by Terry Wieland
Every so often it occurs to me to remind readers that if they haven’t read any Robert Ruark in a while, it’s time to get one down off the shelf, and if they’ve never read Robert Ruark, it’s time to buy The Old Man and the Boy and get to it.
Some recipients of these website missives may not have even heard of Robert Ruark, a.k.a. Robert Chester Ruark, Jr., a.k.a., Bwana Bob. In which case, it’s high time they did.
For my money, Robert Ruark was the best outdoor writer the 20th century produced, which pretty much means he was the best of all time. Better than Faulkner, you ask? Better than Hemingway?
Yes, and yes. Better, even, than Jack O’Connor, on some things. Not rifles, of course, and he was hit and miss on shotguns, but for planting you down in a swamp with ducks falling all around, or eating yourself silly in a Louisiana bayou with a Cajun cook, or chasing bobwhites in the pouring rain of January — and having fun doing it — there was no one like him.
Robert Ruark was born in North Carolina in 1915, started college at Chapel Hill at 15, worked his way through during the Depression, then went into newspapers in Washington. He served in the Navy throughout the war, including the North Atlantic convoys, and after 1945 became, first, a syndicated columnist, then a novelist. He went to Africa on his first safari in 1951. Ruark’s account of this, Horn of the Hunter, is the best book ever written about a modern safari. On the strength of that, he began writing a monthly column for Field & Stream called “The Old Man and the Boy.”
The column was about his times growing up on the Carolina coast, hunting and fishing and learning about life with his grandfather. It lasted for years, to Ruark’s surprise, who found the material for it bubbling up out of him like a sweetwater spring. Men bought F&S for that column alone, as others bought Outdoor Life just for Jack O’Connor. And vast numbers bought both. Ruark was so important to F&S that they paid him the unheard-of sum of $1,500 a column — and this at a time when you could buy a Purdey for that amount and have money left over.
The Old Man columns were collected into an anthology in 1957, with a second volume following in 1961. The first book remained in print for decades.
Meanwhile, Ruark went from strength to strength. He was one of the most widely syndicated and influential columnists in the country, writing about everything from politics to women’s fashions. He wrote best-selling novels, starting with Something of Value, that made him rich. He bought a Rolls-Royce and a villa in Spain.
After his first safari, Africa became his second home and spiritual refuge. He wrote about hunting in other places — Alaska, Australia, India (where he was seriously mauled by a leopard) — but none of those had the same feel as his African stuff. It was said that he single-handedly created the post-war safari boom.
All was not well with Ruark, however. His drinking became serious, with the attendant health problems. He made a lot of money, but he spent more. His literary output was prodigious, but he still fell behind on deadlines, particularly for novels. In the end, he drank himself to death, dying in London in July, 1965. He was only 49 years old.
Oddly, his outdoor writing was considered a sideline, almost an indulgence, at the time (although he made a lot of money from it) but it’s this work that has lasted. The people who remember Ruark today are hunters and fishermen (and huntresses and fisher-women) and the books they most treasure are the two Old Man anthologies, Horn of the Hunter, and a later anthology of African stuff called Use Enough Gun. Of the novels, Something of Value (about the Mau Mau Emergency) and the later Uhuru (the better of the two, in my opinion) and the posthumous The Honey Badger (which, it seems, no one ever liked but me) are the ones to get.
If you’re interested in his life, there is a biography from 1990 by Hugh Foster (Someone of Value) and my own A View From A Tall Hill — Robert Ruark in Africa. Foster largely discounts Ruark’s outdoor writing, whereas I place it front, center, and foremost.
There are also posthumous anthologies of various descriptions, most compiled by his executors in an attempt to pay off debts.
If there is one story to look for, it’s “Leopard in the Rain,” one of the finest pieces on African hunting by anyone, ever. It’s certainly Ruark’s best, and it sums up everything he felt about Africa and, frankly, everything you need to know.
Gray’s shooting editor is an unapologetic fan of Ruark. But then, you probably guessed that. A View From A Tall Hill has just been reprinted in paperback by Skyhorse.