Harold Hurst - August 2008
John Barth’s Eastern Shore
Harold W. Hurst
John Simmons Barth was one of America’s leading writers in the period between the 1950s and the 1980s. Born in Cambridge, Maryland, on May 27, 1930, he has portrayed life on the Eastern Shore in several of his leading novels, including The Floating Opera (1956); End of the Road (1958); Lost in the Funhouse (1968); Letters, A Novel (1979); Sabbatical, A Romance (1982); The Tidewater Tales (1987); and a collection of essays, The Friday Book (1984).
In 1974 he was made a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Barth’s post-modernist novels were influenced by the French existentialist movement popular in the 1940s and early ’50s. One critic had indicated that his works are a “mixture of bawdiness, low comedy and intellectual seriousness.” Whatever can be said of his style and philosophy, he was a favorite author among the literary cognoscenti in the second half of the twentieth century.
There is no intention in this essay to outline the plots of Barth’s novels or to analyze the chief characters. Nor is there any effort to evaluate Barth’s place in the twentieth century American literary canon. This article’s chief purpose is to recount some of the more telling observations made by the author about the physical landscape, environment, class structure, social life and folk culture of his native Eastern Shore.
John Barth’s writings embrace numerous descriptions of the Eastern Shore’s natural landscape. The Tidewater Tales, especially, contains references to the rivers, bays, inlets and marshes that cover the terrain on the eastern side of the Chesapeake Bay. The author’s characters in this novel continually allude to every aspect of mid-Shore landscape. Dorchester County, Barth’s birthplace, is defined as a lowland area covered with soybean farms, pine woods and salt marshes.
The Friday Book calls Dorchester a sub-sea level area of “estuarine wetlands all but uninhabited by men but teeming like the bayous and everglades with other life.” The water is depicted as “brackish, turbid, tidal and tepid.”
The many rivers of the Eastern Shore are lovingly portrayed by the yachting and sailing characters in Barth’s novels. The unique aspects of the Sassafras, Chester, Wye, Tred Avon and Choptank rivers appear time and again. The Sassafras, for instance, is depicted as a “secluded river winding peacefully mile after mile around lesser points between the lower tree-lined shores...”
The Chester River, when calm, permits one to “see at a hundred feet things normally obscured by even the least rippling of the surface: the tiny wakes of swimming crabs, the flip of minnows fleeing bluefish.”
In the novel Letters, one of the chief mariners in the plot calls the Miles and Wye rivers “the sweetest pair of rivers on the Eastern Shore.”
The islands off the Eastern Shore play an important role in the marine activities depicted in Barth’s novels. Poplar Island – actually three separated wooded islands called Poplar, Coaches and Jefferson is mentioned as uninhabited except for a marine research facility operated by the Smithsonian Institution. In another novel the island is described as uninhabited except by snakes, turtles and seabirds and a crew of biologists.
Wye Island in Sabbatical is pictured as “completely surrounded by land, but moated irregularly by the tines of the forked river and by the Wye Narrows which yokes them like a crooked oar lock pin.”
The descriptions of the man-made landscape in Barth’s novels are especially intriguing. The towns and rural areas of the mid-Shore area are given considerable scrutiny in his publications. Rock Hall is described as an “old fishing village” and in another place as a “funky place.” Georgetown is pictured as primarily a “yachting center.” Centreville is a “tiny town” where everything is within walking distance.
But the most fascinating attention is focused on Cambridge, Barth’s birthplace. High Street is endearingly painted as “like no other street in Cambridge, or on the Peninsula.” A wide street paved with edge-laid yellow brick, it is its “gracious best” in the area between Christ Church and the Wharf. This description in The Floating Opera notes that “automobiles whisper over the bricks like quiet yachts.”
The rest of Cambridge he calls – in the 1950s – “rather unattractive.” Since that time, of course, Cambridge’s economy has become more diversified and the once thriving canning industry has declined, resulting in marked alterations in the city’s landscape.
Social class on the Eastern Shore gets intense scrutiny, especially in The Tidewater Tales. Katherine Sherrit, the wife of the central character, Peter Sagamore, is a blueblood “born into a moderately rich family made richer by every declared war in the U.S. in historically rich Talbot County.” Peter himself stems from humbler stock who climbed up the social ladder as a result of family ownership of a boat-building enterprise. He is described as “handy” and unabashed by his blue collar background. Todd Andrews in The Floating Opera, however, emanates from a long line of lawyers who lived in Dorchester County for many generations.
