Martin Seymour-Smith was a grumpy fellow. A promising poet who took up writing big reference books of literary criticism, his highly idiosyncratic 1977 survey Who’s Who In Twentieth Century Literature is deliciously highbrow junk food. But like strawberry Pocky or matcha Kit-Kat, Seymour-Smith isn’t for everyone. His effort to catalogue the literary scene is full of curiously gleeful put-downs and undercooked psychoanalysis. He pronounces Hemingway “by no means intelligent … seriously overrated,” sums up Nabokov as “a distinguished lepidopterist” and “a minor writer of distinction,” and tenderly humiliates Updike’s Rabbit, Run as “brilliant … but too much so.” Who’s Who would be an impossible book to write today: Seymour-Smith is skeptical of literary personality at its core. The entries on particularly mythic writers like Hemingway and Faulkner show a dogged commitment to tearing down the aegis of respectability surrounding these figures.
As a critic he is digressive, laughably biased, and mean-spirited. For Seymour-Smith, even the century’s most celebrated writers deserve about as much humiliation as praise. Faulkner, for example, “worked from intuition and passion and never from what an educated man would call thought … if anyone believes that he possessed a mind in the usual sense, let him read the text of the Nobel Prize speech (1950): cliché-ridden, naive.” The entry goes on to praise the Yoknapatawpha novels and Seymour-Smith assures us “there is no doubt … of his high stature; and doubtless the poor work was part of the price—heavy and exhausting drinking-bouts were another—that he had to pay for his achievement.”
On Hemingway he is far less generous: “inept … he knew nothing about bull-fighting, as Death in the Afternoon (1932) which purports to be about it, makes painfully clear.” One has to wonder where Seymour-Smith had gotten his bullfighting intelligence, but no matter. After informing readers that The Old Man and the Sea is Hemingway’s attempt to describe how difficult it had become for him to produce anything of value, he dismisses it as “a portentous and pretentious analogy.” Worse still are Hemingway’s personal qualities: “He was a liar, he was treacherous to those to whom he owed most.” Finally, Seymour-Smith concludes that “the decency [Hemingway] found is limited and answers little.”
Seymour-Smith’s suspicion of material and critical success is obvious, and he tries his best to ignore it: The obligatory mention of Nobel Prizes is terse and unaccompanied by commentary, like the very mention of the achievement has to be torn out of him.
Listen to him on Sinclair Lewis, who won the Nobel in 1930: “Only of socio-anthropological interest; as a writer he is almost worthless.” And contemporary darlings like Heller, Tolkien, and Kerouac (“On the Road … was typed on long rolls of art-paper and reads like it”) do not even get the dubious honor of a long polemic: They are characterized more as cult leaders than writers.
Yes, Seymour-Smith is nasty, even cruel. And maybe he has too much fun demolishing “important” books and big egos. But Seymour-Smith was much more than a bundle of sassy contrarian impulse. If that was the extent of his contribution to literary criticism, Seymour-Smith could be safely forgotten: a minor figure, as he himself might say. But Seymour-Smith is not a jealous critic, an artistic failure who uses his prodigious intellectual powers to denigrate people who can do what he can’t. His tendency to humiliate the high and mighty is joined with a corresponding instinct to elevate the unknown and the under-appreciated. He is like that pitiful sports fan who roots for the underdog on a sort of sick, masochistic principle. He fawns over figures who are largely overlooked or still underrated today, as when he casually informs the reader that Wyndham Lewis was the greatest writer of the 20th century.
The zanily extensive entry on Lewis, more than twice the length of Faulkner’s and probably the longest in the book, calls Lewis’ The Human Age “the greatest single imaginative prose work in English of this century.” Seymour-Smith admires Gombrowicz and Rhys; Rebecca West’s fiction, “though always evincing respect, has not had its due,” and her absolute doorstop Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is “great journalism”—though he can’t help adding in characteristic Seymour-Smith fashion—“if journalism can be great.” Isak Dinesin is “one of the most original writers of her time” and “it is hardly surprising that she should be attracting more and more attention.” Other writers Seymour-Smith praises are probably known almost exclusively to graduate students.
Seymour-Smith, for all his snobbery, is deeply progressive—he sees that the literary canon is criminally narrow, and he believes in the redistribution of prestige and attention. With his praise of the forgotten and his commitment to interrogating the greatness of the “greats,” he warns readers away from graven images. The famous and successful are not titans, invulnerable and remote figures whose work is sacrosanct. They are as small and compact as we are, they squabble and stumble just as we do.
