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Confessions of a Biographer

By Rex Bowman

Photography by Justin Flythe

Several years ago a good friend and I decided to write a book together. The idea wasn’t altogether cockamamie: Despite his cranky disposition and my general laziness, we had enjoyed some previous success as co-authors of a history book, and we hoped to repeat that achievement, this time with a biography.

Our subject was the almost completely forgotten American writer and foreign correspondent James Scott Negley Farson. His allure was, for sundry reasons, overpowering. First, my buddy and I were former newspapermen (remember newspapers?), and we relished the idea of resurrecting the reputation of a fellow journalist. Second, nobody remembered Farson, which made him an ideal biographical subject; who, after all, remembered Louis Zamperini before Laura Hillenbrand wrote the marvelous Unbroken? Third, Farson had written several books that were popular in their time, including one titled Going Fishing that is occasionally hailed as the greatest volume on fishing ever written, at least among that offbeat tribe of anglers who also appreciate good literature. My cantankerous friend and co-writer—his name is Carlos—is a keen fly fisherman himself (he builds his own fly rods and sighs heavily whenever I refer to them as “fishing poles”), and he loved Farson’s book. The fact that Farson had written it was all we really knew about the man beyond his journalism when we decided to write his life story.

What we soon learned about Farson gave us the fourth and most important reason to write about him: he had lived an incredibly exciting and adventurous life, traversing continents, staring down death and pretty much doing as he pleased, inviting nine-to-fivers to kiss his keister. As I said, Carlos and I knew none of this at first. We only knew that Farson had written a damned good book about his fights with trout and salmon on various continents.

Farson’s contemporaries could not have conceived that his action-packed life would be so utterly unknown today. Born in 1890 in Plainfield, New Jersey, he was a champion collegiate athlete who used his incredible strength to muscle his way through life, despite a leg injury that required two dozen surgeries. An expert fly fisherman and skilled sailor, he flew as a pilot in World War I, lived as a survivalist in the wilds of British Columbia, crossed South America and Africa by any means available, was nearly killed in both Russia and Egypt, and lived through revolution in India, earthquake in Africa, and bombing in London. He wrote riveting newspaper articles and bestselling books about the things he had seen, the scrapes he had survived.

Carlos and I knew none of this when we started. Preliminary research (i.e., Universität Google) revealed that Farson had not only been a foreign correspondent but had written more than a dozen books over four decades of the twentieth century. Several of the books were bestsellers. More digging turned up the first real surprise: between the world wars Farson was famous, internationally. He was, as one newspaper put it, once as well-known as Ernest Hemingway; in fact, whenever reviewers of his work searched for a contemporary to compare him to, they almost always invoked Hemingway’s name.

When we read the memoir Farson wrote in 1935, The Way of a Transgressor, the book that rocketed him to fame, we asked ourselves, in disbelief, how can a man this renowned be so completely forgotten, today? How is it even possible? Carlos and I determined that our biography would attempt to restore Farson to his rightful place in the pantheon of American writers.

Perhaps it’s not typical to decide to write a biography about a writer before you’ve even finished reading his life’s work, but Carlos and I felt we knew enough already: the man had once been a sensation, and he was now forgotten. Who wouldn’t want to read about him, to reconnect with a lost piece of American history?

Our writing routine was to meet on weekends at Carlos’s cabin in the wooded hills of western Virginia. On Friday nights near a warm stove, over whisky or martinis, and sometimes both (and always the cheap stuff), we would compare notes about what we had learned separately about Farson during the week. On Saturday mornings, after a breakfast of scrambled eggs and bacon, we would take a leisurely walk half a mile down a dirt road, chatting about Farson and his exploits all along the way, then return to the cabin, refreshed, and start writing.

After eight or nine hours of arguing over words, sentences, and paragraphs, we would stop and eat dinner, then reward ourselves for the day’s labor by drinking more whisky and martinis, and occasionally bourbon. It was a fun way to write a book, but a lengthy one, one which lasted three years.

