Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2436
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.
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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.
Later, as game and territory are diminished, pressure to conserve creates tensions between the conservation-minded and those committed to exploiting the land. Enforcing legal restrictions in an area where individual freedom has long governed men’s actions provokes confrontation, in some cases leading to violence. Michener is adept at presenting all sides of the argument and examining its eventual resolution. As a matter of course, he centers his examination in the lives of individual characters, probing motivation in terms of past experience and individual perceptions of need and greed.
Michener’s characterizations are realistic, and he probes the diverse types which make up the Patamoke community. Pentaquod and his brethren are early eliminated from the scene, though through a marriage into one of the lower class families, the Turlocks, the Indian strain is minimally preserved. Central to the novel are the Steeds, founders of the original tobacco plantation and the dominant agricultural operation in the area. The Steeds are gentlemen descended from Edmund Steed, an English Catholic fleeing persecution in his homeland. Eventual slave owners, the Steeds represent a conservative element tied closely to tradition and maintenance of the status quo. It is in their interest to foster stability and economic growth based in an agrarian social structure.
Counterbalancing the Steeds are the Paxmores. Edward Paxmore is himself the victim of persecution at the hands of New England Puritans. Whipped and tortured out of Massachusetts, the Quaker comes to the peaceful Choptank and finds a home where he can employ his considerable skills as a woodworker. His wife, Ruth Brinton Paxmore, also the victim of Puritan persecution of the Quakers, joins him in establishing a family that becomes the conscience of the community. From the outset, the Paxmores oppose slavery, with later members of the family playing a significant part in the Underground Railroad.
By profession Edward Paxmore and his sons are boatbuilders, which establishes them as central figures in the development of the region, since their ships carry the trade so essential to the community. Later Paxmore ships also become famous in battle because of their swift, sleek designs and sturdy construction. Finally, smaller Paxmore boats are fitted superbly to do the work of the bay’s watermen, who depend on easily maneuvered boats for their livelihood. Oystering, clamming, and crabbing—done in the shallow estuary waters—require boats of shallow draft, but boats capable of withstanding the sometimes tempestuous vagaries of Chesapeake weather.
Both the Steed and Paxmore families are made up of men and women of principle. They establish the standards upon which the community florishes. Equally stubborn in defense of their sometimes contradictory views, they nevertheless hold to an overall toleration of differences, thus representing a keynote in the history of the Maryland colony. For them human dignity and concern for the less fortunate are ways of life. Though slave owners, the Steeds manage their slaves with an enlightened attitude, one which cultivates respect and fairness in the essentially unfair situation.
Contrasting these two prominent families are the Turlocks, descendants of Timothy Turlock, scandalous runaway from Virginia who makes his home in the marshes along the river. Timothy and his heirs make their living by hunting and fishing, living close to the land and water, and coming to know and understand both. In a sense, the Turlock clan embodies the tenacity with which early settlers conquered the wilderness in which they chose to exist. For the Turlocks, living in the vast marshes means discomfort and hardship, but it also brings knowledge of a complex environment and the basic skills of survival. The wedding of marine and terrestrial elements supplies these careful observers with unique opportunities, so that the Turlocks become excellent hunters and fishermen, seemingly endowed with animalistic awareness of their surroundings. Michener implies that their way of life, in a sense, is the vital core of what remains most unique about life on the Chesapeake.
With time, various other elements are added to this three-family society. Immigration introduces a wide variety of cultural strains to the area, and with each new group new niches are established in the societal framework. Freed blacks and indentured servants, having worked out their commitments, become integral parts of the community and assume prominent places in the events of the region. Tensions result at times, and the resolution of these tensions is one of Michener’s vital concerns. Racial issues especially present themselves as painful experiences for the community, eventually erupting in riots and hostility. Again it is important to emphasize that Michener presents these conflicts as being generated by individuals; conflicts are the results of individuals’ actions and beliefs.
In general, however, the lives of Michener’s characters are commonplace, without extraordinary circumstances. Even the few exceptions to this rule are, at bottom, lives of average men and women caught up in situations or problems much larger than themselves. Michener’s focus remains of the interactions of men as they exist relative to place and time. Chesapeake, then, almost assumes the character of a paean devoted to place.
As a result, readers will most certainly be struck by the massive research which has produced this novel. Throughout, Chesapeake seems a labor of love, and Michener is quite candid in his opening acknowledgments, pointing out that his first encounter with the bay came in 1927 and that from his earliest days he considered writing about it. He provides an extensively detailed list of sources of information, and in one sense the book might be considered a compendium of bay lore. Without doubt Chesapeake is an informative experience for any reader. Even natives of the Chesapeake region will find themselves constantly intrigued with details about the bay’s history, wildlife, and occupations.
Concentrating on its small section of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Chesapeake provides a microcosmic look at the development of the region; but, in a broad sense, the novel also provides interpretations of United States history. The weaving of stories here is representative of the type of development in any part of our nation, and the concerns examined are similar to problems encountered, to some extent, by Americans of all backgrounds.
Such breadth of scope, however, creates what might be considered a few distractions. In a few places, particularly where Michener deals with nature, the narrative may seem overly detailed. The reading may even be a bit tedious for some readers. In other places Michener intrudes to point out obvious lessons to be learned from the history or from man’s foolish actions toward the environment; such didacticism becomes heavy-handed. When Michener is given to hyperbole, the result can be a bit syrupy. But perhaps the most unsettling problem is the novel’s pace, which is somewhat slow to moderate at the beginning, but very fast toward the end. Some readers may feel rushed in the later stages because of the significant jumps in time. The problem is understandable in a book of this size and ambition. Moreover, the faster pace at the novel’s end might suggest the quickening pace of life with the coming of the twentieth century and the inroads of the external world on this relatively isolated region; Michener suggests as much when he talks about the construction of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and how that span brings the cities of Baltimore and Washington within commuting distance of the Choptank.
Certainly changes have been wrought in the way of life on the Eastern Shore. Once isolated areas are now accessible. Marshes are being drained to create land for houses and businesses to accommodate a new wave of settlers seeking retreat from the complicated life on the western side of the bay.
A local Baltimore brewery has long advertised that its beer comes “from the land of pleasant living,” the shores of the Chesapeake Bay. More and more, that title in its original sense seems only applicable to Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The western shore, filled with the hectic Baltimore-Washington urban sprawl, while not yet totally unpleasant, requires too fast a pace of its inhabitants. But the Eastern Shore, long a politically and geographically isolated area, preserves much that is traditionally encompassed in the brewer’s phrase.
Indeed, the sensitive intruder will still feel the slower pace. His mental pulse will quiet, as through generations other men’s have quieted. He will absorb the place as it absorbs him. He will enter the timelessness of life beside water, life determined by estuary rhythms, life long obedient to natural systems for survival. Possibly he will, like the youthful James Michener, think a book should be written to address the uniqueness of this place, explaining the binding of human history to the fabric of the natural environment. But such a writer has quite a job ahead of him if he hopes to match the depth of feeling and the penetrating understanding evident in Michener’s Chesapeake.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 165
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