Much ink has been spilled in laments for the death of the negative book review. Readers of Who’s Who nostalgic for the era of pugnacious critics will take immediate pleasure in the spiteful wit displayed on every page. But after that cheap thrill there is something else: gratitude and even trust. You have been taken into a confidence. Even if it is an icky one—after all, you didn’t really need to know that Seymour-Smith thought Yukio Mishima was “evil and cruel … no more than a nasty little boy.”
Seymour-Smith’s opinions, though designed to some extent to be abrasive, come from a somewhat more different lineage than the hatchet job, another literary tradition in danger of being lost. It is not so much that Seymour-Smith has a negative outlook—though he can be relied upon to dislike things—it is that he has an opinion at all, a clear viewpoint expressed with expertise and self-assurance. He is idiosyncratic, he is bold, and he avoids platitudes.
He is a curmudgeon. He has unpopular opinions. He is a voice of dissent. He is an enemy of the comfortably established; he is the ally of the unsung. Most of all, Seymour-Smith’s book is an antidote to today’s largely toothless criticism, a reminder of a time when literature was more confident in itself and its merits, to a time when critics like Seymour-Smith could be safely unloosed upon the reputations of literary darlings—when we might have even cracked a smile about it.
In this way Seymour-Smith is like the boisterous uncle of literature. He is the uncle who hasn’t been seen in awhile. He shows up to the house uninvited, has a couple of highballs, and then casually confesses shocking family secrets of which you had never dreamed. He will smoke cigarettes in the formal living room, but long after he’s left sheepishly, and maybe in a hurry, you’ll still think of what he had to say.
1.In Havana, Ernest Hemingway’s restless ghost lingers more palpably than in any of the other places in the world that can legitimately claim him: Paris, Madrid, Sun Valley, Key West. Havana was his principal home for more than three decades, and its physical aspect has changed very little since he left it, for the last time, in the spring of 1960.
I’ve been traveling to the city with some regularity since 1999, when I directed one of the first officially sanctioned programs for U.S. students in Cuba since the triumph of Fidel Castro’s 1959 Revolution. As an aspiring novelist, I’ve long been interested in Hemingway’s work, but I had no idea how prominently Havana figured in the author’s life — nor how prominently the author figured in the city’s defining iconography — until I began spending time there.
Well-preserved Hemingway locations abound in Havana. They include the Hotel Ambos Mundos, where the author lived throughout the ’30s in a room that is now a small museum; the Floridita, which serves overpriced “Hemingway daiquiris,” and contains a life-size bronze likeness of the writer with its elbow on the bar; the Bodeguita del Medio, which has Hemingway’s signature on the wall and claims to have been his favorite place for a mojito; and La Terraza, the restaurant overlooking the small harbor that was the point of departure and return for Santiago’s epic voyage in The Old Man and the Sea. These sites are not just tourist spots, though they certainly are that. They also serve as shrines and landmarks in the city’s defining mythology. The essence of this mythology is captured in the black-and-white photos taken in the months following the 1959 Revolution, later made into postcards. These feature images of Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, Camilo Cienfuegos — and Ernest Hemingway.
To get a feel for the author’s Cuba years, let us begin with a single one: 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression. By the third week in July of that year, according to Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story, Carlos Baker’s comprehensive 1969 biography of the author, Hemingway had notched his 100th day of fishing in the waters north of Havana. He’d caught more than 50 marlin, including a 750-pounder he’d brought to hand within casting distance of the Morro, the white stone fortress presiding over the entrance to Havana Bay. The yacht he’d rented had been rammed so many times by swordfish that it was starting to leak, so he decided to buy himself a new one, a diesel-powered, 38-foot cruiser from Wheeler Shipyards in Brooklyn. He named it the Pilar, which was also his secret nickname for his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer — whose family money, as it happened, was financing the couple’s highly mobile lifestyle: a revolving calendar of stays in Havana, Madrid, Paris, New York, Key West, and the Serengeti.
Already a literary star on the strength of his first two novels, The Sun Also Rises (1926) and A Farewell to Arms (1929), Hemingway chose Havana as his base that summer because of its proximity to one of the planet’s best places to pursue big game fish. As he later wrote in Holiday magazine, he was drawn to the Gulfstream, that “great, deep blue river, three quarters of a mile to a mile deep and sixty to eighty miles across.” He was especially captivated by the marlin, which, from the flying bridge of the Pilar, looked “more like a huge submarine bird than a fish.”
