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A Brief History of the Victorian Angler


Victoria's was a period of enormous psychological stress, from which we should not be surprised to find that many people escaped into artificially-created enclaves like sportfishing. The poetic Scots and American angler, however dedicated to catching fish, fit his angling into a larger sense of Nature, and his flies (or worms or parr-tail) like his poems were expressions of his own response rather than expressions of any purely rational analysis of a situation -- they were flights of fancy. The scientific English angler surrounded his fishing with the trappings of modernity and method, and his flies were expressions of observation and of his and his colleagues' responses to objectively observed fact -- increasingly strict imitations. Both the English and the Scottish-American attitudes sprang from an abiding affection for nature.


Alexandrina Victoria daughter of George III, and only child of George III's fourth son, Edward Augustus . . . by Mary Louis Victoria, fourth daughter and youngest child of Francis Frederick Anthony reigned as Victoria, Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and Em- press of India, from 1837 to 1901 (Dictionary of National Biography). The dates of her reign embrace the formative period of modern fishing (as they embrace the formative period of modern life) whether one is talking about fly fishing (Ronalds and Halford), tackle (the split-bamboo rod, the fixed-spool reel, the bass-casting rod and reel), or methods (trolling from boats, plug-casting, "hardware" lures) with so few exceptions that they are interesting only to the stickler. To be sure, some of these developments were anticipated before the eighteen-thirties, while the foundation of sportfishing itself was already hundreds of years old; and some modern aspects of fishing were developed after her death (the American streamer fly, for example, and most matters relating to plastics) but the dates of her rule will serve to define the period during which modern angling was created, as they will serve to define the period during which most things modern were created. The point is, of course, that it was the extent of changes in other areas that swept fishing along.


The Victorian change affected virtually every aspect of life in Great Britain and the United States. At the beginning of the period, the population of both countries was more rural than urban and the money-producing sources were more agricultural than industrial; by 190 1, no less than 77 percent of the inhabitants of the United Kingdom were resident in urban districts, (Sir Charles Petrie, The Edwardians) and the figure was not significantly different in America. In 1830, visual ugliness was not recognized as a major quality of either urban or rural landscape, and cities in both England and America had their peculiar beauties - - Georgian London, Colonial Boston, Federal New York - - but by 1900, ugliness was commonplace, both in the cities and in the countryside, where factory towns had blighted the beauty that had been, and loveliness was often something to be reached at the far end of the rail line. The societies of 1830 were "balanced" - - stratified and apparently static in England, Jeffersonian and apparently stable in America - - but by 1900 much the opposite: "The insolence of theupper to the middle class; the vicious indifference of the middle to the lower; the obsequiousness of the lower to both, all in their turn made mock everywhere of ease and good fellowship." (Frost and Jay, The English). Both national economies saw a severe shift from agricultural to industrial emphasis, with British agriculture suffering from American ascendancy so that the "British landed aristocracy" was overthrown "by the far-distant democracy of American farmers" (Trevelyan, Illustrated Social History). And, just as the farm gave way to the factory,so the small town lost its identity in the region, and regionalism itself gave way to a mass consciousness fostered by the revolution in transportation and communications. The railroad was a novelty in 1846 and an accomplishment in 1876. By the end of the century it was the indispensable and omnipresent element of national growth and cohesion. In 1840, a good-sized 'big city' newspaper consisted of 4 or 6 pages, was sold to perhaps 4,000 subscribers daily, and cost between 5 and 10 cents . . . . 'By 1890, as a result of work such as that of the Hoe Company in press technology or Ottmar Mergenthaler, developer of the linotype, a major New York newspaper reached perhaps 300,000 people daily with an edition of 16 or more pages, for 2 cents" (Bernard A. Weisberger, The New Industrial Society). Between 1839 and 1901, Britain and the United States saw the invention and widespread use of the railroad, the telephone, the telegraph, the rotary-drum press; photography, half-tone printing, the Bessemer steel process, and the development of winter wheat for high-yield farming: and such new materials as bake-lite and aluminum. It saw the great waves of migration to the United States, first from Ireland and Scotland, later from Central and Southern Europe. It saw the first effects of the three thinkers who were to mold the mind of the first half of the twentieth century - - Marx, Darwin and Freud. In many respects, the impact of these changes on the two societies were similar but in one respect they differed greatly. The national senses of aspiration - - the spirits - - were directed differently, Britain's toward the world outside itself, America's toward its own Western vastness. Britain built an economic empire that reached far beyond the bounds of those countries politically hers and invested her capital wherever it would produce profit, including in the United States; this investment created a class of new moneyed men - - investors and managers - - who grasped the power that slipped from the land-bound aristocracy after the eighteen-seventies. With this new power and considerable wealth, these men would enjoy a new kind of leisure -- the "rural sports" of their predecessors, refined and contained in an almost Baroque network of rules, and practiced from an urban base. Fishing would be one of the most important of these activities.


