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Christopher Morley, ed. (1890–1957). Modern Essays. 1921.

The Fish Reporter

Robert Cortes Holliday

  • This informal commentary on the picturesque humors of trade journalism is typical of Mr. Holliday’s great skill in capturing the actual vibration of urban life. He has something of George Gissing’s taste for the actuality of city scenes and characters, with rather more pungent idiosyncrasy in his manner of self-expression. Careful observers of the art of writing will see how much shrewd skill there is in the apparently unstudied manner. One of Mr. Holliday’s favorite discussions on the art of writing is a phrase of Booth Tarkington’s—“How to get the ink out of it.” In other words, how to strip away mere literary and conscious adornment, and to get down to a translucent portraiture of life itself in its actual contour and profile.
  • We are told that Mr. Holliday, in his native Indianapolis (where he was born in 1880), was a champion bicycle rider at the age of sixteen. That triumph, however, was not permanently satisfying, for he came to New York in 1899 to study art; lived for a while, precariously, as an illustrator; worked for several years as a bookseller in Charles Scribner’s retail store, and passed through all sorts of curious jobs on Grub Street, among others book reviewer on the Tribune and Times. He was editor of The Bookman after that magazine was taken over by the George H. Doran Company, and retired to the genteel dignity of “contributing editor” in 1920, to obtain leisure for more writing of his own.
  • Mr. Holliday has the genuine gift of the personal essay, mellow, fluent, and pleasantly eccentric. His Walking-Stick Papers, Broome Street Straws, Turns about Town and Peeps at People have that charming rambling humor that descends to him from his masters in this art, Hazlitt and Thackeray. When Mr. Holliday was racking his wits for a title for Men and Books and Cities that odd Borrovian chronicle of his mind, body and digestion on tour across the continent) I suggested The Odyssey of an Oddity. He deprecated this; but I still think it would have been a good title, because strictly true.

  • MEN of genius, blown by the winds of chance, have been, now and then, mariners, bar-keeps, schoolmasters, soldiers, politicians, clergymen, and what not. And from these pursuits have they sucked the essence of yarns and in the setting of these activities found a flavor to stir and to charm hearts untold. Now, it is a thousand pities that no man of genius has ever been a fish reporter. Thus has the world lost great literary treasure, as it is highly probable that there is not under the sun any prospect so filled with the scents and colors of story as that presented by the commerce in fish.

    Take whale oil. Take the funny old buildings on Front Street, out of paintings, I declare, by Howard Pyle, where the large merchants in whale oil are. Take salt fish. Do you know the oldest salt-fish house in America, down by Coenties Slip? Ah! you should. The ghost of old Long John Silver, I suspect, smokes an occasional pipe in that old place. And many are the times I’ve seen the slim shade of young Jim Hawkins come running out. Take Labrador cod for export to the Mediterranean lands or to Porto Ricovia New York. Take herrings brought to this port from Iceland, from Holland, and from Scotland; mackerel from Ireland, from the Magdalen Islands, and from Cape Breton; crabmeat from Japan; fishballs from Scandinavia; sardines from Norway and from France; caviar from Russia; shrimp which comes from Florida, Mississippi, and Georgia, or salmon from Alaska, and Puget Sound, and the Columbia River.

    Take the obituaries of fishermen. “In his prime, it is said, there was not a better skipper in the Gloucester fishing fleet.” Take disasters to schooners, smacks, and trawlers. “The crew were landed, but lost all their belongings.” New vessels, sales, etc. “The sealing schooner Tillie B., whose career in the South Seas is well known, is reported to have been sold to a moving- picture firm.” Sponges from the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico. “To most people, familiar only with the sponges of the shops, the animal as it comes from the sea would be rather unrecognizable.” Why, take anything you please! It is such stuff as stories are. And as you eat your fish from the store how little do you reck of the glamor of what you are doing!