Local accents are not ignored. The Sherrits have an “Eastern Shore brogue filtered through Groton and Princeton, without quite filtering out...” The local gentry, in brief, are never entirely disconnected from their native regional and family origins.
The class structure is evident in the size of the pleasure yachts, sailing vessels and other craft that navigate the Sassafras, Chester, Tred Avon, Miles and Choptank rivers. The very rich in The Tidewater Tales have 50-foot sailboats, while weekenders from Mainline Philadelphia own 38 footers, and two-salaried academics ride about in 32-foot craft. Some natives from lower Dorchester County can afford 22-foot boats.
The lower classes are subjected to some tough treatment in Barth’s Shore novels. One ordinary boat hand is depicted with “papery skin and straw hair and a pointy face full of bad teeth.” He also features a man with “sour breath and red-rimmed eyes” who smells like “stale crabmeat and crushed sardines.” Betty Jane, the first girlfriend of Todd Andrews in The Floating Opera, is considered “certainly of an inferior class.” Watermen in the same work are pictured as “bluff, loud, sarcastic” and the negro-lynchers of past years.
The masses who crowd the beaches of Ocean City are treated with equal disdain in the novel End of the Road. They are characterized as “only a forest of legs ruined by childbirth, fallen breasts, pot bellies, haggard faces and strident voices: a rat’s nest of horrid children, as unlovely as they were obnoxious.” This was written in the 1950s but certainly holds true today, although the scene is somewhat brightened by lovely young girls with bathing suits that leave nothing to the imagination.
African-Americans, who form as much as one-third of the total population in some parts of the Eastern Shore, seem to hover in the background in most of Barth’s novels. They are tenant farmers and laborers on the estates of landowners like George Talbot, where the Skinner family manages the outbuildings and takes care of the cleaning, cooking and marketing.
One black servant is pictured as an “unreconstructed Eastern Shore black female.” In the minstrel show featured in The Floating Opera the white audience views the black entertainers as “deserving their poverty but their rascality has won our hearts.”
Religion receives only marginal treatment at best, despite the ardent piety on the Peninsula and the prevalence of Methodism in the region. The blue blooded Sherrit family is Episcopal in affiliation, as are many of the gentry on the Eastern Shore. There is a careless reference to the Sherrits as “High Church,” although there is probably not a single Anglo-Catholic parish in Delmarva south of Wilmington. Hoopers Island is described as entirely Methodist, which is true of most rural regions in the area. Jews are mentioned as shopkeepers in Cambridge.
Recreational activities and social life are colorfully chronicled in the Barth novels. The author thinks of “crabbing, oystering, fishing, muskrat-trapping, duck hunting, sailing and swimming” in connection with Cambridge and Dorchester County. The plot and action in The Tidewater Tales are primarily centered about sailing and yachting, popular pastimes on the Chesapeake Bay.
The insularity of the Eastern Shore is highlighted in the description of life on Hoopers Island in the 1950s. Nobody read books except the Bible. Racial segregation was absolute. The nearest book store was in neighboring Talbot County, while a trip to Baltimore was “an excursion to Babylon.” The dull life of the island was mitigated only by an occasional trip to the movies in Cambridge. Nevertheless, Barth praises the independence and self-reliance of the inhabitants and the absence of crime in the area.
Outsiders on the Shore are referred to as “come heres” by the provincial natives of the region, who are largely descended from the early English, Welsh and Scotch settlers or their African-American slaves.
Partying and drinking have long been routine activities among the local gentry and the well-heeled residents. A New Year’s party at a country manor house is depicted in detail in The Floating Opera. Everyone appeared in tuxedos and evening gowns. A champagne fountain was rigged up in the main dining room while three “white-coated Negroes” served at the bar on the porch. A small band played in the basement.
The less fortunate are pictured as socializing in taverns, diners and seafood restaurants. The patrons in one local restaurant are described in The Tidewater Tales as “blue-eyed grizzled watermen of various ages, drinking Budweiser at the bar.” The gaunt fifty-ish barmaid had a “wrinkled neck, high-piled bleached hair, rhinestone painted glasses and a twangy speech.”
