Explaining the Shore for the rest of us

February 02, 1993|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Staff Writer

The latest puff of jingoism to rise from Maryland's tidewater flatlands is a bumper sticker epithet not likely to earn kudos from the local tourism boosters.

"Welcome to the Eastern Shore.

Now go home!"

That's a sharp spike on the sarcasm scale, considering that the most popular Shore-oriented bumper sticker -- "There is no life west of the Chesapeake Bay" -- falls just short of being harmlessly fatuous.

Depending on what side of the bay you live, there's probably more humor than bile in the "go home" tag line. And the specter of xenophobia on the Eastern Shore these days often is nothing more than pride masquerading as prejudice.

Genuine feelings of antagonism toward outsiders flare now and then when someone like Gov. William Donald Schaefer or Texas Sen. Phil Gramm makes disparaging remarks about Shore folks. Generally, though, secession from the rest of the state is not an everyday thought.

And yet for most Eastern Shore residents -- native and newcomer alike -- there is a distinction about living in this region separated from the rest of the state by a body of water.

But why? Is there really a prevailing Shore Zeitgeist that makes Maryland's easternmost nine counties (OK, let's include Cecil) different?

The question comes closest to an answer in John R. Wennersten's thoughtful and entertaining account of Eastern Shore history and culture.

"Regions like the Eastern Shore are cultural rather than governmental units," explains Dr. Wennersten, a history teacher at the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore. ". . . the region marches to the beat of its own sociocultural drum."

To record that drumbeat, the author devised a simple but effective system to present the Shore's story. "Soil" looks inland to the region's agricultural base; "Sea" scans the intricate coastline and the bay; and "Soul," perhaps the most noteworthy section of the book, presents a painful but crucial gaze upon the area's early reliance on slave labor and the heritage it still struggles to understand.

Although the late Dickson Preston was able to recount the lynchings of blacks on the Eastern Shore in his account of the region's newspapers, no single mainstream book has provided details of the murders of Matt Williams (1931) and George Armwood (1933) until this one hit the shelves.

"Maryland's Eastern Shore" is about as comprehensive a text as Shore books get. Because it reveals the region from a warts-and-all perspective, it is neither smarmy nor abusive. Of the scores of books available about the Shore, it must be placed in the front row of the best.

But that's not to say it's without faults. Dr. Wennersten includes mention of novelist James Michener -- who wrote one of the most overrated tomes depicting Shore life -- but he fails to note James M. Cain and Gilbert Byron, two better writers whose lives were shaped by their Shore experiences.

And his portrait of Smith Island -- "bring a well-thumbed Bible, leave your beer at home" -- is not entirely accurate. Despite a practiced naivete, the good island folks don't need a calendar to know what year it is.

Mr. Thompson covers the Eastern Shore for The Sun. He is the author of "Bayside Impressions: Maryland's Eastern Shore and the Chesapeake Bay."

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Maryland's Eastern Shore: A Journey in Time and Place."

Author: John R. Wennersten.

Publisher: Tidewater Publishers.

Length, price: 299 pages, $23.95.

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