The hunting story that begins on page 108 isn't your everyday account of a day or two in the field pursuing the elusive little woodcock. It does not begin as you might expect—in a pickup truck, say, on a country lane at dawn. The first scene of William Humphrey's story takes place in the foyer of the Metropolitan Opera House during a performance of Verdi's Don Carlo, a not untypical beginning for a Humphrey outdoor piece. An earlier story of his on salmon fishing (SI, July 16, 1979) began in Place Vend√¥me in Paris with Charles Ritz, the late owner of the Ritz Hotel. Humphrey has indeed come a long way from Clarksville, Texas. Humphrey's latest book, The Collected Stories, has just been published by Delacorte, and his earlier works include such acclaimed novels as The Ordways and Home From The Hill (which was made into a movie starring Robert Mitchum) and the nonfiction Farther Off From Heaven, a reminiscence of his Texas boyhood that has been called one of the best memoirs in American literature.
Humphrey was born in Clarksville in 1924. In 1937, after the death of his father (the central figure of Farther Off From Heaven), he and his mother moved to Dallas, where at 14 he fell under the spell of a secondhand bookstore. For a nickel he bought a copy of Don Quixote because he had decided, with the earnestness of youth, that it was time to improve his mind. "I read it," says Humphrey, now 61, "and to my astonishment, it was great. It's still my favorite book." He went back for more and got a job in the store. Much later, he wrote a five-act comedy ("just to see if I could do it") and left for New York with hopes of having it produced on Broadway. Although that didn't work out, he's had other long-running successes: On his 21st birthday he eloped with a painter named Dorothy Feinman, who has been his wife for 40 years. They live in Hudson, N.Y.
Scrambling to make a living, Humphrey once worked as a goatherd in New York State while writing on the side. He sold short stories to literary magazines, lectured at Vassar and taught writing for nine years at Bard College. He had his first big success with Home From The Hill, then devoted all his time to writing.
Well, not all his time. He hunted and fished a great deal and wove his reactions to those pastimes into his work. At the end of the woodcock story, Humphrey speaks of the odd but genuine affection the hunter feels for his prey. Yet he doesn't fall into the trap of trying to rationalize the satisfaction he and so many others derive from hunting and fishing. "You don't have to explain it to some," he says, "and to others you can't."
October 13, 1985
This article is the ninth of Humphrey's stories to grace our pages, and we're pleased to learn that all nine will be included in Open Season, a collection of his outdoor pieces that will be published by Delacorte next year.