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Typhoon on the Bay

Chesapeake

by James A. Michener
Random House, 865 pp., $12.95

In 1780, the French emissary François Marbois circulated a set of twenty-three questions about the American continent. One set of answers to those questions became Jefferson’s only published book, the Notes on the State of Virginia. Most answers were lengthy, but that to question three was a single sentence: asked about seaports, Jefferson replied that Virginia had none “but our rivers and creeks.” Self-contained plantations lined the four great rivers of Virginia, and ocean-going vessels could ride right up to their landings and load tobacco.

These four waterways emptied into the superhighway of the Chesapeake Bay, which runs north sheltered from the Atlantic by two hundred miles of lowland known as Maryland’s “Eastern Shore.” Chesapeake Bay is the principal natural wonder on America’s eastern coast. It is so “nook-shotten” as to be cased in 4,000 miles of inner shoreline—though the eastern side’s shoreline is often more smudge than line, a wandering off into puddles, part of the Bay that forgets itself among the hard, remembering human types of the lower Eastern Shore.

The push of the tide up the Bay and into the rivers, the flush of rivers (fresh water and mud alike) back into the Bay, sets up a clash of temperatures and salinity, so that the Bay becomes a weave of ecosystems. These shift constantly according to season, state of the rivers, storms on the sea; and the shifts are further complicated by pollution, game control, and bacterial responses. An astonishing variety of water life—fish, crabs, clams, oysters, terrapin, eels, and Eastern Shore “watermen”—move about through this play of forces. It is the watermen’s job to know where crabs or clams will show up next, and the scientists’ job to explain why this happens. Even the human life along the shore is full of subsystems, each with its own language and crafts. The Bay has spawned different generations of Bay boat, suited to its peculiarities—the log sailing canoes, used from Indian times and still darting out from Poquoson, Virginia; various “skifts” and bugeyes; the scrambling “clam scrapers” (watermen say they’ll sail on a heavy dew); fast clippers that ran blockades in Revolutionary and slave-running days; the trim skipjacks that still dredge for oysters under sail.

When ports did become important on the Bay, they arose on the western shore (Norfolk, Annapolis, Baltimore) or up rivers that fed in from the west—Richmond on the James, Fredericksburg on the Rappahannock, Alexandria on the Potomac, and Harrisburg on the Bay’s ancestral river, the Susquehanna. The Eastern Shore was shoved aside by history, and remains more isolated than Maine in winter, eastern Tennessee, or West Virginia coal towns—other places with a dour and crusty independence.

A visit near Chestertown in Queen Annes Country offers much the same prospects now as it did when Thomas Lee Shippen went there in 1790 with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison:

At Rock Hall twelve miles from Chester town we waited all that day for want of a vessel to take us over, and I never knew two men more agreable than they were. We talked, and dined, and strolled, and rowed ourselves in boats, and feasted upon delicious crabs. (Boyd, Papers of Jefferson, 17.464)

Eighteenth-century mansions are still dotted about this part of the Shore.

The Bay deserves celebration, and it has received it in recent books—e.g., The Oystermen of the Chesapeake, by Robert de Gast (International Marine Publishing Company, 1970) and Beautiful Swimmers: Watermen, Crabs and the Chesapeake Bay, by William Warner (Atlantic Monthly/Little Brown, 1976). James Michener has stayed for years on the Eastern Shore of the Bay preparing his fictional celebration. Too bad. The Bay deserved better.

For one thing, the novel’s title is misleading. Michener does not write about the whole Bay but about its quirkiest (in some ways most interesting) part, the Eastern Shore. Nor is the distortion restricted to the title. Michener wants to make broad types of narrow exceptions. His book belongs to that genre of multi-generational Hollywood epic that is advertised as a triumph of the human spirit. We have all seen, many times, the movie this book will become. Its first set of young lovers ages fifty years in three hours by the addition of grease-paint lines to their foreheads and white powder to their hair. By the end the original couple, still intact, will care for the grandchildren while the second generation sows its wild oats. We know the sons and daughters will age prettily into reunited grandparents by the picture’s end. And there is ample material in Michener’s 850 pages for Chesapeake II. Maybe even III.

The principal families in this chronicle are the Catholic Steeds, the Quaker Paxmores, and the mainly irreligious Turlocks. Scions of all three families unite to fight the Revolution. The Quakers shame their neighbors on the issue of emancipation—after all, the “niggers” have shown they can work a skipjack’s sail and dredges. Later, a Paxmore goes to Germany and personally buys exit for Jews from Hitler. Another Paxmore finally plays a thinly disguised Richard Moore in the Water-gate affair.

Michener wants to give us an inspiring ethnic mix—the foxhole quotas out of a World War II movie. An Irish family moves to the Eastern Shore to hunt, Germans come to organize, and this narrow world becomes drearily typical, peopled only with types. The families squabble, fornicate, and pray; and their descendants huddle together in a symbolic storm as the “saga” ends.