    However, as it seems to me unlikely that a man of genius will be a fish reporter shortly I will myself do the best I can to paint the tapestry of the scenes of his calling. The advertisement in the newspaper read: “Wanted—Reporter for weekly trade paper.” Many called, but I was chosen. Though, doubtless, no man living knew less about fish than I.

    The news stands are each like a fair, so laden are they with magazines in bright colors. It would seem almost as if there were a different magazine for every few hundred and seven-tenth person, as the statistics put these matters. And yet, it seems, there is a vast, a very vast, periodical literature of which we, that is, magazine readers in general, know nothing whatever. There is, for one, that fine, old, standard publication, Barrel and Box, devoted to the subjects and the interests of the coopering industry; there is too, The Dried Fruit Packer and Western Canner, as alert a magazine as one could wish—in its kind; and from the home of classic American literature comes The New England Tradesman and Grocer. And so on. At the place alone where we went to press twenty-seven trade journals were printed every week, from one for butchers to one for bankers.

    The Fish Industries Gazette—Ah, yes! For some reason not clear (though it is an engaging thing, I think) the world “gazette” is the great word among the titles of trade journals. There are The Jewellers’ Gazette and The Women’s Wear Gazette and The Poulterers’ Gazette (of London), and The Maritime Gazette (of Halifax), and other gazettes quite without number. This word “gazette” makes its appeal, too, curiously enough, to those who christen country papers; and trade journals have much of the intimate charm of country papers. The “trade” in each case is a kind of neighborly community, separated in its parts by space, but joined in unity of sympathy. “Personals” are a vital feature of trade papers. “Walter Conner, who for some time has conducted a bakery and fish market at Hudson, N. Y., has removed to Fort Edward, leaving his brother Ed in charge at the Hudson place of business.”

    The Fish Industries Gazette, as I say, was one of several in its field, in friendly rivalry with The Oyster Trade and Fisherman and The Pacific Fisheries. It comprised two departments: the fresh fish and oyster department, and myself. I was, as an editorial announcement said at the beginning of my tenure of office, a “reorganization of our salt, smoked, and pickled fish department.” The delectable, mellow spirit of the country paper, so removed from the crash and whirr of metropolitan journalism, rested in this, too, that upon the Gazette I did practically everything on the paper except the linotyping. Reporter, editorial writer, exchange editor, make-up man, proof-reader, correspondent, advertisement solicitor, was I.

    As exchange editor, did I read all the papers in the English language in eager search of fish news. And while you are about the matter, just find me a finer bit of literary style evoking the romance of the vast wastes of the moving sea, in Stevenson, Defoe, anywhere you please, than such a news item as this: “Capt. Ezra Pound, of the bark Elnora, of Salem, Mass., spoke a lonely vessel in latitude this and longitude that, September 8. She proved to be the whaler Wanderer, and her captain said that she had been nine months at sea, that all on board were well, and that he had stocked so many barrels of whale oil.”

    As exchange editor was it my business to peruse reports from Eastport, Maine, to the effect that one of the worst storms in recent years had destroyed large numbers of the sardine weirs there. To seek fish recipes, of such savory sound as those for “broiled redsnapper,” “shrimps bordelaise,” and “baked fish croquettes.” To follow fishing conditions in the North Sea occasioned by the Great War. To hunt down jokes of piscatory humor. “The man who drinks like a fish does not take kindly to water.—Exchange.” To find other “fillers” in the consular reports and elsewhere: “Fish culture in India,” “1800 Miles in a Dory,” “Chinese Carp for the Philippines,” “Americans as Fish Eaters.” And, to use a favorite term of trade papers, “etc., etc.” Then to “paste up” the winnowed fruits of this beguiling research.

