Sport hunting enjoyed a long and snooty history centuries before the establishment of the United States. King Henry VIII hunted stags the way President Trump golfs: often, with entourage and without apology. During Henry’s reign, peasants were allowed to snare wild hares, but the noble deer was off limits to those of low parentage; the physician Andrew Boorde declared venison a “lord’s dish,” and observed that great men “do not set so much by the meate, as they do by the pastime of kyllyng it.” What defined a gentleman, in other words, was his pleasure in the fairly played hunt, not his vulgar appetite for the steak.
In America’s colonial era, hunting remained a sport reserved for the elite. At Mount Vernon, George Washington indulged in the occasional mounted fox chase. “But elsewhere in the early United States,” the historian Philip Dray writes in “The Fair Chase,” “there was little recognition of sport hunting.”
That would change, of course, and the evolution of a truly American style of hunting forms the subject of Dray’s enlightening and oddly bloodless new book. According to Dray, the critical turn from noble pleasure to blue-collar pastime came with the establishment of the myth of the frontier hunter. For that, America had Daniel Boone. Born on a Pennsylvania farm in 1734, Boone spent much of his early adulthood hunting and trapping beyond the western colonial border. A skilled woodsman, tough and common-born, Boone came to the world’s attention thanks to a land speculator named John Filson. Filson’s 1784 book, “The Discovery, Settlement and Present State of Kentucke,” was really a long brochure, meant to inflate the value of the author’s real estate near present-day Lexington. For drama, Filson included in his encomium a chapter on Boone’s adventures in “the best tract of land in North America, and probably in the world.”
“While Filson wanted Boone’s example to show that courage and hard work could conquer the frontier,” Dray writes, “neither author nor subject possibly could have dreamed the extent to which Boone would become a mythic figure, a representation of the young country’s hopes.” Like all colonials on the frontier, Boone stalked his game as a poacher. His favored “Kentucke” ground belonged to members of the Shawnee tribe, who seized his furs and guns when they caught him trespassing. Frontiersmen who hunted on Native American ground often acted as an advance guard for settlers who would later steal the land outright. Hunting became a seemingly democratic sport open to all classes of white folk largely because there was no sheriff to arrest them for bagging the king’s deer. Not to say it wasn’t risky. Two of Boone’s sons were killed by Indians, and Boone himself lived to tell the tale only because of his uncommon ability to talk his way out of trouble with the tribes.
America’s first sports periodical, American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine, appeared in the late 1820s, not long after Boone’s death. At the time, “sport” connoted a kind of “Guys and Dolls” lifestyle: hard-drinking bachelors laying action on horses, dice and fighting cocks. When one sporting publisher realized that “hunting stories — hunters pitted against elusive, dangerous animals in forbidding terrain — possessed unique narrative power,” as Dray writes, the hook-and-bullet genre was born.
From the 1830s until the eve of the Civil War, men like Henry William Herbert made a living selling adventure tales larded with wily bucks and ferocious bears. Under the pen name Frank Forester, Herbert instructed his readers in the ways of rod and gun and, as a eulogist later wrote, “infected his readers with the same love of the chase he felt himself.”
In the United States, sport hunting is no longer merely a pastime. It’s often prescribed as an antidote to a recurring fear: the softening of the American man. Today’s alt-right blather about “snowflakes” and male feminization is nothing new. Washington Irving thought manly self-reliance ought to be instilled in America’s youth by sending them hunting on the Great Plains, rather than touring in Europe where they “grow luxurious and effeminate.” Outdoorsmen were vigorous, muscular Christians — nothing like those studious urban types, as Ralph Waldo Emerson noted, “with their pale, sickly etiolated indoor thoughts!”
Emerson’s fellow Transcendentalist, Henry David Thoreau, prefigured today’s hiker-hunter cultural split. In “Walden” Thoreau considered hunting a necessary but distasteful stage in a man’s development: “No humane being, past the thoughtless age of boyhood, will wantonly murder any creature which holds its life by the same tenure that he does.” The same schism played out a half-century later when the naturalist John Muir shared a camp at Yosemite with President Theodore Roosevelt. “When are you going to get beyond the boyishness of killing things?” Muir demanded of the famously avid hunter.
Any human who enjoys a Whopper with cheese kills things too, of course. He just does it indirectly. And therein lies one of the hunter’s greatest lines of defense. Dray, with typical evenhandedness, acknowledges as much. “Most of us reside somewhere along a very broad spectrum of hypocrisy regarding animal lives,” he writes. It’s a private and sometimes quirky thing, this ethical line each of us draws when it comes to hunting. I’ve hunted deer but could not justify going after elk. (I felt I hadn’t earned the right.) My dad hunted ducks with his father long ago but stopped because, he once told me, “I couldn’t see the sense in killing something that was so beautiful.” We both still love aquatic hunting — the pastime also known as sport fishing.
What is O.K. to hunt, when and why? “The Fair Chase” isn’t a book about ethics and philosophy, but Dray does a fine job introducing his readers to the issues in play. “Recreation,” he observes, “appears to be the offensive aspect” for a lot of hunting opponents. In a 2013 survey, 79 percent of Americans said they approve of hunting. Two years later, a separate pollfound that 59 percent of adults “think hunting animals for sport” is unacceptable. The difference seemed to be the word “sport.” Say “hunting” and many people think of grandpa stalking deer in October. “Sport hunting” conjures up images of rich white guys getting their jollies killing lions and giraffes. What emerges is a vague yearning for the culturally appropriate. It might be justifiable for members of the Makah tribe to hunt a gray whale, but it’s not O.K. for your white deer-hunter grandpa to shoot a beluga.
“The Fair Chase” can be frustrating at times. Dray’s historical method involves a bit of overlapping and backtracking, and he sometimes seems more interested in the literary description and public presentation of hunting rather than the act itself. Hunting is an emotional, blood-racing activity, and Dray seems happy to leave the intense feelings it provokes to in-the-field writers like Ted Kerasote, Pam Houston, David Petersen and Aldo Leopold. Still, he isn’t afraid to lay out hard truths, including the ways in which the National Rifle Association, once a hunting group, has hijacked an important and honorable pastime for gun-selling ends.
The history of American hunting is a decidedly mixed bag. “America’s love affair with sport hunting,” Dray writes, “led to enhanced appreciation of the great outdoors, and to public acceptance of the need for management of wildlife populations and wilderness; but it also contributed to the wholesale slaughter of birds and animal species,” and fed the myth of the American as heroic conqueror.
As Thoreau wrote, hunting may represent an early stage in human development. But it’s not one we’re likely to outgrow anytime soon.