Robert Traver: Anatomy of a Fisherman
The eight nudists arrested near Battle Creek, Michigan, had an advocate in the novelist and fishing writer Robert Traver. His disapproval fell not upon them but upon the police officers involved in the arrests. He called one of them a “deputized window-peeper” and pronounced the entire search-and-arrest process “indecent—indeed the one big indecency we find in this whole case. . . . It seems that we are now prepared to burn down the house of constitutional safeguards in order to roast a few nudists. I will have none of it.”
But Traver was writing in this instance under his given name, John D. Voelker, and in his capacity as a justice of the Michigan Supreme Court. The year was 1958, and the unconventionally stylish opinion was one of a hundred he wrote during his three years on the bench.
Which is to say that not even as a judge could Traver be made to write a flat sentence. Toward the end of his life he said that the “average judicial opinion is among the dullest and murkiest reading in the world. . . . For every Holmes or Cardozo, who at their best wrote a kind of luminous legal poetry, there are a thousand judges who appear to write with their feet.” And again he would have none of it. In one opinion he called a driver injured in a auto race “an impresario of this amiable form of public suicide”; of a faulty legislature he said, “it made a mistake, an error in draftsmanship—in plain American idiom, someone pulled a boner.”
So when John Voelker wrote as Robert Traver (“I wrote as Robert Traver so that the Marquette County voters wouldn’t think I was writing novels on company time”), there was nary a trace of the dullness and murk he abominated. You can’t get more than a paragraph into any of Traver’s books without knowing immediately that a stream of pleasing wit awaits you, that behind the words there’s a man with whom to share a stretch of water and, later, a drink and a well-wrought joke, told in the high wry manner of someone who knows that spinning yarns, like fly-fishing, is a kind of legalized deceit.
For example, eight pages into one of his very best books, Trout Madness: Being a Dissertation on the Symptoms and Pathology of this Incurable Disease by One of its Victims (1960), we read about a snow storm that interrupts opening week of the trout fishing season:
I awoke to hear the blizzard screaming insanely outside. “Whee-e-e-e . . .” I crept downstairs in my bathrobe and drew every shade in the place, lit a roaring fire in the Franklin stove, built a foot-high highball, put on a mile-long piano concerto by Delius, and settled down with a book about hunting in Africa by a guy named, of all things, John A. Hunter. . . . Was charmed to learn that the pygmies of the Ituri forest cure eye infections by urinating in the bad eye.
Any reader with proper appetites understands that this is a writer worth knowing, even if he does live in a place that’s “nine months winter and three months bad sleighing.”
Bad sleighing notwithstanding, place mattered a great deal to Robert Traver, who lasted only three years in a Chicago law practice before returning home to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (U.P.), home of “three of nature’s noblest creations: the ruffled grouse, the white-tailed deer, and the brook trout.” His devotion to place is ubiquitous. In Trout Madness he laments the discovery of the U.P. by “canny lumber and steel barons” who “doggedly hacked and clawed away at it for generations.” But Traver also exalts in its “brooding hills and gloomy swamps and endless waterways,” its wildlife, and its people, most of whom hail from the north: “Finns, Scandinavians, French Canadians, with a generous sprinkling of the ubiquitous Irish.” Rhapsodically he declares that the U.P. “is one of the best hunting and fishing areas in the United States.”
But in typical Traver fashion the affection, like so much else that goes into his work, has also been used to set up a joke. Having worried that his writing about the U.P. might lead to a tourist invasion, he works himself into a momentary solace: “the people who might find and deflower my native heath rarely hold still long enough to read books.”
And, I may ruefully add, they seem to have developed a special resistance to reading fishing books, like books of poetry, and somewhat like mosquitoes that finally learn to thrive on D.D.T. Apparently all that these people will willingly read are billboards, speedometers, funny books, road maps, and signs proclaiming more Kozy Kabins five hundred yards ahead. They obediently race through here all summer long, sightlessly hissing along their labeled channels of concrete, bent only upon making five hundred miles a day, an achievement which somehow seems to ease the peculiar nature of their pain.
Here is a man whose enemies even an inattentive reader may divine and learn equally to despise: the rootless unsuspecting victims of “progress” bent on looking at the refulgent world through the falsifying lens of a Land camera.
