Jim Dawson - July 2006
MY FIRST YEARS ON OLD HOUSE COVE
An Unpublished Manuscript Fragment
by Gilbert Byron
edited and with notes by James Dawson
Gilbert Byron (1903-1991) has often been called “the Chesapeake Thoreau” because of the many parallels he shares with the real Massachusetts Thoreau. Although born a century apart, the two not only shared the same birthday of July 12 and a love of nature, but are also known for living the simple life in houses they built themselves near the waters that inspired them- Thoreau at Walden Pond and Byron on Old House Cove near St. Michaels, MD.
This uncomplicated lifestyle allowed Byron to dedicate his life to writing, but was not the result of a conscious imitation by Byron of Thoreau, but rather a combination of circumstances and even a few twists of fate.
While Thoreau only lived at Walden Pond for two years, Byron’s cove life spanned nearly half a century. Gilbert, however, was quick to point out that fact did not mean he was the better writer. But write he did, chronicling both in prose and in poetry the many facets of the Chesapeake Bay years before anyone else thought of doing it. From the life of the watermen in These Chesapeake Men (1942), to his novelized Chestertown boyhood in The Lord’s Oysters (1957) and Done Crabbin’ (1990), the Chesapeake ran through his soul and into his books. And why shouldn’t it? He was spawned on its banks: it nourished him, watched him bloom and then mourned his passing.
But all of this was not without some personal sacrifice. It’s not so easy to live the simple life, which is why most of us would rather read about it than do it. It takes an inner commitment that few are able to make. And in the 1940s, “sane” people did not quit respectable jobs and run off into the woods to live in a shack with no electricity or running water.
In 1942, Byron, married and teaching in Delaware, spotted an ad for waterfront lots on San Domingo Creek near St. Michaels. Two hundred dollars each, if you can believe it. Even so, he and his wife dug deep into their teachers’ salaries to come up with the money. Byron then designed and built a one-room prefab vacation shack they could use as a base camp while sailing their boat Avalon during summer vacations. This was trucked to the cove on the back of a rented Chevy. He and a few friends erected it in one afternoon, and the sight of it suddenly there on the bank the next dawn astonished the old watermen who saw it.
Byron wrote about all of this in his book Cove Dweller (1983). But Cove Dweller didn’t tell us everything. After his death, the following few pages were found buried deep under a pile of his papers. They give us a unique look at a Gilbert Byron we rarely see.
Gilbert and his wife, Edna, were childless, and the loss of some of his students whom he called “his boys” in the Second World War was especially hard for him. The politics of education forced him to quit his teaching job, and he apparently had what we would now call a mid-life crisis. He had published a few books of poetry and also some articles and, being the son of a waterman, it had nagged at him that he should be writing about those who progged and fished the Bay. His mother had told him that when one door closes, another always opens. Since the teaching door had slammed shut, even though the writing door may have opened, the only physical door available to him was the one back at Old House Cove in St. Michaels. So he added another room with a chimney and dug in his literary heels. He and Edna separated and in 1946, at age 43, he went to the cove to live full time at almost the exact mid-point of his life.
The time is now the early 1950s. Byron had only published a few articles and small collections of poetry. Success eluded him. Although he was never one to care much about money, times are always tough when you have no reliable income. He was lonely and had no intimate friends. And not only that, but as we will see, he was viewed with some suspicion by his neighbors.
He opened a Premier Composition note book and started another Wilber Blodgett story. Gilbert often looked back on his teaching years for inspiration and hopefully this new one would help pay some bills. In his precise handwriting he began:
“In his twenty-two years of teaching the American constitution and its ramifications, Professor Wilber Blodgett had never encountered a pupil like Jimmy Meares. The boy defied classification and everyone else, including Professor Blodgett...”
But after these few lines Gilbert abandoned Blodgett and instead turned the page and his attention to himself, and what he wrote is found nowhere else in his writings. Keep in mind that Byron internalized things, as many writers do. He was not a complainer and stoically guarded his deepest thoughts and worries. Although what follows is a true transcript, the fast scrawl is virtually illegible and very uncharacteristic of him. We can only guess at his mindset.
“After teaching in the high schools of three states for twenty-two years, I resigned my position, left my wife and retired to a small wooded cove on one of the salty reaches of the Chesapeake. Fortified by a small legacy from my aunt, I had wanted to write the quiet saga of the Chesapeake watermen. While teaching, I had made a start at this, a book of verse, These Chesapeake Men, articles in the national boating magazines about my sailing on the bay and more recently two short stories had been published. The one which appeared in a Canadian magazine had brought me most encouraging letters from one of our leading publishers.
