Tidewater Review July 2006
Chesapeake Sailing Craft: Recollections of Robert H. Burgess. Edited by William A. Fox. Centreville, Maryland: Tidewater Publishers. Illustrated. Index. 302 pages. $34.95. ISBN 13:978-0-87033-572-3
This coffee-table-type-book is an expanded edition of the first Chesapeake Sailing Craft that was written by Robert H. Burgess (1913-2003) and published in 1975, but is now out of print. A native of Baltimore, Burgess – known as “Dean of the Chesapeake” – was associated with the Mariner’s Museum, the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, the Calvert Marine Museum and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. He loved Chesapeake Bay sailing craft – comprehensively and photographically.
The Dean’s first book entitled Chesapeake Sailing Craft was profusely illustrated by 236 photographs he took between 1925 and 1975 of sailboats on the Bay and its many harbors and tributaries. He set aside a lot more of his photos for a sequel but died before he completed the project.
The new Chesapeake Sailing Craft reprints the first one and adds 152 previously unpublished photos with text added by William A. Fox, a naval architect from Newport News, Virginia. That’s 388 pictures of Bay sailboats.
Burgess also won the Chesapeake Bay Heritage Award and was dubbed “Mr. Chesapeake Bay.” In Chesapeake Sailing Craft he photographs and describes log canoes, bugeyes, pungies, sloops, two-masted schooners, rams, skipjacks and three- and four-masted schooners as they did their job catching crabs and oysters, etc. and carrying freight to and from the Bay.
They sailed from launching to abandonment or display in museums. Burgess’s pictures, all black-and-white but never retouched in the darkroom, show boats in many stages – from some with gleaming new hulls and huge, glamorous sails, to others left on creek banks to rot.
For readers enchanted with wind-only sailing on the Bay, the new Chesapeake Sailing Craft is probably a collector’s item. Landlubbers, however, should be warned that Burgess makes extensive use of undefined maritime jargon – words like sheer (as a noun), deadeyes, trailboards, hawsepipes, longhead and so on. If you don’t fancy spending a lot of time looking through dictionaries, you may conclude that if you’ve seen 100 or so photographs of Chesapeake sailing craft, you’ve seen ‘em all.
Landfall along the Chesapeake: In the Wake of Captain John Smith, by Susan Schmidt. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. Illustrated. Index. 247 pages. $30.00. ISBN 0-8018-8296-6
In 2002, Susan Schmidt, a native Virginia poet, naturalist and licensed captain who grew up sailing on the Chesapeake, circled the Bay counterclockwise by its shores, from Jamestown and back, much as Captain John Smith did in 1608-09. Captain Schmidt, who has also been an English teacher and editor, “sailed” with only her pet dog in a 22-foot motorboat. Captain Smith, a British soldier of fortune, sailed in command of “a small crew of 14 men” on a “modest two-ton barge.”
Both voyages inspired books by the captain – Landfall Along the Chesapeake, by Schmidt (under review here); A Map of Virginia and Proceedings of the English Colony in Virginia, by Smith (published in 1612, the source of much subsequent scholarship and romantic fiction).
John Smith was thrilled by the thick forests and wild game that teemed around the Bay. Susan Schmidt notes that she poked slowly along the shores in a boat to enjoy the region’s natural beauty, although she was disappointed to see so few wild animals.
Nor does Schmidt leave the impression that she’s crazy about such modern plagues in this land of fairly gracious living as suburban sprawl, motor yachts that rudely rock smaller boats in their wake without apology, oil spills like the one she saw near the Easton Tred Avon dock and another one or more she saw in the renewed but still polluted Baltimore Inner Harbor. She also particularly dislikes people who own, but do not control, fierce big dogs like the one that she says bit her little pet dog in St. Michaels. She still enjoys crabcakes, though.
Of course, John Smith, a contemporary of Shakespeare, saw more natural wonders in late 16th and early 17th century Maryland than most of us saw in the 20th or will likely see in the 21st. Many of us, though, have seen, or will probably live to see, the Choptank River. But did Captain Smith see that gem of Eastern Shore splendor when he passed its mouth on his modest two-ton barge? As Captain Schmidt puts it in Landfall, Captain John Smith “totally missed it.” It’s neither on his map of the region, nor mentioned in his account.
