Where Wickedness Is a Fascination

July 21, 1994|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — A generation ago, when printing still involved hot lead and the ability to read type upside down, a publisher was a person of rare power and influence. The information highway of that day was a narrow road, and a handful of publishers controlled access to it.

But today, a salutary result of the ongoing revolution in communications is that anyone who wants to can be a publisher. Just as talk radio has opened the airwaves to one and all, technology has democratized the printed page, and books, magazines, newsletters and small-circulation newspapers stream from thousands of little presses at an astounding rate.

Whether anyone reads all this verbiage is a legitimate question, and whether the majority of it is worth reading at all is another. Publication used to imply that writing had been refined by editing, but that assumption no longer holds. It's probably not coincidental that as the quantity of published material increases, levels of literacy continue to slip.

My guess is that this is a temporary trend. Eventually, the discipline of competition for readers will force publishers to improve the prose they're producing just as they improved their typesetting, their graphics and their printing. In any case, a society with an abundance of writers and publishers is likely to be more vital and interesting than one in which these crafts are reserved for the elite.

Recently, I've made a personal contribution to the rising tide of printed matter through a little venture into book publishing. While it promises modest success at best from a commercial standpoint, it has been intellectually valuable; it not only reacquainted me with current developments in printing technology, but it offered some useful insights into the character of a healthy small community.

Nine years ago, when I was in the community-newspaper business, I edited and published an informal history of Havre de Grace -- one of Maryland's most interesting small towns. The book came out at the time of the town's bicentennial, and to the surprise of everyone who worked on it, the edition soon sold out.

This year, egged on by a few local gadflies, I apprehensively brought out a new edition. And it too seems to be selling well, meaning at least well enough to cover the production expenses. These sales, it seems to me, are evidence not so much of the book's superior quality -- although of course that can't be denied -- as of a tremendous interest on the part of Havre de Grace residents in every aspect of their community.

In some respects, a broadly-shared interest in local history is a much better measure of a small town's vitality than its tax base or the demographic profile of its residents, because the only people willing to invest time and effort to understand their community's past are those who care deeply about the place.

Readers of local history tend to be people with a stake, psychological as well as economic, in their town.

They have invested an important part of their lives in it, and they study it continually. Small-town inquisitiveness is legendary, and often seen as comic, but the intellectual curiosity it reflects can be as serious and as passionate as that of astronomers searching for new stars.

In the new suburbs where so many of us now live, there isn't much interest in local history. But some day, in some of them, there will be. Once a place has been around long enough for a second and third generation to grow up there, it begins to mature into a real community. This can easily happen in 40 or 50 years.

Of course, if a town has had a couple of hundred years of colorful experiences, it has certain advantages. Its history is naturally going to make a more readable tale than that of a newer place.

Havre de Grace, which took its name from a casual remark by a passing French aristocrat, grew up around a tavern operated by a Scot who also had the concession to run the ferry across the Susquehanna. It was a good business; when the weather was too bad to cross the river, people still needed a place to eat and sleep.

George Washington and other notables ate, slept and fidgeted here. The descendants of the tavern-keeper, John Rodgers, included nine admirals in three generations. None of them were home when the Royal Navy burned the town in 1813, but the British thoughtfully spared the Rodgers house.

The town's past has its raffish side too. A couple of former mayors and some pals once bought the only bridge over the river for $700, ran it as a toll bridge for a while, and then sold it to the state for $585,000. And there were other scandals, especially in the racetrack days; a Harford County lawyer of years past was known for inveighing against ''the City of Havre de Grace, where crime is a pastime and wickedness a fascination.''

No one would say such a thing about peaceful and virtuous Havre de Grace today, of course. That's all history. But it makes good reading.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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