Aleck Maury, Sportsman (1934)
Lying awake and tossing in my bed I would think sometimes
that I paid a corresponding amount
Some books, no matter how good, just seem destined to fade from the public memory. Such is the case of Aleck Maury, Caroline Gordon's semi-biographical tale of her father's life, in particular his passion for hunting and fishing. Though Gordon, who was married to the great American poet Allen Tate, was herself an excellent writer, and though the novel received excellent notices from such publications as The Nation, The New Republic, and The New York Times, the version I read is from something called The Lost American Fiction series, published in the late 70's & early 80's, and unless I missed something, it doesn't seem to have been found by many people in the intervening years.
This is unfortunate because the novel is in many ways an epic American saga in the tradition of the the Aeneid or the Odyssey, in which the protagonist goes on a journey, faces many challenges, and grows into his hero's role before finding home. Aleck Maury (Aleck being short for Alexander even summons the memory of Greek heroes) grows up in farming country in Virginia, where much of life centers around fishing and hunting. He is sent to live with an aunt and uncle, who teach him the classics and a further love of the outdoors respectively. Over the course of his life Aleck wanders to the West Coast and then back eastwards, becoming a teacher and then a professor of Latin and Greek, marrying and raising children, but always, he has an eye peeled for a good gun, a capable dog, and a likely fishing hole.
He is aware that others might consider these trivial pursuits, but he, and Caroline Gordon, demonstrate that, on many levels, they are entirely worthwhile. Being a sportsman provides him an education, as when his uncle purchases a flock of quail, in order to stock his property, but fails to separate the cocks out before they can begin fighting amongst themselves :
Uncle James was very much disgusted with himself
for letting all those birds be slaughtered.
Note that Uncle James is not merely disappointed, but disgusted with himself, because he had an affirmative moral duty to understand nature well enough to know that the cocks would begin fighting. Unlike modern environmentalists, who often cloak Nature in some kind of semi-religious frippery and insist that Man may only approach Nature reverently, like a supplicant, Gordon here is speaking of Nature as a thing to which the sportsman owes a debt for the very specific reason that he draws upon Nature's resources.
Aleck also refutes the idea that hunting and fishing are mere pastimes :
A sportsman is a greedy animal. No really good
day is ever long enough. People as a rule do
Here again Ms Gordon conveys a sense of the moral seriousness that is required of a sportsman. Sport is no mere time-filler; it is instead an earnest and altogether noble enterprise.
And perhaps the most important lesson that Aleck has to learn is that "there is a democracy of sport." In fact, today it may be the case that hunting and fishing are the last democratic sports. Professional sports are closed to nearly all of us by our lack of ability. Now even attending them has begun to move beyond most of us by reason of exorbitant ticket prices. Golf has become just popular enough that it too is becoming ridiculously expensive, while bowling has become just unpopular enough that they are shutting down the lanes. But hunting and fishing remain open to everyone, the skills and equipment often handed down from one generation to the next. All that is required is that the novice recognize the dignity of sport, treat his prey with respect, and be eager to learn. In the woods, these qualities will make him the equal of any man he meets. Such are the qualities that Aleck Maury embodies, and, in so doing, he becomes something of a hero, a distinctly American, and distinctly old-fashioned, hero.
This is a terrific novel, one that's all the more affecting for the realization that Ms Gordon was likely trying to work out in her own mind and heart why her father was so happy out of doors, necessarily away from his home. Though it likely never will be--being altogether too predatory and moralistic for modern tastes--it is a book which richly deserves to be rediscovered...again.
See also:Sports (Hunting & Fishing)
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-REVIEW : of The Norton Anthology of Southern Literature (Richard Tillinghast, New Criterion)
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