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Harry Middleton, Revisited

Posted by on July 8, 2012

the author, Harry Middleton

If you’re like me, when you’re not fishing, you’re probably tying flies, thinking or reading about our sport.  Probably no other outdoor pastime generates as much written word as fly fishing.  Much of this writing is of the “nuts and bolts” variety, explaining the mechanics of fly fishing or fly tying (interesting in its own right), or well-crafted, folksy angling essays a la John Gierach,  But there are a handful of authors whose prose attains the level of literature, and, were they writing about topics with more general appeal than flyfishing, would be much better known.  Beginning with this post, I would like to share with you my favorite authors in our sport and learn from you those whose writing you value and enjoy.  If you are a contemplative angler, you might wish to add some of these titles to your own fishing/outdoor library; most can be purchased used very inexpensively on Amazon.

Although entirely subjective, I would have to rate the late Harry Middleton as my favorite writer in this genre.  As I alluded to in an earlier post, his prose is a unique melding of fantasy and reality, a rich verbal broth of magic realism.  Middleton’s prose is so descriptive, so wealthy in metaphor, that, if you aspire to be a writer, I suggest you read Middleton for inspiration.  Who was Harry Middleton?  Wikipedia has this to say about him:

Harry Middleton was born December 28, 1949, and died July  28, 1993.  Little is known about Middleton’s life other than the information he offered through his novels.  Middleton died a garbage man in the summer of 1993.  He was survived by his wife, Mrs. Marcy Middleton (sic) and sons, Travis and Sean Middleton of Birmingham, Alabama…

He had previously worked as an outdoors columnist for “Southern Living” magazine, but it is speculated that they fired him and that this spurred a depression which helped lead to his demise.  Prior to working at “Southern Living,” Middleton wrote in the early 1980s for a magazine called “Louisiana Life.”  His column of personal observations was entitled “Louisiana at Large”…

Middleton was an English major at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana, and earned a master’s degree in Western history at Louisiana State University in 1973…

He lived in New Orleans, where he wrote about food, art, music and books for “Figaro,” an alternative newspaper.  He later moved to Birmingham.

Harry Middleton is also widely considered to be an outstanding American fishing writer.  His signed books command high prices and are collectable.  His first was published in 1989.

Middleton published the following books:

Rivers of Memory

The Earth is Enough

On the Spine of Time

The Bright Country

Middleton also published a limited edition book called The Starlight Creek Angling Society.  Middleton received the Friends of American Writers Award, the Outdoor Writers Association of America Best Book Award, and the Southeastern Outdoor Press Best Book Award

Of course, much of the mystique surrounding Harry Middleton, is probably publisher’s hype; after all, the man did have a wife and children, coworkers and other family that could no doubt provide a wealth of information about him.  None, of this perhaps manufactured mystery, however, detracts an iota from the quality of his writing.

Perhaps it would be appropriate to start your introduction to Middleton’s works by reading On the Spine of Time.  This story is a paean to the Smoky Mountains, certainly some of the best tenkara water anywhere.  Middleton introduces the Appalachian mountain culture through the creation of some of the most fantastical, eccentric characters that you will ever encounter in print, e.g. Tewksbury, an aging Wall Street financier who makes an annual pilgrimage to the Smokies to fish, seeking mountains and wild trout as antidotes to the complexities of Manhattan living, and who has an ongoing affair with the lovely Carlotta, a prostitute.  And with them he weaves descriptions of the ecology of the area and the many threats to the mountains and their trout (still applicable today, twenty years on).  And, suffusing the entire narrative, is Middleton’s love for pursuing wild mountain trout, in spite of his self-professed limited angling skills.  This is Southern storytelling elevated to a whole new level.

I’ll close with a couple of prose excerpts from On the Spine of Time.

