It’s no fish ye’re buyin, its men’s lives. -Sir Walter Scott
That short quote captures the essence of Men’s Lives, Peter Matthiessen’s excellent book about Long Island fishermen and the Long Island fishing industry, in a single sentence.
If you like fishing, Long Island history, nostalgia, or are one of those people who can’t get enough of sand, sea and surf, then Men’s Lives is a book you might enjoy.
It is filled with long, quoted passages from interviews with old time baymen along with Mr. Matthiessen’s insightful commentary.
The hard cover edition is wonderfully illustrated with old photographs, maps, and drawings of fish and the tools of the trade.
Peter Matthiessen is an extraordinary writer and was a Long Island fisherman himself. He tells this story like only a fisherman can, reporting, reminiscing and documenting the lost art, science and history of earning a living from what you can haul out of the sea.
Many people have called Men’s Lives an elegy and I believe that description is accurate. The Long Island fisheries have been waning one way or another since the oyster beds were wiped out in the early 1900’s and as the fisheries go, so do the baymen.
From the preface:
But Men’s Lives is not some teary-eyed tale designed to make us feel sorry for these guys.
More than just a elegy it is a deep, detailed and accurate history of the surfmen and baymen of Long Island’s south fork (i.e. The Hamptons).
Matthiessen starts in the 1600’s and brings us through the years right into the present. Chapter titles like:
are appetizers for the meat within and a thoughtful epilog wraps it all up.
The book is profusely footnoted and the notes themselves make interesting reading.
Men’s Lives was first published on 1986 and is now somewhat hard to get. You can usually find copies in your local public library or used on the Internet.
Both hard cover and soft cover editions (below) are usually available and I strongly recommend the hardcover edition for the larger print, photographs and illustrations.
I actually have both: hard cover for the coffee table and soft cover for the nightstand.
The Surfmen and Baymen of the South Fork
By Peter Matthiessen
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