By Jonathan Yardley
Friday, April 24, 2009
An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.
Odds are you've never heard of William Humphrey, much less read one of his several books, an unhappy reminder that even the best of writers -- and from the publication of his first book in 1953 until his death in 1997, Humphrey was indeed one of the best -- have a terribly hard time finding the readers they deserve. Humphrey was blessed with loyal editors and publishers and for the most part, his books were favorably reviewed, yet in the last years of his life, it became apparent that neglect was to be his fate, a sad judgment that remains true a dozen years later.
So how to persuade you to give him a try? Thanks to Louisiana State University Press, his first two novels -- "Home From the Hill" (1957) and "The Ordways" (1965) -- remain in print, and I recommend them without reservation, but he had other talents that deserve your attention. Plenty of novels have been reconsidered during this series' run of six years, but there hasn't been a single book -- not one! -- about fishing. So to make up for that, here are two exercises in what Humphrey called "the literature of angling": "The Spawning Run" (1970) and "My Moby Dick" (1978). They really are longish essays disguised as books, padded out with large type and lovely illustrations, both having fewer than 100 pages, all of which merely goes to show that small is, or can be, beautiful.
Precisely when I first came to Humphrey's work, I cannot recall. I had read "Home From the Hill" when I was young, but so far as I know, the first of his books that I reviewed was his intense, haunting memoir "Farther Off From Heaven" (1977). The next year I reviewed "My Moby Dick" for Sports Illustrated, and I must have obtained "The Spawning Run" as background reading. Eventually I fell into an intermittent correspondence with Humphrey, who struck me from afar (we never met) as a proud man who had been bruised by the literary world's indifference and was grateful when heartfelt admiration came his way.
Humphrey was born in 1924 in northeast Texas. The pivotal event of his life was the death of his father in an auto accident when Humphrey was 13; it is around this catastrophe that his memoir is constructed, and his account of it is heartbreaking.
He began to publish short stories in 1949, while he was teaching at Bard College, and achieved a measure of success with "Home From the Hill," which in 1960 was made into a movie starring Robert Mitchum. He bought a house in rural New York state and remained there for the rest of his life, with occasional forays to Europe and England, the latter often for purposes of fishing.
Humphrey was a passionate fisherman whose greatest love was dry-fly fishing for trout. In "My Moby Dick," he writes: "I never like to journey more than about five miles from home to go fishing, though a reliable report of really good sport can tempt me as far away as ten. When I go fishing I too want to get away from it all, for it is silence and solitude even more than it is fish that I am seeking; but I do not want to have to go far to find it."
That rule clearly was made to be broken, for "The Spawning Run" is about fishing for salmon in Wales. It is also about love, or sex, or both, as experienced by randy salmon and randy Brits alike.
Humphrey went to Wales in the spring, when "a salmon's fancy . . . turns to thoughts of love," that is to say an old salmon who has been out to sea for as much as four years and has now swum inland "with the single-mindedness of a sailor returning home after a four-year cruise without shore leave." This piscine passion will be a trifle difficult for humans to understand, inasmuch as the act of "love" between salmon is "a union without contact between the partners, a crouch, a quiver, a mutual gape. It not only doesn't look like much fun, from the human point of view; when you remember what a long way they've come, past what snares and ambushes, over almost insuperable obstacles, how they have gone hungry and grown disfigured, and knowing as you do that it will prove fatal, it seems pitifully unworthy of the trouble. A cheat."
By contrast consider a gentleman named Holloway. He cuts a most unprepossessing figure and as an angler, he's feckless. An old character named Admiral Blakey tells Humphrey: "Twenty years he's been fishing and never has caught a fish yet. . . . Never complains. Actually seems to enjoy himself here. Always cheerful. Always hopeful. Jolly good sport about it, too." Small wonder, considering that while the gents are off at the river casting for salmon, Holloway is back at the hotel, or somewhere on the grounds, servicing their wives, the widows who continue to return long after their husbands' deaths, and any other ladies in need of amatory consolation.
"The Spawning Run," then, is as much about people as about fish, British people of a certain class in particular, but people possessed by the same urges that impel all of us. "My Moby Dick," by contrast, is very much a book about fish and the people who try to catch them. "The literature of angling falls into two genres," Humphrey writes therein: "the instructional and the devotional. The former is written by fishermen who write, the latter by writers who fish." Humphrey was the latter, but the fishing adventure he recounts in "My Moby Dick" led him to immerse himself in manuals, with results that didn't help his fishing much, but that produced this delicious passage:
"If you were to compete with the crowds now on the streams in quest of a trout you needed to be a physicist, an entomologist, a limnologist, a statistician, a biometrician. The angler had metamorphosed into the ichthyologist, and the prevailing prose reflected the change -- if mud can be said to reflect. You had to hack your way through it as through a thicket. Participles dangled, person and number got separated and lost, cliches were rank, thesaurusitis and sesquipedalianism ran rampant, and the rare unsplit infinitive seemed out of place, a rose amo ng nettles. Yet, instead of weeding their gardens, these writers endeavored to grow exotics in them: orchids, passionflowers. Inside each of them was imprisoned a poet, like the prince inside the toad. What came out was a richness of embarrassments: shoddy prose patched with purple -- beautifully written without first being well written."
Humphrey's own prose is never less than elegant, as both these books attests. "My Moby Dick" came about because one day, walking along a stream near his house, Humphrey chanced upon something that "could not be what it looked like. Not anywhere -- least of all in this little roadside puddle." So he got out his binoculars and had a look: "What they showed me was a trout thirty feet long. It could not be included in the glasses' field of view; it had to be scanned, section by section." Well: "My binoculars being eight power, the fish was actually between three and four feet long."
Humphrey was in awe, but he also was determined to catch his "Cyclops" (the trout was blind in one eye), which he managed to measure at "forty-two and a fraction inches," and to estimate its weight at "thirty pounds, give or take five." Quite simply, "a fish that big is too big not to be fished for," because: "What happens is that the fish hooks the fisherman." Evoking Ahab and Moby Dick without naming either, he writes: "I am excessive in everything I do, and I had long suspected that my failure to master fly fishing had been a blessing in disguise, like the man prevented from becoming a lush because he could never hold down the stuff. Now providence had placed in my path a fish that was enough to unbalance a stabler man than I. . . . I wanted that fish and I wished I had never laid eyes on him. I had not lost a leg to him, but he had certainly taken a big bite of my brain."
It isn't an epic quest for a great white whale on the roaring seas but a sneak attack on a massive trout lazing in a roadside puddle, but Humphrey makes a minor epic of it as he devises his strategies for luring the trout to bite, practices setting his dry flies deftly on the water, grows ever more tense as the moment of confrontation approaches. I wouldn't dream of giving away what happens, but it's worth quoting what the experience meant to Humphrey:
"This, reader, has been the story of a fisherman who got away. For old One-eye made a changed man of me. No fish since him has ever been able to madden me again. I have hooked and lost some big ones in that time, but to each and all I have been able to say, 'Go your own way. I have known your better, known him well, and there will never be his like again. You, however big you may be, are a mere minnow compared to my Moby Dick.' "
To which I must add this confession: I have fished exactly once in my nearly 70 years, and I hated it. I was bored out of my head. But William Humphrey made literature out of it, and reeled me in as surely as if he had been the greatest angler of them all. Which, at least on the printed page, he may well have been.
"The Spawning Run" and "My Moby Dick" are out of print. In 1986, they were included in "Open Season," a collection of Humphrey's nonfiction . It, too, is out of print, but used copies of all three books are available.
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.