I walked the trail down along Slickrock Creek in a hard rain that tasted cold and clean, innocent, free of toxic metals and the sharp taste of acid. Knowing that the creek made a wide bend ahead and that there was a nice pool above a gallery of stones, I stood in a thick grove of sheltering trees, rigged up the Winston rod, and noticed a tiny pool of rainwater gathering in a green fold of my jacket, the drops of rain as firm and regular as cells.  On the creek, the light eddied and spilled and rushed with the water and the water took on the moody character of the light until they mingled so completely that I could no longer separate water from light and light from water.  Everything drifted in a warm, rainy harmony of motion.  I worked the green 4-weight line out through the guides of the willowy rod and tied on a fetching nymph.  I cast and watched the small nymph go down in the fast, cold water…”

“Luckily when I fell I had the little Winston rod held high overhead in my other hand.  Better to risk damage to a thick head full of loose thoughts than a well-made rod, a rod full of luck and loyalty.  I had brought only the little R.L. Winston that trip and two reels, some extra leaders and tippets, and one box of flies.  Nothing more.  The fly fisherman is lucky–all he needs can fit comfortably in his shirt pocket.  Indeed, with angling, more pockets usually leads to more gear and more gear certainly leads to more complications and vexations.  Fly-fishing has a greatly undeserved reputation as an altogether elitist, snobbish, and expensive form of angling when, actually, just the opposite is true.  Indeed, fly-fishing is the sanest, most unassuming, and cheapest form of angling I know of, one allowing a man to invest his time enjoying the angling life rather than becoming caught up in the fits and starts of fishing.  Fly-fishing demands more brains than muscle, a tolerance for the exasperating as well as the moving, the beautiful, the profound.  And sometimes, whether a cartwheel off a slick rock in an mountain stream is involved or not, there is even the occasional brush with miracles–the unexpected–undiluted and sublime.  That’s the part I like best:  you never know where a trout stream will lead or where a hooked trout might haul you…Fly-fishing has many attributes, but none more pleasing than its ability to find and liberate the young boy that still hides within me and to let that boy live again without embarrassment or regret, sorrow or anguish…”

Is there any doubt that, were he alive today, Harry Middleton would be a tenkara angler?

 

14 Responses to Harry Middleton, Revisited

  1. michael t williams

    Harry Middleton’s writing moves me like no other. The man’s literary capabilities exude that Power greater than ourselves. Seems apparent to me that Mr Middleton was able to feel his heart—then write those feelings in a fashion of honoring the Power.

    • Tenkara Ambassador

      Michael, Well said. Middleton was a writer of uncommon ability.

  2. Fredrick Brooks

    What a gift reading The Earth is Enough, I’ve just returned from river fishing with my grandson (seven years old) and he’s hooked, the light is in his eyes. I’m sure Harry Middleton is smiling.

    • Tenkara Ambassador

      Sounds like another Middleton fan in the making. I enjoy fishing of all varieties, but there is something special about standing in a river, feeling the press of the current, that really connects one to the natural cycle of things.

  3. william branham

    I found his book-On the Spine of Time -by accident. A friend loaned it to me and I put it in a drawer. A year later I read it. I read it several times. I heard he died. I did not realize he had died before I read his book. I was thinking of him today and had told a stranger the story about his fishing behind the Dairy Queen and catching the large trout.
    I found your web site by accident looking for Harry.
    I recently purchased a Tenkara rod but am finding it hard to let go of my 4 wt. I live near sw Va and love fishing small mountain streams.

    • Tenkara Ambassador

      William, no need to let go of the 4 wt. It’s not really tenkara exclusively; it’s more about having a good time on the stream. I would love to fish those small VA mountain streams. What a beautiful state!

  4. Jess and Susan Motter

    We miss him. He wrote of his time in the Keys. We are honored to have him fish with us and later give tribute. We were the ones who felt honored. Some day good friend. You touched us. J&S

  5. Bill Hensel

    It has been many a night that I snugged up to his books while fishing and camping my heart away. Harry’s books are simply beautiful.

  6. mayo gubbins

    He became one of my favorite authors years ago, and I have collected most of his books. His description of nature, light in particular, and the human condition brings me back to him regularly. I am rereading Bright Country as my family is going through a time of significant loss, and Middleton expresses pain as well as anyone. I

    I read him the first time as a flyfisherman, but read him now for a number of different reasons. I found this site when I Googled his name to see if anything about him had surfaced lately.

    • Tenkara Ambassador

      Mayo, thanks for the comment. Had Harry Middleton lived longer, what other masterpieces would he have written? Good luck with your personal loss.

  7. John Ozier

    i can’t afford “The Starlight Angling Society.” given its limited availability, but is there a way to read it online? I have read all his other books and find his writing hauntingly beautiful.

    • Tenkara Ambassador

      John, unfortunately I don’t know of any way to read it online. It is not available through Kindle, although Amazon is selling a copy for $2,400! I agree with your assessment of Middleton’s writing.

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