Academic journal article Journal of Leisure Research

The Hunter's Aim: The Cultural Politics of American Sport Hunters, 1880-1910(1)

Academic journal article Journal of Leisure Research

The Hunter's Aim: The Cultural Politics of American Sport Hunters, 1880-1910(1)

Article excerpt

Judging by its appearance in national periodicals, sport hunting in the United States reached its pinnacle in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Between 1865 and 1900, no less than thirty-nine weekly and monthly American journals were devoted to field sports, including Forent and Stream, The American Sportsman, The American Field, Outdoor Life, Recreation, Outing, and Turf, Field, and Farm. In perusing these journals, one immediately discovers that hunting was the most ubiquitous of American fields sports (apart from fishing) and the most symbolically charged. Simply put, to hunt in the Gilded Age was to define oneself as American while simultaneously defining oneself too as an equal of English aristocrats. To say that sport hunting was ubiquitous and symbolically charged, however, is to point out a great irony. Consider: sport hunting reached its greatest popularity as biggame populations in the United States reached their nadir; as the so-called "frontier" disappeared; as the U.S. became urban and industrial rather than rural and agrarian; and as impoverished immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, people who lacked a big-game hunting tradition, poured into the country.

Consider, too, that, though hunting had always been an important subsistence activity for pioneers, American colonists had identified agriculture as the basis for civilization. Even in Thomas Jefferson's era, most Americans considered full-time hunters to be barbaric and backwards men who, like Indians, could lay no legitimate claim to land. According to the Enlightenment precepts of colonial and early national Americans, only men with plows-men who rejected hunting as a way of life-had the right to claim the continent (Herman, 2001). Yet somehow, Americans of Theodore Roosevelt's era had come to invert such logic.

To a large degree that inversion occurred precisely because Americans were becoming urban, industrial, and more ethnically mixed. Hunting offered a way to recapture an imagined past. Sport hunting, however, was more than a response to changing demographics and economics; it defined Americanness for other reasons, too. To understand why sport hunting became a quintessentially American sport in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, one needs to understand American cultural history. Hunting, after all, did not become symbolically charged in a day or even in a decade, but in a century. To understand the impact of sport hunting on American history, moreover, one must understand what might be called "cultural politics," i.e., the subtle ways that peoples vie for power and social authority through cultural expression. Through hunting, American men sought to invigorate themselves with frontier manliness, rekindle individualism and self-reliance, and demonstrate Anglo-Saxon might to immigrants and upstart foreign powers. The sport hunter's aim, however, proved to be unsteady. As cultural politics, sport hunting produced stunning contradictions. Even as they glorified individualism, hunters gave new powers to government; even as they sought to separate themselves from women, hunters gave women new avenues for self-assertion; even as they sought to demonstrate Anglo-American strength, they inadvertently revealed weakness. The cultural politics of hunting was messy business.

To understand sport hunting as cultural politics in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, one must understand the quintessential American hunter of the era, Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt's love for nature, like Washington's love of truth, emerged during childhood. At age nine, he wrote a "Natural History of Insects"-all insects discussed, wrote the young Roosevelt, "inhabbit [sic] North America" (Outright, 1956). Soon he had collected multifarious specimens and artifacts in his bedroom, calling the display the Roosevelt Museum of Natural History. As an adult Roosevelt continued his study of natural history at Harvard, planning to become a sporting naturalist of "the [John James] Audubon" type. …

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