In America, anglophilic Boston and New York might ape the English, although from a much smaller economic base. Because of the proximity to New York, the Catskill waters would continue to attract metropolitan anglers, making the Beaverkill and the Neversink into the Test and Itchen of the United States (and with the same unhappy effects of parochialism that were seen in England after 1885). America, however, was too big and its society too diverse and too mobile to follow the English example closely. Its urban gentlemen were comparatively few, and its mass would look elsewhere. It looked West to the wilderness. Towards the West, in which direction the faces of the party were turned, the eye ranged over an ocean of leaves, glorious and rich in the varied and lively verized wilderness they found their image of the lands to the West -- not savage, but neutral, all promise and potential, an "ocean of leaves" to be embarked upon. The Cooper period (the mid 1820's to the late 1840's) was the period of hope, to be supplanted by Twain's Gilded Age, mercantile and industrial, and then by the formal closing of the frontier and, by the end of the Victorian period, by a greedy over-reaching that was a fitting, if sad introduction to the America of the twentieth century.


But while it lasted, the Cooper ideal was an admirable one, and it left an imprint on American ideas of wilderness and of "civilized" man in the wilderness. Leatherstocking himself was of a type that would disappear: both civilized man and savage, a "magnificent moral hermaphrodite, born of the savage state and civilization," (Balzac, quoted by Pearson) yet his own idea of a democracy of merit would outlive him. "The most surprising peculiarity about the man himself was the entire indifference with which he regarded all distinctions which did not depend upon personal merit .... " (Pathfinder). His America was innocent wildness, in which a few men roamed to escape cities and excessive civilization; his America persists in our attitudes toward what we now call outdoor recreation. In its emphasis upon such frontier qualities as stamina, woods knowledge and simplicity, it is the characteristic that puts American fishing farthest from English tradition, although it has been complicated and sometimes submerged by a grafting-on of social attitudes that are sometimes identical with Victorian English ones. (Thus, in a large sense, Midwestern black bass fishing was and is "American" in its pragmatism and its enthusiastic acceptance of novelty; Eastern dry-fly fishing was and is "English" in its dependence upon authority, book-knowledge, and a "correct" way of doing things. Like all generalizations, this one cannot be stretched over every instance, and I do not mean to belabor it, but I think it has some importance when one begins to look at, for example, the eminence of James Henshall (Book of the Black Bass) or the great affinity between American and Scottish angling through out much of the nineteenth century.)


Despite this considerable difference between their views of the outdoors, however, English and American society shared a number of basic assumptions. Both believed, for example, that an entrenched upper class, supported ideologically by a middle class, was not merely socially inevitable, but socially desirable; and that work (except for a privileged few) was a moral action and one by which leisure was earned, while recreation was desirable because it renewed the mind and trained the body for work; that non-work or laziness or unemployment were immoral conditions; that private property was not merely a social and economic matter, but also a moral and perhaps a theological one. (In the matter of public ownership of such things as fish, water and open space, England and America differed and America came closer to Scotland, although as the mostly non-resident English took Scottish titles and Scottish lands, spear-headed by Victoria's occupation of "Royal Dee-side" around Balmoral, public waters and free fish began to disappear in Scotland, too.)


In both societies, foreigners, especially physically distinguishable foreigners, were seen as comical or menacing or simply undesirable, but, since United States immigration was a national policy, foreigners were "welcome" there, meaning they were socially regrettable but economically essential. Jews were viewed with that paradoxical blend of envy and intense dislike that still typifies anti-semitism. Women were encouraged to be wholly domestic creatures without political or economic power. Despite Victoria herself, despite notorious wom- en like Sargent's "Madame X", despite Susan B. Anthony, women were second-class citizens at best, and the attitude toward them was significantly not unlike that toward Jews -- paradoxical and contradictory, a mixture of admiration and horror, of envy and distrust, of desire and repulsion. The sexual repression that was to give Lytton Strachey and Aldous Huxley such fertile ground in the next generation was very real, at least in the "better" classes, but it was a repression that had an opposite side (for men, at least) in a callous sexual indulgence. Stevenson's Jekyll Hyde was an extreme form of the Victorian gentlemen (or of his darker vision of himself); a self-appointed model of virtue like Dickens maintained a public face of propriety, and enjoyed his private life with Ellen Tiernan and his trips to Paris. Watch and Ward Societies were active, but pornography flourished; divorce was taboo, but mistresses were condoned; Woman was worshipped for her Higher Virtue, and prostitution had a heyday.


