From the effusions of Captain John Smith to the gripping narrative of escaped slave Frederick Douglass to the contemporary ironies of John Barth and the lyrical descriptions of William Warner, the Chesapeake has inspired powerful writing in both fiction and nonfiction. Writers have drawn on the Bay for physical setting, dialogue and character, and in so doing have created a literature that deepens our understanding of cultures that have themselves been shaped by their relationship to this special place.
The News Literature Brings
Literature is language that, as William Faulkner says, "lives." It is news that stays news. But exactly what news does literature try to give us? How does it differ from other news - the news of science, for example, or the news of environmentalism or history?
To paraphrase the Roman poet Horace, "The purpose of literature is to delight and to teach." It is not enough to "teach" (as would, say, history or science); or to "delight" (as would, say, some forms of popular culture) - literature does both at once. And, one might add, it must accomplish this in a way that gives something back to our culture, something we would be poorer for not having. To say this in another way, a work of literature takes its substance and meaning from the culture from which it derives, but it also helps to shape our understanding, and our culture, in new and lasting ways.
In his book The Modes of Modern Writing, novelist and literary critic David Lodge argues that literature involves the creative use of selection (of language) and combination (of language). Easy to say. Hard to do. Lodge posits that all writing, from encyclopedias to novels, involves this process of selection and combination, though he reserves the term "literature" for creative language (poetry, fiction, nonfiction) that employs linguistic devices to take the reader beyond the purely literal to more complicated mental capacities. In contrast to rhetorical argument, for example, which may aim to clarify through reduction, literature often aims to enlighten through amplification and evocation.
In literature, in the words of novelist Henry James, "There are depths."
In what ways have Bay writings accommodated these richer, more complicated literary forms? Has the Chesapeake, among the shallowest of estuaries, inspired writers to give us the "depths" James refers to?
The Bay As Setting
Of all the recent fictional works about the Bay, James Michener's Chesapeake may well be the most widely read. Michener has done for the Bay what he has done for Hawaii, Texas and Alaska. He has taken on a place and described it in detail from its beginnings in geologic time through the course of natural and human history. The story of unfolding generations is set within that context - and Michener paints a vivid picture. If one wants to learn about the region, Chesapeake is a place to start. But the Jamesian depths are not here: Michener's broad canvas dwells on society - it does not penetrate private psychologies, nor does it aim to. One might say that Michener's approach, a very appealing one, is "top-down": he begins with a framework of events and ideas and uses characters to bring them to life.
Other Bay writers compose their stories from the bottom up, starting with more realistic characters and settings - sometimes drawn from personal experience - and building the narrative on them. In such writings as The Lord's Oyster, for example, Eastern Shore author Gilbert Byron relates stories steeped in firsthand experiences of growing up and living by the Bay. Here one can "see" the boats, the towns, the people of the Chesapeake as they once were, and many students of the Bay have, understandably, a strong affection for Byron's intensely regional work. Byron's writing has charm - though it does not create or evoke complex symbolic or archetypal design, nor does it reach deeper levels of psychological complexity.
One novelist who evokes the region by probing characters for whom the Chesapeake, as place, is integral to the action, is J.R. Salamanca, author of several novels written during the 1960s, '70s and '80s. Lilith, though set in rural Maryland and not in a Bayside community, is perhaps Salamanca's best known novel, popular enough to have been made into a feature film. In other novels, Salamanca focuses on the Chesapeake Bay - in Embarkation, for example, he dramatizes the life of a boat builder and his family in Solomons Island, Maryland. Unlike the novels of Michener or even Gilbert Byron, Salamanca tells his stories from the "inside," through characters whose actions resonate with significance.
Embarkation's boat builder, Joel Linthicum, is a husband and father who will stop at nothing to pursue his heart's dream - building beautiful yachts - even if it means driving his family to ruin. Like a possessed artist, he cannot help himself. Salamanca evokes this "artist's studio" when the son, returning home after many years because of the drowning death of his father, enters the Bayside boatyard:
I opened the door and went in and switched on the light and stood there once again embraced as if by my father's arms in the reek of clean redwood and pitch and hemp and oakum, shellac and creosote, the litter of sawdust and tendrils of shaved mahogany, tarry buckets and casting ladles and ladders and sawhorses and jumbled paint lockers and drill benches and lumber racks of fragrant teak and spruce and afromosia and white pine, and beyond, in the shadowy vault of the shop, tall and royal as a harp, the skeleton of a ship that he was building.
Salamanca seeks out and follows the lyrical structures of the language. Beyond this, he draws on the power of the Bay itself as symbolic force in the narrative. In a key description of a squall rising on the Bay, Salamanca joins a sailor's eye for nautical detail with the charged threat not only of the storm but of the father's obsession, which threatens to destroy the family. In a powerful turning point, one reckless moment places the builder's young son in the destructive path of a wildly spinning winch handle. Here Nature shows a dark side; the descriptions of the Bay, of boat building, not only reveal a close connection with the real world, with a Chesapeake that we all recognize, but there is - as Joseph Conrad writes of literature - "something more." That something more has to do with the human condition.
Sadly, Embarkation, and all of Salamanca's books, are out of print.
Barth and the Bay
Perhaps no novelist has worked the Bay into fiction more inventively than the Cambridge, Maryland-born writer, John Barth. Barth began his literary career at the age of twenty-four, when he wrote The Floating Opera (1956), followed quickly by The End of the Road (1958). In 1960 he published The Sot Weed Factor, a rambling eighteenth century-style historical novel set in colonial Maryland that rivals Henry Fielding's Tom Jones for expansive satire and libido.
