Big Game, Big Words
Killing Words: Hunting Literature’s Best
Hunting stakes its place in nearly every ancient mythology, when gods and deities reigned through spoken word and humans sought permission from the heavens for the right to kill. Later, it extended into the next logical area, literature, as one of the art’s most seductive muses. Alongside love and war, hunting has proved a powerful literary vehicle for storytellers capturing and exploring the big questions hanging on the human condition: life and death, man and nature, right and wrong. The following list is likely familiar to those acquainted with hunting’s place in the canon of Western literature. If you’ve not had the pleasure, let these books be windows to understanding the cultural value of hunting, according to those who hunt, those who write and the masters who did both.
The Green Hills of Africa
By Ernest Hemingway: Ernest Hemingway lived two lives. One as Hemingway, the novelist and short story maestro who helped define modern prose and nearly killed the adjective. The second we refer to as Papa, that legendary, larger-than-life persona, seduced by war, women, booze, and women with booze. The two personalities were not always mutually exclusive, and females and drinking were certainly recurring motifs in Hemingway’s fiction; but it is in this nonfiction account, The Green Hills of Africa, that the convergence is most apparent. The text conveys Hemingway’s own safari in East Africa, accompanied by his wife Penelope as the pair hunt big game, swearing and drinking along the way. His writing touches on the primal experience felt between hunter and bounty, with thoughtful meditations on man’s connection to the land he roams. As a bonus, the book also includes some of Hemingway’s most interesting musings on the act of writing itself.
The Old Man and the Boy
By Robert Ruark: The stories collected in The Old Man and the Boy, often considered by readers to be a semi-autobiographical account of Robert Ruark’s own upbringing, take place in rural country of North Carolina in the first half of the 20th century. The book takes its name from a syndicated column the author wrote for Field & Stream in the years between 1953 and 1961, from which these stories also appeared. They follow the endearing relationship between two characters, Bobby and his “Old Man”, as they partake in numerous activities in the outdoors, including both fishing and hunting. Though from a different era, Ruark’s words endure as a tender reminder of the childlike fascination and wonderment inspired from the passing of tradition between generations, even if that’s just the simple understanding that your dogs will do the dirty work in finding all the ducks.
Death in the Long Grass
By Peter Capstick: Generally speaking, white hunters were the non-native professional hunters who made a living leading big game safaris through Africa in the early parts of the 20th century. Thanks to a legacy of literature with style that was neither glorifying nor romantic (compared to other hunters-turned-autobiographers), Peter Capstick is considered not just a one of the greatest guides but also one of the greatest writers on the subject. Death in the Long Grass is the autobiographical account that chronicles his adventures in Africa searching for deadly serious big game. Accounts of disfigured children fatally bitten by snakes and of men dragged away by lions and leopards make Capstick’s writings graphic and unforgiving for the cautious reader, but an authentic, intense glimpse into a world now lived through legend.
A Hunter’s Fireside Book: Tales of Dogs, Ducks, Birds, & Guns
By Gene Hill: Gene Hill is perhaps best remembered as an essayist for publications such as Guns & Ammo, Sports Afield and Field & Stream, one who conveyed a deep knowledge and affection for the great outdoors. He was an avid collector of guns, and wrote compassionately about the bond between a hunter and his hunting dogs. The short chapters found in his first published collection, A Hunter’s Fireside Book, are rarely more than two pages long, and serve as brief meditations on the subtleties familiar to true sportsmen: empty shotgun shells; whiskey and friends around a campfire; cold, wet mornings in a duck blind; and the pleasures of finding meaning in the little things that give shape to life itself.
Sketches From a Hunter’s Album: The Complete Edition
By Ivan Turgenev: Today, the name Ivan Turgenev is most intimately linked to Hemingway, and considered, alongside other big-name Russians (Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov), to be a great influence on the American author. Here, in Sketches from a Hunter’s Album (sometimes translated as A Sportsman’s Sketches), a number of short vignettes are strung together by the author’s pursuit of birds to hunt. Turgenev profiles the peasants and landowners he meets in 25 short sketches that give shape to the vast, beautiful, and sometimes brutish Russian countryside.
Hunting Trips of a Ranchman & the Wilderness Hunter
By Theodore Roosevelt: In 1884, nearly 20 years before Roosevelt became president, his mother and wife died on the same day, inspiring him to take up cattle ranching in the Dakotas and spend time away from politics. During that time, he published both Hunting Trips of a Ranchman and The Wilderness Hunter, both of which explore his admiration for the countryside with the people and animals that made it unique. Though the prose is antiquated by today’s standards, Roosevelt’s words strike harmony with the spirit of Americana and the connection to the land he called home, which would later inspire his strengthening and expansion of the United States National Park System as president.