Nicolas W. Proctor. Bathed in Blood: Hunting and Mastery in the Old South. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2002. xii + 220 pp. $19.50 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8139-2091-7; $55.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8139-2087-0.
Reviewed by Matthew E. Mason (Department of History and Philosophy, Eastern Michigan University)
Published on H-South (March, 2002)
Hunters and their Audiences
Hunters and their Audiences
A widely recognized symbol, both at the time and in legend, of the antebellum slaveholding class's aristocratic pretensions, the hunt is obviously deserving of study. In Bathed in Blood, however, Nicolas Proctor makes an excellent case for the cultural and social significance of hunting for all classes and races of antebellum Southern men. He effectively demonstrates that the pursuit of game lay at the confluence of almost all of the key signifiers of masculinity in both white and black culture.
Proctor's is the most detailed account and sustained analysis we have of hunting in the Old South. It involves a sophisticated (but, mercifully, mostly jargon-free) cultural analysis of a rich body of literature surrounding the hunt--sporting journal articles, travel accounts, private diaries and correspondence, WPA slave narratives, etc. But this is also a social, and especially in the first chapter an environmental, history of this subject. Proctor lays out the mechanics as well as the meaning of the hunt. In his pursuit of the forms, he never loses sight of the more utilitarian benefits of the hunt--meat and hides. While elite hunters who stressed the ideal rules of sport disdained "pothunters" (those who hunted for subsistence), the tangible fruits of the hunt were far from irrelevant in their display of mastery. Throughout his account, Proctor carefully distinguishes between the ideal and the real, and pays them both due attention.
Along the way, fascinating insights and revelations abound, of which one example should suffice here. In his important and interesting chapter on "Slavery, Paternalism, and the Hunt," Proctor argues convincingly that while slaveholders typically took experienced slave huntsmen with them on their excursions, they did so in ways that reinforced rather than threatened their aspirations to mastery over their bondsmen. One way slaveholders ensured that even the hunting exploits of the most skilled slaves would not undermine their own prestige was "by declaring certain species (bear, deer, and most species of wildfowl) off limits to slaves." In the process of setting up this segregated "hierarchy of game," slaveholders also declared animals such as rabbits and opposums beneath their notice as game or as food. This phenomenon coincided with and reinforced the slaveholders' antebellum efforts to make slavery's image and reality more paternalistic, for "contributors to the sporting press drew an increasingly sharp line of demarcation through the animal kingdom" from the 1830s forward (p. 129).
The connections between hunting and slavery go far beyond this gem of an example, however, and Proctor draws them out fully. For instance, both black and white hunters gained the knowledge of the terrain and the necessary skills which benefitted them respectively as fugitive slaves and hunters of fugitive slaves (see pp. 72 and 154). Furthermore, slaveholders' narratives of the hunt provided an unusually useful stage for demonstrating the dynamics of paternalism between master and slave, which was usually "elusive and subtle, ... difficult to display" with precision (p. 125). And the fact that the paternalist ethos suffused slaveholders' hunting tales, whose purpose was not proslavery polemic, reveals "the pervasiveness of proslavery ideas among members of the southern elite" (p. 122).
The relationship between slavery and hunting is far from the only important theme and contribution of this work. Gender and class also feature prominently in his analysis. The book as a whole enriches our understanding of masculinity in the antebellum South, among both whites and blacks.
His treatment of women's relationship to the hunt has the potential to overturn or qualify common theories and assumptions about identity. Proctor downplays Southern women's ability to confer manliness in the context of the hunt, for he portrays them as a secondary audience for the men's show. The primary audience, he contends, was the fraternity of hunters, with rare exceptions exclusively male. To be sure, the fraternity drew boundaries to exclude the "Other," which in the case of elite hunters included pothunters, slaves, and others deemed incapable of the prowess and self-control which made for a gentlemanly sportsman. But if, as some of the best historians of the South have maintained, masters' identity was dependent on slaves, or men's on women, Proctor suggests that such oppositional audiences were not central but "peripheral" (p. 39) to the hunt. In short, women "could not bestow manhood" when it came to the hunt (p. 45), much as they may have in other arenas (see, e.g., p. 47)--only other men could. There is plenty of room for debate in this striking formulation, but he devotes considerable care and attention to it, particularly in chapter 2.
