Dickens and hunting, courtesy of SI

Matthew Teague has an interesting article in Sports Illustrated this week on the decline of hunting in the United States.  Fewer hunters have meant more wildlife attacks on people, more disease, more property damage (including the cost of removing deer carcasses from interstates and roads), and so forth.  There’s also the decline of traditional, familial hunting culture, and its replacement by virtual (video games) and consumerist fantasies of it.  It’s well worth a few minutes of your time, and seems to me to be a good example of the kind of article Sports Illustrated should publish more of–bigger-picture pieces that locate sports, broadly construed, in the culture.

Teague’s basic argument is that, as Americans have become an increasingly indoor nation, we have conceived of hunting largely in moral terms, rather than in resource-management or other terms.  I don’t think he gets the moral argument quite right, however–and his mistake is readable in his abuse of a Dickens quotation:

By the middle of the 20th century, the animal population had begun to rebound, and our fathers and grandfathers could again satisfy what Charles Dickens called “the passion for hunting . . . implanted . . . in the human breast.”

But in the decades since, attitudes have shifted and hardened, and the very idea of hunting as “sport” has come to imply something cavalier.  Among animal-rights advocates it indicated indifference to wildlife.  In two generations the lone hunter–once exemplifd by Teddy Roosevelt–found himself accused of enmity toward nature.  Hunting had become a question of morality.

In reaching for a Dickens quotation to dress up his article, Teague gets tangled up in something.  The Dickens line is from Oliver Twist, Chapter 10:

There is a passion FOR HUNTING SOMETHING deeply implanted in the human breast. One wretched breathless child, panting with exhaustion; terror in his looks; agaony in his eyes; large drops of perspiration streaming down his face; strains every nerve to make head upon his pursuers; and as they follow on his track, and gain upon him every instant, they hail his decreasing strength with joy.

The “passion for hunting,” in other words, is the mob’s bloodthirsty pursuit of a wholly innocent boy, and its delight at the prospect of ravaging him.  Dickens wasn’t suggesting that people naturally like to hunt animals; he was noting that there is an unbridled bloodlust and unslakable desire for cruelty that’s intrinsic to being human. Civilization overlooks this desire at its peril.  (This is why you can’t drop in quotations out of Bartlett‘s or other resources!!)

Teague’s misreading of Dickens is consistent with his downplaying of the savage elements of hunting.  (The same elements become overly fetishized by the video-game hunters out for a thrill.)  And that’s too bad, because the fact that hunting is sometimes savage doesn’t really counter his main point: That it’s also profoundly valuable, and a defining aspect of civilization.  In fact, we could even go a bit further and say that it’s value arises in part from its savagery, because Dickens is right: If we try to ignore or wholly disallow (rather than find outlets for) that cruel instinct, then the consequences will not be to our liking.

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