Roderick Haig-Brown approached writing from two perspectives—as a professional and as a literary artist. The former often took precedence, and much of his writing was motivated, in part at least, by the necessity of making a living. He turned out governmentsponsored reports, instructional guides, and popular histories for young readers as circumstances and the market demanded, and the greater part of what he wrote, though interesting and entertaining, is of little literary interest. Coupled with the fact that he did his most serious writing in the neglected genre of the informal essay, the amount and variety of his commercial writing has tended to obscure Haig-Brown’s literary achievement, and he has received far less attention from critics of Canadian literature than the quality of his essays and his international reputation warrant.
Another barrier to recognition is a common misconception of Haig-Brown as a local, special-interest writer, narrowly concerned with sport fishing in British Columbia. While he lived most of his adult life in the small Vancouver Island community of Campbell River, where he settled after emigrating from England as a young man, Haig-Brown was anything but provincial in his outlook. He served as a judge for over 30 years, was an officer in the Canadian Army during World War II, and later, in addition to becoming Chancellor of the University of Victoria, played leading roles in various private and governmental organizations concerned with sports, parks, and the environment. He was also an avid reader and book collector and knowledgeable about many subjects beyond fishing. Particularly in the 1960s and 1970s, these commitments limited his literary output, but they also allowed him to write with authority on a wide variety of topics and added greatly to the intellectual scope of the essays on fishing and nature, which often digress into discussions of literature, history, sociology, and the human qualities fishing develops.
Notwithstanding his professional nonfiction writing, HaigBrown discovered his talent as an informal essayist relatively late. Early in his career he concentrated his creative energy mainly on fiction, but partly because of the instructional bent that would later serve him well in his essays, he achieved better results with his animal stories and outdoor adventure fiction for young readers than with his novels for adults. A River Never Sleeps (1946), his first collection of informal essays, did not appear until 15 years after his first book, and although it can be seen in retrospect to represent a breakthrough in approach and style, he continued to concentrate on fiction throughout the 1940s. Partly, it may be supposed, because he believed publishers considered the form “dead as hieroglyphics” (“Writer’s Notebook: Influences,” 1953), it was not until the early 1950s that Haig-Brown devoted himself mainly to writing essays. A writer’s “real importance,” he observed at this time, “is in the sum of experience that he can share through his writing and in the quality of what he shares… provided always that he has the art and skill to transmute them into new meaning” (“Writer’s Notebook: Influences”). The experiences that he knew best were, of course, his own; the form that allowed him to express the deeper meaning he considered essential to quality in writing was the informal, personal essay.
The best of Haig-Brown’s informal essays appear in six collections: A River Never Sleeps, Measure of the Year (1950), which is more concerned with his family life, his hobbies, and his experience as a local magistrate than with fishing, and the fishing tetralogy for which he is best known. In Fisherman’s Spring (1951), Haig-Brown explores the deep significance fishing holds for him personally. Fisherman’s Winter (1954) grows out of a fishing trip to Argentina and Chile and is on the whole a more factual book than Spring. Fisherman’s Summer (1959) shows Haig-Brown’s growing concern with conservation, while Fisherman’s Fall (1964), in its fascination with game fish themselves, particularly salmon, and their underwater environment, extends this concern. All six collections demonstrate his ability to combine complex, original imagery, which is particularly effective in capturing action, with accurate, minutely observed details. They also benefit from a style so clear and fluent that it makes underestimating the complexity of the ideas being expressed all too easy. These books are not simply collections of previously published essays, but carefully structured, thematically unified works in themselves. In the essays of these six books at least, Haig- Brown was able to put aside sales expectations to write as a conscious artist, aware of his position as an inheritor of the British tradition of reflective rural writing, especially the fishing strain begun by Izaak Walton (with The Compleat Angler, 1653) and Charles Cotton.
Although he savored its challenge, excitement, and fun as much as anyone, Haig- Brown regarded fishing as a thinking person’s sport, and in writing his fishing essays he made thinking people his primary audience. Though fishermen made up a sizable portion of his actual audience, those fishermen who were content to pursue their sport without reflecting on what it had to offer beyond pleasant recreation remained secondary.
Technique, tackle, and the size of the catch were far less important to Haig-Brown than the insight to be had from a sport that was “more than a sport,” a sport that offered an “intimate exploration of a part of the world hidden from the eyes and minds of ordinary people…a way of thinking and doing, a way of reviving the mind and body …” (“The Art of Fishing,” 1951). Through the process of writing his essays, Haig-Brown’s exploration of fishing and the world of fish became an exploration of self as well, and as central to his achievement as the narrative and descriptive excellence, for which he is more often praised, is his success in articulating the psychological, philosophical, and spiritual significance fishing and nature held for him.
See also Nature Essay
Roderick Langmere Haig-Brown. Born 21 February 1908 in Lancing, Sussex, England.
Studied at Charterhouse, Godalming, Surrey. Emigrated to the United States, 1926, then to Canada, 1927. Worked as a logger, trapper, fisherman, and guide in Washington state and British Columbia, 1926–29. Married Ann Elmore, 1934: one son and three daughters.
Major in the Canadian Army, 1939–45. Provincial magistrate and judge, Campbell River Children’s and Family Court, British Columbia, 1942–75. Chancellor, University of Victoria, British Columbia, 1970–73. Also a frequent television broadcaster.
Canadian Library Association Book of the Year Medal, 1947, 1964; GovernorGeneral’s Citation, 1948; Crandell Conservation Trophy, 1955; Vicky Metcalf Award, for children’s book, 1966; honorary degree from the University of British Columbia. Died in Campbell River, British Columbia, 9 October 1976.
Essays and Related Prose
A River Never Sleeps, 1946
Measure of the Year, 1950
Fisherman’s Spring, 1951
Fisherman’s Winter, 1954
Fisherman’s Summer, 1959
Fisherman’s Fall, 1964
The Master and His Fish: From the World of Roderick Haig-Brown, edited by Valerie Haig-Brown, 1981
Writings and Reflections: From the World of Roderick Haig-Brown, edited by Valerie Haig-Brown, 1982
Other writings: three novels (Pool and Rapid, 1932; Timber, 1942; On the Highest Hill, 1949), a collection of short stories, ten books for children, and books about fishing.
Keith, W.J., “Roderick Haig-Brown,” Canadian Literature 71 (Winter 1976):7–20
Robertson, Anthony, Above Tide: Reflections on Roderick HaigBrown, Madeira Park, British Columbia: Harbour, 1984
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