Recreation -- rural sports, and fishing in particular -- became an escape, usually a very brief escape (although in the United States especially, fishing jaunts of a month to six weeks were cohkon). The society that developed around fishing, as, for example, in fishing camps and fishing clubs, excluded the more powerful psychological pressures of the larger society itself -- People Who Did Not Belong (foreigners, Jews, women), work, and sexual awareness. Fishing, despite occasional encouragements to ladies to take up the rod, was a male activity, as Anglo-Saxon as the losing side in 1066 and as sexless as a Cub Scout banquet. In terms of a study of underlying attitudes (by which, after all, fishing is affected as much as anything else) to move through Victoria's reign is like riding up an escalator from which one can see the other escalator going down: her reign is the crossing-point of an X, with one crucial set of attitudes emerging as another declines. Yet at the historical instant of those years, both sets of attitudes have vigorous proponents -- sometimes both have a vigorous proponent in the same person -- and so the cross is also an X of contradiction: the concept of individual rights (most particularly rights to property) crosses a emerging idea of humanitarianism; on one side are the horrors of child labor, on the other, "the enlarged sympathy with children [which] was one of the chief contribu- tions made by the Victorian English to real civilization." (G. M. Trevelyan). On the one side, the greedy enclosure of open space; on the other, the promise in America of unlimited open space for the taking. On the one side, the inevitable attraction of a previously rural people to crowded and miserable cities; on the other, the great movements toward large public parks and large ideas of conserva- tion. On the one hand, industrialization; on the other, the glorification of such pastoral pursuits as gardening and fishing.


The X of contradiction is the essence of the period. It tells us what Strachey and Freud have told us, that Victoria's was a period of enormous psychological stress, from which we should not be surprised to find that many people escaped into artificially-created enclaves like sportfishing. (Or, rather, we shall find that many men of means escaped into it; we shall not find, by and large, that men of poverty or women of any sort did so, for, even when they did; they left little record.)


History is a snob who speaks in the hieratic croon of a Lord Kenneth Clark. When History wrote of Victorian fishing, History wrote mainly about Himself and His friends and relatives and the fellows of His club or the chaps who had the beat next to His; common, everyday fishermen did not much figure in His memoirs, even though they were around in considerable numbers. Generally when one of them did wander into a sentence or two, History disposed of him with the pejorative "Cockney".


Cockney is an interesting word, one with a general application we all recognize and with a special application to Victorian fishing that we may not. It seems to have come originally from a word meaning a misshapen egg, of all things, and then it shifted from the egg to the bird that hatched out of it, which (because it was a weak bird, I gather) had to be pampered; hence, a cockney was an effeminate weakling. (O.E.D.) But by Shakespeare's time, the word came to have associations of the city- born and -bred fellow, especially a Londoner, (still somewhat effeminate, but most of all urban) and so when "Christopher North" wrote in Blackwood's Magazine in 1823 that "We do venerate 'the old man eloquent [Izaak Walton] as truly as the very worst angler in Cockney-land", he was merely extending this sense of Cockney-as- Londoner to that of Cockney-as-English- man. This sense became an oddly important one as Cockney came to stand for an angler who was citified (and hence ignorant), parvenue and middle-class (or lower). "There are a sort of people -- chiefly Cockneys, to whom the filth and noisome crowding of cities has, by habit, become delightful . . .who effect to laugh . . . at those who delight in the sport of fishing. . ." (Blackwood's, 1827). Those who laughed most conspicuously at the sport of fishing were the English poets Leigh Hunt and Byron ("the solitary vice", Byron had called it, thus classing it with such other discredited pleasures as masturbation and reading) who be- came the "Cockney school" to the literati of Edinburgh, and Cockney be- came the pejorative title for all who were of the wrong class and the wrong condi- tion to understand such niceties as true angling.


By the eighteen-forties, Henry W. Herbert ("Frank Forester") had broadcast the usage in the United States, so that it appeared even in the writing of that admirable democrat, Thad Norris; and thereafter, Cockney was an American word as well as an English one, inevitably used as a barrier to keep the vile counter-jumpers from joining their betters at streamside. Oddly, it was even turned against Walton himself for committing the crime of bait-fishing. "This picture [Walton bait-fishing] is of a most cockney-like character, and we no more expect Piscator to soar beyond it, and to kill, for example, a salmon of twenty pounds with a single hair, than we would look to see his brother linen-draper [Walton was then thought to have been a linen-draper] John Gilpin, leading a charge of hussars. What is there, we ask, that relieves the low character, we had almost said the vulgarity, of a picture so little elevated and so homely? It is the exquisite simplicity of the good old man . . ." (Sir Walter Scott in his review of Davy's Salmonia in The Quarterly Review, 1828.) "Exquisite simplicity" would appear to be a coding of "knowing his place", rather as law and order was recently a coding of middle-class-white security.


