Wednesday, August 16, 2017


Instead of cutting edge neurology and philosophy theories, I want to look at ideas from hunting and frontier life as laid out in Daniel Justin Herman’s “Hunting and the American Imagination.”  While everyone else seems locked into the confrontation between the North and South/Black and White, I prefer to work from the West, not the Civil War but the Range Wars that came from the culture-mixing thrashing about on top of the Native American civilization, maybe partly spinning off from the Civil War.

These ideas developed from a history of hunting in America, as it was imported from Europe..  The premise is simple:  when Euros first considered a whole new continent ahead of them, they split into two kinds of expectations — parties, if you like.  As the dust jacket on “Hunting and the American Imagination” (2001) puts it, Herman is contrasting “the democratic legend of Daniel Boone” with “the hunting with hounds of European aristocrats.”  “America’s sport hunters ultimately saw themselves as the self-reliant ‘American Natives’ they had displaced and claimed to be heirs of the continent and natural stewards over its land and wildlife.

One part was determined to go to this new place and set up a replica of Europe and Britain but with THEM as the top, the kings and emperors.  Their aim was to own a big swatch of land that they could fence for their own private use and hunting grounds.  (Some say this is the source of the one part of the environmental movement, the interest of the elite in protected land as demonstrated by the Sierra Club, Nature Conservancy and Ted Turner.)  

The other “party” saw a new continent as a chance to create a new kind of country where everyone was equal.  To them the forests and prairies were for everyone to hunt in freely, so that no one need go hungry.  They were more open to the idea of including the indigenous people in their plans.  But they didn’t quite grasp that indigenous people are very different in different ecologies.  Instead the whites tended to raise the idea of being native into a kind of transcendent virtue.  But sooner than expected, they reached the limits of the land.  And stigma dumped the noble sauvages into the ditch.

Another split in American culture came about because of urbanization: as the nation became a small town bourgeois nation of clerks, men sought other ways to show their manliness.  Herman contrasts “pugilism” with hunting, the former being kind of low class (maybe like today’s cage fighting) and the latter implying privilege and travel for adventures.  So Trump imagines himself pounding down a personified CNN and his sons have the resources to go cut the tail off an elephant, which they assume only the privileged are able to do.  (Personally, I think they should have to eat that elephant.  Our family rule was that you eat what you shoot.  I come from a context of food hunting.) 

So what I see in Charlottesville in these white self-announced entitled Nazis and so on are pugilist adolescents, basically burger-flippers who eat their product, looking for manliness while living with Mom.  They are not warriors, but rather a mob.  It is very strange to watch them when one’s primary consciousness is with Native Americans.  All the cries of “go home” neglect the fact that the indigenous peoples have been wishing they would do exactly that for hundreds of years.  

These seekers of power carry bats and sticks for fighting because they can’t afford guns, thank goodness.  And the army won’t take them.  (The elite military and sophisticated hunting are closely related as markers of gentry, which is why Trump likes generals, though his version of hunting is chasing a little white ball down a hole.)

Herman’s two other books look at range wars along these lines but focused on the Mogollon Rim and then Mormonism in Mexico.  Rim Country Exodus: A Story of Conquest, Renewal, and Race in the Making (2012) was written next.  “Across east-central arizona runs a long, cliff-like escarpment, towering at some points a thousand feet, elsewhere two thousand, over the surrounding countryside. In the middle of the state, just below Flagstaff, the escarpment falls back repeatedly at perpendicular angles where creeks—Clear Creek, Beaver Creek, Fossil Creek, Sycamore Creek, Oak Creek—cut deep canyons in their search for the ocean. At its eastern extremity, that escarpment—known as “the Rim,” or “the Mogollon Rim,” after an eighteenth-century New Mexico governor—buries itself in the morass of the White Mountains, cinder cones that rise to almost 12,000 feet.”

Hell on the Range: A Story of Honor, Conscience, and the American West (The Lamar Series in Western History) (2013) is Herman’s second book.  Yale University Press News, in “A Reading List for the Current Racial Climate in America” includes this book.  “The Pleasant Valley War, sometimes called the Tonto Basin Feud, or Tonto Basin War, or Tewksbury-Graham Feud, was a range war fought in Pleasant Valley, Arizona in the years 1882-1892.”

In it Herman suggests “Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush were war mongers. . . Reagan and Bush were, in many ways, the creations of Zane Grey and the empire of Western novels and movies that followed him." (p. 289).”  I agree, except that I would point out that the tsunami of Western television series BEFORE Reagan was president often featured what I call “stand down” plots.  Matt Dillon and Mr. Favor and the Wagon Train boss stood for finding non-violent solutions first.  Maybe you could call those Eisenhower Westerns.

Herman suggests a basic conflict between what he calls “honor and conscience." He explains "honor tended toward assertion, strength, fierceness, combat. Conscience tended toward restraint, modesty, sympathy." (p. xxii) “  If — as a reviewer commented — honor might in this instance better be described as pride, then we could say Trump wants honor, but Obama has conscience and ended up with the honor without resorting to combat.  (Bill Clinton does not fit into this formulation.  LBJ comes down as a combatant.)  Trump in his cowardice loses everything he wants, evidently because he can’t tell what honor is, except profit.  Honor cannot be inherited — it must be earned again and again.

Herman’s fourth book is fiction:  “Summer of the Guns.”  The Amazon squib says:  “In the desolate cityscape of Depression-era Phoenix, twelve-year old Billie Jean Moran has journeyed west to flee a troubled past with her deaf sister, Sara. But they find themselves in the midst of another catastrophe--this time involving a scandal that implicates even the Arizona governor. When political crooks peg Billie's African-American father as an unsuspecting fall guy, Billie and Sara are forced to go into hiding. In the course of their ordeal, the sisters find unlikely allies in the form of a broken-down ex-insurance salesman, a juvenile delinquent, and a prison nurse. Through bravery and cunning, Billie, Sara, and their friends bring the real criminals to justice and triumph over fear, discrimination, and injustice.”

Sounds very modern except for missing the “spiritual” element, obligatory these days.  I hope there are “Indians.”  I’ll ask for a review copy.  I can’t afford any more books this fall.  Anyway, I should probably reread this densely packed earlier book of ideas called “Hunting and the American Imagination.”  I read it two decades ago, but it seems newly useful.

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