The author had first visited Havana in April of 1928, for a brief stop on his steamer journey back from Europe at the end of those romantic Paris-based years he later portrayed so vividly in The Moveable Feast (1964). It proved to be a significant layover for Hemingway — and for Havana — because he discovered something about the place that made him want to return. The central ambition of Hemingway’s life was, as he wrote in Esquire in 1934, to create novels and stories “truer than if they had really happened,” and he was continually in search of gritty, colorful, and intense experience that would serve as fodder for this quest. Cuba, like Spain, was an ideal setting for this sort of experience, not only because of the excellent fishing, but also because it was a flashpoint for political upheaval. In April 1931, a general uprising in Spain had resulted in the fall of the Bourbon monarchy, marking the beginning of a new Republic, and in August 1933, a popular uprising in Havana overthrew the dictatorship of President Gerardo Machado. Hemingway, who had a lifelong distaste for authoritarian rule, joined in the celebration of both events, but the turmoil that followed in their wake would have enduring impacts on his creative life.
In the ’30s, according to Carlos Baker, Hemingway was feeling increasing career pressure as an author. The New York critics had savaged his most recent books, Death in the Afternoon (1932) and Winner Take Nothing (1933). He’d written enough stories about sport and animal dismemberment, they complained. Why didn’t he move on to something new? He wrote another novel, To Have and Have Not (1937), and it was a decent story — but decent wasn’t enough. A young novelist from California, John Steinbeck, was garnering critical attention and threatening to usurp Hemingway’s rightful place atop the pantheon of American writers. Hemingway needed a book as great as The Sun Also Rises or A Farewell to Arms — as great, more pressingly, as Of Mice and Men (1937) or The Grapes of Wrath (1939). He needed a masterpiece, and he was worried that he’d lost his ability to write one.
All these factors contributed to his decision, in 1936, to go cover the Spanish Civil War as a filmmaker and newspaper journalist. He joined a score of other international correspondents based in the Hotel Florida, in Madrid. He fell in love with a tall blonde writer and war correspondent named Martha Gellhorn, and naively allowed himself to become implicated in some unsavory intrigue with a ring of Soviet advisors to the Republican high command. It was an exhilarating time for Hemingway. He took every opportunity to observe the fighting, both at a distance and up close. The ground shook with daily barrages of Fascist artillery, reducing the Gran Vía to rubble, and he felt more alive than he had in years.
Eventually, the tragic war lurched toward its close. By the winter of 1939, with the triumph of Fascism looking inevitable, Hemingway decided it was time to get back to writing. He packed up his copious notes and booked his passage home to Havana, intending to work on a collection of three long stories or novellas. Instead, he was struck by a sudden inspiration for the story that would become his majestic novel of the Spanish Civil War, For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940). As the words began to pile up in his old fifth floor room at the Hotel Ambos Mundos, his excitement grew. He could feel it. This was the masterpiece he’d been hoping for.
In April of that year, he was joined by Martha Gellhorn, who was to become his third wife. Unwilling to live permanently in a hotel room, she located a down-at-the-mouth estate 15 miles from Old Havana called the Finca Vigía. Though the house was in need of work, it was favorably positioned on a hill washed by cool sea breezes, with distant views of the bone-white city and the glittering blue Straits of Florida beyond. In 1940, For Whom the Bell Tolls was published to critical and popular acclaim. His authorial confidence restored, Hemingway resumed the life of a migratory sportsman, with Martha as his companion and the newly renovated Finca Vigía as his long-term base.
Once the accolades died down, however, he sank into another valley of malaise. As he’d long been predicting, hostilities broke out in Europe. The fighting spread rapidly, and as of December 7, 1941, America too became involved. He’d written his masterpiece, sure, but now the entire world was consumed by war. He’d been a first-hand witness in two of the century’s defining military clashes. The idea of sitting this one out was unimaginable. Still, he wasn’t quite ready to abandon Cuba, or the good fishing, or his comfortable life at the Finca Vigía.