Traver’s sense of place is even more localized in Danny and the Boys (1951). The book is an odd but entertaining collection of “legends”—peppered with passages of gut-splitting Finnish and Scandinavian dialect—based on a small band of loafers gathered about one “Danny McGinnis” (also mentioned by the narrator of the book for which Traver is best known, Anatomy of a Murder ). These men, Traver proudly announces, lived as they pleased, which is to say they lived apart and were indifferent to almost everything, especially work, but carefully attentive to life’s necessities: fishing, hunting, mischief, and homemade moonshine. Their associates include Big Annie and her ladies of ill-repute and the denizens of a local tavern, Charlie’s Place.
If they are sometimes too familiar with the slammer, that is because after uncharacteristic momentary prosperity (from ill-advised enterprises both legal and not), they have a weakness for a certain whiskey that goes by the agreeable name “Old Cordwood.” “Local characters have always fascinated me,” Traver said, “and that’s what this book is all about. Perhaps my natural curiosity was aided by the privileged advantage of often being able to study them in a special research laboratory usually denied lads of my age, namely, the inner precincts of my father’s busy saloon on downtown Main Street, especially on pay days.” He lamented that “local characters seem to be getting as scarce as passenger pigeons, passenger trains, and old passenger depots that haven’t long since been bulldozed to oblivion or else converted into fancy gift or antique shops.” He wrote Danny and the Boys to make something of the fact that “in our time there still dwells a group of men who live as they do because they choose to.”
Traver began writing tales about his place and “its heady mixture of peoples” long before he
learned to spell cat without a k, once even wining a prize in the sixth grade for a story entitled, of all things, “Lost All Nite Alone in a Swomp with a Bare.” The prize was three green apples grown in the yard of our teacher, sweet patient Miss Fisher, though my boyhood pal Fritz Ludlow had other views. “After a title like that,” he sniffed, “about all you really needed to add was ‘woof!’”
Born to Roman Catholic parents in 1903 in Ishpeming, Michigan, John D. Voelker was encouraged to write by his mother, Annie (Traver) Voelker, a school teacher. (His father belonged to a family of successful saloonkeepers and brewers.) Voelker attended Northern Michigan Normal School (now Northern Michigan University, where his papers are kept) and the University of Michigan School of Law. He was admitted to the Michigan bar in 1928 and, after practicing law privately, worked from 1934–1952 as prosecuting attorney in Marquette County, Michigan. In 1954 he ran for Congress but was defeated in the Democratic primary. From 1957–1960 he served as an appointed, then twice-reelected, justice of the Supreme Court. His first book, one of more than a dozen he would publish, did not appear until he was 40; at 53 he published his first novel, Anatomy of a Murder, which enjoyed 29 weeks atop the New York Times bestseller list and was made into a successful film shot on location in Marquette, with Jimmy Stewart cast in the leading role. Anatomy of a Murder made Voelker a wealthy man and ultimately allowed him to retire from the Supreme Court: “While other lawyers may write my opinions,” he said upon retirement, “they can scarcely write my books.”
Traver’s books bear the stamp of a true localist: admiration for independent people, a suspicion of government and “progress” (Traver opposed construction of the Mackinac Bridge, which men made to join what God had put asunder), and especially a pervasive anti-militarism. In Danny and the Boys the “Big Dead [river] flows on and on as it did when the clan Ferguson foraged for food with the aid of clubs, and just as it will continue to flow when men have at length disappeared from the battered earth—have hurled their last bolts of hate and fear at each other across the screaming skies.” In Trout Madness the author pauses near Klipple Pond, looks up at the “bald ‘selectively’ logged hill,” and at length regretfully concludes that “he too was of the same species of lordly men who still stupidly fought each other days without end.” Such a spot, Traver remarks, probably hadn’t changed much at all and “would probably remain much the same after restless man, whose wisdom appeared unable to keep up with his brains, finally joined hands with his fellows and soared heavenward, propelled thence by the marvels of nuclear fission.”
Voelker died of a heart attack at age 87; he was found slouched over the steering wheel of the “fishing car” to which he had devoted an entire chapter in Trout Madness. One of his admirers, the television journalist Charles Kuralt, of all people, remarked that the man who wrote as Robert Traver was “the nearest thing to a great man I’ve ever known.”
Jason Peters is associate professor of English at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois. His work has appeared in the Sewanee Review, South Atlantic Quarterly, English Language Notes, Explicator, American Notes and Queries, Christianity and Literature, First Principles, Orion, and the Journal of Religion and Society. He is also the editor of Wendell Berry: Life and Work (University Press of Kentucky 2007).
Posted: November 29, 2008 in Essays.
The Achievement of Irving Babbitt
Volume 2, Number 1 (Autumn 1961)