On Essays and Letters

A young friend sent me a rather ancient looking book entitled, Tales
of Old New England
The book was actually published by
Castle in Secaucus, New Jersey, of all places, in 1986. It
was, however, a compilation of essays directly taken from the
old Scribner’s Monthly beginning with Volume
6, #4, August, 1873. The date of the most recent essay was
1910, but the last essay in the book was from 1899, entitled, “Frogging
in Maine Waters.”

Not all of these essays are signed. None of those authors listed
are ones I had ever heard of—Hamilton Percival, Arthur
James Selfridge, Max Bennet Thrasher, Victor J. Slocum, or Rev.
B. R. Bulkeley. The titles are marvelous—“Maple Sugaring
in the Northern Woods,” “Ice,” “Moose
Hunting in Aroostook,” and “The Making of Yale.” Charming
essays on famous New England towns and cities are found—“Montpelier,
Vermont,” “Hanover, New Hampshire,” “Woodstock,
Vermont,” “Newport, The Blessed of Sport,” ‘The
City of Providence,” “Old Beverley,” and “Old
Sumner Street, Boston.”

Now, frankly, I am a “sucker” for such books as
these. I find them charming, I think because they are. Many pages
are filled with black and white prints of logging, of windmills,
of streams, of small ports. We see boats, cabins, haystacks,
city buildings, and snow scenes. New England is not a place I
know, so that its past is as interesting to me as its present.
Since I know neither one, I have no proof that its present would
be as fascinating as its past. Indeed, not a few current New
England politicians lead me to think thatthere is no contest
about the superiority of the past found in these often touching
old pages.

The essay I want to talk about was written in Scribner’s
, 1902, by Howard C. Hollister. The most I can
quickly find out about Hollister is that he comes up as a correspondent
of William Howard Taft. Somewhere on Google, I found a snippet
about Hollister. Ten years after the President’s death,
Taft’s brother recalled that one day in 1895, when Taft
was 38 years old, weighing in at 280 pounds (eventually 350),
he (W. H. Taft’s brother) dropped in his (brother’s)
vacation home. “I found Howard Hollister, a close fried
of his, who was lying on the sofa. When I asked him what he
was going to do the next day, he said, ‘The Lord knows.
I don’t believe I shall live till tomorrow. I have been
following Bill (W. H. Taft) around all day.” That day,
Taft had played 18 holes of golf on a hilly course in the morning,
lunched, played tennis all afternoon, went on a picnic, and
spent the evening “vigorously” hitting rocks into
the river.

Hollister’s essay, shades of a less vigorous sport, is
entitled, “Trout
and Philosophy on a Vermont Stream
.” [PDF link] I
can only describe the essay as quaint. It begins with the following
disclaimer: “If any serious subject is touched upon in
what is here written it will be but an incidental circumstance.” Such
an approach should alert the reader to suspect that Hollister’s
essay will, on reading, be rather more than less philosophic.
He assures us that we are in for a calm day. “There is
nothing heroic in my tale.” We are to listen to the “summer
breezes.” “If bird notes give you thoughts of joy
and hope, then you can feel, if you cannot see, the scenes which
indeed no brush can adequately portray, yet with my rash pen
will strive to depict.”

I must confess that I had never consciously asked myself what
could be depicted with a “rash pen” or whether “bird
notes” gave me “thoughts of joy and hope.” Going
about telling your friends how “bird notes” give
you “thoughts of joy and hope” might, in many jurisdictions,
get you locked up! Yet, I can happily recall hearing meadow larks,
chickens clucking in a yard, geese honking, doves cooing. I knew
the world was better for it. It reminds me of a passage in Yves
Simon that I recently came across in which he remarked that birds
sing a hundred times more than is necessary by the laws of evolution.

The philosopher in this essay is called the old “Angler”—yes,
at one point Issac Walton is mentioned. Early one early summer
morning the Angler and his friend head to a Vermont wooded stream.
The friend is being coached on how to fly fish for trout. He
has properly rigged his pole and bait. He has tied flies and
put some grasshoppers in a box. They have a lunch which they
plan to eat at noon by a big pool under “a maple tree in
the meadow.” The Angler examines his friend’s pole. “The
rod is strong enough. Let the fish fight it the line being always
taut. No trout under three pounds can overcome its spring.”

