The Lost Classics
© ed. Jim Casada
1950s-60s pieces by Robert Ruark from Field & Stream and other magazines
A hunt for southern literature outside the Faulkner/O’Connor domain brought me to the happy surprise that was The Old Man and the Boy, a collection of Field and Stream articles that combined outdoors adventures and sage advice on life. The stories, or reminiscences, were absolutely charming, and I’m not surprised to learn that Ruark considers them as having made his career as a writer. The Lost Classics is a posthumous collection of Old Man and the Boy stories which were not included in either of the two anthologies prepared by Ruark himself, in addition to many more pieces written by Ruark about his hunting adventures in the United States and broad, as well as a scattering of essays about Ernest Hemingway, to whom he was often compared. If I’d known how small the Old Man and the Boy section was, I may not have ordered this; as it was, though, I discovered that Ruark’s travel adventures beyond the fields and marshes of the Carolinas were fairly entertaining, even if they don’t hold a patch on the Old Man’s charm.
The Lost Classics opens with ten or so Old Man and the Boy stories, each just as delightful as those contained in the original collection. They are based off Ruark’s boyhood, spent with a lovable old codger who mixes down-home country wisdom with a surprisingly educated wit and a fun flair for the dramatic. Although hunting and fishing expeditions often frame a given story, there’s usually some broader point to be made. One memorable piece, “Of Buffalo and Bobwhites”, Ruark recounts how he proudly came home after bagging most of a covey of quail, only for his grandfather to scowl at him and deliver an entire lecture (“Sit down. I aim to declaim.”) on the history of North American bison, and how greedy and thoughtless over hunting had destroyed not just the buffalo population, but the entire lifestyle of the Plains natives. The lesson is plain: if you like shooting quail, respect them and only shoot a few, so the covey can renew itself next year. Although the Old Man claims to despair of having to preach and teach to his young ward (“You are turning me into a regular Billy Sunday”), the Boy’s passion for complaining offers ample opportunity for teaching moments. When the Boy complains that it’s cold, or rainy, the Old Man teaches him how to make the most of the opportunity those conditions afford: the cold, gloomy day proves to be perfect for duck-hunting, as so few spots of water are unfrozen that the ducks are drawn like magnets to the few open areas. That rainy day, in addition to giving everything that needed it a good wash, also allows time for cleaning guns, repairing nets, etc. The Old Man is a comic lecturer, though, gently mocking the Boy and providing grins along with the sage advice.
I was less interested, but pleasantly surprised by, the two-thirds of the book which were not Old Man stories. Many of them are simply hunting episodes set in Kenya and India, aside from one piece celebrating the fishing in New Zealand, but they sometimes integrate wisdom from the Old Man, both in terms of practical skills (leading targets to shoot accurately) and general life lessons. All of the pieces are slightly autobiographical, and Ruark grew more interesting with every essay; the Boy who hated school may have squirmed at regimentation, but he read Shakespeare at age 10 for fun, and paid his way through college with a little bootlegging. His life had several interesting parallels with Ernest Hemingway’s, and he and “Papa” struck up a friendship: Hemingway advised Ruark to just write things how they were, and to hell with the critics. If they could write, Papa huffed, they wouldn’t be critics. Ruark’s pieces on Hemingway and his writing were a wholly unexpected, but fascinating, aspect of this collection.
Regrettably, this will be a hard volume to get your hands on, if you are interested: there are no reasonably priced copies online, as far as I can tell, and I was fortunate to be able to order one through our interlibrary loan system. It’s not a huge loss for Ruark fans to not read this, as there’s far more Old Man and the Boy content readily available, and Ruark had African stories a-plenty. The Hemingway articles are the most unique among the lot.