    As editorial writer, to discuss the report of the commission recently sent by congress to the Pribilof Islands, Alaska, to report on the condition of our national herd of fur seals; to discuss the official interpretation here of the Government ruling on what constitutes “boneless” codfish; to consider the campaign in Canada to promote there a more popular consumption of fish, and to brightly remark à propos of this that “a fish a day keeps the doctor away”; to review the current issue of The Journal of the Fisheries Society of Japan, containing leading articles on “Are Fishing Motor Boats Able to Encourage in Our Country” and “Fisherman the Late Mr. H. Yamaguchi Well Known”; to combat the prejudice against dogfish as food, a prejudice like that against eels, in some quarters eyed askance as “calling cousins with the great seaserpent,” as Juvenal says; to call attention to the doom of one of the most picturesque monuments in the story of fish, the passing of the pleasant and celebrated old Trafalgar Hotel at Greenwich, near London, scene of the famous Ministerial white-bait dinners of the days of Pitt; to make a jest on an exciting idea suggested by some medical man that some of the features of a Ritz-Carlton Hotel, that is, baths, be introduced into the fo’c’s’les of Grand Banks fishing vessels; to keep an eye on the activities of our Bureau of Fisheries; to hymn a praise to the monumental new Fish Pier at Boston; to glance at conditions at the premier fish market of the world, Billingsgate; to herald the fish display at the Canadian National Exhibition at Toronto, and, indeed, etc., and again etc.

    As general editorial roustabout, to find each week a “leader,” a translation, say, from In Allgemeine Fish-cherei-Zeitung, or Economic Circular No. 10, “Mussels in the Tributaries of the Missouri,” or the last biennial report of the Superintendent of Fisheries of Wisconsin, or a scientific paper on “The Porpoise in Captivity” reprinted by permission of Zoologica, of the New York Zoölogical Society. To find each week for reprint a poem appropriate in sentiment to the feeling of the paper. One of the “Salt Water Ballads” would do, or John Masefield singing of “the whale’s way,” or “Down to the white dipping sails”; or Rupert Brooke: “And in that heaven of all their wish, There shall be no more land, say fish”; or a “weather rhyme” about “mackerel skies,” when “you’re sure to get a fishing day”; or something from the New York Sun about “the lobster pots of Maine”; or Oliver Herford, in the Century, “To a Goldfish”; or, best of all, an old song of fishing ways of other days.

    And to compile from the New York Journal of Commerce better poetry than any of this, tables, beautiful tables of “imports into New York”: “Oct. 15.—From Bordeaux, 225 cs. cuttlefish bone; Copenhagen, 173 pkgs. fish; Liverpool, 969 bbls. herrings, 10 walrus hides, 2,000 bags salt; La Guayra, 6 cs. fish sounds; Belize, 9 bbls. sponges; Rotterdam, 7 pkgs. seaweed, 9,000 kegs herrings; Barcelona, 235 cs. sardines; Bocas Del Toro, 5 cs. turtle shells; Genoa, 3 boxes corals; Tampico, 2 pkgs. sponges; Halifax, 1 cs. seal skins, 35 bbls. cod liver oil, 215 cs. lobsters, 490 bbls. codfish; Akureyri, 4,150 bbls. salted herrings,” and much more. Beautiful tables of “exports from New York.” “To Australia” (cleared Sep. 1); “to Argentina”;—Haiti, Jamaica, Guatemala, Scotland, Salvador, Santo Domingo, England, and to places many more. And many other gorgeous tables, too. “Fishing vessels at New York,” for one, listing the “trips” brought into this port by the Stranger, the Sarah O’Neal, the Nourmahal, a farrago of charming sounds, and a valuable tale of facts.

    As make-up man, of course, so to “dress” the paper that the “markets,” Oporto, Trinidad, Porto Rico, Demerara, Havana, would be together; that “Nova Scotia Notes”—“Weather conditions for curing have been more favorable since October set in”—would follow “Halifax Fish Market”—“Last week’s arrivals were: Oct. 13, schr. Hattie Loring, 960 quintals,” etc.—that “Pacific Coast Notes”—“The tug Tatoosh will perform the service for the Seattle salmon packers of towing a vessel from Seattle to this port via the Panama Canal”—would follow “Canned Salmon”; that shellfish matter would be in one place; reports of saltfish where such should be; that the weekly tale of the canned fish trade politically embraced the canned fish advertising; and so on and so on.

