Men in Eden: William Drummond Stewart and Same-Sex Desire in the Rocky Mountain Fur
Nature's Noblemen: Transatlantic Masculinities and the Nineteenth-Century American West
September 1, 2015
Review By Elizabeth Vibert
Reading these two books in tandem is a reminder, if one were needed, that all is relational. Considered in isolation, each work offers illuminating insights into imperial hunting culture in the American West. Read in light of one another, the authors’ political and analytic investments come into sharp relief. William Benemann’s lively work is a tale of same-sex desire in a libertine wild west. Monica Rico’s engaging volume places in transnational context the efforts of elite big-game hunters to secure or rejuvenate their masculine identities (while giving short shrift to colonial domains to the north, about which more shortly). Benemann’s prism is sexuality, while Rico’s is elite white male anxieties seeking resolution in the West. Benemann is a little too dogged in pursuit of same-sex love: Stewart, we’re told, had scant interest in “anything he could not shoot or embrace” (69). Rico is a tad instrumentalist in her analysis of how elite identities were fashioned on the western frontier. The West might have served as “therapeutic space” (84) for stressed-out wealthy men, but surely the therapy was not always as anticipated.
Benemann’s Men in Eden is the first biography in many years of William Drummond Stewart, a Scottish big-game hunter and adventurer best known for taking painter Alfred J. Miller to the Rocky Mountains in the late 1830s. Exhaustive archival research grounds Benemann’s central argument that Stewart was gay and involved in a lasting sexual relationship with Metis hunter Antoine Clement. I find his reading of and around the documentary evidence on Stewart (including Stewart’s problematic novels) convincing. The study moves onto thinner ice, though, when Benemann tries to generalise more widely. His theory that the Rocky Mountain fur trade held special attraction for men seeking licence for heterodox sexualities seems a stretch, not least in light of extensive scholarship on fur-trade intimacies and marriage practices. In the regions where Drummond travelled many traders would have had wives and partners of Indigenous, African, or Mexican heritage. Some of the 16 or 17 percent (we get both figures) who performed as “lifelong bachelors” (7, 74), who Benemann implies may have been gay, would have been men who chose to keep their interracial intimacies under wraps. No doubt a proportion were keeping same-sex intimacies quiet, but there is not enough evidence here to convince the reader that the Rocky Mountain fur trade was a hotbed. Nonetheless, Benemann’s book is an important reminder that there was more opportunity for same-sex erotic love in the past than many present-day commentators are willing to accept.
Rico’s Nature’s Noblemen guides readers through five fascinating case studies of imperial and metropolitan players in the nineteenth-century West. Many are well known — Buffalo Bill Cody, Theodore Roosevelt (the comparison with his less illustrious brother is instructive), and Isabella Bird, the sole woman in the field — and others new to most readers. I found Rico’s analysis of William Drummond Stewart intriguing on first read, although her account of the “friendship” (25) between Clement and Stewart is undone by Benemann’s revelations. Rico’s graceful, lucid prose is turned to excellent effect in cultural historical analyses of her subjects’ preoccupations along axes of gender, race, and class. Training in British history allows her to delve usefully into the context of elite culture there and on the east coast of America, and to put her finger on the class and racial anxieties of men who found their privilege under increasing threat at home. All being relational, though, I couldn’t help thinking how Rico’s analysis might be sharpened by bringing subaltern masculinities — and femininities — into the frame. The most satisfying chapter, in my view, is the one that looks at the Earl of Dunraven alongside Isabella Bird, both of whom sought “western solutions” (85) for the maladies and marginalisation they experienced at home.
Reading these works brought to mind my first journal article, when a US reviewer took me to task for having overlooked a particular American title relevant to my work. These two books remind us — again, if we needed reminding — that American authors do not labour under the reverse expectation. No one drew the authors’ attention to the wide field of Canadian scholarship on the fur trade, imperial gender fashioning, or manly sport. Rico’s study is usefully transnational in a number of ways — we learn about networks of privileged hunting men that traversed the Atlantic and in Roosevelt’s case drew in India and Africa as well — but the eminently relevant Canadian northwest is hardly to be found. Rico briefly mentions the work of Tina Loo (103), but would have benefitted, for instance, from engagement with Adele Perry’s work (influential well beyond Canada) on the ways imperial identities might be profoundly unsettled, and ultimately reworked, in challenging colonial settings. There seems a little too much unfettered self-discovery, at times a too tidy “resolving” of tensions in the texts of Stewart, Dunraven, Bird, and Roosevelt. Benemann’s study, meanwhile, would be enriched by exposure to more than two decades of fur trade scholarship attentive to gender and sexuality. His discussion of fur-trader liaisons with Indigenous women (e.g., 7-8; 73-74) cries out for a reading of Sylvia Van Kirk and Jennifer Brown (and more recently, Ann Laura Stoler).
Beyond Canadian scholarship, both books would benefit from engagement with the rich ethnohistorical literature about the American West. Rico’s study, albeit focused on elite self-fashioning, tends to portray Western landscapes as empty. Indigenous peoples are mentioned, but usually as undifferentiated “Indians” and mostly for the way they are “elided” in her subjects’ narratives. Limited attention is paid to the way Indigenous performances of masculinity may have influenced elite men seeking to devise their own frontier variant. Similarly, studies of racialization of the peoples of the West might help to nuance Benemann’s representation of Clement as a man with “a wild, mischievous streak, an irreverence in the face of authority, and a pernicious addiction to alcohol” (89). Not to say he wasn’t those things, but the language is loaded in ways that bear unpacking. These books make important contributions to the historiography of the American West as site for sexual discovery and as node in transnational webs of manly enterprise. Both would be enriched by casting an eye northward.
Men in Eden: William Drummond Stewart and Same-Sex Desire in the Rocky Mountain Fur Trade
Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012. 384 pp. $29.95 paper
Nature’s Noblemen: Transatlantic Masculinities and the Nineteenth-Century American West
New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013. 305 pp. $45.00 cloth