I mention all the booze in the context of writing Farson’s biography only as a prelude to this: while reading Farson’s books and learning of his fascinating travels, and poring over his letters and his notebooks as well as those of his wife, we learned that, not only was Farson a gifted correspondent and a bold traveler, he was also a drunk. And a drunk of the worst kind—unstoppably garrulous, implacably argumentative, psychologically wretched. By the end of his life, his wife—Bram Stoker’s niece, Eve—had taken to hiding her bottles of cooking sherry from him.

As Carlos and I drank our way through the writing of Farson’s increasingly liquor-fueled life, we often paused and reflected on the parallels between him and us. Simply put, we were writing and then drinking, and so had he. But we had limits—our drinks were rewards for enduring long, tense hours together crafting prose; our drinking was not an escape from life’s pressures or trauma. It was celebratory: when you write 3,000 good words in one day, you feel you’ve earned the right to pull a cork.

It was different for Farson. He had pressure and trauma in spades. And for some tragic reason, he did not have limits, or if he had them, he blew through them blindly. After racing to meet a deadline to file a dispatch to his newspaper, the Chicago Daily News, he would down four double whiskies, a staggering amount for even the most entrenched alcoholics. He wrote his bestselling memoir between bouts of drunkenness. His alcoholism gave a tragic dimension to his life story, an inevitable end to his literary trajectory.

A contemporary of the Lost Generation—though he never met Hemingway, he once got drunk with F. Scott Fitzgerald, who admitted to envying Farson’s adventuresome lifestyle—Farson sank into oblivion, his books largely forgotten, his name no longer mentioned in the same sentence as the Lost Generation’s luminaries. As Carlos and I dove deeper into our research (we traveled as far afield as England and Austria and Wyoming), Farson’s life transformed before our eyes, from the tale of rugged and fun adventure he spun in his clear prose to a life of struggle and grit and ultimate decline. What was for the most part hidden between the lines of Farson’s text became clear to us the more we kept him under our microscope. A fascinating man, he became even more interesting, his accomplishments more admirable. The Farson that emerged was a fighter, an alcoholic who brawled against his demons until they overwhelmed and killed him. But by the time they did him in, he was 70, with nothing left to prove. In a sense, he outlasted them.

Farson began writing for the Chicago Daily News in 1925 by barreling into the publisher’s office and announcing that he planned to sail clear across Europe by using a little-known canal that connected the Rhine and Danube rivers. Along the way, he said, he would write dispatches and send them to the newspaper; if the public liked them, he would accept a job at the newspaper.

Amazingly, the publisher agreed, and Farson and Eve set out from Rotterdam in a 26-foot yawl. But the secret canal proved to be choked with weeds; Farson ended up tying a rope around his waist and pulling the boat roughly one hundred miles uphill. Months later, the boat shot into the Black Sea, helmed by a triumphant Farson. Readers loved the dispatches, and for the next ten years Farson worked as a foreign correspondent based in London.

During Farson’s time at the newspaper, the Daily News had perhaps the best foreign desk in the world. One of its reporters, Paul Scott Mowrer, had won the first Pulitzer Prize for foreign correspondence in 1929. Mowrer’s brother Edgar, also a Daily News scribe and based in Berlin, won the prize in 1933. Another of the newspaper’s stars, Edward Price Bell, would eventually be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. Another, John Gunther, would, like Farson, achieve fame for his travel books, and his book Death Be Not Proud is a classic.

Even among such a congeries of talented legends, Farson stood out. His colleagues remembered him as a hero of a Byron poem, or as a protagonist in an O. Henry story. He was tall and powerfully built, and an overt contempt for authority made him an excellent foreign correspondent. He traveled to India to chat with Gandhi and briefly lived in Germany under Hitler, in Russia under Stalin, and in Italy under Mussolini. He spent weeks on a whaling ship in the north Atlantic, rode a donkey across the Pyrenees and through Spain, and traveled on horseback into the Caucasus mountains, where he nearly froze to death.

