American Culture

Arnold Gingrich: a well tempered angler

“Actually, though being well read must be a part of the process, an angler is tempered chiefly by practice and experience, by learning and attempting to reach the successively higher goals of his sport, and thus acquiring, through any amount of disappointment and frustration, the satisfaction of knowing that he is doing the simplest thing in the hardest way possible.” – Arnold Gingrich

The Well-Tempered Angler by Arnold Gingrich. image courtesy

A slight detour from my pursuit of world literature classics via the 2015 reading list. I’ve had a couple of gifts this past week, both from my son Josh. The first gift is a new granddaughter, Susanna Quinn, our first grandchild and a wondrous new addition to the life of this old writer/professor/musician. Of course, in that endeavor he had notable assistance from his lovely wife Sandra, so credit where credit is due.  The second gift Josh bestowed upon me was a book – you may let your shock and awe begin. We were on our way  to pick up some dinner the evening that the amazing and lovely Susanna was allowed to come home from the hospital and when I got into Josh’s car, there was a book in the floorboard. “Take that, Dad,” he said. “I’ve been meaning to give it to you.” It was a copy of The Well-Tempered Angler by Arnold Gingrich. Having just muddled my way through Andre Gide’s Corydon and just become a grandfather, I was feeling the need for something – shall we say, self-indulgent? The Well-Tempered Angler fit the bill perfectly.

The book is on fly fishing, my favorite sport.  I’ve written about fly fishing, on a number of occasions now. You can read this and this and this if you feel so inclined. I shall probably write about fly fishing again.

I think we have established that I have a certain fondness for fly fishing. So did Arnold Gingrich. For anyone who finds the literature of angling of any interest at all, or for those with a curiosity about how those of the New York literary scene lived back in the heady days of White, Thurber, and Parker at The New Yorker, and Hemingway and Fitzgerald at Esquire, the various sections of this book will be delightful. 

First, a few words about Arnold Gingrich, the author of The Well-Tempered Angler. Born in Michigan, Gingrich grew up near legendary trout and grayling fishing – yet by his own admission did no fishing. He was a bookworm instead. He only came to fly fishing as an adult. But as he notes, “We are born with instincts, but a set of values is something we have to build as we go. That’s as true of our fishing as it is of our reading.” As founding editor and later publisher of Esquire, Gingrich became one of American magazine culture’s great figures, friends with Hemingway, Fitzgerald (whose work he supported during that writer’s darkest years), and Dorothy Parker, that maven of the cutting witticism, who, having heard Gingrich describe himself as “a simple country boy from Michigan” once too often, quipped, “When convenient.”

The Well-Tempered Angler is Gingrich’s attempt to explain himself – and by extension, most fly fishers – as the complicated messes that they are. There is, as Gingrich notes, more literature written about fly fishing than about any other sport. And, as he also notes, most fly fishers have read much of that literature (see the links to my book essays above for a typical example of such a fly fisher). They are highly literate, reflective messes, to be sure. Here’s Gingrich referencing e e cummings in describing the fanatical willingness to bite that brook trout, whom he refers to as the “dumb blondes” (his sexism, not mine, readers) display on many occasions:

Sometimes you’re taking them onetwothreefourfive and justlikethat you want to cry out to the rest of them: Hey clear out, can’t you see what’s happening?

And who else but a fly angler would cite D.H. Lawrence in describing his wistfulness over having given up his membership in an exclusive fishing club to please his new wife:

Men are not free when they are doing just what they like. The moment you can do just what you like, there is nothing you care about doing. Men are only free when they are doing what the deepest self likes.

And here he waxes reflective on the pleasure of a train trip from London to Hatherleigh for some British fishing:

…we were both sorry when the journey ended, like coming to the last page of a book you have loved.

The technical sections of The Well-Tempered Angler are dated now, so Gingrich’s discourses on fly lines, leaders, tippets, rods, reels, and wading gear are so much nostalgia. That’s to be expected in a 50 year old book on fly angling. Where Gingrich is at his best, anyway, and what gives this book its place in the canon of fly fishing literature is his review of classic angling literature and his observations on classics such as Dame Juliana Berners’ The Treatyse of Fysshing with an Angle (1496) and Thomas Barker’s The Art of Angling (1631). He talks of these in relation to the greatest of all classic books on fly fishing, Izaak Walton and Charles Cotton’s The Compleat Angler (1653-76). Of the latter work, probably the single most literary of all books on the sport, Gingrich offers first this assessment of its worth as a reading experience:

I didn’t discover ‘The Compleat Angler’ until I was thirty….I could reread ‘The Compleat Angler’ every year and have, most years, ever since.

Then much later her explains why Walton’s classic holds such appeal for any angler:

…the spirit of innocent mirth…the rustic pleasures and honest enjoyment of the angler’s life in an idyllic setting….

What any fly fisher will try and try and try again to explain to those who ask the tired old questions (“Why don’t you keep the fish?” “Wouldn’t it be easier to fish with a spinning outfit?” “Why do you insist on working so hard for something that could be done so much more easily?”) is that, as Gingrich notes numerous times throughout The Well-Tempered Angler, it isn’t about the fish, it’s about the fishing. And as Francis Francis, in another classic of fly fishing literature, A Book on Angling (1867) puts it:

Some fishing is better than others; but there is no such thing as bad fishing.

Or as Gingrich himself explains in language more attuned to modern sensibilities:

If you’ve come along through all this apparent quibble over the idea of the thing being more important than the thing in itself, then we ought to be about ready to tell each other that what seems to distinguish this kind most from all others is that this is the thinking [person’s] kind of fishing, and I guess we would if it didn’t sound so damned pompous.

Maybe here Gingrich explains the allure of fly fishing even better:

If you like doing things the hard way, you’ll like this. One excellent sign is preferring, as a means of diversion, sailboats over power boats. Liking hand made music, as opposed to mechanical, is a good sign. Liking originals rather than imitations or copies or facsimiles is another.

He goes on to note that those who prefer spectator sports needn’t bother with fly fishing. It’s for those who prefer participant sports; fly fishing is for those who feel the need to engage rather than passively observe.  And it’s a lifelong, maybe longer, engagement for the true fly fisher.  Gingrich ends with some lines from Scots poet, anthropologist and angler Andrew Lang:

…grant that in the shades below/My ghost may land the ghosts of fish!

One hopes that Gingrich, who left us in 1976, is pulling in a hefty German Brown at this very moment….


3 replies »

  1. Some things I get and some things I don’t get. I dont get fishing.

    I get hunting, even though I don’t do it. I get “fossicking” (prospecting for gold or gemstones,) even though it’s pretty much the same thing as fishing–hours of doing nothing punctuated by brief moments of happiness because you got something. I have scuba’d all over the world, and I love to look at fish.

    Some things I sort of get, like yoga (pseudo-exercise for lazy people) or jazz.

    But the joy of fishing? It eludes me.

      • Joking aside, I wonder what fishing would be like without the audial component. Research shows us that running water is extremely relaxing. I’ve never had any desire to go fly fishing, but a part of me thinks it looks like the ultimate de-stresser.