Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Week 11: State - Maryland (and Washington D.C.)

Maryland, the first state south of the Mason-Dixon line on this trip, was in 1790 chosen as the location of the nations new capital when George Washington, the first President of the United States, selected land to be ceded to the District of Columbia for the creation of the Federal Capital, renamed Washington, D.C. the following year in his honour. Although the District is not part of any U.S. state and is instead directly overseen by the federal government, it currently sits solely on land ceded by Maryland as the land also provided by Virginia was retro-ceded back to the state in 1846. Located within the district are The White House, the centres of all three branches of the U.S. federal government, the J. Edgar Hoover Building (headquarters of the FBI), many national museums and war memorials, the Lincoln Memorial and Thomas Jefferson Memorial, the historic Ford's Theatre (site of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln), the Washington Monument, and the the National Archives which houses the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Washington, D.C. also hosts 174 foreign embassies as well as the headquarters of the World Bank.

Outside of the cities and suburbs surrounding Washington, DC, the majority of the population of Maryland is located in and around Maryland's most populous city, Baltimore, the largest independent city in the United States (in not being part of any county). Baltimore is also the largest U.S. seaport in the Mid-Atlantic and was once the second leading port of entry for immigrants to the United States. During the War of 1812, the British military attempted to capture the port, which was protected by Fort McHenry, and it was during this bombardment that Francis Scott Key, a Maryland lawyer aboard a British ship where he had been negotiating for the release of an American prisoner, witnessed the bombardment and later wrote "The Star-Spangled Banner", a poem recounting the attack, which was later set to music and became the official National Anthem of the United States in 1931. The state as a whole has a booming economy led by the computer industry and scores of federal government jobs in and around the Washington area. As a result Maryland households are currently the wealthiest in the country, with a 2009 median household income of $69,272 (ahead of New Jersey and Connecticut), and the poverty rate is the lowest in the country. Maryland is known alternately as Little America, due to the diverse variety of its topography (despite the absence of any natural lakes), The Old Line State, or The Free State. The capital is Annapolis.

Notable films set in and around Washington, D.C. include, aside from all the numerous depictions of historical and fictional U.S. Presidents, All the President's Men (based on the Woodward and Bernstein reporting of the Watergate scandal for the Washington Post), The Exorcist (set in Georgetown), Mr. Smith Goes To Washington and Minority Report, as well as the T.V. Shows The West Wing, and The X-Files. In rural Maryland The Blair Witch Project is set in and around the town of Burkittsville, whilst films set in Baltimore include 12 Monkeys and The Accidental Tourist. Baltimore native Barry Levinson has set a series of films in Baltimore (Diner, Tin Men, Avalon and Liberty Heights), as has fellow resident John Waters who parodies the city extensively in his films (Pink Flamingos, Hairspray). The acclaimed crime dramas Homicide: Life On the Street and The Wire are also both set in Baltimore. Contemporary writers based in Baltimore include Anne Tyler, author of The Accidental Tourist, and Tom Clancy (the film adaptation of his novel The Sum of All Fears features the destruction of Baltimore by a nuclear bomb). For my choice of novel at first I was tempted to cheat and go with The Exorcist, which is set in Georgetown in Washington, but having felt that I've read too many books lately which have been turned into films I've already seen I've decided to go with one by Anne Tyler.

A Patchwork Planet was first published in 1998 and like many of Anne Tyler's novels is set in Baltimore. I've read the book over the last week and as I've fallen behind schedule I won't be posting a separate review. It's not the kind of book I would normally read and I found her writing a little too whimsical for my tastes, though I understand this is part of the appeal to her fan base and A Patchwork Planet has been largely praised elsewhere. It's also the first book on this trip where I've felt the setting hasn't played a large role as a character in the story. The plot focuses on a divorced 30-year-old former juvenile from Baltimore who has proved to be a disappointment to his affluent family from Guilford by not amounting to anything more than his dead-end career as a handyman for the elderly. Guilford is a distinctive residential neighbourhood in the northern part of Baltimore comprising of 680 family dwellings ranging from modest homes to stately mansions, many with swimming pools, extensive landscaping and old-fashioned streetlights. There are also a number of scenes set in Penn Station, the main train station in Baltimore (built 1911) and the eighth busiest rail station in the United States.

Next: West Virginia

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