"Hemingway Shot. Again."

April 17, 2009 By: Marshall Cutchin

I started my day by reading an innocent question by Esquire book reviewer Benjamin Alsup: “Would anyone still subject themselves to the embarrassments of fly-fishing if it weren’t for Hemingway?.” While Hemingway fished and wrote about many waters now famous for their fly fishing, he was, by many accounts, reluctant to throw a fly. (As Nick Lyons said in his intro to Hemingway on Fishing, “For a writer so beloved by fly fishermen, he shows little interest in this brand of fishing.” Apparently Hemingway preferred swinging multiple wet flies through the riffles — when he had to.) So Hemingway/fly fishing references do beg the question of whether the great literature is fading from view faster than we’d like.
Arnold Gingrich, who founded and ruled Esquire during its heyday in the 30s, 40s and 50s and was a fly fishing fanatic, probably also knew more about the sport’s literature than any man of his day. He fished with Hemingway and listened to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s excuses for not doing so (“I can’t face Ernest again, when he’s so successful and I’m such a failure”). Gingrich was one of the first — and last — to publish Hemingway (and Fitzgerald, and John Steinbeck, and Truman Capote) in a major U.S. magazine. It would be fair to say that he saw fly fishing as one of his era’s “extreme” sports, one that was worth the attention of the very best writers, fly fishers or not. But Hemingway, who was writing stories like “Sailfish Off Mombasa: A Key West Letter” and “Hemingway On Being Shot. Again,” and was probably glad to lend a touch of machismo to Gingrich’s favored sport, was unlikely to dilly dally around with the engraved fly fisher’s flask when there was a case of Jameson’s Irish whiskey stashed in the bow of The Pilar.
Some better literary candidates? Negley Farson, who lived in remote British Columbia and who fly fished to put food on the table, John Gierach, who cared enough about saving fly fishing from pretension that he coined the phrase “trout bum,” or the gifted Jim Harrison, whose poetry inspired by rivers has nothing at all to do with the glamour of being a celebrity sportsman.
But maybe the best choice would be Gingrich himself, who did as much as anyone to point out that fly fishing is not a sport for sissies.