Glenn Uminowicz - April 2008
James Michener's Chesapeake
In the course of writing this article, I spoke with Pete Lesher, curator at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. Lesher’s own copy of Chesapeake: A Novel (1978) recently resided in a display case in the exhibit Icons of the Chesapeake. It was in the waterfowl section. The original dust jacket for the book featured an image of geese in flight. In 1978, a reporter observed that, if it had not been for a gaggle of geese that James A. Michener saw feeding in an Eastern Shore cornfield, the novelist might have chosen a topic other than the Chesapeake. Michener chose the Bay “because I felt an identity with those birds so overpowering that I knew I had found the leitmotif for my novel.”
In addition to the image on its cover, Lesher wondered if the novel itself might now have achieved iconic status. Even after four decades, however, Chesapeake remains subject to mixed reviews. As with all of Michener’s panoramic historical novels, some readers enjoy and some readers question his blending of fact and fiction. In 1978, one reviewer enthused, “James Michener absorbs historical facts like a sponge and craftily weaves them into a narrative that makes the reader feel as if he were eavesdropping on the past.” Other critics fact check his “reality laced with imagination” and dislike the sheer bulk of his books. (Chesapeake is 865 pages long.) In 1978, a reviewer in The New Yorker wrote about Chesapeake, “My best advice is don’t read it; my second is don’t drop it on your foot.”
For Michener, the concern over discerning fact from fiction was a non-issue. In a brief forward to Chesapeake, he insisted, “This book is a novel and to construe it as anything else would be an error.” I consider children’s author Thornton W. Burgess to be a kindred spirit to Michener. Beginning in 1914, Burgess wrote dozens of stories designed to teach youngsters about animal behavior in a manner that appealed to a child’s imagination. Peter Cottontail engages in typical rabbit behavior, for example, but he sports a bowtie and a jacket and converses with his animal friends. The anthropomorphism found in the Burgess stories drew criticism from contemporary naturalists.
Michener also uses animal characters to both teach readers about life around the Bay and as a metaphor for human qualities. In short, Michener functions as a kind of Burgess for adults. The children’s author wrote about Mrs. Quack the mallard duck and her family trying to escape the “terrible guns” of hunters. In Chesapeake, Michener introduces readers to a “family of great geese” in Northern Canada headed by the father Onk-or. After migrating to the Eastern Shore, the geese face their own terrible guns. One hunter admires the canniness of the birds in recognizing impending danger and their commitment to defending their families. He concludes, “A roast goose tastes so good because it’s so danged hard to shoot.”
In Chesapeake, the family values of geese stand in sharp contrast to the inhuman behavior of some of the human characters. Michener introduces Timothy Turlock in a London courtroom in 1636 where he is on trial for petty theft. The judge mused, “HOW LIKE AN ANIMAL HE LOOKS. Not bold like a lion, nor graceful like a deer, but sly and mean and shifty. He’s an animal, that’s for certain, but what kind?”
After watching Turlock, catch a fly, pull off its wings, and crush it, the judge had his answer. He whispered to himself, “A ferret! Damn me, he’s a true ferret.” Michener then bestows ferret-like qualities on Turlock. He wrote, “The prisoner had the pointed face of that crafty animal, the stunted ears, the long sharp nose. Pockmarked and with shifty eyes, he was repulsive, and the shock of uncombed blanced hair only added to his beastly appearance. When he grinned, his dark teeth looked pointed.”
Turlock is banished to Virginia as an indentured servant then attacks his master, steals a boat, and finds himself in a marsh on the Eastern Shore. By age fifty, he had validated the opinion of the London judge. Michener describes him as a “marsh-dweller” whose name appeared with alarming frequency in court records.
The Turlocks are one of four families whose histories Michener traces over four centuries in Chesapeake. Timothy provided the author with ample opportunity for character development, sireing six children by three different women. Michener alerted readers:
These six were the beginnings of that tremendous horde of Turlocks who would populate the Eastern Shore, each inheriting important characteristics from Timothy: they would love the land; they would live close to the water; they would develop companionship with birds and fish and animals; and all would abhor such regularities as paying taxes and getting married.
In the course of the novel, generations of Turlocks engage in the slave trade, commit adultry, become real estate developers, and blast away with enormous long guns that can decimate the wildlife population.
