Hunting in the American South
I will only be posting a short piece today, but wanted to share something I have been reading recently about hunting in the American South. It seems to be something important in this culture, consistently across time, to the point that it almost reaches the level of stereotype. In a book that retains great interest despite being published some decades ago now, Professor Ted Ownby has argued that this is because the freedom of hunting put men at such a remove from the everyday restrictiveness of evangelical religion in the region.
In the nineteenth century, it is one of the few experiences that young men would have had that was largely individual, or at the very least in smaller groups. While other aspects of their life would have gathered them together (and, as a result, would likely have seen their conduct determined by wider social forces), plenty of diaries and other documentary records of hunting in the postbellum South do not mention companions, or talk of being alone, and it is the very freedom of the experience that makes it such a worthwhile endeavour.
As with so many of the cultural facets that Americans associate with freedom, hunting, too, was predominantly a male activity. In fact, it went further than that, as in some parts of the Southern masculine community learning to hunt signified your progression to manhood. Moving from the relative femininity of the hearth, the hunting field saw boys socialised into a more normative masculinity. Contemporary reports talk of boys as young as six being bought their first guns, while old men could recount their first kills from seventy or more years prior. The emotional resonances of the experience should not be downplayed.
As with most hunting cultures, animals that assist in the field were highly prized – particularly dogs, it seems, as they were far and away the most popular animal to own. Young Southern men in the postbellum period write of their dogs as if they were closer than they were with other men. One South Carolinian wrote of his desire not to ‘disgrace’ his old horse in front of younger animals. It appears that there is a strong tendency to anthropomorphise the feelings of these creatures.
There seems to be a conflict at the heart of Southern hunting in the period, though. Officially, at least, there is the impression given that this belongs to the sporting culture, one that does not destroy animals en masse for the pure indulgence of the thing. Documentary evidence seems to support the theory, though, that the average Southerner was not particularly concerned with such matters in practice. Ownby talks of one particular case (amongst several others) in which some ‘6000 doves have been bagged in one field in Alabama in a single morning.’
Of course, there is nothing uniquely southern about the idea of something matching up to the reality. We can find examples of this throughout the world and, though familiarity prohibits me saying it with certainty, likely in all different cultures. There is, though, something intriguing about not only the gap between the idealised version of hunting and how it worked in practice, and also about the centrality of hunting to Southern culture in and of itself.
For more, see the chapter 'The Field', in Ted Ownby, Subduing Satan: Religion, Recreation, and Manhood in the Rural South, 1865-1920 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993)
Dr Peter Templeton is Honorary Fellow of the School of Social Sciences and Humanities at Loughborough University