    Finest of all, as reporter, to go where the fish reporter goes. There the sight-seeing cars never find their way; the hurried commuter has not his path, nor knows of these things at all; and there that racy character who, voicing a multitude, declares that he would rather be a lamp post on Broadway than Mayor of St. Louis, goes not for to see. Up lower Greenwich Street the fish reporter goes, along an eerie, dark, and narrow way, beneath a strange, thundering roof, the “L” overhead. He threads his way amid seemingly chaotic, architectural piles of boxes, of barrels, crates, casks, kegs, and bulging bags; roundabout many great fetlocked draught horses, frequently standing or plunging upon the sidewalk, and attached to many huge trucks and wagons; and much of the time in the street he is compelled to go, finding the side walks too congested with the traffic of commerce to admit of his passing there.

    You probably eat butter, and eggs, and cheese. Then you would delight in Greenwich Street. You could feast your highly creditable appetite for these excellent things for very nearly a solid mile upon the signs of “wholesale dealers and commission merchants” in them. The letter press, as you might say, of the fish reporter’s walk is a noble pæan to the earth’s glorious yield for the joyous sustenance of man. For these princely merchants’ signs sing of opulent stores of olive oil, of sausages, beans, soups, extracts, and spices, sugar, Spanish, Bermuda, and Havana onions, “fine” apples, teas, coffee, rice, chocolates, dried fruits and raisins, and of loaves and of fishes, and of “fish products.” Lo! dark and dirty and thundering Greenwich Street is to-day’s translation of the Garden of Eden.

    Here is a great house whose sole vocation is the importation of caviar for barter here. Caviar from over-seas now comes, when it comes at all, mainly by the way of Archangel, recently put on the map, for most of us, by the war. The fish reporter is told, however, if it be summer, that there cannot be much doing in the way of caviar until fall, “when the spoonbill start coming in.” And on he goes to a great saltfish house, where many men in salt-stained garments are running about, their arms laden with large flat objects, of sharp and jagged edge, which resemble dried and crackling hides of some animal curiously like a huge fish; and numerous others of “the same” are trundling round wheelbarrow-like trucks likewise so laden. Where stacks of these hides stand on their tails against the walls, and goodness knows how many big boxes are, containing, as those open show, beautifully soft, thick, cream-colored slabs, which is fish. And where still other men, in overalls stained like a painter’s palette, are knocking off the heads of casks and dipping out of brine still other kinds of fish for inspection.

    Here it is said by the head of the house, by the stove (it is chill weather) in his office like a shipmaster’s cabin: “Strong market on foreign mackerel. Mines hinder Norway catch. Advices from abroad report that German resources continue to purchase all available supplies from the Norwegian fishermen. No Irish of any account. Recent shipment sold on the deck at high prices. Fair demand from the Middle West.”

    So, by stages, on up to turn into North Moore Street, looking down a narrow lane between two long bristling rows of wagons pointed out from the curbs, to the facades of the North River docks at the bottom, with the tops of the buff funnels of ocean liners, and Whistleranean silhouettes of derricks, rising beyond. Hereabout are more importers, exporters, and “producers” of fish, famous in their calling beyond the celebrities of popular publicity. And he that has official entrée may learn, by mounting dusky stairs, half-ladder and half-stair, and by passing through low-ceilinged chambers freighted with many barrels, to the sanctums of the fish lords, what’s doing in the foreign herring way, and get the current market quotations, at present sky-high, and hear that the American shore mackerel catch is very fine stock.