The "cockney-like crime' of bait-fish- ing became, by Herbert's and Norris's time, the Cockney-like crime of trying to fly-fish (and not being able to do it) and, later still, the Cockney-like crime of not understanding the rituals of the dry fly. If, of course, lower-class fisher- men kept in their place -- that is, if they did not aspire to trout and salmon, did not attempt fly fishing, did not try to climb inside the frame of the gentlemen- angler's landscape -- then they could avoid the term Cockney and would be merely that acceptable thing, the coarse Fherman. The English still use this expression. Whether it derives from the coarseness of the fish or the fisherman, I have not determined.


The Victorian Cockney, of course (in his angling sense) was a city-dweller. Indeed, the point can be made that he could have come into being only after the movement toward urbanization had begun and before it was completed -- when, that is, those who owned or felt title to rural land began to be threatened by visits from urbanites. The class implications followed shortly after, when it became clear that these offensive urbanites were people who could not afford to buy up riparian rights; their "betters" were well-hidden along the banks of the Hampshire chalk streams, where they did not give offense.


In America, another lower-class figure appeared in the gentlemen-angler's world, a picturesque Noble Savage with a quaint dialect and a down-home wit that. like those carved figures that adorn up- country gift shops, take all winter to prepare -- the guide, Leatherstocking en- feebled. Unlike Cooper's creation, he no longer dominated his surroundings, nor was he the moral measure of the piece; rather, he was a safe and picturesque illiterate who knew his place. "Make up your mind that the man who spells queerly when he writes to you and bears down heavily with his lead pencil is the man you want for a guide." (Charles Stedman Hanks, Camp Kits and Camp Life, 1906). Perhaps freedom from the linear restrictions of the written word make such a man a better guide, in some McLuhanesque way; on the face of it, however, Hanks' attitude, which was a common one, was simply snobbery: the semi-literate is a "simple, open fellow" who makes no attempt to intrude on his betters by becoming educated. Is it unfair to point out that hiring the man "who spells queerly . . . and bears down heavily on his lead pencil" was the surest way of guaranteeing a supply of under-educated men, who could not make a decent living doing anything else? As the Boston Globe writer Monty Montgomery puts it, there is a "direct and inverse relationship between the poverty of the countryside and the richness of the fishing," and as you approach the Mirimichi for the salmon, "it gets grimmer for people and better for fish . . . Someone, by not making very much money, is supporting our recreation." And it has always been so. But it is the unusual fishing writer who mentions such matters. We are much more likely to find, especially among the Victorians, detailed histories of "our crowd", and occasional mentions of the Unacceptable Others -- guides, rubes, Cockneys, hideous poachers, and bare-foot farmboys with alder poles and earthworms.

Yet they are always there, like the hidden animals in a child's puzzle: how many common people can you find in this drawing? There are thirty million licensed fishermen now; their propor- tionate number existed in Victoria's reign, but we must take it mostly on faith that they were there.


What I have called "The Victorian Angler", then, is partly a historical construct put together from written acounts that were socially myopic. (I am speaking mostly of books; the point could be made that the periodicals, especially in the United States, were far more egalitarian, especially under the editorship of somebody like William Porter. However, so inclusive were the periodi- cals that their excess of information amounts to historical overkill, and the great proportion of what they printed was self-indulgent puffery in the form of correspondence. One finds the same sort of thing, although on different subjects, in the correspondence pages of contem- porary newspapers.) He emerges as a male, first of all, and then as a gentleman. He angles for gamefish, mostly trout and salmon (the tautological definition being that a gamefish is one that a gentleman may angle for) and, beyond the Alleghe- nies, for the black bass. After the eight- een-forties, he fishes more and more with the fly, although his tackle will not catch up with his principles until about the American Civil War, when fly and bait tackle become readily distinguishable. Once the dry fly is defined by Halford, of course, he is able to weave himself a cocoon of rules and precepts and "scientific" arguments within which he will be safe from Cockneys, coarse fishermen, and -- Gad! -- wormers.