They pass an old brick tavern. In years past, “the stage
and four drew up with a flourish and discharged the tired passengers
eager for a Yankee breakfast after an all-night’s ride
over the mountains from Boston.” The old Angler tells us
that Daniel Webster once spoke at this tavern, “In the
wonderful speech beginning: ‘Fellow citizens, I greet you
among the clouds…’” The Angler had been at church
the next morning when Watt’s hymn book was handed to Webster,
but the great orator waived it aside as “He knew it by
heart.” They then discussed Webster’s relation to
Dartmouth and the “question of whether or not Webster was
a religious man.”

At this point we are given some philosophy that is not supposed
to be found in this reflection. The old Angler’s “knowledge
of the world and of men is not circumscribed by the narrow limits
of his physical horizon…. Grief and sorrow are not unknown
(to him), whose simple life gives time for thinking deeply….
(For him) doctrines and dogmas are but stumbling blocks in man’s
pathway in his search for truth and knowledge.” I rather
think that “doctrines and dogmas” are what man is
bound to formulate if he is at all to state what he thinks “truth
and knowledge” to be. Our formulations do not exhaust the
topic, but to look upon efforts to state the truth to be an enemy
of the truth itself, as the old Angler seems to do, is to propose
the uselessness of one of the principal functions of the mind

Finally, the two get to fishing for trout. Along the banks of
the stream, they disturb a kingfisher and a muskrat. Naturally,
they listen to “a song sparrow pouring out his cheerfully
near-by; a sprightly little bird who ‘finds it in his heart
to sing, whether in Florida or in the far Aleutian Islands,’ as
some one has said.” That is mindful of Simon’s wonder
about why nature produces so much unnecessary beauty and music.

“And now the Angler’s face shines with anticipation.” He
has hooked a trout. He plays him about the rocks. “Up into
the air a trout goes, sparkling as a fugitive sunbeam shrikes
him, and, coming down, fastens himself on the cheat (fly).” The
rod bends. “Not using the reel,” the Angler brings
him in. He pulls the fish to the bank and stretches it out. “And
there it lies, its dark green, gold, and pink, and its crimson
spots gleaming against the turf, the most beautiful of fish.” As
far as I can tell, this is a fresh-water speckled trout, a form
of brook trout. I have always thought the cut-throat trout was
the most beautiful fish, one of the most beautiful things in
creation, but I do not take this contrary testimony lightly as
I have never caught a speckled trout

When they rest for lunch, they have caught several trout, which
will be their main course. They find two flat rocks, clean them,
build a fire around them. They clean the trout, put “a
sliver of bacon” in the inside, stretch the trout on the
flat rock. The second hot rock is put on top of the frying fish.
What follows is the best of meals: “O, ye epicures, who
think nothing good unless served by a Delmonico or a Sherry,
go ye into the mountains, follow a brook for half a day, get
wet and tired and hungry, sit down by an ice-cold spring, and
eat brook trout cooked on the spot, and delicious bread and butter
liberally spread with clover honey. Not till then have ye dined.” I
am persuaded, I must say.

The two spend the rest of the afternoon working their way down
stream and back home. Using a grasshopper, the friend manages,
unskillfully, to catch the largest trout, a pound and a half.
To this display of novice before the craftsman, the old Angler
says, charitably, “Well, I’ll be…that is to say,
I’ve fished fifty-five years for trout and never saw one
caught that way.” Meanwhile, the Angler is telling tales
of his experience in the Revolutionary War. He knows Ethan Allen
who “loved to sit long at the Catamount tavern in Bennington
and consume large quantities of ‘West India goods.’” He
recalls Colonel Marsh, on whose property they are fishing, who
could not decide on which side to fight during the war.

On returning home, they bathe, dine, tell stories of their fishing
that day to the family. After supper, the blazing fire makes
them drowsy. “Indeed, this has been a famous day, well
spent, with no offense to God or man, and much was learned of
the gentle art and more from the simple philosophy of the wise
old man. Surely this sport is not puerile or trivial.” Another
log is put on the fire. They look about the old house after such
a happy day and reflect on what it has seen of those who lived

Simple souls were they, but their minds were set on lofty things.
Many a time the white-haired preacher told to the neighbors gathered
together for the last sad service how the one who lay there so
still had led a good life and had gone to the reward. You may
count them now among the silent stones at the top of the hill.
What are our houses but convenient resting places as the generations
pass through them from the cradle to the grave?

The clock rings. It is already two a.m. Dead tired, they had intended
to go to bed early, but their day, the reflections it caused in
them, the contentment, were too much for them.

James V. Schall, S.J., is
professor of government at Georgetown University and the
author of numerous books, including A Student’s
Guide to Liberal Learning
(ISI Books, 2000).