Sunday Reflections: Stories from the University of South Carolina Press
that celebrate the sporting life and great outdoors
An essay excerpted from Hunting and the Ivory Tower:
Essays by Scholars Who Hunt
Edited by Doug Higbee and David Bruzina
Essay by Robert DeMott
“[Hunting] certainly makes life less highfalutin and more real.”
– T. H. White, England Have My Bones
Fifty years ago, during my first semester as a graduate student, I enrolled in a seminar on William Faulkner, a writer I’d heard of but never before encountered on the page. I’d heard that he was a difficult and demanding technician whose prose was convoluted, intricate, even impenetrable, and that it represented the zenith of American literary modernism, which is to say patently aesthetic and rarefied. I considered myself an average reader in skill, insight and dexterity, so I feared I would be in for a trying time, given Faulkner’s avant-garde stylistic difficulties. But I also heard that Faulkner had a reputation as a drunk, a bounder and, as if it were the final condemnatory nail in his coffin, a hunter. Faulkner, the gossip went, was not in the take-no-prisoners category of He-Man Hemingway, but he was a hunter nonetheless, and that was enough for many of my seminar mates to cast a cold eye.
But it was precisely Faulkner the hunter (“a good hunter and one of the fairest and most agreeable men we ever had in our camp,” John Cullen said in Old Times in the Faulkner Country) who appealed to me. Behind Faulkner’s vaunted linguistic artifice and stylistic sleight of hand, there was a backdrop of gritty physical reality to be imagined—wet, tired dogs, empty shot shells, heft of dead quail in the game bag, a man and child hunting together—that (except for Luster and the mule) resonated deeply with me and echoed similar events in my own life. For someone who had never thought much about the physical underpinnings of literature, the scene was a crossover moment between the world outside and the world inside my books, a startling moment, in other words, as sharp and compelling as the first flush of a covey of wild bobwhites.
English setters, beagles, fox hounds—my own or my uncles’—were a large part of the sporting fabric of my working-class family life in Connecticut and Vermont. Bird dogs and trailing hounds were part of an earlier education mentored by my uncles Pete and Tony Ventrella that had taken place outside school and that I admit, because of its visceral quality, often commanded more of my attention than homework. Later in the Faulkner semester, when we tackled Go Down, Moses and his signature outdoor tale, “The Bear,” in which a hunting dog is a chief character, my enthusiasm was boundless, and I became something of a village explainer expounding on the intricacies of hunting and the dynamic of the chase to my untutored and mostly urban male and female seminar mates, whether they wanted to hear it or not.
I came away certain that where hunting (like every other hot-button issue) is concerned, ironies and paradoxes abound, not hard and fast conclusions.
“The Bear” and “Delta Autumn” brought out the most heated critical discussions on literature I had ever witnessed up to that point. There was much to debate: spilling blood, gun violence, racial injustice, white privilege, wilderness decline, hunting ethics and especially Faulkner’s portrayal of Ike McCaslin, whose pattern of masculine behavior featured a willful withdrawal from domestic society. Half the class judged that characterization to be romantic, even heroic, and saw Ike as an exemplar of resolute American frontier values; the other half said Faulkner was treating Ike ironically and that whatever he had learned in the big woods of the Mississippi Delta was undercut or tempered by his relative ineffectualness in social, domestic and emotional spheres.
And though I saw validity on both sides of the debate, then as now, none of those issues, none of those controversial and emotionally charged questions, could be solved or answered to everyone’s complete satisfaction. The hunter in me left that seminar with an abiding sense of how suspiciously and inaccurately the academic world viewed hunting, and yet the scholar in me admired the way the academy rigorously interrogated the subject. More to the point, I came away certain that where hunting (like every other hot-button issue) is concerned, ironies and paradoxes abound, not hard and fast conclusions. In the end, we make a separate peace according to our own lights and predilections. Rabid adherents for and against hunting, which is to say extremists of both stripes loudly occupying their high ground (moral and otherwise), are the only ones who believe they have answers to otherwise nuanced and complex problems.
High-tailing it to unspoiled wilderness territory is less feasible for most of us than it was in Twain’s time, so let’s be thankful we still have the tonic of local wildness to temper our otherwise well-ordered and routine civic life and to act not just as a safety net but as a refuge and source of restoration for periods of personal dissolution, job-induced ennui, and wit’s-end mania. As Jim Harrison says, “I’ve found that I survive only by seeking an opposite field.” The fact that woods and waters are the destinations less traveled than ever before by most Americans in our increasingly urbanized, tech-savvy, wired society adds a slightly delicious outland status to these endeavors.
I can count on two hands and a foot the number of university colleagues and students in the past four decades who have shared my interest in hunting. We have been a small, nearly invisible cadre of like-minded enthusiasts, many of whom would gladly risk censure by our more evolved colleagues for the indescribable pleasure of eating game. Of the men and women I’ve counted as outdoor companions, no one knowingly shirks home life in favor of untrammeled self-indulgence, egregious antisocial behavior or willful domestic avoidance.
“Eating a bird, I savor it twice,” Charles Fergus says in The Upland Equation, “I taste the succulent flesh, and I remember how I brought it to bag.”
Few of us any longer need to hunt to sustain our lives, and yet being able to hunt is what we need. Few of us any longer need to hunt to put food on the table, but doing so provides plenty of reason for going afield. I hunt because I like the total ritual: the way a day out of doors has its own character and qualities; the intense physical exercise that comes from miles of walking in untutored terrain in all weather; the pleasure of following athletic bird dogs and watching their bred-in-the bone work (joyfully, I think) in an acute and almost unimaginable realm of the senses that is utterly closed to me as a human being. I appreciate the ethical obligation I feel to utilize all parts of the birds I’m fortunate enough to shoot and clean (by personal preference fewer these days than in years past): wings sent to biology research stations, feathers saved for tying fishing flies and, because I love to cook, meat to be prepared for the table. “Eating a bird, I savor it twice,” Charles Fergus says in The Upland Equation, “I taste the succulent flesh, and I remember how I brought it to bag.”
I feel both satisfaction and gratefulness when I serve a dinner to friends (some of whom are non-hunting academics) of wood duck, ruffed grouse or woodcock—the wildest of wild birds. These species, rooted ineluctably in their geographical terroir, are untouched by genetic engineering and cannot be farmed or pen raised on artificial scratch, cannot be planted for harvesting on pay-to-shoot game preserves, cannot be hunted, killed and cleaned by anyone else but myself, cannot be bought, prepared and cooked at whatever cost at the trendiest market or restaurant in America. That’s the labor-intensive, self-sufficient bottom line, the moment of consummate appreciation, toward which hunting has led me and many others as well. “The primacy of killing,” Guy de la Valdene says in The Fragrance of Grass, “has been replaced by a love of the process and all its intricacies.” Bringing it all home from field to table plugs me into the larger motions of the currently expanding and laudable locavore movement.
Chris Camuto says it best in Hunting from Home: “I love language as much as landscape.” Which is to say, a heart full of woods and water, a head full of books: we can both hunt and write, teach and fish, read rivers and coverts and animal sign as well as books, dissect student papers and gut and clean game, make up a course syllabus and cook a dinner of squirrel or venison or grouse, because all such activities are products of an ongoing search for the genuine, for unalloyed meaning in our lives that comes only from pursuing experience by our own hands, not vicariously or at a remove. Because each activity has reinforced and informed the other, I don’t want to be forced to choose one at the expense of the other, though even having said that perhaps I have already made my choice.
Like William Faulkner, we do so not to abandon field and forest but to open a conversation that ushers them into our lives farther, deeper, more visibly than ever before.
Robert DeMott is the Edwin and Ruth Kennedy Distinguished Professor at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. He is a teacher, writer, critic, and internationally respected expert on novelist John Steinbeck.