Fishing for Farson

Negley Farson comes to the surface

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in Features • Illustrated by Eric Lauterbach

The following is based on a book co-written by the author to be released by the University of Virginia Press in 2021.

People familiar with the sunny zenith of Negley Farson’s life could not have imagined that he would be so widely forgotten today. He would have seemed, no doubt, to them, as memorable as Babe Ruth’s swing or Frank Sinatra’s voice.  

“Almost everything happened to him that befalls a living man,” journalist Arthur Krock of the New York Times once remarked. Farson’s son, Daniel, who inherited his father’s fondness for liquor, summed him up this way: “Negley Farson was an exceptional man who did the things that most men dream about.” Nobel Prize winner Sinclair Lewis described him as “a grand man who found every hour exciting.”  

The chain-smoking Farson, born and raised in Plainfield, New Jersey, was once known in saloons and taverns across the globe simply as Negley. In some remote valleys in the high Caucasus, he was known as “Negley Farson Chicago Daily News,” thanks to a native guide who mistook Farson’s employer for his full name. Raised by his grandfather — a former Civil War general and Republican congressman — Farson learned to sail on the Delaware Bay and learned to fish on the New Jersey shore, venturing as far from home as a young boy could. From the very beginning, he lived a life of adventure, and he later chronicled it in a series of books written in clear, exhilarating prose, much of it crafted by campfires, on riverbanks, and atop mountains. 

Most of it has been forgotten. 

Born May 14, 1890, Farson lived a ridiculously interesting life even before becoming one of America’s most famous foreign correspondents and a writer of travel books. Once a champion collegiate athlete, he was in St. Petersburg, Russia, when the revolution broke out, trying to sell weapons and Harley Davidson motorcycles to the Russian war department and spending his evenings drinking with the young, infamous journalist John Reed, author of the classic Ten Days That Shook the World. During World War I, Farson joined Britain’s Royal Flying Corps — feigning Canadian citizenship to enlist — and flew as a pilot over the Egyptian sands. His daredevil antics led to a plane crash in which he sustained injuries that would plague him for the rest of his life. Recuperating in a London hospital, he met and married Enid Eveleen Stoker, Bram Stoker’s niece. The newlyweds then lived on a ramshackle houseboat on a remote Canadian lake for several years, surviving on the salmon Farson caught and the ducks he shot. There, Farson published a few short stories and began to dream of becoming a writer. 

To turn his dream into a reality, he barreled into the office of Victor Lawson, owner of the Chicago Daily News, and proposed sailing across the length of Europe, from Rotterdam to the Black Sea, using a long-forgotten canal that connected the Rhine and Danube rivers. Along the way, he told Lawson, he would file dispatches to the newspaper, and at the end of the trip, if readers liked the stories, he would accept a job as a full-time correspondent. The proposal was audacious: the Daily News of the 1920s arguably had the best foreign desk of all U.S. newspapers. 

But Lawson agreed, and in 1925 Farson and his wife sailed a small boat across Europe, navigating swirling rapids to cross borders bristling with bayonets as European statesmen prepared for the next war. As for the canal linking the two big rivers, it turned out to be choked with weeds; Farson tied a rope around his waist and towed the boat about 100 miles. The feat of strength endeared him to his readers. The following year in Great Britain, Hutchinson & Co. Ltd. published Farson’s colorful dispatches as a book titled Sailing Across Europe, and in the United States, the New York Times heralded the book’s pending publication in the same article that it announced the forthcoming publication of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises

Rewarded with a chair in the newspaper’s London office, Farson rarely sat down for the next 10 years. He traveled from Constantinople to Rome and Berlin to cover political news, spent weeks on a whaling ship in the north Atlantic, rode a donkey across the Pyrenees and through Spain, and traveled on horseback across the Caucasus mountains before Stalin could finish closing off communist Russia to westerners. He witnessed Gandhi’s arrest in Borivli, India, and he briefly lived in Germany under Hitler, Italy under Mussolini, and Russia under Stalin. In an age when people rarely traveled to foreign countries, Farson astonished his readers by popping up in faraway places, occasionally in the custody of police officers. 

