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American Literary History 17.4 (2005) 818-830
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Obits for the Fallen Hunter:
Reading the Decline—and Death?—of Hunting in America
Only half a century ago, hunters claimed that the US was a nation born out of hunting, and the hunter was considered a national icon, a hero of national hegemony in settling the continent and dominating the world. How far the cultural currency of the hunter has fallen in less than 50 years is revealed in these five titles. They are among a new wave of books to reconsider the status and meaning of the hunter in America—attempts to unpack and, in some cases, rewrite the symbolic gear borne by the hunter. What these titles reveal, even as they try to defend the hunter, is a deep anxiety about hunting as a symbolic construct and its future as a sport in North America. Hunters are seriously worried that their pastime may be on the verge of disappearing altogether. In many ways, these titles read almost like obituaries for a dying sport.
Though hunting has long been a controversial sport, embroiled in contentious culture wars and identity politics, at no time since the Christian humanist critique of hunting in the Renaissance has sport hunting been so threatened, defensive, and diminished. The dwindling numbers of hunters in the US have made hunters feel increasingly persecuted, even brought to bay. Consider the facts, taken from the US Fish and Wildlife Services' 2001 National Survey. Since the 1970s, the number of registered hunters in the US has fallen by almost one-half. Currently hunters make up only 6% of the US population. Since 1991, the number of registered hunters has dropped by more than one million, from 14 to 13 million, a decline of 7%. Over five times as many people—66 million Americans—now call themselves "wildlife watchers" than identify themselves as hunters (US Department of the Interior).
Many hunting experts predict that hunting may actually disappear. For example, Thomas Heberlein, a rural sociologist at the [End Page 818] University of Wisconsin–Madison, has written, "It is not out of the question that there will be no sport hunting . . . by the middle of the 21st century" (702–3). Given trends in social demographics, hunters fear that the future of their sport looks bleak.
What becomes apparent in these books, often unintentionally, is that the crisis in hunting is deeper than a public-relations problem or a shift in national demographics (country to city). It derives from the symbolic import of the sport of hunting itself—questions of masculine identity in America and the contested meanings of nature. As studies like Matt Cartmill's A View to a Death in the Morning: Hunting and Nature through History (1993) and my own Orion's Legacy: A Cultural History of Man as Hunter (1996) have shown, from Gilgamesh forward, hunting has carried special metaphorical significance in Western culture. Sport hunting is a cultural, not a natural, activity, and social values have been every bit as much a part of hunters' equipment as they ride into the American woods as have been buckskin, Bowie knife, and rifle. This symbolic encumbrance defines the hunter as hero in his conquest of the beast and naturalizes discourses of conquest that can be deployed in such social venues as business, politics, settling the continent, defeating natives, and global expansion. This political trope—in the largest sense of the word—was also underwritten by a scientific discourse in the mid-twentieth century, in which evolution was theorized in terms of hunting. Hunting was for a time thought...