the over-educated precincts of the Five College community, hip-deep
as it is in novelists, biographers and historians, sports writing
ranks way down the literary pecking order, somewhere close to
e-mail traffic or publicity blurbs.
not seem to bother Will Ryan one bit. He enjoys his encounters
with Hampshire College students enrolled in classes he teaches
in creative writing in the social sciences and the history of
sports writing. Although he does not have an academic appointment,
he likes the niche he has carved out for himself. He said: "Iím
tickled pink. Thereís a lot of freedom. Iím lucky to do this."
he regards his own books on hunting and fishing and magazine essays
he writes on what he terms the "intersection" of culture
and sports as satisfying and challenging work.
because sports are fun, it doesnít mean that sports are not serious,"
he says. "Cultural tension comes up in sports, long before
they show up in the culture in general."
He has found that in their writing assignments for his courses
Hampshire students "feel passionately about their subject.
They write from their own experience. I try to avoid telling students
what not to write."
As if to reinforce his enthusiasm for his students and their approach
to sports writing, during a recent interview, Ryan read aloud
extensive sections from papers prepared for his class. As he read,
it was clear he relishes the work of the students. "What
I try to do is to teach kids how to do things, as much as what
to do. I think the more you care about what you write, the better
Of sports writing today, he said: "Itís good, itís very good,"
especially when it reveals what he refers to as that critical
fusion of sports and social issues or aspects of our cultural
Much of Ryanís own writing derives from his life-long embrace
of the outdoor life, especially as represented by fishing and
to a lesser extent now by hunting.
He has written two books on fishing and is working on a third,
this one about the history of black duck hunting. Over the years,
he has written numerous pieces for major hunting and fishing magazines,
- the Big Three - Outdoor Life, Field and Stream and Sports Afield
- and now does a regular column for "Grayís Sporting Journal,"
a slick quarterly.
His column for Grayís Quarterly is called Traditions, in which
he tracks down and edits sports-related pieces that are beyond
the 75-year copyright and thus can be reproduced, to which he
appends a 300-word personal essay or rumination.
One recent issue had a piece by the legendary writer of mysteries
Earle Stanley Gardner, who started out as a sports writer, on
bow hunting, which was first published in 1925.
Another recent piece was by Robert Barnwell Roosevelt - Theodore
Rooseveltís uncle - writing in 1866 about a pre-Civil War trip
to the New Jersey shore, which was one of the first pieces of
writing about the phenomenon that has come to be known as a "vacation."
Ryan says he spends a good deal of time at the UMass library looking
for appropriate pre-1927 material for the Traditions articles,
which try to illuminate that union where sports and civic life
or culture join.
Ryan, who lives in the Ryan Road section of Florence, grew up
in the upstate New York city of Watertown, a region best known
for its awesome snow accumulations and as the home of the late
cult writer Frederick Exley.
Now 51, Ryanís formative years were shaped by the outdoors in
a rural area where his father, a teacher, raised bird dogs and
his mother, also a teacher, came from a farm family. He occasionally
still goes fishing and sometimes hunting with kids he knows from
the first grade. His affection for his hometown even extends to
his e-mail address: wtownwill.
Eventually. he headed off to college at the University of Vermont
where he also earned a masterís degree in education. He taught
at Johnson State College in Johnson, Vt. for a few years and also
at a high school. But more importantly he also started writing
a biweekly fishing column for a small newspaper back in Malone,
N.Y., at $5 per article.
By 1978, he had begun graduate work at UMass where he came under
the influence of the noted historian and biographer Stephen Oates,
author of a number of important books in the field of American
Of Oates, Ryan says: "He showed me you can write serious
material for a general audience."
By then, Ryan had gotten a part-time job in the writing center
at Hampshire College and also worked for a year as a writing counselor
at Smith College.
He also had started to sell his own work to the sports magazines
and that aspect of his professional life took shape as well, which
resulted in two books published by Lyons Press, one titled "Fly
Fishing for Small-Mouth Bass," the other, "Northern
He believes that the market for fishing books is more or less
saturated since the movie version of Norman Macleanís classic
"The River Runs Through It," which was the watershed
for interest in fishing.
This seems to be the case for Ryan as well, who says he goes fishing
perhaps only 40 or 50 times a year. "Thirty years ago, I
fished 300 days a year," he said.
Of this area, he declares: "Itís lousy fishing, it stinks,"
except perhaps for the bass fishing at Quabbin Reservoir. When
he feels the urge, he travels to Marthaís Vineyard, Lake Champlain,
the Thousand Islands, the Adirondacks and Canada for his fishing
outings. "I like to fish with friends," he says, "
itís more about relationships."
loses itís appeal as you get older," he said. Also, especially
in the Five College area, "people look at you like youíre
a criminal if you have a gun in your hand." This anti-hunting
bias combined with the lack of open land locally simply means,
he explains, "I donít feel like hunting here. It feels artificial."
For those of us completely untutored in the lure of hunting, it
is rewarding to go to Ryanís essay titled ĎWater and Stoneí in
the 1998 book, "Windward Crossings, a Treasury of Original
Waterfowling Tales." In that graceful piece Ryan describes
both past and present circumstances of duck hunting with long-time
friends on the shoreline of Lake Ontario.
Of huntingís appeal, Ryan writes: "When you are twenty years
old and immortal, the possibilities for hunting remain unbound
in time, stretch in front of you like the open lake, appear infinite
like the shelf-rock shoreline that wraps around the bays and covers."
But, tourism and development have intruded and "landscapes
change - slowly maybe, subtly, but absolutely." His final
lament: "The future is clear ... the days of the shoreline
hunter are about over around here."
Ryan finds that students at Hampshire have a strong interest in
sports because they are young enough not to romanticize the past,
yet they donít overlook the greed that is at the heart of so much
of professional sports today. In other words, Ryan says, students
seem to be clear-eyed, "about what larger ways there are
to think about sports."
Inevitably, the question that is posed to Ryan is who are the
writers and what sports stories should command our attention,
if not our respect.
The list is not short, he suggests: Thereís Gay Taleseís 1966
Esquire piece on Joe DiMaggio, which set the standard for the
new genre of sports writing; Grantland Rice is "really important,"
as is Red Smith and Jimmy Cannon, both newspaper columnists; W.C.
Heinz, who looked behind the hero myth; Al Stump, whose 1961 piece
on Ty Cobb is a classic; H.G. Bissingerís "Friday Night Lights;"
the patrician George Plimpton, who balanced an appreciation of
sports with exquisite literary sensitivity. It was Plimpton, who
once observed: "The smaller the ball, the better the writing."
Ryan also likes John Feinstein on coach Bobby Knight, New Yorker
editor David Remnick writing about Mohammed Ali, and perhaps most
recently, David Marannisís book about Vince Lombardi, "When
Pride Still Mattered," and Laura Hillenbran on the racehorse
And from an earlier period, Mike Lupica on Tony C.; John Updike
on Ted Williamsí last game at Fenway Park, and Sports Illustratedís
William Nack on Secretariat.