Gilbert Byron's politics didn't suit a conservative Lewes

February 7, 2014

In spring 1962, when birdsong drifting through open windows should have been enough to distract a classroom filled with sixth-graders, Harriett Kratzer found a way to hold us in her spell. Dressed in calico-print dresses, half glasses perched on the end of her nose, she strolled slowly back and forth across the front of her classroom in Chestertown Elementary School reading chapters from Gilbert Byron's "The Lord's Oysters."

Mrs. Kratzer's heart paired easily with her reading. She lived in a house on Water Street, looking out windows at the Chester River, knowing the author grew up in a house barely a block away. She could imagine an era several decades before when Byron's autobiographical hero, Noah, roamed those streets and marveled at the constancy and bounty of the river.

The effect entranced this group of young innocents. We were just on the edge of comprehending the nuclear implications of our nation's cold war with Russia, somehow connecting that with the black and yellow fallout shelter signs drilled into the outside of the school's brick walls. Listening to Byron's vivid descriptions of life in a small tidewater town before mechanized wars began dominating the 20th century took our minds away from grown-up conversations about Khrushchev and personal fallout shelters being dug into the backyards of wealthier neighbors.

Nostalgia is not enough

I once visited Byron at his cabin in St. Michaels, several decades after Mrs. Kratzer introduced me to the author's work. In his 80s and reflecting on a life's work of poetry, columns, short stories and novels, he said he realized that when it came to compelling stories, nostalgia was not enough.

Taking the author's cue, I turn now to a new book about Byron by his friend, caretaker, admirer and executor Jacques T. Baker Jr. Titled "Gilbert Byron: A Life Worth Examining," and published by the Talbot County Free Library Foundation, Baker's book presents a comprehensive view of the author's life and his work. In his introduction, Baker writes: “Gilbert's simple yet moving style of writing brings pleasure to those who have a strong interest in nature, the great Chesapeake and Delaware bays, and how life on, under and around those bays has changed over time. No other author has written so extensively about this region over so long a period of time and from so many perspectives.”

In just over 315 pages, the reader will find Baker's narrative loaded with dozens of Byron's poems, excerpts from his novels and stories, and lots and lots of letters providing insight into and reflections on a life spanning most of the 20th century, from the author's birth in 1903 to his death in 1991.

Byron started life in Chestertown, graduated Washington College, and taught school in Lewes and Dover before migrating to St. Michaels in Talbot County. There, in the little cabin he constructed on the banks of Old House Cove off San Domingo Creek, he took up a Thoreau-like existence. Barely eking out a living as a writer and substitute teacher, he passed the seasons developing an ever-deepening appreciation for the nature and people of the tidewater region.

Byron embraced his first years as an educator serving as teacher, coach and principal in Lewes schools. But, as Baker's book explains, after developing a love for the maritime feeling of Lewes, its pilots and marshes and the proggers who walked the marshes with long sticks and shotguns to gather shellfish, ducks and turtles, his six years there ended on a sour note. When school board officials discovered that Byron had cast one of only two votes for a socialist presidential candidate in that Depression era, that was enough for them to arrange for his transfer to the Dover system and make way for another local teacher more in keeping with their conservative leanings.

Baker's many years of hard work in examining Byron's life will captivate those familiar with and fond of the author's work. For those less familiar but nonetheless appreciative of this special part of the world that is the heart of Delmarva, Baker's book offers a splendid opportunity to get a closer look, through the eyes of an artist, and to wade into the gentle waters of Byron's work detailed in a painstakingly complete bibliography.

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