Michener's 'Chesapeake' revisited Novel: While not a masterpiece, the book enables readers to plug into what is ecologically important.

On the Bay

October 24, 1997|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

I ALMOST WISH I had not waded into this column, a revisit to "Chesapeake," the 1978 novel of 859 pages by James A. Michener, who died last week at the age of 90.

I read it avidly almost two decades ago. This time, the urge to skim large portions was irrepressible.

What place do you assign a book that is not memorable literature, but sold more copies than anything written since on our bay region (including William Warner's 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner, "Beautiful Swimmers")?

Michener's fame, dating to his 1948 Pulitzer for "Tales of the South Pacific," was such that his name covered more of the "Chesapeake" book jacket than the title.

I always wondered: If it had been called "Choptank," or "Tidewater," or "Geese," would best seller status have come just as surely?

What Michener was, above all, was a great popularizer, and I do not say that with any disdain.

I know from firsthand experience what it was like for a young writer trying to hawk a book on Chesapeake Bay, pre-Michener and post-Michener (zero for me before, five since).

I suspect wherever he wrote, from Spain and Afghanistan to Texas and Colorado, Michener inspired minibooms in publishing (here it was perhaps the combination of "Beautiful Swimmers" and "Chesapeake" that awakened publishers' interest).

If his books were fairly formulaic, Michener was still a model for how to move into a region and research it with impressive efficiency -- he needed only a few years to turn out Chesapeake.

I think it was no accident that the fictional Devon Island, Patamoke and Peace Cliff of the novel are set in Talbot County, with excellent microfilm records and a library strong in the history and genealogy of the region.

The acknowledgments in "Chesapeake" show how thoroughly Michener covered the bases, from skipjack captains and oyster scientists to trappers and wetlands ecologists; from black history and ornithology to local forestry and agriculture.

Environmental education is just now grappling with this: how to enable a populace that will change jobs and locations frequently to plug into what is ecologically important in preserving whatever landscape it finds itself in? In teaching this, one could do worse than study Michener, as reflected in the notes he left the Talbot County library.

Along with the broad appeal of the adept popularizer, there is usually an artistic downside. In rereading "Chesapeake," I recalled an artist I once was host to at Smith Island.

He was fascinated by how the islanders caught soft crabs, using gear and boats unique to that region. But these, he said, might not have universal appeal for a major painting; a well-known vessel rounding a well-known lighthouse was more likely to fill that bill.

The writer John Barth, in a fine essay, "About Aboutness," compared Chesapeake writing to categories of "crab art."

These range from the purely mercenary rip-off of crablike tie tacks and crabiform ashtrays, up through a pen-and-ink rendition of a crab in National Geographic that "might be said to be not only 'about' the blue crab, but about pen and ink, and shading and foreshortening" -- in other words, about crabs, surely, but also art in and of itself.

(Barth wrote that a final crab, which might hang beside Rembrandt's in the Rijksmuseum in the Netherlands, had yet to be done. It would charm people from all over the world who had never heard of crabs, or Maryland, or Chesapeake Bay.)

Just so, he concluded, the best writing about the bay would be less about the bay than about its own art.

Barth had not read "Chesapeake" when he wrote his 1979 essay; but I would rank the novel well above tie tacks.

I also would rank it well below an enduring masterpiece; perhaps in its best parts, up there with Barth's pen-and-ink drawing; or perhaps a notch below (analogous to a fine, straightforward color illustration).

Certainly, on rereading "Chesapeake," I often felt this way: Colonial gentry, Quakers, watermen, geese and blue herons, skipjacks and marshes, slavery and wars for independence and soft-shell crabs and Native Americans -- they are all there, well-presented, skillfully posed and arranged, a comprehensive, attractive photograph.

It seems proper to assess Michener in another way: He was not just a popularizer; he was one who traded heavily on evocation of place -- South Pacific, Iberia, Texas. Region was a constant theme.

How well does he define the spirit of bay country?

If you take one place where an important part of that spirit resides, the Chesapeake marshes, Michener never approaches the poetry of Gilbert Klingel's 1951 book, "The Bay."

Yet Michener's "Turlocks," the feral marsh-dwellers who evolve over the centuries into Chesapeake watermen, come closer than anything in the book to creating an enduring image of this region.

And of course, Klingel's "The Bay" reaches thousands to Michener's millions.

Michener similarly may not hold a candle to a Cervantes; but I suspect that along with many others, I got more of what little I know about Spain from the former's "Iberia" than from the latter's Don Quixote."

So I am glad Michener focused his talents on our bay, giving it national recognition as perhaps no one else could at a critical time in our efforts to restore the polluted estuary.

If it is Klingel, not "Chesapeake," that I will read and read again, that should not diminish Michener's achievements.

Pub Date: 10/24/97

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