By contrast to the Turlocks, the Steed family represents commitment to their religious beliefs and a willingness to work hard to establish a livelihood on the Shore. Edmund Steed arrives in Virginia in 1608 as a Catholic fleeing Protestant England. He discovers an island at the mouth of the Choptank River. Edmund proclaims, “This is the Island of Devon, the proprietary of Steed, and so it shall remain forever.” With the help of their spouses, generations of Steeds develop vast landholdings, planting fields of tobacco and later grain worked by slave labor.
Influenced by his own Quaker upbringing, Michener uses the Paxmore family to raise moral questions about slavery. Edward Paxmore arrived on the Eastern Shore in 1661. Banished from Massachusetts for repeatedly espousing his Quaker faith, Paxmore reunites with and marries Ruth Briton, who had also experienced whippings at the hands of the Puritans. The Quakers develop into both a religious and an economic force on the Eastern Shore. A carpenter by trade, Edward establishes a shipbuilding operation that will be managed by generations of Paxmores.
Finally, the Cater family makes an entrance in the 19th century. The family is started by two slaves named Eden and Cudjo, who work diligently to purchase their freedom or escape. The latter endures suffering at the hands of a slave breaker. In the 20th century, Hiram Cater is born in the segregated basement ward of a hospital. He and his siblings attend schools with inadequate facilities, supplies and teachers.
In James A. Michener: A Critical Companion (1996), Marilyn S. Severson argues that Michener explores themes of great importance to him in Chesapeake. He holds dear the value of human tolerance. The Steeds and Paxmores both arrive on the Shore seeking religious freedom and the Paxmore women remain fervent abolitionists. Another concern is the condition of women. He observed, ‘‘I have found all societies, all religions fearfully unfair to women and, whenever possible, have done my best to redress the imbalances.’’ In 1701, for example, Rosalind Janney marries Fitzhugh Steed, who has been a less than conscientious steward of Devon. No great beauty, Rosalind uses her intelligence to master running a plantation.
Rosalind proves a success because of other qualities valued by Michener – courage and hard work. She has the fortitude to press onward despite any difficulties. Michener wrote, “When Rosalind Janney walked from the wharf on Devon Island toward the plantation house with its random form, she had the feeling that she had been ferried up the Bay to bring order into this household. The Steed house needed pulling together, and so did its inhabitants. Gathering her skirt in her left hand, she marched to the task.”
Finally, Severson detects an environmental theme in Michener’s Chesapeake. In 1608, Native Americans object to the deforestation of Devon Island by the Steeds to plant tobacco. (Ironically, Michener proved a bit of a Steed himself. In 1978, his publisher boasted that the quarter million copy first printing of Chesapeake required enough lumber to produce 600,000 pounds of paper.) After a hurricane in 1886, Jimmy the Blue Crab experiences difficulties as fresh water advances further down the Bay and urban pollutants wash down the Susquehanna.
In retrospect, Michener’s approach to writing Chesapeake should have been instructive for professional historians at the time. By the 1970s, a great debate raged within the profession centering on the “new social history.” Lawrence W. Levine later observed that social historians insisted that there can be no real sense of the whole story of American history without exploring its parts, without understanding – often for the first time – “the consciousness and actions of workers, women, ethnic, religious, racial, and national minorities, immigrants and their progeny, who participated in a myriad of separate geographical, occupational, fraternal, and religious communities that together constituted the larger society.” Forces over which they had no control did not process these individuals. They were actors in their own right, Levine insisted they proved able to “build a culture, create alternatives, affect the situation they found themselves in, and influence the people they found themselves among.” In short, they possessed the intelligence, courage, and commitment to hard work that Michener depicted in many of his characters.
Critics of the new social history argued that, the more historians learned about the local and specific, the less they understood about the larger scheme of things. They called for less “specialization” and for the creation of a new “synthesis” – a holistic approach to American history that appealed to the general public.
In creating his historical panoramas, Michener insisted, “An effective novel starts with characters, grows with them, and matures intellectually and spiritually with them. But they must be seen in their setting, engaged by the great themes of their time.’’ In Chesapeake, his characters deal with themes including the horrors of slavery, religious intolerance, and the impact of human activity on the environment, and they do it on a human scale. In fact, Jimmy the blue crab demonstrates that themes can be explored on a nonhuman scale as well. Because he was sensitive to a drop in barometric pressure and conditions in the water of the Bay, Jimmy sensed the hurricane’s approach in 1886 and took appropriate action.
From a crustacean to a wealthy planter, Michener’s characters adjust to their changing setting while dealing with issues related to religion, economics, race, sex, and war. Historians please note, Is this a great synthesis or what?
This article was prepared in conjunction with the Celebrate Chesapeake program sponsored by the Talbot County Free Library.