He was on good terms with top officials at the U.S. Embassy in Havana. With their approval, he put together a counterintelligence operation to address the infiltration of Cuba by Nazi spies. It was believed that the spies had found accessories among the many Cubans who supported the new Spanish dictator, Francisco Franco. The situation was seen as particularly dangerous because of the “wolf-pack” of German U-boats preying on Allied shipping throughout the Caribbean. Operations began in the summer of 1942, with the Finca as headquarters and a collection of fishermen, bartenders, prostitutes, gunrunners, exiled noblemen, Basque jai-alai players, and long-time drinking buddies forming the personnel of Hemingway’s counterspy ring.
But intelligence proved an unsatisfying pursuit. Yearning once again to experience the dangers of combat, he showed up at the embassy with an audacious proposal. He would staff the Pilar with a well-armed crew and patrol the island’s north coast, posing as a team of scientists gathering data for the American Museum of Natural History. Inevitably, his reasoning went, they would be stopped by a U-Boat, at which point they would wait for the Nazi boarding party to emerge. His machine-gunners would mow down the boarding party, and his retired Basque jai-alai players would lob short-fuse bombs down the sub’s conning tower. All he needed to make it work, he told the ambassador, was good radio equipment, arms and ammunition, and official permission.
Amazingly, the ambassador approved this far-fetched scheme. The Pilar was outfitted with a powerful radio, a set of .50-caliber Browning machine guns, grenades, bombs, and a variety of small arms. Martha suspected that it was all just a ruse to fill the Pilar’s tank with strictly rationed wartime gasoline so Hemingway could resume his fishing trips, and in reality the detachment of faux scientists never did encounter a U-boat. But the author’s experiences during that period gave him some terrific material for fiction. The novel that resulted, Islands in the Stream (1970) — unfinished in his lifetime and only published posthumously — contains portrayals of tropical seascapes that rank among the best passages of nature writing in fiction.
When Martha left to become a war correspondent in London, Hemingway remained in Havana, his drinking on the rise, and the Finca Vigía in a state of increasing disarray. The truth was, he was torn. A part of him felt strongly that he should be following Martha off to the war, but another part was deeply reluctant to leave the place that he’d come to consider home, his beloved cats, his friends, his record player, the long days out on the Pilar, and the mojitos and daiquiris at his Havana haunts. Still, when Collier’s offered him a job covering the Allied invasion of Europe, he managed to pull himself together. He placed the cats in good homes and shuttered the Finca Vigía for a long absence.
Like many other episodes in his colorful life, Hemingway’s experiences in World War II make for an interesting story, though that story is beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say that participating in yet another war seemed to give his spirit a fresh infusion, and he returned from Europe in May of 1945 with his fourth wife, Mary Welsh. Together they resumed the wandering life, alternating seasons in Havana and Sun Valley with frequent trips to Africa, Italy, and Spain. The Finca Vigía now had a staff of seven full-time servants and a well-stocked bar and kitchen. Houseguests included Hollywood luminaries such as Gary Cooper and Ava Gardner, whom he’d gotten to know in Sun Valley and from working on the movie versions of For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943) and To Have and Have Not (1944).
In December of 1950, he finally got around to writing a story he’d long had in mind, about an old fisherman from the Cuban town of Cojímar. He knew the town well; it was where he kept the Pilar, and he was a frequent patron of an eating and drinking establishment called La Terraza, which overlooked the small harbor featured in The Old Man and the Sea (1952), the last major work of fiction published in Hemingway’s lifetime. It won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954, providing a fitting capstone to a great career.
Throughout the 1950’s, the author’s health was declining. Worse, he was losing confidence in himself as a writer. In 1953, on safari in Africa, he and Mary were involved in a disastrous double plane crash, and he received a head injury from which he never fully recovered. It’s also fair to assume that his health and mental acuity were adversely affected by long-term alcohol abuse. People who saw him in the latter part of the decade were shocked by how old and frail he looked compared to the image of the vigorous sportsman and war reporter that had taken root the popular imagination. Still, he was managing to live an intermittently happy life, taking special pleasure in the company of the latest generation of the 57 cats that lived at the Finca Vigía during his decades there. “A cat has absolute emotional honesty,” he famously wrote. “Human beings, for one reason or another, may hide their feelings, but a cat does not.”
