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Chesapeake Review Essay, Research Paper

Chesapeake Joung Lee / P.4

by James A. Michener

“I was brought up in the great tradition of the late nineteenth century: that a writer never complains, never explains and never disdains”, quoted James A. Michener in 1989. His first and last descriptions may fit his heavy writing style, but his thought about nineteenth century writers never explaining is something Michener must ve thwarted before starting his career as a Pulitzer – winning writer. In 1978, he published Chesapeake, yet another fat 1000-page block of fiction combining geography and history, in which he is well-known for. Some critics noted how the weight of Michener s novels can endure a Texas tornado, but inside his books are unique pieces of historical literature from around the world masterfully narrated and recounted in Michener s own words. In Chesapeake, Michener brings 400 years of Americans saga along the Maryland s Eastern Shore, from a life of an English Catholic in search of a refuge up to the modern days, such as the completion of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge spanning the great bay once crossed by the Indian canoes. Main themes addressed in this novel by Michener include: the isolated history of the Eastern Shore, drastic changes in landscape through time, and never-ending racial conflicts that have plagued the society since the colonial days.

America, as a nation, have felt the effects and had affected enormous changes around the world, something that always existed throughout the human history. Although such may be the case for many societies, it certainly doesn t apply to the inhabitants along the calm and broad Choptank river in the present day Dorchester and Talbot counties in Maryland. The fictional town of Patamoke in Chesapeake, as the book s main setting, fortunately was almost unscathed by the brutalities of the Civil War, and was never affected by the wars of the twentieth century while developing a unique way of life. But isolation from the outside world also had negative impacts along the Choptank, such as a lagging transportation network, inability to adapt to social changes, and the government s disregard for the region s needs. A clear example depicting the latter is quoted on page 739: “… the railroad was still unbuilt.” , even after visitations from three great politicians Clay, Webster, and Calhoun, whom each had promised an extensive railway uniting the Eastern Shore.

Another major theme pointed out by Michener is how the passing of time had substantial repercussion to the changing landscape in the Chesapeake region. The following excerpt deals with the birth of the Eastern Shore: “… the ice sheet must have contained within it an enormous quantity of water, and when the ice finally melted that water must have formed a gigantic river, parent to the present Susquehanna. And that river, … had reamed out the Chesapeake Bay and deposited silt which had become, … the Eastern Shore.” (p.469) Michener also talks about the extensive beach erosion slowly eating up Devon Island and the Eastern Shore, predicting that “… the great world-ocean would sweep in to reclaim this entire [Delmarva] peninsula…” (p.1001). Although the power of the nature may not be reverted, the people of the Eastern Shore resisted modernization affecting their isolated presence, such as the building of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, as the Bugle indicated “No greater disaster than this damnable bridge has ever faced our land of peaceful living, and we must oppose it with all our energy.” (p.884)

Finally, as perhaps the most important theme of this book, Michener discusses about the black presence in the community which gradually built tensions and fears later resulting in “The burning of Patamoke…” in which “… the enraged blacks did not throw the torch at a single building occupied by whites;” (p.918). Ever since the first day when a black slave was imported, the whites in the Eastern Shore distanced themselves away from their African neighbors, treating them not as equal human beings, but as despicable animals deserving no better than a shack and a life in destitution. Even after entering the twentieth century, the whites segregated blacks away from their churches, school, and even ice cream parlors. When all these factors built up and exploded from its own burden, what the town of Patamoke faced was a cold slap in the face forcing the people to face the reality and end the stubborn way of life separating the races in every aspect of their society.

These are the major themes addressed in Michener s enduring work of character and lore. As the Atlanta Journal and Constitution best put it, “This marvelous panorama of history seen in the lives of symbolic people of the ages is a review of the conflicts, horror, and violence that accompanied the building of our nation… An emotionally and intellectually appealing book, rich in detail and magnificent in scope.”


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