He wrote stories of his travels that focused on the people and places he saw, but little pieces of his personality occasionally peeped out. With each new detail about Farson that we uncovered, Carlos and I admired him more.

Farson quit the newspaper in 1935, refusing to return to the Chicago office because he thought the owner was punishing him for his drinking excess. For by then he was a self-acknowledged alcoholic. With no job and desperate for money, he stayed sober long enough to write The Way of a Transgressor. And suddenly he had not just money, but fame.

He followed up with more travel books: Transgressor in the Tropics, about his trip from barstool to barstool across South America (where he suffered the cliched fate of the cartoonish alcoholic, waking up with a tattoo on his arm with no recollection how it got there); Behind God’s Back, about his nearly successful attempt to stay sober while crossing Africa; and Caucasian Journey, about his failed attempt to cross the Caucasus along a long-forgotten footpath. Another book, Bomber’s Moon, contained Farson’s eye-witness account of the German bombing of London during World War II. Going Fishing came out in 1941 and became an instant hit among American G.I.s fighting overseas. Another memoir, A Mirror for Narcissus, came out several years before his death in 1960; in it Farson finally revealed the depth of his alcoholism and detailed the attempts he had made over the years, in various institutions and rehabilitation clinics, to overcome it.

Reading Farson’s books, including two novels that are good but not great, along with his and his wife’s despairing letters and journals, Carlos and I saw clearly that here was an American writer who could have been so much more. His fame declined as his alcoholism deepened. He continued to travel into his late 60s but could no longer write about his trips. He moved away from London to the lonely shores of Devon, hopeful that living in isolation along the Irish Sea would help him stay sober. But he began to haunt the local pubs and drink his wife’s cooking sherry. She came home one day to find him happily drunk—he had found a forgotten bottle of liquor in an old suitcase. He died in an armchair on December 13, 1960. He had spent the day tying labels on his luggage, preparing for another trip.

By drinking so much, so uncontrollably, Farson cheated himself out of a measure of lasting fame. But his books still hold up—The Way of a Transgressor is still a racy yarn; Going Fishing is hypnotic; Caucasian Journey is a funny and warm book about a hard trek through a menacing landscape; and Sailing Across Europe is an armchair traveler’s delight, a perfect companion on a long winter’s evening. But it was Farson’s physicality and not his writing that lay at the heart of his celebrity. He sailed into raging waters, endured howling winds and pouring rain, and climbed mountains deep in snow, and his unadorned accounts enthralled readers. His endeavors were physical, not literary. When he stopped taking on physical challenges, when the alcoholism made it too difficult for him to test his mettle, he lost the subject matter he needed to bring out his best as a writer.

When Carlos and I finally finished writing our biography of this untamed man, the title we settled on was this: Almost Hemingway: The Adventures of Negley Farson, Foreign Correspondent. The title, we felt, contains both the tragic, “almost,” as well as the triumph, “adventures.” Few writers have ventured as boldly as Farson did, few adventurers have written as finely. Farson deserves his place in the pantheon. Modern readers should raise a glass in his honor. His biographers have.

~~~

Almost Hemingway: The Adventures of Negley Farson, Foreign Correspondent

by Rex Bowman and Carlos Santos

University of Virginia Press $29.95

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Rex Bowman is a writer and co-author, along with Carlos Santos, of Almost Hemingway: The Adventures of Negley Farson, Foreign Correspondent, to be published in the fall of 2021 by the University of Virginia Press. His writing has appeared in various journals, including The Smart Set, Literary Yard, Modern Literature, and Literary Heist. He was a reporter for the Richmond Times-Dispatch for more than a decade.

I'm a writer, editor, and blogger. My fiction has appeared in CutBank, Carve, Sou'wester, and elsewhere and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. My articles and profiles appear in university magazines and other publications. I earned an MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University and am the associate editor of Parhelion Literary Magazine out of Richmond. An Ohio native, I'm at work on a novel and short stories set in the Rust Belt, and I hype Midwestern authors at my blog, Rust Belt Girl.

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