Virginia


P1030128
Photo of the Great Dismal Swamp by heymarchetti used under a Creative Commons license.

Charles Royster, The Fabulous History of the Dismal Swamp Company: A Story of George Washington’s Times (Vintage, 2000).
On both sides of the Virginia-North Carolina border, but mostly on the north side of the border in Virginia, not far from the ocean, lies the Great Dismal Swamp.  In 1763, a group of investors, among them the war hero George Washington and other notables, founded the Dismal Swamp Company to drain, develop and profit from this land. This history of the company is a window into the finances and dealings of Virginia’s eighteenth-century elite, who made their fortunes speculating on land and growing tobacco and usually owed staggering debts in London.

Here is Royster’s bio at Louisiana State University, where he teaches.  Nate Oman says the narrative works nicely.  Mangum calls it a fine book but thinks it falls a bit short of its potential.  Dennis Berman (Business Week) says it requires uncommon endurance.  T.S. says Royster synthesizes political and business history.  Bibb Edwards read it on the swamp.  Elizabeth H. Smith collects writings on the Great Dismal Swamp. John Tidwell wrote about the swamp for American Heritage. Here is the site for the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge — 250 years later, still wild.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

Crabs, Beer and Bay
Photo by Oblivious Dude used under a Creative Commons license.

William M. Warner, Beautiful Swimmers (Back Bay Books, 1994).
Both a natural history of the Atlantic blue crab and the Chesapeake Bay, and a cultural history of those who earn a living from crabbing. The biology and habits of the crab, the waters and weather of the bay, how to catch and harvest the crab — all of these are tied together. If you want to know how to tell a jimmie (a male crab) from a sook (a mature female), it’s here too. Warner was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 1977 for this book. Since then, the Bay has suffered a decline and there are fewer of watermen in Maryland and Virginia, but Beautiful Swimmers has never been out of print and it still describes their world.

Peter Stoler reviewed it for Time, and Ned Daly reviewed it in Takoma Voice. Pinckney and Julie Dunlap blog about the book. Tom Horton profiled Warner for Washingtonian. Some folks credit Warner with making the Maryland blue crab famous, though I think the crabs were doing OK in that department before he came along. Like Warner did many times in writing the book, Johnny Apple went crabbing. Tom Anderson visited Tangier Island thirty years after Warner did. The Strathspey sails where Warner went, too.

Buy this book at Amazon.com.

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