by Dylan Reynolds
November 19, 2019
With scenic landscapes and a rich cultural history, the Chesapeake Bay watershed has been home to a flourishing cultural scene for centuries, particularly inspiring writers. Whether they were influenced by its lively landscapes or simply found it a productive place to put the pen to the page, the Chesapeake Bay watershed has been home to some of history’s greatest literary figures over the years.
1. Mark Twain
The writer who is famous for his vivid depictions of life on the Mississippi River did much of his writing from a very different watershed: the Chesapeake Bay.
Born under the name Samuel Langhorne Clemens, the writer better known as Mark Twain spent his summers at Quarry Farm, his family’s summer home in Elmira, N.Y. During his long summers stays in Elmira, Twain would work from a secluded study overlooking the breathtaking Chemung River Valley, a tributary of the Susquehanna River. It was in this study that Twain wrote many of his riverside classics, including The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Life on the Mississippi.
2. Edgar Allan Poe
Widely considered to be one of America’s darkest and most iconic literary voices, Edgar Allan Poe spent much of his career as a writer traveling the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
Poe was a prolific writer and soon became well-known for his distinct voice and profoundly dark storytelling. He traveled frequently between Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia in search of work and publishing opportunities. However, Poe struggled with financial instability and fragile health throughout his life. Following the tragic death of his wife, Poe became very ill. He died in Baltimore, Md., where he is buried today.
3. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, recipient of the 2008 MacArthur Foundation “genius grant,” is a Nigerian novelist perhaps best known for her novel Americanah and her TED talk, “The danger of a single story.” However, Adichie does most of her writing from Maryland, the state she calls “her American home”.
After briefly studying medicine and pharmacy at the University of Nigeria, Adichie moved to the United States to continue her education in communications and political science before going on to complete a master’s degree in creative writing at Johns Hopkins University. Today, she splits her time between Nigeria and her home in Columbia, Md. Both places play important roles in Adichie’s stories, as she keenly observes the cultural differences between Nigerian and American life.
4. Tom Clancy
Known for his page-turning thrillers, the Baltimore-born spy novelist wrote most of his famous “Jack Ryan” series from his home in Calvert County, Md.
Tom Clancy’s fictional protagonist––the adventurous and always-daring Jack Ryan––is himself a Maryland native, and begins the series teaching history at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. Whether he’s grappling through Venezuelan jungles or preventing a royal kidnapping in London, Ryan always finds his way back to his Maryland home. In fact, Ryan’s mansion is largely based on Clancy’s own 80-acre estate in Calvert County, which offers a panoramic view of the Chesapeake Bay.
5. Francis Scott Key
Observing the British bombardment of Fort McHenry while detained on a British vessel in 1814, Francis Scott Key wrote the poem that now sings itself into the hearts of every American: O say can you see / by the dawn's early light…
Born in Frederick, Md., the man behind "The Star-Spangled Banner" was a lifelong resident of the Chesapeake Bay region. After attending St. John’s College in Annapolis, Md., Key went on to spend most of his life at his Georgetown home in Washington D.C. Key considered himself an amateur poet, and primarily made his living in legal work. In 1833, he was nominated by President Andrew Jackson to be the United States Attorney for the District of Columbia. Today, you can visit Key’s grave at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Frederick, Md.
6. Francis Scott Fitzgerald
High school reading lists across the country will know this American classicist by his shortened name: F Scott Fitzgerald. However, his name was no coincidence; the author behind The Great Gatsby was himself a distant cousin to Francis Scott Key.
Though he is best known for his work on The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald began work on his debut novel, This Side of Paradise, while visiting a friend in Charles Town, W.Va. Though he traveled throughout much of his life, Fitzgerald would come back to the Chesapeake Bay often—usually when his health or finances were failing him. Today, him and his wife, Zelda Fitzgerald, are buried together at St. Mary’s Church Historic Cemetery in Rockville, Md.
7. Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison, the Nobel laureate in literature whose groundbreaking novels celebrate as well as mourn black identity throughout American history, began her literary career at Howard University in Washington D.C.
Morrison graduated from Howard in 1953 with a bachelor’s degree in English and a minor in classics, returning to the college as a faculty member in 1957. Morrison joined the college’s on-campus writers’ group where she began work on what was to become her first novel, The Bluest Eye. Morrison’s historical fiction novels, such as A Mercy, offer vivid depictions of the geography and ecology of the Bay region, while telling honest stories about slavery and colonialism that made up the early history of America.
8. James Michener
Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist James Michener is responsible for what is perhaps the most well-known history of the Chesapeake Bay and its residents.
James Michener’s 1978 novel, Chesapeake, ambitiously follows the lives of a diverse cast of families living in Maryland and Virginia over the span of centuries. Its subjects range from indigenous Americans in 1583 to the end of the Watergate scandal in 1974.
Do you have a favorite author from the Chesapeake Bay? Let us know in the comments!