Kalergis, Mary Motley. Foxhunters Speak: An Oral History of American Foxhunting. New York: The Derrydale Press, 2017. Pp. 224. Index, Glossary. $30 hardback.
Reviewed by Benjamin Dettmar
As someone who grew up in the UK and remembers vividly the debates and parliamentary votes on foxhunting in the early 2000s I was excited to read Mary Motley Kalergis’ book on foxhunting in the US. The book is not a definitive academic history of foxhunting in the US but rather an examination of foxhunting over the past 100 years told through the words of those who have participated in the sport. It is an interesting and unique approach and a useful introduction to the culture of foxhunting about which I imagine many in the US know very little.
Kalergis’ book is extremely simple in its premise. After a short introduction she interviews over 50 people who have been involved with foxhunting in the US and asks one question “Who got you interested in foxhunting, and what did you learn from them?”. The book’s simplicity is a strength. The over 50 individuals who are interviewed are left to tell their own story and each person interprets the question in their own way. It is all too easy when conducting an oral history to impart your own views and angles whilst questioning; Kalergis manages to avoid this. There were times when I wanted the individual to be pushed to say more about a specific aspect of their foxhunting story and there were times when the interviewees needed to be reined in a little, but Kalergis’ ability to let people tell their own story is to be applauded. The interviews are interspersed with photos and images of foxhunting which help to give the reader a flavor of the people Kalergis is interviewing. There is also a useful glossary of foxhunting terms.
If, like me, you know next to nothing about foxhunting in the US this book is probably not the best starting point. It is undoubtedly a book aimed at those within the seemingly small cohort of foxhunters in the US. The same names, geographic areas, and topics come up repeatedly and although the history and culture of the sport do come out piecemeal through the voices of those being interviewed the reader is never taken on a chronological or cultural history of foxhunting in the US. This is not necessarily a criticism and Kalergis does not claim to be telling a substantive history of the sport; it may, however, have been useful to point the reader to some of the “literary masterworks” she mentions that have been written about foxhunting.
Upon completion of the book I have a much clearer understanding of the socioeconomic demographics of foxhunting in the US. Although the interviews she conducts are reproduced verbatim there are clearly editorial choices in terms of what has been reproduced for the final copy of the book. Many interviewees discuss their humble beginnings and working-class backgrounds yet when taken in totality the book would appear to be a lens into upper-middle class America. Why is this? Is foxhunting a means to social mobility? Nearly a third of the interviewees are women yet their interviews show that there appears to be a dichotomy in terms of gender and positions of power and prestige within the foxhunting community. What is the history of women in positions of power in the foxhunting community? Has this changed over the years?
One interviewee, the author Rita Mae Brown, celebrates the inclusivity of foxhunting.
The exciting thing for me is to see more women Masters and huntsmen through the years. Rich and poor, men and women, black and white—everyone hunted, drank, and danced back when I was growing up. African American culture is steeped in foxhunting. George Washington’s huntsman was black, as was the great Casanova huntsman Cash Blue. During slavery, the good huntsmen were like rock stars. Some could buy their family’s freedom if they successfully hunted their Master’s hounds. (226–227)
There are some incredible claims in these three sentences and it left me wanting to know more, much more. This (along with my questions above) is perhaps where I wish the author (or the editor) had pushed for more information from the interviewees or the book contained some sort of comprehensive social and chronological history of foxhunting in the US. Similarly, there are times when references are made (but not always explained) regarding the differences in foxhunting in the US and in Europe. There is also scant mention of the debates and controversies that have surrounded foxhunting in the recent past, except for the interviewees to discuss the natural nature of hunting for the animals involved and the necessity of hunting to aid farmers. This is understandable as it is a book by the foxhunting community for the foxhunting community. However, I do wish that the socio-economic and historical issues that are mentioned would have received the investigation and discussion that they deserve. Maybe the work I am looking for is the job of an historian rather than a foxhunter; I do hope it is written as there is a fascinating book to be produced on these topics.
Foxhunters Speak is published by the Derrydale Press, which is not an Academic Press. Mary Motley Kalergis is documentary photographer and not an historian so I realize that perhaps I am looking for something that both the author and the press did not intend. What was promised in the introduction however was that “there’s not a group of people more adept at storytelling than foxhunters”, after reading the book I am inclined to agree. The vivid imagery in the tales told and the humorous takes on the sport help paint a picture of rural America that I had no idea existed and serve as a useful introduction to the sport to readers like myself. I imagine that to those within the community the book is read with a broad smile as names, places, and scenarios are instantly recognizable. I have a feeling that is what the author intended and if so she was undoubtedly successful.
Byline: Benjamin Dettmar is a Ph.D. candidate whose work focuses on the impact hosting the Olympic Games, and bidding to host the Olympic Games, has had on US cities and US Culture. He can be reached at email@example.com, or on twitter @olympicsprof.