Michener of the Chesapeake Dead at 90: Prolific author had major impact on Eastern Shore and state.

October 19, 1997

MORE PEOPLE know something of Maryland's history and traditions from the 1978 novel, "Chesapeake," by James Michener, than from any other author. That would even include the Eastern Shore's John Barth, who has a higher reputa- tion among critics, and Robert J. Brugger, who wrote the fattest, most authoritative and recent history of the state.

When embarking on this project, Mr. Michener did not tour or research Maryland. He moved in, dug in and stuck. "I am now a waterman," he said. With his late wife, Mari, he took a house in St. Michaels in 1976, went "turkling" with experts, worked as a waterman, lived and breathed the Eastern Shore, graced its celebrations and bled for the bay.

His resulting best-seller followed four families through four centuries and 836 pages of Maryland history, mixing with historic and fictional characters, all painstakingly researched. The Micheners went on living in St. Michaels for years and he became one of Maryland's leading citizens and judge of fine crabcakes.

The author who died Thursday at 90, having ordered a stop to dialysis treatment, was a major force in Maryland's view of itself. As such, his passing is mourned. And yet, the Maryland episode was but one in his creative life. He did roughly the same service for Hawaii and Texas and attempted it for such places as Colorado, Israel and space.

He was a master of narrative flow, yet a pedestrian stringer-together of words, a non-snob who considered ordinary people in their millions a worthy audience. He filled their evenings for months. He spurned what respectable liter- ature had become after James Joyce and emulated 19th-century novelists, who told stories for readers as television does today. He taught more about early bay boat-building than all but the most zealous wanted to know, as Herman Melville had done for whales.

Yet all that was one-third of his career. The middle third was the slender 1947 volume, "Tales of the South Pacific," drawn from his service in the World War II Navy, firmly rooted in time and place. That is his masterpiece, though better known as one of Broadway's greatest musicals, credited to its composer and lyricist. He was 40. The first career, from orphan to world traveler to teacher, was over.

Many masters in the canon of literature wrote to entertain and edify the masses in their own time; Homer comes to mind. The books of James Michener will have a longer shelf life than his most belittling detractors can have imagined.

Pub Date: 10/19/97

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