The emotions behind Hemingway’s enduring legacy in Cuba click more clearly into focus when you talk to those who knew him when they were young. I spoke to an octogenarian fisherman in Cojímar who’d once been invited up to the Finca Vigía, along with several other young locals, to talk about his daily life and fishing practices, undoubtedly as background research for The Old Man and the Sea or Islands in the Stream. On the way back from his outings in the Pilar, Hemingway would throw towropes to local fishermen, saving them half a week’s wages in valuable gas. Indeed, the author went out of his way to maintain good relations with many working men — taxi drivers, bartenders, fishermen — with whom he was more at ease than the awestruck international visitors who were constantly knocking on his door.
The Cuban government has honored the author’s memory by preserving the Finca Vigía exactly as it was when he left it in the spring of 1960. It’s a profoundly evocative place. Hemingway’s well-stocked bookshelves are exactly as he kept them; the magazines strewn about the tables are all from 1959 and early 1960. His spectacles lie open on a side table; the typewriter where he worked rests on a shelf; several enormous pairs of shoes hang toe-down in a closet rack. The walls of the pleasantly airy and light-filled house display several of his big game trophies, including the actual physical remains of the animals that played starring roles in “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” (water buffalo), and The Green Hills of Africa (kudu). You can see the author’s handwriting on the bathroom wall, where he periodically inked his fluctuating weight during those difficult waning years.
The onset of the Cuban Revolution worried Hemingway — the explosion of a nearby munitions depot broke windows in the Finca Vigía — but according to Carlos Baker’s biography he was pleased in January of 1959, when Fulgencio Batista fled the country and Fidel Castro’s bearded revolutionaries rolled in to Havana. Hemingway was disgusted by Batista’s corrupt dictatorship, and he saw the Revolution as a positive change: “I wish Castro all the luck,” he said. “The Cuban people now have a decent chance for the first time ever.”
He did meet Fidel Castro, in November of 1959, at a fishing tournament west of Havana. The young Revolutionary leader won the tournament, and Hemingway presented the trophy. Castro said that he’d kept a copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls in his backpack during the years of guerilla insurgency in the Sierra Maestra, which must have been thrilling for Hemingway to hear. “I always regretted the fact that I didn’t…talk to him about everything under the sun,” Castro later remarked. “We only talked about the fish.”
At the Finca Vigía, downhill from the main house through shaded gardens, a walkway leads to the author’s voluminous pool. Drained now, it’s a dangerous-looking abyss, the slanting cement bottom painted blue, blown leaf litter piled in the deep end. Just below the pool, where the tennis court used to be, the Pilar rests in dry dock beneath a high tin roof. Bolted to the top of the boat is Hemingway’s custom-designed flying bridge, where he could steer the yacht and stand lookout for marlin, or U-boats. This few square feet of decking, upon which the author spent so many avid hours, is perhaps the place in Cuba where Hemingway’s troubled ghost bleeds through the thin tissue separating the living from the dead most unmistakably. It’s impossible not to visualize him standing there, gazing out over the prow as he steered the Pilar among the azure channels and white-sand keys of the island’s northern coast, as reflected in this passage from Islands in the Stream:
The water was clear and green over the sand and Thomas Hudson came in close to the center of the beach and anchored with his bow almost up against the shore. The sun was up and the Cuban flag was flying over the radio shack and the outbuildings. The signaling mast was bare in the wind. There was no one in sight and the Cuban flag, new and brightly clean, was snapping in the wind.
One of the chief traits of Havana that makes it irresistible to visitors is the city’s elegant decay: the fact that its long isolation from the architecture-purging mainstream of the world economy has preserved a striking carapace of multi-layered history. Havana is a kind of massive time capsule in which, depending on the neighborhood, one barely has to squint to be transported back to the 17th century, the Art Deco 1930s, the 1950s gambling era dominated by the American mafia, and of course the forbidden Soviet Cuba of the Cold War.
It’s ironic, and perhaps fitting, that Hemingway’s single-minded pursuit of vivid real-life experience that he could immortalize in fiction is what led to him to Havana. Because despite his best efforts, the life could never quite match the intensity of the fiction, and that truth may have contributed to killing him. In Havana, the spirit of Hemingway endures, much like the architecture of the city itself, a fading reminder of what was and what might have been.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
The Compleat Angler, Izaak Walton’s 1653 book (pdf) of practical advice, poems, songs, and dialogues about fishing, ends with the intonation “study to be quiet.” The phrase comes from the first book of Thessalonians. Walton would likely have been familiar with the King James Version of the phrase, which reads, “And that ye study to be quiet, and to do your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you.”
