A Sportsman’s Library: 100 Essential, Engaging, Offbeat, and Occasionally Odd Fishing and Hunting Books for the Adventurous Reader
By Stephen J. Bodio
Foreword by Jameson Parker
(Lyons Press, 256 pages, $18.95 paper)
Stephen Bodio is Edmund Wilson with a shotgun. He might be our most able critic of the literature of the bloodsports and the natural world, to which he brings a polymath’s curiosity. He lives in New Mexico, and is a hunter, a fisherman, and a falconer, and he keeps dogs and assorted birds more as associates than as mere pets. From 1981 to 1992 his eponymous “Bodio’s Review” appeared monthly in Gray’s Sporting Journal, the New Yorker of the Hook and Bullets. Maybe that column was the genesis for the fine book at hand.
Given our squeamish, politically correct times, A Sportsman’s Library probably won’t enjoy a review in the New Yorker. A reader of this one who believes that the book is merely a compendium of carnage is mistaken. The overlapping themes of the five score titles considered are the ethics and morality of rituals as old as humanity. Or as José Ortega y Gasset put it in his Meditations on Hunting (1942): “….one does not hunt in order to kill; on the contrary, one kills in order to have hunted.” Bodio devotes an elegant short essay to each of his hundred titles, with an “Also Read” sidebar at the end of each that suggests additional titles by the same author or related books. In this cursory way another 200-odd titles are noted. I don’t doubt he’s read them all. The book is divided into three sections: “Fishing,” “Wingshooting,” and “General Hunting, Guns, Travel, Mixed, and Miscellaneous.”
But first a few classics. Of Ivan Turgenev’s A Sportsman Sketches (1852) Bodio writes: “It is a book of country life, and hunting is the stream that it floats in….it is one of the most perfect pieces of writing about nature and hunting in any language.” One of Turgenev’s legion of admirers was Ernest Hemingway, whose own Green Hills of Africa (1935) the author thinks anticipates In Cold Blood and other “nonfiction novel” works of the 1960s, and despite the critical whacking that Green Hills has taken when compared to Hemingway’s greater work, in it “he placed every word like a brick in a wall.”
William Faulkner’s Big Woods (1931), which contains “The Bear” (the short novel also appearing in the later collection Go Down Moses), is “America’s iconic hunting saga.” Faulkner: “This time the bear didn’t strike him down. It caught the dog in both arms, almost loverlike, and they both went down….He drew back both hammers of the gun but he could see nothing but moiling spotted houndbodies until the bear surged up again.” In Out of Africa (1938), Isak Dinesen hunts cattle-poaching lions at night: “First the circle of light struck a little wide-eyed jackal, like a small fox; I moved it on and there was the lion. He stood facing us straight, and he looked very light, with all the black African night behind him.” Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings hunts quail in an undeveloped Florida backcountry as wild as Africa in her fine memoir Cross Creek (1942): “What makes the sport is the magnificent country and the stirring performance of good dogs. Good companions lifted into high adventure….”.
But Bodio’s passion is seen in his rescuing from obscurity little known books of noteworthy literary value. The forgotten and many times out-of-print volumes of the canon of sport penned by aristocrats, erudite reporters, or just plain nature-drunk eccentrics — the latter describing most fishermen, the piscatorial-obsessed.
It seems to have started with a woman, oddly enough; one Dame Juliana Berners, whose The Book of St. Albans appeared in 1486. Its subtitle is “The Art of Fishing with an Angle.” She is followed by The Compleat Angler (1655) by Izaak Walton, of whom Bodio writes: “In relation to angling, Walton stands like a monolith, our slightly disreputable Shakespeare or King James Bible. He must be dealt with, but there is already enough commentary to fill a book longer than this one, and you can find it anywhere, even in English departments.”
Among the eccentrics there is Gavin Maxwell’s Harpoon Venture (1952). Maxwell was an ex-British Army officer who after World War II went off to the West Isles of Scotland to become –what turned out to be — a failed commercial shark fisherman, and write about it in vivid, comic detail. Bodio tells us that Maxwell abandoned his three-year enterprise of “crazed impracticality,” and bailed himself out by publishing in 1961 the bestselling Ring of Bright Water. Negley Farson was a foreign correspondent who covered the Bolshevik Revolution and married Bram Stoker’s niece. In 1942 he published Going Fishing: Travel and Adventure in Two Hemispheres. Farson fished from Scotland to British Columbia to Chile, the trout-choked Andes waters of the last seeming to be his own discovery in 1937. Farson worked and fished, roaming the world with “typewriter, fly rod, fedora, booze and cigarettes.”
A modern-day classic, Norman Maclean’s novella A River Runs Through It (1976) has the dubious distinction of sparking a trendy surge in fly fishing enthusiasm on western streams, and its 1992 film adaptation’s resulting real estate boom that bestowed on Montana the annoying presence of Ted Turner and Tom Brokaw. But the book itself is “one of those rare works that would be literature whether it were about trout or garbage trucks….” Its opening and closing sentences are as familiar to fly fishermen as their counterparts in Moby Dick are to Melville scholars.
John Gierach’s Trout Bum (1986) (which along with Maclean graces my own shelves) is the Everyman’s fishing book. Its essays chronicle the life of a man obsessed with a sport that happily is also his livelihood, as Trout Bum was the first of many such collections. Gierach enjoys road trips to fish obscure western rivers and creeks, such as the Frying Pan River in Colorado, staying in small motels and campgrounds, and eating in cheap diners, thus answering the question: “How come a guy who dresses in rags and drives a smoky old pickup can afford such snazzy tackle?”