Farson’s travel stories, syndicated in nearly 100 newspapers across the United States, helped shape the image of the foreign correspondent as a romantic hero in the American consciousness. In photos, a cigarette often dangles rakishly from Farson’s lips, his broad shoulders are squared up, and his violet eyes stare confidently into the camera. But he abruptly quit his job in 1935 after the Daily News’ new owner accused him of becoming too British in his views. By then, Farson had become an alcoholic, downing four double-whiskeys after filing his stories. The deadline pressure, coupled with a strained marriage, had nearly done him in. 

In the late 1930s, no longer a correspondent but still needing to stay on the move, he traveled across South America by car; when the roads became too rough or disappeared altogether, by canoe and zipline. Looking for a greater challenge, he crisscrossed Africa, hobnobbing with pygmies, shooting big game, and witnessing the fever of Nazism spread among German colonists. He lay abed recuperating from malaria in Accra, on Africa’s Gold Coast, on the day that the great earthquake of 1939 destroyed much of the city. When World War II came, he was in London, watching as German bombs obliterated buildings around him and spending his mornings climbing through the rubble to interview survivors. He then sailed across the submarine-laden waters of the North Sea to Murmansk in hopes of witnessing the Russian armies’ herculean battle against their Nazi enemies. He wrote about all of it – South America, Africa, the London bombing, the war in Russia – in a string of freelanced newspaper and magazine articles and in well-received books. His book on Africa, Behind God’s Back, found a perch on the New York Times bestseller list, alongside Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls

All the while, Farson struggled to cope with an injured leg for which he suffered through more than two dozen surgeries, some of them botched; the frustration of a nearly sexless marriage that he eased by seeking solace in a string of mistresses; and his addiction to liquor. Though his hardships were many, and great, his appetite for life proved greater. He lived each day as if it were a door that needed kicking in. To his mind, men who spent their time merely trying to get rich were pitiably dumb bastards. 

By the time he had settled into his secluded home in Devon, England, Farson had earned a reputation as one of the United States’ greatest foreign correspondents, a world-famous trout bum and a bestselling author of rumbustious adventure books. He had become one of the world’s most recognizable rovers, quite a distinction given Americans’ esteem for the talented pool of foreign correspondents who prowled the world’s capitals during the ’20s and ’30s, the golden age of the foreign news bureau. In that troubled era, foreign news was the equivalent of today’s reality TV; the correspondents were the stars of the show. As British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge once reminisced, “They were the Knights-errant of our time; rescuers of nations in distress, champions of the downtrodden and oppressed, who smote the offending dragons hip and thigh with breathless words rattled off on their typewriters.” Or, as the New Yorker magazine lamented in 1956, foreign correspondents were “an interesting creature, who flourished most luxuriantly in the 1930s and [are] now almost extinct. The men of Farson’s breed — if such a congeries of eccentrics and prima donnas can be called a breed — were not so much serious as cynical.” 

Farson’s physical strength, coupled with his striking good looks, set him apart from other correspondents, who likened him to a world-weary hero of a Lord Byron poem, or the protagonist in an O. Henry story. “He epitomized tough masculinity, and didn’t give a damn for anyone,” BBC journalist Cyril Watling noted. Krock also admired Farson’s physical magnetism: “He was a college athlete who never lost the consciousness of his tall, strong body and its well-being, of the love for the sports of wave, stream and field.” 

