“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” I heard that idiom more than once as a student. An advisor routinely recommended that I study good authors’ writing styles and then mimic them in my papers. In time, he promised, my own style would emerge.
I remembered that idiom, when recently hearing about Robert Ruark, one of North Carolina’s — and the nation’s — best-known writers of the 20th century. Some critics belittled the Wilmington native as simply a “Hemingway spin-off.” Ruark admired Hemingway’s lifestyle and work, true, but that’s a simplistic and unfair characterization of the nationally known columnist and novelist.
On Dec. 29, 1915, Robert Ruark entered the world. As a 15-year-old, he enrolled at the University of North Carolina. At 19, he graduated with a journalism degree and started working for North Carolina papers, including Hamlet News Messenger and Sanford Herald.
Although Ruark never abandoned his love of small-town North Carolina, his writing ability and ambition soon led to larger opportunities. After serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II, the Tar Heel worked in Washington, D.C., as a columnist and a novelist. He wrote regularly for the Saturday Evening Post, Colliers, Esquire, and Field and Stream. His columns were republished in future book-length collections, including I Didn’t Know It Was Loaded (1948) and One for the Road (1949).
The Old Man and The Boy (1957) is a collection of his monthly Field and Stream columns. Americans enjoyed reading Ruark’s bucolic tales emphasizing nature and man’s interaction with it. The accounts of a grandfather and grandson’s friendship also appealed to Field and Stream’s wide readership.
Ruark was indeed a Hemingway fan. In 1953, he met the iconic American author in Spain and gusheingly wrote about it: “You will pardon a small boy’s enthusiasm for a current event, but the other day I sat with Ernest Hemingway to watch a bullfight in the same town he immortalized in … The Sun Also Rises.” That encounter sparked a friendship and future correspondence.
The North Carolinian in some ways imitated Hemingway, too. The Old Man and the Boy may well remind one of Santiago and the young boy in Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea. And Ruark, like Hemingway, was an outdoorsman who embarked on African safaris and used his real-life observations and travels as material for his novels such as Horn of a Hunter: The Story of an African Hunt (1953) and Something of Value (1955).
But readers appreciated Ruark’s wit and unique style. He could be homey and always appreciated the particular, as evidenced in The Old Man and the Boy. He recounts his boyhood experiences on the North Carolina coast and near Southport. There his grandfather taught him to train dogs, to hunt, and to fish, and used those lessons to school Ruark on bigger things such as compassion, integrity, and, well, life.
In these stories, vivid descriptions portray the rural North Carolina landscape and describe a crusty yet endearing grandfather. In his African novels, though, Ruark’s attention to detail shocked some readers who deemed his exhaustive descriptions too violent. Even so, with the African novel Something Of Value, Ruark earned more than a million dollars from royalties and later film rights. A 1957 movie of the same name starred Rock Hudson and Dana Wynter.
Few things, if any, in this world are outright new. People take what exists and add to it, improve it, or incorporate it into their current projects — whether it’s writing style, coaching basketball, or technology. I can’t imagine an iPad, for instance, being in existence today without the clunky Apple I personal computer kit of the late ’70s. What’s new has roots in the past.
Before I forget! If you want a good, beach read this summer, take a Robert Ruark work with you.