The later episodes show how thin Michener finds his Eastern Shore material. He must range all over the world to supplement it. We get the obligatory Roots section, full of noble blacks. While editorializing in the best liberal mode against racism, Michener can say the poor-white Turlock family fell “primarily because of the way it marshaled its genetic inheritance.” (One can still write Gone With the Wind if one just changes sides.) Over and over Michener achieves his Eastern Shore “epic” by leaving the Eastern Shore. At one point, he includes the decisive sea battle of the French navy with the British before Yorktown by the simple expedient of having an Eastern Shore boat nearby to watch it. What we get is a mini-history of the United States seen from the vantage of the Eastern Shore.

The only trouble is that real Eastern Shore people do not watch much of anything but the Bay itself. They were Tory out of sheer orneriness in the Revolution; their boats were a nuisance when not a menace to the patriot cause. Their isolation brewed in them a bitter mix of revivalism and racism that Mencken was still excoriating in the twentieth century. They were more rabid than most Southerners in the Civil War. Their racism and xenophobia remains notorious. Eight years ago I interviewed a ninety-seven-year-old black who grew up at a Jesuit seminary where his mother had been a slave. In his teens,he left to become an oyster dredger on the Eastern Shore. His treatment was so harsh that he went back to the seminary and remained a servant there for the rest of his life.

The Eastern Shore’s “watermen,” uncommunicative, looking subaqueous even on shore, tending ships of a shabby beauty, tend to fierce piety or nihilism—teetotalers or alcoholics, proud throwbacks; crustacean men grappling up and cracking open prehistoric-looking crabs. Their skills are extraordinary, as if they can imagine themselves down into the crab and oyster beds and know what their prey is thinking. Crabs show a laggard evolutionary impulse to crawl up and become land animals. Their human antagonists show a kind of lapse, a half-involuntary tropism, toward water. Two extinct types duel in their loneliness.

These proud little prehistoric kingdoms are so isolated, they speak their own languages. A man will say to you, “Honey, there’s neither marsh in that arster drudge, but right smart o’ grass.” Translation: “Look, bub, even though there’s no mesh worth speaking of in that oyster dredge, it’s still fouled with weed.”

They call outsiders “strange persons,” and almost everyone is an outsider. They have fought oyster wars with Virginia boats, with a fatality as late as 1949. They despise Baltimore and Annapolis, and made five attempts to secede from Maryland in the first century of this country’s existence. They hate the state’s marine police whose conservation work preserves their catch. In Beautiful Swimmers William Warner quotes a typical comment:

Latter days state’s passed a law you can’t have a dog aboard when you’re out arstering. They say it’s because the dog might piss on the arsters. Real reason is, a dog aboard of a drudge boat once bit an inspector.

With such rich material to draw on, why did Michener take his characters from central casting? I suppose he meant to suggest the watermen’s merger/struggle with fish and fowl by giving us Kiplingesque tales about a “family” of geese and one of crabs. The results are embarrassing. Papa Goose is called Onk-or, apparently because he overheard an Indian’s term for his whole family. The Papa Crab is called Jimmy—he, too, seems to have overheard what watermen call all male crabs. The affecting death of the crab under a sudden storm’s silt is not only mawkish; it makes us wonder why the slower death of capture, struggle, and boiling delights Michener so when Jimmy goes down his gullet instead of the Bay’s.

A fatal uncertainty of tone haunts all these attempts at the primitive—as when a seventeenth-century Indian is described as yearning for birds as a “food resource.” In one of the churning adultery sequences (which just bind the Steed family together again, as in any good soap opera) Susan Steed undergoes sexual seizures every time she looks at a ship’s mast. Just in case we didn’t get it, Michener informs us this is a phallic image.

This is sickness! she thought, shaking her head violently. She drew her tossed curls across her eyes, as if to shut out the dreaded visions, but they still persisted, and she leaned heavily against the fence, allowing its points to jab her hands. She remained in this position until the ship vanished, taking with it her phallic imagery. Only then did she climb down the ladder and walk slowly to her bedroom, where she lay on the silken coverlet staring at the two cannonballs embedded in the wall.

Get it?

Funny parts like that half redeem Michener’s story, but not his presumption. He has placed his fictitious Our Town near the mouth of the Choptak River—just where John Barth directed his hero, Ebenezer Cooke, in the one literary masterpiece forged from Eastern Shore material. The Sot-Weed Factor is not only a brilliant Fielding pastiche. It is based on a solid body of historical Maryland lore. Through its comic “rivings from foc’sle to fantail” one can see much that went into the Eastern Shore’s cantankerous ways. Michener, by contrast, when he introduces historical figures passes on tired falsehoods like Washington’s supposed boast in 1774 that he would raise his own army and fight the revolution alone, or the late tale of congressional resentment at Washington’s expense account. At least, when Barth is funny, he means to be.

Some conservationists fear the disappearance of the crab, done in by pollution. The watermen may disappear at the same time, or even earlier, done in (partly) by tourism. There are less than three dozen skipjacks left, their upkeep becoming more difficult. Kids drift off. Tourists sweep in—their numbers to be swelled, no doubt, by this novel. Typhoon Michener has hit another culture.

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