The war years had been difficult ones for everyone, lots of my boys had been lost in the war- the urge to escape my responsibilities and try a new life were too much to withstand- I fled to the woods and began to write first a series of short stories about my boyhood and this later blossomed into a novel. A year passed by without any money coming in. This first big publisher kept my work for most of that time and finally sent it back, regretfully. I sent the stories out, acquired an agent and one was accepted by small university literary magazine (Prairie Schooner Summer-1947). This attracted a letter from another publisher (Simon and Schuster) and a movie studio (20th Century Fox). The publishers continued their interest for another year while the stories became part of a novel of bay life on the Chester River. They finally turned it down regretfully. By that time, two silly letters of mine addressed to Thoreau had appeared in The Saturday Review of Literature. They attracted letters from two publishers thinking there might be a book in my woodland vigil. Would I prepare an outline and sample manuscript?
By this time, I was really alone, as my wife and I were separated in bodies and views, also the money was coming to an end. The previous winter (1947-48) had been the worst in thirty years in the section. For one period I was isolated for twelve days without seeing another human being and for drinking water, I melted snow and icicles. When the warm weather did arrive I was exhausted but I somehow prepared the sample manuscript. One publisher refused it outright and the second (Dodd Mead and Company) said they were still interested and would like to see the finished book. We had a lovely fall in 1948 and I closed in my cabin more adequately. The carpentry was good for me but I was going into debt. That December, a sudden drop in temperature split the cylinder block of my car and that put me further in. I borrowed on my insurance and was sound financially again.
The second letter in the SRL attracted quite a bit of fan mail including two rather mysterious letters from women admirers, one from Texas and the other from the Chicago area. These women wrote me encouraging letters and this took the place of friends for by this time my neighbors were becoming highly suspicious of me and my motives. Legends were in the process of formulation.
My only friends were the old watermen whom I love and a hired man from one of the neighboring farms. My first summer on the cove in an effort to solve the problem of excess tin cans, I had dumped a carton of them on low ground at the head of the cove. The farmer called on me accompanied by the county sheriff and this incident was blown up out of all proportion- one story labeled me as a fugitive from justice from another state- another was that I lived by petty thievery, a third fantasy that I was really two people, taking turns at living on the cove, while the other engaged in some sort of spying; probably for Russia. These fabrications only drifted into my consciousness very slowly for by this time I was a thing apart and nobody told me anything.
In the spring of 1949 my wife filed for divorce on the charges of desertion. I made no defense and by the fall the divorce was final and I was really alone. All of this time, there had been one person who had helped me with my manuscripts whenever I asked her. This was a woman in a nearby city who I had met before the war. She was a beginning teacher flying anyplace and I was sailing my thirty foot sloop Avalon. We liked one another but we didn’t have any sort of affair. Now, she helped me and wrote encouraging letters occasionally.
A month after my divorce was final, I went to see this girl and fell head over heels in love with her. At the bus, she had said “Come back soon” and I went back to my work with a new resolve. I would either sell a story to a slick [i.e. an upscale magazine printed on glossy paper] or else. Then I wrote and asked for a date and she gave me the busy signal, something had happened. Had some of the local stories got to her even? She was a respectable schoolteacher. That fall, I worked as never before but couldn’t get to see the girl.
Still I worked and on Feb. 7, 1950, I received a telegram saying that Collier had bought my short story [“Captain Ollie and the Monster”] for $750. I almost collapsed. I was ill but I didn’t dare go near a doctor. One of my few friends had told me how men of my type were often declared insane, just to get rid of them. I wrote the girl and asked if she would like to see South Pacific- again the busy signal. I wrote several follow up stories with the same character, one that bothers me. They were all turned down.
With the Colliers acceptance came a new note- a note of jealousy from most of my former colleagues, schoolteachers. It took me awhile to understand this.
The SRL accepted a poem and paid for it. William Rose Benet had been interested in my work and published part of it in The Phoenix Nest.
In May the Educational Forum published one of them---$7.00 but that was all...”
And here the text ends just as suddenly as it began. Who he wrote this for and why, we will never know. What we do know, and what Gilbert then did not, was that his best years were ahead of him. The stories that became part of a novel of life on the Chester River were finally published as The Lord’s Oysters, which many regard as the best novel ever written about the Eastern Shore. Trust me on this and don’t be deceived by the more famous best seller by Michener who by the way, was Byron’s near neighbor for a few years until he flitted away to write another fat novel about somewhere else.
But while Michener visited the Chesapeake, Byron lived it, breathed it and sang of it for all of his 88 years. And it earned him many friends and admirers.
Thanks to Stuart Bounds, President of Chesapeake College, the heirs of Byron’s literary estate, and to Jacques Baker, the President of the Gilbert Byron Society, a part of Pickering Creek Audubon Center, for permission to publish this fragment. Pickering Creek is the new location of Gilbert’s house, which is being restored to serve as a focal point for Bay awareness. For more information, contact Jacques at P.O. Box 1213, Easton, MD. 21601 or 410-822-0328 or firstname.lastname@example.org and Pickering Creek at Pickering Creek Audubon Center, 11450 Audubon Lane, Easton, MD. 21601, (410)-822-4903 or www.pickeringcreek.org and ask what you can do to support the Chesapeake legacy of Gilbert Byron.