There are other arguments which Proctor does not pursue quite so vigorously and effectively. Two of these are potential lines of reasoning which he never fully takes advantage of, and the other is an interpretation which he advances without convincing at least this reader.
One road not taken is an exploration of the significance of the English in the gentlemanly ideal of the slaveholding hunters. Proctor touches on the prestige of English guns (p. 85), and the fact that the English aristocracy set the precedents for the ideal of sport and were its ultimate arbiters in the nineteenth century (pp. 43, 88, 130, 131). But then he brushes these points aside. But the English connection deserves more attention than this, for it is relevant to the question of how aristocratic the Southern elite was in aspiration and practice in this post-Revolutionary setting. Moreover, examining how influential the English model was in the antebellum North would help establish the distinctiveness which Proctor posits for antebellum Southern hunting.
The sectional distinctiveness of the culture of hunting in the South is the other point not fully drawn out in this volume. It is asserted (see pp. 12, 61, 172) but not demonstrated. Not that this should have been a full-blown comparative history of antebellum hunting in both sections. But more precision on the readership of the sporting press would be a start. Proctor writes that these magazines provided "literate southerners" with the rules of sport (p. 14), but later insists that their reach was national (p. 122). How exactly did sportsmanship and other cultural hunting norms differ in the North? More significantly, Proctor points out that Southern hunters had a strong prejudice against city slickers who tried their inept hand at hunting. The sporting press, he avers, "regularly presented urbanites as the weak and emasculated victims of the feminized, unhealthy, and avaricious city" (p. 78). Granted, these characters could come from arguably Southern cities such as Baltimore (p. 78). But such characterizations echoed caricatures of Yankees in sectional polemics, and one wonders whether the hunters' descriptions were put to good use in the regional war of words which preceded the shooting war.
While these points are matters of omission, my last point of criticism pertains to a matter of commission on Proctor's part. He quite consciously de-emphasizes the class conflict which one would expect to be the result of planters' high-flying pretensions. He asserts that the slaveholding elite sought to distance itself from the plain white folk of the South "without explicitly invoking the specter of aristocracy" (p. 22). He also credits them with pulling this delicate task off. In Proctor's account, they deployed distinctions with such subtlety and care that "yeoman farmers had little cause for complaint" (p. 30). "Rather than creating boundaries according to the possession of a certain amount of wealth and property, many white hunters relied upon a more innocuous form of class distinction: conspicuous consumption," in the form of dogs, horses, slaves, and expensive guns. Such excess "was an effective (but indirect) illustration of their wealth" (p. 84). They also used "the strictures of sport" more often than blatantly exclusive hunting clubs (which were common only in the Lowcountry of South Carolina and Georgia) to distinguish elite sportsmen from lower-class pothunters (p. 87).
But it appears that common whites did complain, for instance about the restrictive game laws that the planters pushed for, which the former called "an aristocratic usurpation of their rights as free-born American citizens" (p. 31). This opposition caused the planters to suspend their drive for these laws. But their desire for this "aristocratic usurpation" was a matter of record, for the planters had made their desires public as well (see, e.g., pp. 31-32). Moreover, it is hard to see how the conspicuous consumption practiced by the elite hunter was "innocuous" or "indirect." It was an explicit declaration of their wealth, on the order of practices in aristocratic England. Neither was there anything veiled about one slaveholding hunter's published delight in his companions on an extended hunting expedition, whom he categorized as "four independent planters, as noble and generous souls as ever broke bread" (p. 87).
This, of course, is a matter of interpretation, and it is only in these few matters of interpretation and arguable omission that this book falls short. It is a valuable addition to the social and cultural history of the antebellum South.
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Matthew E. Mason. Review of Proctor, Nicolas W., Bathed in Blood: Hunting and Mastery in the Old South.
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