Secret Girl: A Memoir, by Molly Bruce Jacobs. New York: St. Martin’s Press. 232 pages. $22.95. ISBN 0-312-32094-9
This very moving memoir, written by her older sister about a hydrocephalic, mentally retarded daughter of affluent parents who kept her existence almost completely secret, is very, very sad.
The secret girl, who died at age 40 in 2002, was Anne Jacobs, one of twin daughters of the late Bradford Jacobs, a Baltimore Sun foreign correspondent and editor, and his wife Molly Bruce, a socialite. Their other twin daughter, Laura, lives in Atlanta. The author of Secret Girl, Molly Bruce Jacobs, lives in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. She precedes her text with this disclaimer:
“Some characters described in this book are composites and certain events have been compressed. The names and identifying characteristics of most of the individuals who appear in these pages have been changed. Also, some scenes and dialogue had to be imagined for clarity’s sake. The imagined portions are indicated as such.”
The Jacobs’s immediate family members are identified by their real names. Anne, the secret girl, lived all her life in mental hospitals, supervised group institutions and nursing homes – never in the Jacobs’s big house in Baltimore County. She was seldom invited there, or visited, or even discussed by her family. Molly Jacobs was 10 years old before she was told that she had a second sister. She was 38 years old and trying to stop drinking when she first visited and saw Anne, then 35, at a nearby group home.
Anne was high spirited and capable of janitorial or simple office work (sharpening pencils, etc.). She was also occasionally loud and foulmouthed. And of course, since she was mentally retarded, she was a sad, very sad family “secret.”
Last Proud Gallop: A Novel, by Gerald F. Sweeney. Booklocker.com, Inc. 248 pages. Paperback. $15.95. ISBN 1-59113-887-6
So many artists and writers live on the Eastern Shore nowadays, it’s beginning to (sort of) resemble Greenwich Village in the Jazz Age, my favorite decade. Why is it my favorite? I was, after all, born at its beginning about 2,000 miles southwest of Greenwich Village and I was only 10 years old when the Jazz Age crashed with the stock market. So how come I like it? The answer is – what else? – hot jazz, the sound perfected and first recorded then. Of all popular music I’ve heard, I still prefer the hot jazz of Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton and Bix Beiderbecke. I prefer it to the music of Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and the Beetles. Okay?
Still, as much as I have ever enjoyed any literary fiction, I have enjoyed novels about the Jazz Age. The best known, probably, are The Great Gatsby and other novels by F. Scott Fitzgerald and similar writers who glamorized the “lost generation” of World War I veterans, flappers, jellybeans and the rich Ivy League Republicans who ran the country and mocked Prohibition and Victorian values.
Which brings us back to the new novel about the Jazz Age, The Last Proud Gallop, and its author who now lives in Easton, Gerald F. Sweeney. His hero is a rich and handsome Long Island polo player, wartime hero and political reformer (sort of). He could pass anywhere as a Fitzgerald upperclassman. His lover – the heroine (sort of) – is an extremely beautiful, “sexually liberated firebrand” of a dancer and good-time girl – a Jazz Age bohemian if there ever was one.
The hero and the heroine – although usually not together – whoop it up at numerous wild and crazy parties that are also attended by Long Island high society and New York City commoners. The hero plays polo and founds a movement that promotes his political “plan” to revise U.S. society. Exactly how he would revise it, I’m not sure, but he mentions that he’s a Republican, so I am fairly sure his plan is not a forerunner of the New Deal.
The heroine makes love with the hero – and with others that please her – but she never marries him. I read her as a feminist forerunner. The narrator, who tells the Last Proud Gallop story 50 years later in 1969, seems as detached and almost as neuter as the narrator is in Ernest Hemingway’s Jazz Age novel, The Sun Also Rises. Which is all I’m going to say about the plot.
The author, Gerald Sweeney, was also born somewhere west of Greenwich Village. According to a note in his book, he has “overworked” in “Manhattan’s madcap magazine world” and lived on Long Island a long time. Last Proud Gallop is very well written. The characters are so well-developed that they don’t often have to be identified in dialogue exchanges.