The connection between fishing and religion remains. Holly Morris notes in her wonderful essay, “Fumbling After Grace,” “both fishing and writing are largely acts of faith: you believe that there is indeed a rich run of ideas lurking below. The convoluted first drafts, the false casts and hooked branches are all a part of some cosmic ritual designed to seduce a shiny gem to the surface. You get a nibble and your mind sings as you play the idea and reel it in. Only sometimes is it a keeper.” Faith is what brings anglers back to shallow streams, and what brings writers back to imperfect drafts.
Faith might also allow anglers and writers to release. The narrator of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Fish,” “caught a tremendous fish,” and admires her take. Her meticulous description makes the fish singular, and reveals the pride of a catch as “victory filled up / the little rented boat.” She ultimately lets the fish go, well aware that this exact dance might be repeated. After all, were the fish not free to begin with, fishing would not exist. In “Trout are Moving” by Harry Humes, freedom happens “past midnight,” when those who would seek fish are asleep. Humes imbues a mystical element to the trout’s movement, but also connects the fish to humans. The trout turns in the water, but it is not panicked or startled; rather, it is “just a sinking away / through the ordinary morning stillness / of the house.” Halieutic works might be often surreal, but the actual sport of fishing is tactile, like writing.
Both manual actions “can give you hand cramps.” Holly Morris finds deeper connections between the pursuits. Anglers and writers share a “masochistic urge to wake in the predawn hours and stumble with loaded thermos toward an icy cold stream to catch something you ultimately let go,” which “is not dissimilar to the quirky yearnings that guide a writing life.”
Some of my favorite writers at the sentence level–Ernest Hemingway, Thomas McGuane, and Jim Harrison–find similar connections between writing and fishing. For Stephen L. Tanner, Hemingway’s trout fishing in Paris was emblematic of his transition from journalism to fiction writing, from “having memories to creative remembering.” His literary representations of fishing abound, including The Old Man and the Sea, the calm and communal scenes between Jake Barnes and Bill Gorton in The Sun Also Rises, and the adventures of Nick Adams in “The Big Two-Hearted River.” But I have always been most interested in lines from Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway’s non-fiction account of bullfighting, that capture the paradox of fishing: “we speak of killing a trout with a rod. It is the effort made by the trout that kills it.” No matter how skilled or well-equipped an angler might be, the fish is in control.
Of course this leads anglers to seek even more methods to tip the scales in their favor. For Thomas McGuane, “tools of elegance and order, developed and proven in the sporting life, are everywhere useful.” Fishing is not simple recreation; it is a way to combat against the “fragmentation and regret” of daily complacency, a “way of looking at the world.” Owing perhaps to the “particular culture” of his Irish-Catholic upbringing, McGuane recalls the ritualistic approach of an old fishing buddy: “He had a bailing can that was an old Maxwell House can, cut off in this perfect way. Always went there. Oars went there. After you anchored the anchor went here, the line was coiled there. [His old wooden rowboat] wasn’t worth a hundred dollars. It was nearly all he had, but it was so deeply ritualized that it had a kind of glow.”
In the preface to The Longest Silence, his collection of essays on fishing, McGuane strikes a conservationist tone, concluding “we have reached the time in the life of the planet, and humanity’s demands upon it, when every fisherman will have to be a riverkeeper, a steward of marine shallows, a watchman on the high seas. We are beyond having to put back what we have taken out. We must put back more than we take out.” He revels in the otherness of anglers. The sport “is extremely time consuming. That’s sort of the whole point.” In our high-speed moment, “anglers, as a kind of preemptive strike, call themselves bums, addicts, and maniacs. We’re actually rather quiet people for the most part but our attitude toward time sets us at odds with our own society.”
There are two levels of time embedded in McGuane’s discussion. First, the desire to exit daily strictures of appointments and responsibilities, when our time is owned by others. The second level includes the micro bursts of focused time within the angling act, a sport that shifts from hours of waiting to swift moments of drama. That attitude toward time is shared by writers, and few are as adept at manual shifting between sentences as McGuane. His early novels, particularly Ninety-Two in the Shade and The Sporting Club, move between sarcasm, violence, and sublimity. McGuane’s friend and fellow novelist, Jim Harrison, shares a love for fishing, and the skill of literary transition. A Good Day to Die, his acerbic short novel, begins with the most ominous author’s note in history (“Certain technical aspects of the handling of explosives have been deliberately altered and blurred to protect innocent life and property.”), shifts to an epigraph from Rainer Maria Rilke (“Each torpid turn of this world bears such disinherited children to whom neither what’s been, nor what is coming, belongs.”), before settling into the prologue, where a hungover narrator awakens in a boat off Cudjoe Key, wanting to “catch the incoming tide and what fish would there looking off that huge sandspit toward the rank mangroves.” The novel’s wayward characters binge on drugs and sex, and fishing is the only salve, the only possibility for a soul.