The similarities between Farson and Ernest Hemingway were too obvious for their contemporaries to ignore. They were both big-chested lovers of life, bar room drinkers, sailors, fishermen, big game hunters, womanizers, writers of magnetic, muscular prose, Farson reveling in the real world, Hemingway inventing his own. Born a year apart, their life’s trajectories were a series of parallels and intersections that compelled others to constantly compare them. “Negley Farson was a reporter who lived an impossibly adventurous life,” wrote Stephen Bodio in A Sportsman’s Library. “As macho as Hemingway’s image, he roamed the world with typewriter, fly rod, fedora, booze, and cigarettes.” “Negley Farson, the American foreign correspondent, writer and man of action, was in the years between the wars as famous a he-man as Ernest Hemingway,” wrote the Guardian, a British newspaper not known to stretch the truth in any particular direction. British writer Colin Wilson actually admired him more than Hemingway: “Farson was the only man I have ever met who seemed cast in a bigger mould than other men. Unlike Hemingway, who tried hard to play the archetypal hero, and who, as a consequence, often struck false notes, Farson’s impressiveness was completely natural and unselfconscious.” Just as they were born a year apart, they died a year apart, and even in death were subjected to comparison. In a column in Field & Stream, outdoor writer and tough guy Robert Ruark wrote that both Hemingway and Farson “had died more or less by their own hands in the last year. Farson didn’t actually kill himself — he wore himself out just living hard and free.” He added that, to him, “both writers stood for something that we seem to be running shorter and shorter on . . . I am talking of manhood, and the uncontrived joy that man has always derived from hunting and fishing and camping and firelight and a reeking pipe. I expect nobody ever wrote better of hunting and fishing than Hemingway or Farson.” 

In addition to his fabled feats as a roving correspondent, Farson wrote more than a dozen books, several of which are still considered classics in their genre. Several more probably should be. His memoir, Way of a Transgressor, shot to the Top 10 of the non-fiction bestseller list when left-wing publisher Victor Gollancz released it in 1936, and the book still wins praise and inspires young readers to lead more daring lives, though few of them probably remember the author’s name. Readers passionately embrace the book not as a mere biography, but as a how-to book on adventuring. Another title, Caucasian Journey, first published in 1951, remains an engaging tale of a daunting trek, prompting Penguin to republish it in its line of Travel Classics; along with another of Farson’s books, Behind God’s Back  the tale of a mad journey across Africa by boat, bad roads and bush plane —  it has earned a spot on at least one list of the 100 greatest travel adventure books of all time. But perhaps the volume that goes the furthest in cementing Farson’s literary fame is Going Fishing, a spirited, spiritual accounting of Farson’s victories and defeats in small trout streams and swift rivers across the globe. Farson introduced his one and only fishing book as “just a story of some rods, and the places they take you to,” but his introduction was a little white lie, for the slender volume of silvery prose is more than just a story, it is a revelation, exposing Farson as a lost soul among the coterie of American foreign correspondents, a man whose pulse still raced like a boy’s at the first tug of a fish on the line. The solitude of fishing, he explained, filled some need in him: “with a boat, a shotgun and a couple of rods, you could have a far fuller life than I was finding in the cities of Europe.” 

When the book came out in 1941, critics immediately loved it, and thousands of GIs in World War II passed it around. The historian Charles Lillard suggested that, with this book, Farson had out-Hemingway-ed Hemingway, opining that “as a man, Farson outdrank ‘Papa,’ as a journalist he out-adventured him, and when it came to trout fishing Farson outwrote Hemingway.” Generations of anglers have since embraced the book. Even today, many call it one of the greatest fishing books ever written. Some insist it is the single greatest fishing book ever written. Hemingway owned two copies. Farson’s publishers must have known it would become a classic: For one edition, they recruited renowned artist C.F. Tunnicliffe to illustrate the book. (16 years later, Tunnicliffe illustrated another famous fishing book, Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.)  Among all of Farson’s books, it best reveals the man for who he was — a restless spirit who scorned the nine-to-five life and those who grubbed for money, a wounded alcoholic with inner demons who sought salvation — and respite from the bottle — in quiet places. Yet Farson has been forgotten, and his books collect cobwebs on the rickety shelves of used book stores. His final years were wretched. Train trips from his home in Devon to London became drinking binges; his wife took to hiding her cooking sherry from him; and his luck as a fisherman finally ran out: he could catch no fish in the surf of the Irish Sea just a short walk from his house. He died on Dec. 13, 1960, sitting in an armchair in his Devon home. He had spent the earlier part of the day tying labels to his luggage, preparing for yet another journey. 

America birthed twin literary lions in Farson and Hemingway, yet only honors one. But the fevered fullness of Farson’s life defies this obscurity. Negley Farson deserves to be remembered. •

Rex Bowman is a writer and journalist whose work has appeared in Time magazine and the Washington Post. He is the co-author, with Carlos Santos, of a biography of foreign correspondent Negley Farson to be published in 2021 by the University of Virginia Press.

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