Presented by High Adventure Company: The late Harry Middleton (1949-1993) was a good friend, but I must also acknowledge he was and remains as enigmatic and elusive as a wild brown trout in the Great Smokies.
Incidentally, it was love of those ancient mountains and their tumbling, trout-filled streams, along with a shared interest in the dean of American campers, Horace Kephart, which first brought us together. Fond memories of this extraordinarily talented writer still stir my soul, as does occasional recourse to an inch-thick file crammed with letters from Harry.
He corresponded the same way he communicated in published material – with sparkling, intensely descriptive prose; a wide-ranging vocabulary; an unerring feel for wild places; and an uncanny knack for taking readers along with him to a remote trout stream or deep down in some hardwood slough where a lordly gobbler was declaring his dominion. I treasure the letters, our friendship, and most of all, his literary legacy.
Harry’s 40-odd years were often troubled and sometimes tragic, as was the fact he was taken from us far too soon. He was painfully shy, inclined to be a misanthrope and clearly suffered bouts of deep depression. I saw some of these characteristics in person and in our correspondence. Indeed, it would have been impossible to ignore them, especially after he lost his post, and in some senses his literary anchor, as a columnist for Southern Living. But what I remember best are not the “down” times, but the man’s books, his letters and our conversations about the Smokies. Any time Harry turned to those storied highlands of the southern Appalachians, his voice and outlook changed. Clearly, they were his special place for solace and balm for his soul.
Middleton’s books include The Earth Is Enough (1989), On the Spine of Time (1991), The Starlight Creek Angling Society (1992), The Bright Country (1993) and Rivers of Memory (1993). First editions of all these books are highly collectible, and The Starlight Creek Angling Society, published by Meadow Run Press in a limited, slip-cased edition of 500 copies, fetches prices well north of four figures on the rare occasions when it’s offered. Yet, books form only a portion of his literary legacy, for he contributed scores, perhaps hundreds of articles to regional and national magazines, most notably his “Outdoors South” column in Southern Living, which ran from 1984 until early 1991.
Thanks to the editorial enterprise of Ron Ellis, a sometime contributor to this magazine and a skilled wordsmith in his own right, we can now sample and savor a wide-ranging selection of Middleton’s writings in a recently released anthology, In That Sweet Country, published by Skyhorse Press. After a chronology of Middleton’s life and a short but quite satisfactory Introduction, readers are treated to a selection of three dozen stories grouped in six categories –Arkansas; Smoky Mountains; Days Afield; Journeying; Gadgets & Gear; and Wings, Wind & Wonder.
The book’s tales come from 11 different publications for which Harry wrote over the years, although more than half of the selections come from Southern Living.
As the categories suggest, the subject matter varies quite a bit, though the abiding passions of Harry’s life and writings – trout, wild turkeys and links to the good earth – run as sparkling threads through the fabric of the book. The title, which Harry’s wife, Marcy, recalled as the working title for a book he had in mind at the time of his death, is singularly appropriate. To Harry, nothing offered sweeter satisfaction than exploring wild places.
Characterizing Middleton as a writer is somewhat difficult, but in less than two decades since his death he has become an iconic figure. When folks learn I knew him reasonably well, they want to know more, and any time the question of fine fly-fishing literature is bruited, his name is invariably mentioned. To me, his appeal is multi-faceted. It begins with his passion for the things of which he wrote, but figuring into the equation are his rare powers of description, his ability to make readers feel like they were on the scene, and the sense of youthful innocence that pervades his writing.
Harry was possibly more inept with a fly rod than anyone I’ve ever known. It didn’t matter. He worked the streams in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park with a will, and each wild trout he managed to hook, never mind that it was only seven or eight inches in length, was a jewel to be treasured. Even his choice of favorite stream, Collins Creek, is revealing. It’s small, for the most part tightly embraced by overhanging rhododendrons, and difficult to fish. On the other hand it has virtues that drew Middleton irresistibly. Other than a short stretch at its mouth where a picnic ground is located, Collins Creek is served by no trail, and once the angler wades a few hundred yards upstream, he will rarely encounter another human. The stream is also chock-full of wild rainbows and lends itself to short casts. It’s a place where a man like Harry Middleton could catch fish and escape the hurly burly of the modern world.
My temptation is to go on at length about the man and the special milieu in which he found inspiration for his enduring words, but a far better approach is to read those words. In that regard, Ron Ellis has done us all a great favor by selecting a cross-section of Middleton’s works that represent him at his best. For longtime Middleton fans, the book will provide extra enjoyment of an author they love, while newcomers to his work will come away inclined to taste more of the sweet country that was the home of Harry Middleton’s heart.
Editor’s Note: In That Sweet Country is available from the Sporting Classics library of fine sporting and wildlife books. Hardcover with 222 pages, it sells for $29.95. To order, call Sporting Classics at 800-849-1004.
NEW OR NOTEWORTHY BOOKS
There was a time when self-published books were summarily dismissed as “vanity” works. Thanks to changes in technology, commercial publishing and the nature of modern bookselling, that’s no longer the case.
Last year, after doing dozens of books with commercial publishers, I personally ventured into the waters of self-publishing with Fly Fishing in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park: An Insider’s Guide to a Pursuit of Passion. I haven’t regretted it, scary though the venture was in financial and other ways, and reviewers have been very kind.
The two books mentioned here are in the same genre, and each provides credence to growing acceptance of the legitimacy of self-publishing. It is unlikely any commercial publisher driven by dollar signs would have touched these books, yet they have real merit and belong on the shelves of serious readers of sporting literature.
Tagewahnahn: The Landlocked Salmon at Grand Lake Stream by Dennis LaBare. Privately published by the author, 2007. Hardback in dj., xvi, 226 pages, illustrated. To acquire copies contact LaBare at email@example.com.
The title comes from an Indian name for landlocked salmon, and it’s a heartfelt and moving tribute to the fish, a special place where they’ve long been caught, and the men who have cast to them at Grand Lake Stream. Beautifully illustrated, it’s a prime example of how a fine book should be produced.
Meanderings of a Snake Meadow Editor by Paul E. Chase. Published by Author House for the author in 2010. Hardback in dj., xvi, 210 pages, illustrated. Order from www.authorhouse.com.
Part philosophy, part profiles of noted sportsmen, part mental meanderings the title suggests, part upland game hunting and all pure pleasure, this book is a collection of pieces Chase originally contributed to the newsletter of the Snake Meadow Club in Connecticut. He has edited the newsletter for upwards of two decades, and over that time has written on subjects as diverse as George Bird Evans, poachers, guns and guides, fine dogs and fine days afield. The pieces found in these pages are ideal for a brief spate of reading in an armchair on a bitterly cold day.