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Performing Masculinity And Reconciling Class In The American West: British Gentlemen Hunters And Their Travel Accounts, 1865-1914

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Performing Masculinity And Reconciling Class In The American West: British Gentlemen Hunters And Their Travel Accounts, 1865-1914

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Title: Performing Masculinity And Reconciling Class In The American West: British Gentlemen Hunters And Their Travel Accounts, 1865-1914
Author: Kosc, Gregory
Abstract: This dissertation investigates accounts by British gentlemen of the upper-middle and upper class, whose hunting narratives in the Western United States in the second half of the nineteenth century reveal their sentiments toward issues of nation, race, class, and gender. I argue that hunting accounts set in the American West, where egalitarianism and nationalism ran strong, allowed these hunters to reconcile themselves to the increasing democratization, professionalization, and commercialization of Britain and the emergence of a multi-polar global power structure by crafting an upper-class identity that reaffirmed British supremacy and class values. At the core of this upper-class identity was the construction of the hunters' masculinity. The hunter-writers staked out a balance between the middle-class image of a pioneer frontiersman hunter and an "aristo-military" hunter. By warding off or repelling Native thieves and warriors, as well as consistently overcoming the harsh natural and physical environment, the hunters were able to portray themselves - at the very least - as frontiersmen's equals. Historians who have investigated similar accounts posit that upper-class British hunters sought to reassert elite values or "transcend" modern societal degeneracy and the sordid urban workplace with their writings. By contrast, I believe the hunters sought to prove they possessed the hearty work ethic of the British working and middle class and imperial pioneers/Western frontiersmen to show that they were fit to succeed in any environment or social circumstance if necessary - including the marketplace. These upper-class accounts were concerned with more than simply proving competence vis-à-vis working men. The narratives also provided the authors with an opportunity to assert their social, national, and racial superiority through demonstrations of refinement, intelligence, leadership, and humanity. They used Americans and their institutions as points of comparison, and assumed that many of the values associated with Americanization - such as greed, meritocracy, crassness, egalitarianism, and democracy - were amplified in the West. By demonstrating their intelligence through knowledge of natural history and geology, as well as their humaneness in hunting, the hunter-writers were able to establish their social superiority. The West, therefore, made it possible for British hunters to prove that a merit-based and hierarchical class-based society were the same because the upper class was so evidently more intelligent and superior to any other class. Hunter-writers could claim to be part of the upper class because their actions in the wild illustrated that they were the lower classes' and Westerners' "betters." Their tales had the added benefit of lifting up their country as well, as they intended to make a mockery of Western notions of egalitarianism and the American social and political systems, which did not champion and reward refinement, morality, and statesmanship. Native men presented a direct racial, gender, and economic threat because they were capable of astounding physical feats and they often rejected sedentary lifeways. To counter this threat the hunter-writers made demonstrations of modernity in agriculture, gender relations, and hunting prerequisites for claiming manliness. These criteria allowed hunter-writers to ignore Native hunters' skills and claim that Native civilization had not reached the same evolutionary stage as it had in Britain. Native lifeways were subjected to withering judgments, and Native civilizations were marked out not only for conquest, but extinction. These conclusions reaffirmed not only British racial superiority and masculinity but also the capitalist system and the British imperial project. The vehemence of the discourse, however, speaks to a deep-seated anxiousness about industrialization, commercialization, and imperialism, as well as the disappearance of Native Americans. The British hunters seem to have understood the moral bankruptcy of scientific racism and Social Darwinism, which is why professions of sympathy often preceded statements about Natives' inevitable destruction. Ultimately, the hunter-writers adopted the scientific framework and worldview in order to psychologically come to terms with the destruction of an entire people and to exonerate themselves from any culpability.In sum, these accounts allowed hunter-writers to craft an unassailable identity that showed them to be the natural elite of an evolutionarily-fit British nation, and they are a powerful demonstration of how in the late nineteenth century upper-class writers successfully attempted to manipulate structural social change to their purposes through discourse. Of course, hunting accounts were just one piece of the cultural edifice that the upper class employed in order to stave off full democratization and class warfare, but they are nevertheless important. Scholars who analyze British hunting accounts have privileged African hunting accounts in trying to understand British masculinity and racial attitudes, but no hunting accounts better reflect the totality of the domestic and imperial concerns of the upper class than these hunting accounts of the American West. Furthermore, since there was such a large range of unique challenges and threats to be overcome, the accounts offered powerful vindications of upper-class superiority. Thus, the American West served as a crucial arena where hunter-writers could reconcile themselves to a changing domestic and geo-political order, and articulate a powerful cultural message that had reverberations beyond self-representation.
URI: http://hdl.handle.net/10106/5442
Date: 2011-03-03

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