The Johns Hopkins Gazette: November 16, 1998
Nov. 16, 1998
VOL. 28, NO. 12


Regional Books From JHU Press Offer A History Lesson

The goal is to let people know more about the area they are living in

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

A lighthouse on the bay, an Amish farmer tending his field, a line of row houses in Baltimore. These are all images that come to mind when one thinks of the Chesapeake region.

And for each of these images, there is also a history.

Who were those people who used to live and work on the Chesapeake Bay? Why did the Amish develop their unique culture? And just whose idea was it to put Formstone on the facades of row houses anyway?

The answers to these questions are the buried treasure of historians, those who seek to record the present and the past, and also to explain its significance.

For the past 20 years, The Johns Hopkins University Press has published a series of books devoted to regional topics in order to teach people about these historic sites and the area's natural features and to encourage the preservation of the region's history and culture.

Although the JHU Press has published books about Maryland and the region since its inception in 1878, it wasn't until the mid-1970s that the Press shifted from publishing scholarly texts on the subject to those with a more general interest. Robert J. Brugger, history and regional books editor, says the rationale behind the shift was to simply let people know more about the area they were living in.

"We want to give people a reason why we should preserve the Bay and rehabilitate our buildings," says editor Robert Brugger.

"We want to give people a reason why we should preserve the [Chesapeake] Bay and rehabilitate our old buildings," Brugger says, "and also how to think about Marylanders and Chesapeake people as having a particular identity, a willingness to conserve the past and also be adaptive and resourceful."

Brugger, himself a historian, spent the early part of his life growing up in southern Illinois but moved to western Maryland when he was 13. He says it didn't take him long to fall in love with his new home.

"Thirteen is a very impressionable age, and I was really taken by western Maryland, especially the limestone, the pretty locust trees, zig-zag fences, meadows and the Civil War stuff," Brugger says.

Brugger left Maryland to earn his degree in history from Notre Dame. After a three-year stint in the military, he returned to Maryland to earn his doctoral degree in history at Johns Hopkins. The author of Maryland, a Middle Temperament, 1634-1980, a book about Maryland's history during those years, Brugger joined JHU Press as regional books editor in 1989.

Brugger had taught history at the University of Virginia and had been the editor of the Maryland Historical Society Magazine. But when he was offered the position as history and regional books editor at JHU Press, Brugger says it was clear this was the job for him.

"Trying to create a list of books on American history is pretty exciting work," Brugger says. "This stuff is what makes Maryland, Maryland. What defines Baltimore as a city? But we don't try to beat it to a pulp. We try to be fresh and new with all our books."

Some of the books on the regional list include The Workboats of Smith Island, by Paula Johnson; Walking in Baltimore, an Intimate Guide to the Old City, by Frank R. Shivers Jr.; Birds of the Chesapeake Bay, by John W. Taylor; and The Riddle of Amish Culture, by Donald B. Kraybill.

The JHU Press defines the Chesapeake region as including Tidewater and central Virginia, Maryland, the Delmarva Peninsula and Amish country.

The authors of the Press's books, Brugger notes, are not all historians, but rather many are first-time authors who have a deep appreciation for their home.

"Our regional authors are gifted and talented people who have a sense of place. Many, in fact, are outsiders, who, when they come to Maryland, see a lot of things they haven't seen and want to write about," Brugger says.

So what does set the Chesapeake region apart from other areas of the country?

Brugger says it has a lot to do with water.

"One of the reasons that San Francisco is such an attractive city is that it combines land, water and verticality," Brugger says. "In the case of Maryland, and throughout the Chesapeake region, land and water intertwine. That I think is peculiar, and somewhat unusual to the American landscape.

Brugger adds that Maryland also has verticality, as he calls it, with its mountain ranges in the western part of the state.

"But the main thing is that we have always combined two culture themes, the Cavalier and the Yankee. It is this combination, and the constant tension between the two, that makes Maryland such an interesting place."

The JHU Press currently publishes about six regional books per year. Brugger says that although that is a small number in terms of the entire list of books published by the Press, the mass appeal of these books allows them to have a wider market.

"Some of our readers are residents, but some are just those who are traveling through or visiting and want to find out more about what they are experiencing," Brugger says. "I've run into many people who compliment us on the kinds of books we do and the kinds of things these books bring to mind. I'm happiest when I find out that people think a little more about the past because they have read our books."