, a Pulitzer Prize winning Literary Fiction writer, writes to entertain, not to provide high-minded universal moral lessons.

Chabon's tone, predicated upon Conan Doyle's style since Chabon used to devote himself to imitating Doyle, is ironic and colloquial, with touches of both disappointment and affection. The irony can be heard in lines like this, which points out the bright prospects and failed ambitions of the visionaries of Columbia:

one of countless such teams of bright men in narrow neckties and short haircuts whose terrible optimism made the sixties such an admirable and disappointing time.

This quote also reveals the the combination of disappointment and affection, which is more personally illustrated in an earlier line that discusses the city's effect on "one little kid," himself:

for all its promise and ambition, Columbia may have changed nothing but one little kid.

The colloquial tone, employing allusions to pop-culture, can be heard in this line with an allusion to a now legendary popular TV series:

[there] stood a modest high-rise, white and modernistic in good late-sixties Star Trek style, called American City Building.

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