    Then roundabout, with a step into the broad vista of homely Washington Street, and a turn through Franklin Street, where is the man decorated by the Imperial Japanese Government with a gold medal, if he should care to wear it, for having distinguished himself in the development of commerce in the marine products of Japan, back to Hudson Street. An authentic railroad is one of the spectacular features of Hudson Street.

    Here down the middle of the way are endless trains, stopping, starting, crashing, laden to their ears with freight, doubtless all to eat. Tourists should come from very far to view Hudson Street. Here is a spectacle as fascinating, as awe-inspiring, as extraordinary as any in the world. From dawn until darkness falls, hour after hour, along Hudson Street slowly, steadily moves a mighty procession of great trucks. One would not suppose there were so many trucks on the face of the earth. It is a glorious sight, and any man whose soul is not dead should jump with joy to see it. And the thunder of them altogether as they bang over the stones is like the music of the spheres.

    There is on Hudson Street a tall handsome building where the fish reporter goes, which should be enjoyed in this way: Up in the lift you go to the top, and then you walk down, smacking your lips. For all the doors in that building are brimming with poetry. And the tune of it goes like this: “Toasted Corn-Flake Co.,” “Seaboard Rice,” “Chili Products,” “Red Bloom Grape Juice Sales Office,” “Porto Rico and Singapore Pineapple Co.,” “Sunnyland Foodstuffs,” “Importers of Fruit Pulps, Pimentos,” “Sole Agents U. S. A. Italian Salad Oil,” “Raisin Growers,” “Log Cabin Syrups,” “Jobbers in Beans, Peas,” “Chocolate and Cocoa Preparations,” “Ohio Evaporated Milk Co.,” “Bernese Alps and Holland Condensed Milk Co.,” “Brazilian Nuts Co.,” “Brokers Pacific Coast Salmon,” “California Tuna Co.,” and thus on and on.

    The fish reporter crosses the street to see the head of the Sardine Trust, who has just thrown the market into excitement by a heavy cut in prices of last year’s pack. Thence, pausing to refresh himself by the way at a sign “Agency for Reims Champagne and Moselle Wines—Bordeaux Clarets and Sauternes,” over to Broadway to interview the most august persons of all, dealers in fertilizer, “fish scrap.” These mighty gentlemen live, when at business, in palatial suites of offices constructed of marble and fine woods and laid with rich rugs. The reporter is relayed into the innermost sanctum by a succession of richly clothed attendants. And he learns, it may be, that fishing in Chesapeake Bay is so poor that some of the “fish factories” may decide to shut down. Acid phosphate, it is said, is ruling at $13 f.o.b. Baltimore.

    And so the fish reporter enters upon the last lap of his rounds. Through, perhaps, the narrow, crooked lane of Pine Street he passes, to come out at length upon a scene set for a sea tale. Here would a lad, heir to vast estates in Virginia, be kidnapped and smuggled aboard to be sold a slave in Africa. This is Front Street. A white ship lies at the foot of it. Cranes rise at her side. Tugs, belching smoke, bob beyond. All about are ancient warehouses, redolent of the Thames, with steep roofs and sometimes stairs outside, and with tall shutters, a crescent-shaped hole in each. There is a dealer in weather-vanes. Other things dealt in hereabout are these: chronometers, “nautical instruments,” wax gums, cordage and twine, marine paints, cotton wool and waste, turpentine, oils, greases, and rosin. Queer old taverns, public houses, are here, too. Why do not their windows rattle with a “Yo, ho, ho”?

    There is an old, old house whose business has been fish oil within the memory of men. And here is another. Next, through Water Street, one comes in search of the last word on salt fish. Now the air is filled with gorgeous smell of roasting coffee. Tea, coffee, sugar, rice, spices, bags and bagging here have their home. And there are haughty bonded warehouses filled with fine liquors. From his white cabin at the top of a venerable structure comes the dean of the saltfish business. “Export trade fair,” he says; “good demand from South America.”