Bodio is fond of a number of books by old friends of his, those best described by the late Richard Brautigan as “the Montana Gang”: Thomas McGuane, Jim Harrison, Russell Chatham, and Guy de la Valdene.
McGuane has two books on the big list, his National Book Award-nominated 1973 novel Ninety-Two in the Shade, and his essay collection An Outside Chance (1990). The former is one of the few novels to make the list. Its prose shimmers like the sun-flashed waters of the Florida Keys: “Two spotted rays shot out in front of the boat and coursed away on spotted rings, their white ventrals showing in their hurry; then vanished in the glare.” Bodio writes of An Outside Chance that it “is an irresistible book, full of humor and excitement and precise observation, rooted in a conservation ethic so deep that McGuane does not have to preach about it.”
The prolific Jim Harrison’s work is represented by Just Before Dark (1991), a miscellaneous collection devoted to field sports, literary matters, and food (a subject close to the gourmand Harrison’s stomach). Included are legendary comic pieces such as “Ice Fishing, the Moronic Sport” and “A Plaster Trout in Worm Heaven.” Russell Chatham’s Dark Waters (1988) is here, and like the Harrison collection, it’s full of fishing, hunting, drinking, and gout-inducing gourmet feasting. Chatham is primarily a painter (though his writing an excellent avocation) and did the covers for both books. And also the cover for Guy de la Valdene’s The Fragrance of Grass (2011), which the compiler once praised in a letter to its author: “It is your best I think….You get the dogs exactly, and being an aging hunter and lover of our world and all the vanishing things.”
Which brings us to wingshooting. Jim Fergus’s A Rough Shooting Dog: Reflections from Thick and Uncivil Sorts of Places (1991) seems to be Bodio’s pick for “one of the best descriptions I have ever read of what it means to pick, train, work, and fall in love with a bird dog.” Gun Dogs and Bird Guns: A Charley Waterman Reader (1986) “would be worth buying just for five of his best essays: ‘False Points’, ‘Kelly, He Got Them All,’ ‘Greying Hunters Hunting Greys,’ ‘Shadows on the Prairie,’ and ‘Going Up Under the Mountain.’ These are so deceptively simple you’d think there was nothing special about them until you try to duplicate their clarity and humor.” Datus Proper’s Pheasants of the Mind: A Hunter’s Search for a Mythic Bird (1990) invites the reader to embrace the great North American game bird, one not just the “gaudy, alien chickens” of yore, but “a bird worthy of obsession”(and it’s about dogs too, of course). And close to Bodio’s heart and Massachusetts roots is William Harnden Foster’s New England Grouse Shooting (1942).
Two odd books on the list of one hundred are poetry collections. Ted Hughes’ Collected Poems (2003) features a few piscatorial titles such as “Night Arrival of Sea Trout” and “Salmon-taking Times.” Hughes was an avid fisherman on British streams, and salmon was his favorite quarry, “with the clock of love and death in his body” (universal poetic motifs applied to fishing). Timothy Murphy writes and farms in the “fertile Siberia” of North Dakota. The onetime Yale student and protégé’ of Robert Penn Warren is an upland bird hunter and “dog-man,” and author of Hunter’s Log (2011). A hard hunt for pheasants in the snow brings us these lines: “I floundered to a roadside willow stand/Collapsing on a log/Where Feeney licked my hand/Unworthy man behold thy dog.”
The list would not be complete without at least one title by Theodore Roosevelt, whose lifelong literary output of eighteen books might have brought him to our notice even if he had never set foot in the White House. Bodio chooses The Wilderness Hunter (1893), a memoir gleaned from T.R.s Dakota badlands years. The book “is imbued with a certain Victorian celebration of the character virtues built by living a hunter’s life.”
For readers who enjoy adrenaline-inducing dramatic tension there’s Jim Corbett’s Man-Eaters of Kumaon (1946), which is the only bestseller ever penned by an expert tiger hunter. Corbett was much in demand in 20th century British India when Bengal Tigers occasionally made meals of unlucky farmers and woodcutters because, as Bodio writes, “….man-eaters do not earn their deserved reputation by recklessness.” “[Corbett] walks lonely dirt tracks at dusk, and in his plain prose, without a trace of braggadocio, he lets you know what that feels like.” In this surreptitious way, as crafty as the tigers he hunts, Corbett “killed a ridiculous number of man-eating cats.” Otherwise, he was an ordinary shipping contractor and bird lover.
Bodio thinks highly (as do I) of Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac (1966). Leopold was a sportsman, but more a conservationist who produced “some of the best writing in English about natural history, hunting, and the essence of country.” He goes on: “If you have not read any of these [essays] please put my book down and go out and buy this one; if you do my work has been worthwhile.” Bodio then goes on to offer a number of Leopold quotes, this passage being the most well known: “We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes –something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunter’s paradise. But after seeing that green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”
I’ve barely scraped the scales of this sumptuous fish. There are great travel books (Across Mongolian Plains–Roy Chapman Andrews–1921; A Woman Tenderfoot–Grace Gallatin Seton-Thompson–1900); and — usefully enough — cookbooks (The L.L. Bean Game and Fish Cookbook–Angus Cameron and Judith Jones–1983; The Scavenger’s Guide to Haute Cuisine–Steven Rinella–2005). And I mustn’t forget a book beloved of Stephen Bodio the falconer, who writes of T.H. White’s The Goshawk (1951) that despite White’s many apprentice mistakes, he might have penned “the best book about the experience of falconry ever written.”
Don’t practice catch and release with A Sportsman’s Library. It’s a keeper.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons