A revealing history of recreational hunting in America and the numerous social and political complexities involved.
Throughout the world, hunting is pursued as a sport, business, and sustenance, but nowhere is it as popular as in America. Dray (There Is Power in a Union: The Epic Story of Labor in America, 2010, etc.) focuses on that first category in exploring the sweeping history of this controversial topic. As recreation, hunting arrived in America along with the first non-Native settlers, but it was not until the mid-1800s and into the Gilded Age that sport hunting grew to enjoy immense popularity, in large part due to a recognition of “the restorative values of the natural world.” Hunting was just one of a number of outdoors activities, including camping and hiking, that city dwellers were taking up in order to fight neurasthenia, a sort of restless anxiety that doctors were diagnosing in the latter half of the 19th century. Some of America’s most recognized names make appearances in Dray’s work as either hunters or commentators on the pursuit. These include George Washington, Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley, Henry David Thoreau, Theodore Roosevelt, and Ernest Hemingway. The author does a marvelous job walking us, mostly chronologically, through nearly every aspect and controversy of hunting’s long history, with themes of ethics (“fair chase, the idea that hunted animals must have a chance to evade or flee their pursuers”) and conservation looming large throughout. Perhaps most interesting is the interconnectedness of hunters and conservation efforts throughout the decades. Hunters have led many of those efforts, and today, “wildlife agencies are funded largely from fishing and hunting license fees” as well as taxes on hunting equipment. One chapter, largely on Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, feels somewhat out of place, but that’s a minor quibble.
While steering clear of taking sides in the matter of recreational hunting, Dray provides a lively history that can be enjoyed by hunters and conservationists alike.