A sporting life

EARLY SOUTHERN SPORTS AND SPORTSMEN 1830-1910: A Literary Anthology. By Jacob F. Rivers III. University of South Carolina Press. 296 pages. $34.95.

A LIFE AFIELD. By A. Hunter Smith. University of South Carolina Press. 296 pages. $34.95.

With these two volumes, University of South Carolina Press continues its long commitment to acquire and publish important sporting/outdoor manuscripts. Such works mirror the Southerner’s much vaunted attachment to place and his respect for the code of honorable sportsmanship. Hunting stories also show respect for the game being pursued and harvested by reliving the stealth and skill of the hunter in a contest against the strength, speed and elusiveness of his quarry.

This is the second USC Press volume by Jacob F. Rivers III, who is the director of veteran’s services at the University of South Carolina. His first book, “Cultural Values in the Southern Sporting Narrative,” published in 2002, explored the recurring themes of honor, fair play and noblesse oblige and examined how the sporting narrative has reflected the moral consciousness of the South.

He brings those insights to the fore in his new book, “Early Southern Sports and Sportsmen, 1830-1910,” which chronicles the development of the sporting narrative from some of its earliest forms and clearly shows a common vocabulary and shared ethos, story-telling patterns which continue on into contemporary offerings.

For this anthology, Rivers collected 22 stories written by 12 Southern writers whose literary contributions spanned the 19th and 20th centuries. They include historical figures such as J.J. Audubon, Thomas Bang Thorpe, David Crockett and South Carolinians William Elliott and William Gilmore Simms. These and the collection’s other writers expressed in their stories what Rivers terms the primitive unity of man and nature, and they thought of themselves as extensions of a living environment to which they felt closely bound.

“More than anything else, the present collection reveals that the return to nature through the hunt offers one of the surest pathways to a positive environmental awareness that draws on the intricate complexities of nature for spiritual regeneration,” Rivers writes.

Most of the writers were conscious of the requirements for the approval of their reading audiences. William Elliott lamented in “A Wild-Cat Hunt in Carolina,” a chapter from his 1846 “Carolina Sports by Land and Water,” that “a word too little makes you vague, and a word too much makes you tedious.” Throughout, there are glimpses of the unwritten ethos of sport, gentlemanly sportsmanship, which later evolved into the multifaceted modern conservation movement, as readers of outdoor tales were made familiar with the wonders of the natural environment, which they felt well worth preserving.

The selection of individual stories for this anthology was well thought out, and they offer a variety of adventure, history and woodsmanship, often accompanied with introspection and humor. The author’s introduction and chapter headnotes offer valuable insights and thoughtful commentary on the history of this writing genre.

Continuing in the tradition of the Southern sporting narrative is Hunter Smith’s excellently written, “A Life Afield.” Smith has great gifts as a storyteller. All of the hunting stories are told from personal experience and they are as much about family, friends and dogs as they are about him. In the manner of Archibald Rutledge, he has great skills in observing and describing his surroundings and what goes on in them, and he has a keen facility for connecting to his readers and drawing them into the story.

There is much of the familiar in his portrayal of Lowcountry hunting scenes: the marshes, the marsh meadows, the old rice field impoundments, the pinelands and the small-patch fields. The reader can almost feel the warm glow of a fall afternoon following bird dogs through broom straw or the grip of a sharp, icy winter morning in a duck blind at sunrise.

Smith’s stories exemplify what Rice described as the dependable conventions of Southern sports writing: fair play and gentlemanly sportsmanship, learning the rules from father’s and big brothers and a few rough-around-the-edges friends who teach one how to savor his experiences afield and nurture the responsibilities of friendship. These, in part, were what noted ecologist Aldo Leopold called “split rail values,” which keep us connected to the natural world.

Smith brings a lot of critical self-examination into his stories and writes such sterling passages as, “You rarely learn anything from successes in the field, simply because it never demands that you strive to better your understanding of it. You advance that understanding by making mistakes and learning from them.” He notes the difficulty of some sportsmen in turning mistakes into triumphs rather than constantly repeating them. “Those outdoorsmen who were able to do so had one thing in common: they kept a sense of humor about themselves and life in general.”

The 10 chapters of “A Life Afield” are rich examples of excellent storytelling in any genre and should provide the reader with several hours of absorbing and entertaining reading. One would hope that Smith does not stop here and that he will have more interesting stories to tell in future volumes to come.

Reviewer Ben McC. Moise is an author and essayist who lives in Charleston.