In Lost in the Funhouse there is a backward glance at a visit to Ocean City during World War II. Crude oil from torpedoed tankers made the beaches unsafe and fireworks were banned because of the “brownout.” But a grandfather in the visitor’s party longed for earlier days when excursion trains brought thousands of pleasure seekers for a day or two of fun at the beach then lined by Victorian-style hotels and amusements like shooting galleries and merry-go-rounds.
Apparently Barth’s central characters, mostly middle or upper class, are not particularly intrigued by Maryland’s seafood fare. Crab cakes as a repast are rarely mentioned, although in The Friday Book there is a lengthy discussion of the five types of Chesapeake Bay blue crabs as representations of marine species. Maryland “beaten biscuits” are hard and dry and “sit on your stomach for an hour.” However, even some blue-bloods favor the local muskrat. Two ladies at a party discuss cracking the beast’s skulls and spooning out their brains, the latter tasting “delicious.” Muskrat soup is still a favorite dish among the region’s natives.
The well-to-do yachting and sailing crowd enjoy delectable meals aboard their craft. In one yachting dinner in The Tidewater Tales, the meal started out with wild mallard paté and cocktails, followed by an entree of swordfish and salmon steaks grilled with lemon, sliced tomatoes and ripe olives. The salad was of Belgian endive with vinaigrette. All these delicacies were washed down with a fine French wine. In a lunch aboard the Sherrit sailboat, the meal included artichoke vinaigrette, lamb chops, cucumber and onion salad, peppercorn brie and fresh apples and pears accompanied by a Beaujolais and Perrier.
In the epistolary novel Letters, one of Barth’s characters denounced the “typical C-minus U. S. restaurant” that serves breaded and deep-fried food, stale, packaged coleslaw and baked potatoes in Reynolds Wrap. In many cases only “the admirable beast of the Chesapeake, rockfish” make such a restaurant visit worthwhile.
Sexual escapades and references to the erotic are sprinkled through Barth’s novels. Even in his earlier novels, which appeared in the 1950s, there are allusions to homosexuality. National trends in sexual behavior were mirrored in local behavior. In general, however the kids of the “Gold Coast” in the 1950s were not precocious and, while dancing and petting were popular, there was “little real sex.” Brothels play a minor role in some stories, but they are all in Baltimore and not in local settings.
What about the political scene on the Eastern Shore? Some of the privileged in Barth’s terrain seem to pride themselves on a sort of bourgeois social liberalism of the kind common in some affluent suburbs. During the 1920s and ‘30s, Marxism among the elite was not unknown, especially with students. One local aristocrat and graduate of the exclusive Gilman School in Baltimore was an out-and-out Communist who spent his leisure time writing revolutionary leaflets.
But most natives of the Eastern Shore (at least before the 1960s) were conservative Democrats of the type common in the Southern states. The Floating Opera depicts a remarkable event that occurred in 1933 when conservative Democrats and New Dealers in the party temporarily put aside their local animosities to give President Franklin Roosevelt a rousing welcome as his private yacht sailed up the Choptank River to Cambridge for the dedication of the just-completed Gov. Harrington Bridge. Thousands lined the bulkheads to see the Potomac and listen to the amplified address. Today the changing Eastern Shore has increasingly embraced the two-party system as many of the well-to-do have joined the GOP, a trend common in other border and Southern states.
For the folksy, endearing portrait of Maryland’s Eastern Shore in bygone days, one must turn to the novels of Sophie Kerr, a native of Denton in Caroline County, who lovingly depicted the region’s social life, recreational activities, cooking and Methodist camp meetings in the early twentieth century.
John Barth’s post-modernist novels are set in a more recent era. His high brow protagonists seem engulfed in ethical subjectivism and are overwhelmed with self-doubt, assuming that everything outside of their limited lives is absurd and meaningless. Nevertheless, Barth’s stories do often touch on reality as his characters render revealing glimpses of the physical landscape, social life and class structure of the Mid-Shore counties.
But even Barth’s latter-day observations are fast becoming passé as thousands of newcomers and widespread real estate developments are transforming one of the last bastions of rural small-town culture in the Mid-Atlantic area. The charm of the Eastern Shore is gradually fading away.