But while books like The Floating Opera (and, much later, Sabbatical and The Tidewater Tales) draw on the Bay for their concrete moorings, Barth's focus is not on the physical Bay, but rather on the process of fiction-making itself. In some ways like another Bay-area writer, Edgar Allen Poe, Barth sets his works in the landscape of the imagination, though we can easily recognize at the same time the marshy terrain of the Chesapeake. Unlike Poe, Barth is very conscious of his Chesapeake connections. In such essays as "Historical Fiction, Fictitious History, and Chesapeake Bay Blue Crabs, or About Aboutness" (in a collection entitled The Friday Book) and "Goose Art or, the Aesthetic Ecology of Chesapeake Bay" (in Further Fridays), Barth explores the relationship between "Bay" writing and "literary" writing (which must finally qualify as "art," regardless of its subject).
Speaking of Bay literature in his essay "Goose Art," Barth notes that while "a rising tide floats all boats," it also floats all kinds of other stuff, including "garbage, untreated sewage and suchlike...." He reminds us that the most important consideration for Bay literature, as for all literature, remains quality. And when it comes to quality Barth gives a critical nod to one contemporary writer, Christopher Tilghman, who, like Barth, grew up on the Eastern Shore and learned to create fiction from its marshy setting and its murky past.
You Can't Kill a Waterman
Tilghman is captivated by the Bay's complex history, and often writes about long-standing families that have struggled to keep their dignity (and their property) on the Eastern Shore. Such is the central story of his novel, Mason's Retreat (1996), set on the Chester River just before World War II. The main characters are American, but they have lived in England for a number of years and have returned to the aging "Retreat" only because the Depression has left them nearly penniless.
Mason's Retreat is not necessarily representative of Tilghman's best work. The stories of his collection In a Father's Place have a much finer edge - they give voice to his sense of the water and its influence on character. Consider this, from "Norfolk, 1969," a story about the painful and confusing 1960s: "What remained of [his wife] Julie, and Norfolk, and the sixties, was the sea, boundless and inexhaustible, the mystery and the source." Or this, from the title story, "In a Father's Place":
This was the soul of the Chesapeake country, never far from land on the water, the water always meeting the land, in flux. You could run from one to the other... until one morning he had awakened and listened to the songs from the water and realized that he was free.
While In a Father's Place contains pieces set in the American West, readers will find Maryland's Eastern Shore in several stories, including the opening one, "On the Rivershore." Here Tilghman describes how, inadvertently, a young boy witnesses the murder of a waterman in the tall reeds along the Chester River. The boy knows the waterman who has been shot dead, and he knows the identity of the murderer - his father. Tilghman captures the Chesapeake setting, the watermen who come together ("ain't no one gonna kill a waterman") to confront the murderer, the psychological struggle of the small boy, and the waters of the Bay itself, as they finally close over the body.
In these stories Tilghman brings us closer to the heart of darkness, and of light, and closer to the mystery and the magic of the water.
The Water's Magic
In the words of Tom Horton, the Chesapeake's waters are "ensorcelling." It is a great word, derived from "sorcery" - there is, quite simply, magic, as Horton says in Bay Country, "wherever land and water mingle seductively in the marshy skirts of the Atlantic coastal plain...."
The Los Angeles Times reviewer of Bay Country wrote of Horton that his is a "clean, sinewy prose that goes on holiday every few pages and cuts various beribboned capers. But in every other respect, this Maryland journalist is a poet." Which brings to mind David Lodge's argument that "literature" is not limited to poetry and fiction, but that nonfiction can have evocative, even symbolic, power as well.
Horton's Bay Country is one such instance of that power. Another is William Warner's Beautiful Swimmers. Each takes the reader close to the heart of the Bay, its creatures and its water-men and water-women (not all of whom work the water). Horton's book won the John Burroughs Medal. Warner's won the Pulitzer Prize. Both books are compelling because they capture what so many who live in the region value in the dancing backwaters of countless rivers, coves and creeks. And then there is the "something more," the deep pleasure of lively prose.
While Warner and Horton focus on the Bay, they continue a branch of American writing that may have begun with Thoreau but which has evolved through such nature writers as Aldo Leopold and Wallace Stegner. Horton, as a reporter, is also heir to those who, like Tom Wolfe, helped create New Journalism, where techniques of fiction and memoir are brought to bear on the reporting of factual information.
One might say, in fact, that two features rise from the Bay's literary landscape: the writings of naturalists and historians, including those who have lived and died by the Bay; and the works of novelists, poets and short story writers. To the first group belong Gilbert Klingel (The Bay), Anne Hughes Jander (Crab's Hole: A Family Story of Tangier Island) and others who have recorded first-hand Bay experiences. To the second group belong the literary virtuosos, such as Barth and Tilghman.
Interestingly, it is at the intersection of these two modes of writing - where naturalist nonfiction overlaps with more literary forms (forms that use dialogue and character, evoking a powerful sense of place) - that the Chesapeake may have its most distinct influence on language. In the writings of Warner and Horton the Bay inspires keen observation of ecology on the one hand and human nature on the other. By joining vivid depictions of those who live and work by the Bay - especially watermen but also others who belong to this region - with a deep appreciation of the estuary's natural wonder, these writers have increased our understanding not only of the Bay but of our culture and perhaps of literature itself.
There are, of course, many other Bay area writers who deserve mention - both writers of fiction like William Styron (Virginia) and Anne Tyler (Maryland), and of nonfiction, like Frederick Douglass - and, undoubtedly, we will soon hear from others. As the twentieth century draws to a close, Bay writers of both fiction and nonfiction are showing us how far we have come in valuing the ecological world that sustains us. When our descendants look back to trace this evolution in our thinking, the living details will be there for them to find in our literature.