Men’s Lives: The Surfmen and Baymen of the South Fork
by Peter Matthiessen
Random House, 352 pp., $29.95
“A jerk on one end of the line, waiting for a jerk on the other.” The literature of American fishing is large but not, on the whole, distinguished. It has three chief modes: the reflective-pastoral, the heroic, the technical. The reflective-pastoral descends from the ancient line of Izaak Walton, and is mainly about trout and salmon; the finesse of fly-casting, and the long time between fish, encourage reflection. Piscator is usually a semiretired surgeon with access to a vanity press, writing pensées so coy and homely that one wishes his waders, when they filled with water that day on the Gallatin River in 1957, had drowned him. Once in a while, however, the mode produces a book as lapidarist and admirable as Norman MacLean’s A River Runs Through It, published in 1976.
The heroic mode has the most difficult life of the three in America, because it began with one gnarled, inimitable masterpiece, Moby-Dick. Since so much dissection of Melville’s purpose has been done by landlocked symbol hunters whose acquaintance with “the watery part of the world” is confined to a trip on the Staten Island Ferry, it is not perhaps surprising that Ahab’s fiery hunt of the whale should have been taken for an allegory of almost anything from union with God to the psychoanalytic process, and not for what it mainly is, a fish story. Melville’s long shadow has intimidated almost all efforts at epic fish writing since. The worst case was Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, in which the rituals of bonding between Man and the Unknown Adversary were processed into virile kitsch. It is to marlin catching what Little Nell is to death; yet even now, each Piscator who aspires to catch something bigger than a flounder must endure his colleagues’ suspicion that he is only striking a pose in emulation of Papa. As a result, one cannot attempt the genre without a sense of hubris.
The technical accounts are what the rod owner usually reads. They fill the pages of the sporting magazines, and are for the most part turned out to formula by amateurs and hacks. Occasionally they rise to real interest and seriousness as reportage, as in Striper, John Coles’s fine 1976 book on the striped bass; and still more rarely, to an unpretending but exact elegance that traces connections between society and the natural world, as managed by William W. Warner in Beautiful Swimmers, his book about the Chesapeake fishery of the blue-claw crab.
The latest and the best book in this vein—fishing as social activity rather than mano a mano existential encounter—is Men’s Lives, by Peter Matthiessen, on the baymen and surfmen of eastern Long Island. Its title comes from a line in one of Walter Scott’s novels, “It’s not fish ye’re buyin, it’s men’s lives.” Its aim is threefold: to tell the history of the South Fork fishery and of the men who …