I have already noted that there was an affinity between Scottish and American anglers. It led, I think, to the marked American preference for non-imitative, often gaudy flies right through the century, although, as a De Tocqueville might have predicted, the American fancies went far beyond the Scottish precedent. The affinity between the two nations sprang from a similarity of fishing grounds and angling custom; that is, there was a good deal of free and open water in both, and a very small popula- tion in their wilder region. (After 1745, Scotland was depopulated in sometimes grisly ways; the Americans typically had empty country within a short walk or ride until well into Victoria's reign.) In both nations, the taking of small fish (trout) in tather large numbers was the rule, in broken water and in lakes; the (Southern) English practice was to take, or try to take, larger fish, and not by the basket, but by the brace. American thinking was conditioned in favor of a romanticized Hibernianism by Burns and Sir Walter Scott; Scott's novels, particularly, were aped by Cooper and by such lesser hacks as Henry Herbert ("Frank Forester"), so American anglers were easily made readers of the two outstanding Scots angling writers of the nineteenth century, John Wilson ("Christopher North") and Thomas Tod Stoddart. North in Blackwood's Magazine (which had a North American readership) and Stoddart in several books gave their particular luster to American angling. Both were poets and their approach to fishing problems was "poetic" -- intuitive, aesthetic, "natural" in a Romantic sense; the southern English approach, as the century advanced, be- came "scientific", analytical, governed by the Victorian ideal of utility. The operative English angling words were modern and practical, and the expression scientific angler represented an ideal. But the most famous fly pattern in America until at least 1880 was the "Professor", a simple, non-imitative fly popularized by "Christopher North" and so named because he (Wilson) was Professor of Moral Philosophy at Edinburgh; it would be difficult to name a single pattern as most popular in England, but after 1836 it would have been one based on Ronalds or at least on Ronalds' idea of exact imitation. After Halford, of course, there was no contest.


The poetic Scots and American angler, however dedicated to catching fish, fit his angling into a larger sense of Nature, and his flies (or worms or parr-tail) like his poems were expressions of his own response rather than expressions of any purely rational analysis of a situation -- they were flights of fancy. The scientific English angler surrounded his fishing with the trappings of modernity and method, and his flies were expressions of observation and of his and his colleagues' responses to objectively observed fact -- increasingly strict imitations. Both the English and the Scottish-American attitudes sprang from an abiding affection for nature, but one is an outsider's affection (the English urbanite's) and the other is the native's or the very recently dispossessed countryman's. Neither is "better", and of course what I have called the English view has necessarily become our own as we have become so oppressively urbanized, but the Scottish-American, perhaps because it was a Romantic and a poetic and a fundamentally simpler way of looking at the natural world, is a very appealing one now. Not the least of the reasons for this appeal is that it encapsulates a view that has vanished. Our Victorian forbears, when they went fishing, had the advantage of us. They had not merely the advantage of more productive waters, of uncrowded woods and untrafficked roads (or no roads at all); they had also a sense of wonder and of belonging, of coming home to nature in its dazzling magnificence. I am not sure that we can ever understand that homecoming; we can yearn for it, stand spiritually next to it, but I do not think we can quite get inside it. We are more dispossessed than any Victorian ever dreamed of being. Battered by our technical achievements, dulled by our ugly cities and our Disneyland copies of reality, we cannot be lucky enough to know the surge of joy that must have been theirs when they en- countered natural splendor.


One may smile at the Victorian virgins as they plied their pallid watercolors in attempts to catch the natural landscape, but the smile should be followed by a frown of at least puzzlement as we admit that their act was more expressive of genuine contact with nature than is our own: the abrupt stop at the mountain turn-out, the bolting from the car with the camera, the quick tripping of the shutter and the rush to the next vista. We look. They understood. So did their angling fathers. If I had the choice, I would make my next fishing trip either to the Catskill streams in the eighteen-fifties or to the Tweed in the eighteen-twenties. I would choose, in other words, to be an early Victorian angler. Not because the fishing was that much better (although it often was) but because, despite what I have said above about snobbery and narrow-mindedness, I firmly believe that the fishermen were better -- better people, I mean. Perhaps they were better only because their consciousness was more open to nature --but is that not enough? For what they seemed to be able to find in nature was not mere inspiration, not pathetic fallacy, but symbolic proof of an ideal of the spirit. Their painters left records of it -- the Hudson River painters in the east, in Kaaterskill Clove and Lake George; Catlin in the Indian West; Audubon in the nation's birds and animals; Bierstadt in the Rockies. The best of their angling writers left their own reflections of it -- Norris on "The Solitary Angler"; Wilson and Stoddart on the wild Highlands; Cutcliffe (although he is a little later) on something as simple as the best furs for fly-tying. Take it all and all, then, to be a Victorian angler was a good thing.


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