In his own life, Harrison says “when you bear down that hard on one thing–on your fiction or your poetry–then you have to have something like cooking, bird hunting or fishing that offers a commensurate and restorative joy.” More than even McGuane, Harrison has been reduced by some critics as the prototypical macho writer. Yet Harrison rejects “sorry bumpkin mythologies.” The best anglers are the “most modest,” and never “identified their sports with our culture’s banal notions of manhood, which is a matter of costumery rather than substance.” Harrison’s sclerotic characters are also costumes. He wonders why “is it macho that I like to hunt and fish? I’ve been doing it since I was four. I have always thought of the word macho in terms of what it means in Mexico: a particularly ugly peacockery, a conspicuous cruelty to women and animals and children, a gratuitous viciousness . . . critics have an enormous difficulty separating the attitudes of your characters from your attitudes as a writer.” One can feel Harrison pushing back against comparisons with Hemingway, who he once said seemed like a “woodstove that didn’t give off much heat.”
We do not need to love our forebears to have been formed by them. What Hemingway, McGuane, and Harrison all share is a stylistic tendency to be both methodical when describing action, but also to layer narrative asides. These aberrant pockets of dialogue or description that might be pared by other writers give flesh and fire to their stories. Anglers spin yarns, and a good tale needs sufficient detail, along with enough oddity to warrant repetition. Fishing begins with base materials, as listed by the narrator of Harrison’s A Good Day to Die: “An open face Shakespeare Ambassador reel and a stout casting rod with a tackle box full of daredevils, pikie minnows, jitterbugs, mepps, spoons. And wire clip leaders.” But the sport becomes art when those materials and equipment are in able hands.
I have neither the skill nor the experience fishing of these writers, but I share their appreciation for the sport. I grew up fishing in suburban New Jersey, where lakes and rivers dot the flat landscape. We had to renew our licenses each year, and safety-pin them to our baseball hats. Back then fishing was a way to relax after basketball practice, or to avoid doing AP Calculus homework. We caught more sunnies than bass. It wasn’t fishing; it was fooling.
I only got serious about fishing when I got serious about writing, as an undergraduate in central Pennsylvania. I fished the Susquehanna River each morning with friends. I borrowed my brother’s chest waders, and stood in the current for hours, often without real results. A local fisherman told me to use a topwater lure called the Purple-D. “Two sets of hooks. Purple head, bright red eyes. Big bass like it, they jump up and grab it.” Not me. I never caught a bass, walleye, or anything else using it.
It is a small comfort that for even the best anglers, the vast majority of time on a river is spent waiting. The sequence of catch and keep, or catch and release, constitutes a fraction of time. And yet that is why anglers return. It was why I skipped class to stand in a river and cast above a rocked hole. It was why my wife and I studied old maps at the county library to find forgotten trails that led to small ponds. Fishing, like writing, is a stab at permanence in a world of waiting.
Water, sunlight, shadow, hunt, patience, search, silence: the elements of fishing are perfect fodder for writing, but they can also lead to sentimental lines and sentences. For every hour I spent in the soft current of Penn’s Creek, comfortable and warm in my waders, there were days when catfish snapped my lines. Fishing and writing hindsight are much the same. As Stephen L. Tanner says, “some of the best trout fishing is done in print rather than in streams.” Writing and fishing are both art forms built for optimists.
When Jim Harrison arrives at a fishing destination, “a number of centuries drift away. There’s no conscious sense of the atavistic, only that everything you’ve learned in school, university, your business life is of no use to you now.” I feel that sentiment when I run at an old moss farm near my home. The land is state-owned. Unkempt paths curl into the woods. One trail leads into a lake. There is no end; it simply goes into the water. I usually turn around. There is always so much to do. But some days I want to run straight into that silent lake and stand waist-deep. Fishing is not merely recreation; it is a source of creation. It is an art. I will always be haunted by waters.
Image via pagedooley/Flickr