What this anthology really shows is not so much that Field & Stream has published great outdoors writing, as the subtitle suggests, but that outdoors writing has improved markedly over the years. And, regrettably, the second does not always suggest the first, for as compilations of outdoor writings go, this one is competent but not distinctive.
This volume's middling level of achievement is all the more in contrast to the editors' obvious high regard for its contents. One might expect a compilation to be a bit self-complimentary, but "The Best of Field & Stream" is egregiously so.
Editor Jim Merritt notes in his long and somewhat obsequious introduction that the magazine has been a persistent voice in favor of conservation. That is undeniably true. But he also includes such sentences as "Under the direction of award-winning designer Daniel McClain, the finest in sporting art and photography are used each month to make as compelling and colorful a statement as the articles they illustrate." One finds that sort of phrase in an in-house newsletter, not a collection of quality writing.
As for the book itself, I counted about a half-dozen first-rate pieces in this collection of 51 articles. "First-rate" suggests that the prose would entice the casual or indifferent reader of outdoors writing -- that is, you would not have to be obsessed with hunting or fishing to want to read a piece to the end. Most of the articles were serviceable, some were of above-average magazine quality, and several were downright bad.
That's especially true of the earliest pieces, written at a time when purplish prose evidently was not only permitted but expected. How else to explain "The X1Vth of John," an account of a Mississippi River goose-hunting trip that appeared in Field & Stream in 1931? It's loaded with enough flowery writing and trite dialect to gag the contemporary reader.
That's not even taking account of Buckingham's frequent attribution to Horace, his black boatman, a dialect so convoluted as to be indecipherable. At one point, Horace says, allegedly, "Tell you de trufe, Cap'n, I done jest natcherly lost my taste foh dis river. I wants to keep de ground under my feet -- if I ever gits it dar agin!" Even allowing for a more permissive attitude about depicting blacks in that era, this is awful stuff.
Some of the earlier pieces do deserve to be included, if not for the quality of the writing. Zane Grey, one of the pioneering outdoor writers, should be included in any anthology of this type, and his "Big Tuna," published in 1919, is a good example of his hyper-macho approach to the outdoors. ("There the tuna was, the bronze and blue-backed devil, gaping, wide-eyed, shining and silvery as he rolled, a big tuna if there ever was one, and he was conquered.")
Similarly, the feats of big-game African hunting recounted by the memorably named Bwana Cottar in 1938 and 1939 ("On the Ivory Trail") are compelling reading. Cottar was an American who relocated to Africa at the turn of the century, becoming the archetypal Great White Hunter (accent on all three words). The man clearly was a supreme egotist and racist, but intriguing nonetheless.
"On the Ivory Trail" is perhaps the most extreme example of what are the strongest pieces in this compilation -- the reminiscences. Before he was a popular novelist who wrote best-selling novels about Africa, Robert Ruark was an outdoors-loving kid growing up in North Carolina. His "The Old Man and the Boy" pieces, which ran regularly in Field & Stream and ultimately were collected in book form, were wonderfully rendered recollections of growing up with his crusty grandfather, who was both companion and mentor.
Perhaps the best piece, though, is Norman Strung's "Growing Up," a warm and humorous memoir of becoming an outdoorsman in New York City. Strung ultimately moved to the West and became a top outdoors writer, but, as he writes, his beginnings were humble:
"Bean a squirrel in the head at arm's length with a smooth cat's eye or aggie and there was meat in the pot and another hide to adorn a bedroom wall. The technique was not without its hazards, however. If your aim was low, you clipped your foot and hobbled for a week. I once lost a nail off my big toe."
This kind of evocative writing, alas, is in short supply in "The Best of Field & Stream." I'm not sure if the editors made the wrong choices or if they didn't have much to choose from in the first place. But, compared to such top-notch anthologies as "Home Waters," the fly-fishing anthology of a few years ago, this volume doesn't measure up. If this is the best the magazine has to offer, something is wrong.
Mr. Warren's reviews appear Mondays in The Sun.
Title: "The Best of Field & Stream: 100 Years of Great Writing from America's Premier Sporting Magazine"
Editor: J. I. Merritt
Publisher: Lyons & Burford
Length, price: 320 pages, $25