Chronicles of Virginia's Shore
by Brooks Miles Barnes
In 1997 the University Press of Virginia published Seashore Chronicles: Three Centuries of the Virginia Barrier Islands, edited by Barry R. Truitt and myself. Seashore Chronicles is a collection of twenty-two travelers' accounts of the islands extending from 1650 to 1993. The accounts include tales of shipwreck, starvation and cannibalism, pony penning on Chincoteague Island, wing shooting, and bird watching. Among the contributors are Robert E. Lee, Howard Pyle, Thomas Dixon, Alexander Hunter, and contemporary essayists Tom Horton and Curtis Badger. Barry Truitt and I edited the accounts, wrote a short history of the islands, and supported the text with numerous photographs and drawings. William W. Warner, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Beautiful Swimmers, graciously provided a foreword.
Seashore Chronicles is modeled on the late Roland Van Zandt's Chronicles of the Hudson: Three Centuries of Travel and Adventure (1971), which I read in the fall of 1994. The descriptions of the Hudson River Valley gathered by Van Zandt immediately brought to mind the accounts of the Virginia islands in the collections in the Eastern Shore Room of the Eastern Shore Public Library, Accomac, where I am the librarian. Suddenly, in a uncharacteristic moment of perspicuity, I conjured the idea for a book. In late December I sent a one-page book proposal and photocopies of a half dozen of the best accounts to Edward L. Ayers, my former Ph.D. adviser in the history department at the University of Virginia. I asked Ed if he thought the idea a good one and, if so, would he recommend a publisher. Ed soon e-mailed the happy news that he liked the idea and, happier still, that he had turned the photocopies over to Nancy C. Essig, director of the University Press of Virginia. In a few days Nancy wrote expressing her interest in the project and asking to see additional travelers' accounts.
While Nancy was reviewing the new material, I happened to mention the project to Barry Truitt. For more than twenty years he has been the director of science and stewardship at the Nature Conservancy's Virginia Coast Reserve. During this time, Barry accumulated a tremendous store of knowledge about the barrier islands. It soon became apparent to both of us (and to Nancy when I broached the idea) that Seashore Chronicles would be a much better book if we collaborated. Barry and I are possessed of differing talents and temperaments, but we work well together. By September 1996, we had the manuscript in such promising shape that Nancy offered and we signed a contract for the book.
Barry and I divided the work equally. For the most part, we were in agreement about the selections included in the text. Barry, a biologist, would have liked to have added another ornithological account or two but I argued successfully that the book was "birdy" enough as it was. I wrote most of the short history of the islands and most of the introductions to the selections while Barry located photographs and obtained permissions. Most of the people and institutions with whom Barry dealt were accommodating. One elderly man, however, not only refused us permission to use his article on Chincoteague but subjected Barry to a profanity-ridden tirade as well.
Once Seashore Chronicles was published, we vigorously promoted the book. Guided by Mary Kathryn Hassett of the University Press of Virginia, we attended receptions and book signings in Onancock, Onley, Chincoteague, Cheriton, Richmond, Newport News, Virginia Beach, and Salisbury, Maryland. On the Eastern Shore we manned a booth at the Willis Wharf Annual Festival (we sold fifty books that day) and gave our slide show to any group that asked. We yammered away on local radio and our mugs appeared frequently in the local newspaper. We made sure that the book stuffed many a stocking that Christmas.
Barry and I are proud of Seashore Chronicles. We worked long and hard to make the book both valuable to the scholar and interesting to the layman. It has been favorably received by the press and the public and has sold well enough to merit reissue in a paper edition.
Recently, I was called from my office to the front desk of the library. A middle-aged woman shook my hand and thanked me. She said that in all the years of her marriage Seashore Chronicles was the first book that her husband had read cover to cover. She said that it had inspired him to read other books on Eastern Shore topics. Needless to say, I was touched and gratified.
Seashore Chronicles: Three Centuries of the Virginia Barrier Islands (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1997), is available in hardcover at $30.00 (ISBN: 0813917484) and in trade paper at $14.95 (ISBN: 0813918790).