Precis & Review of Elliot Gorn’s “‘Gouge and Bite, Pull Hair, and Scratch’: The Social Significance of Fighting in the Southern Backcountry”

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The following essay was originally written for a college course on March 18, 2019. It is posted here because, well, words.

Elliot Gorn examines the brutal combat rituals of manhood unique to the deep rural communities of the southern United States in his 25-page essay, “’Gouge and Bite, Pull Hair, and Scratch’: The Social Significance of Fighting in the Southern Backcountry.” Drawing on some primary source witness testimonies but largely supplementing his research with secondary sources, Gorn recreates a forgotten world where the highest members of the lowest communities fought, in the literal sense, for status in one-on-one matches, the goal of which was to gouge out the opponent’s eyes.

In a few graphic paragraphs, Gorn describes the recurring spectacle of two men engaging in no-holds-barred, surrender or be incapacitated, weaponless “rough and tumble” from the points of view of outsiders, who were mainly higher-class individuals visiting the area on travel. These outsiders wrote mostly with disdain for the practice of rough-and-tumble. Some tried, without success, to outlaw it. The rest of the article is spent positioning the backwoodsmen in their communities, in society at large, and in their time. Isolated and impecunious with very little to look forward to, these backwoodsmen developed their own internal social caste system wherein respect and honor could be gained through participation in violence. Even the scarred and the eyeless could be looked upon with reverence just on behalf of their participation. Gorn never condones the violence, but he does impart due empathy upon the backwoodsmen, casting them simply as products of their time. Ultimately, he argues that, “As their own unique rites of honor, rough-and-tumble matches allowed backcountry men to shout their equality at each other.”

Review

The aptly titled “’Gouge and Bite, Pull Hair, and Scratch’: The Social Significance of Fighting in the Southern Backcountry” by Elliot Gorn takes readers back to the isolated rural communities of the southern United States in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when working class men used one-on-one, hand-to-hand combat to gain stature within their communities. Gorn approaches the jarring subject from both social and cultural angles in order to guide the modern reader to a position of understanding a culture so unlike their own. Gorn chalks up the violence as a matter of individuals on quests to attain community status. What also permeates the pages is the pursuit of proving one’s manhood. Says Gorn in the article’s second liner note, “Let me state explicitly that this is a study in male culture, but it is informed by central insights of recent women’s history…”

Gorn argues that rough-and-tumblers were unable to obtain societal status in the new American democracy, and so used brutality and violence as outlets for signaling their freedom. According to Gorn, this neither animalistic nor primitive, but simply a product of their time. This is an easy argument to make on behalf most historical peoples, but Gorn does it with detail to spare. Starting from the points of view of higher-class individuals, which more closely resemble those of modern readers, Gorn quotes directly from primary source journals and laws enacted at the time to coax out the gritty details of the fighting. Citing Isaac Weld’s travel memoirs published in 1800, Gorn writes, “…they tripped and threw, gouged and butted, scratched and choked each other. ‘But what is worse than all,’ Isaac Weld observed, ‘these wretches in their combat endeavor to their utmost to tear out each other’s testicles.’” (20) It’s these graphic recordings which compel the audience to continue reading and find out how gouging came to be a phenomena.

Gorn draws the bulk of his argument from the study of the cultural and economic disparities of the time which were resultant of class divisions. Readers are no doubt familiar with the merging of capitalist ideals with morality that was happening at the time. The belief of the industrialized society was that health and prosperity were blessings from God, and that the lower class’s lack of prosperity was God’s damnation upon them. Gorn casts the antiquated assumption aside and fleshes out the culture of the “damned” lower class which was so removed as to be totally unassociated with the broader, theistic upper classes. Gorn points out that this was a culture that had its own folklore occupying the same spaces that were occupied by religion in the higher-classes. For a man to become a part of these oral traditions was akin to godliness. Though having to draw from secondary sources, Gorn includes examples where gougers engaged in elaborate boasting, comparing themselves to animals and machines, and saying things such as, “… I can out-run, out-jump, out-shoot, out-brag, out-drink, an’ out-fight… any man on both sides of the river…” (29) To them, physical exertion against another man was the cornerstone required to build their own legend. To curb the perception that this boasting was mere ape-like chest beating, Gorn ascertains that the celebration of violence was also a form of catharsis. Many of the backwoodsmen worked hard at farming and hunting in a land that was, at times, hostile and dangerous, and could kill a man. Some earned money by trafficking goods upriver via rafts. In both environments, the men experienced bouts of violence from nature (the terrain, the animals, storms, etc.) followed by “long periods of idleness shattered by intense anxiety.” So, Gorn posits, “…why not make a virtue of necessity and flaunt one’s unconcern? To revel in the lore of deformity, mutilation, and death was to beat the wilderness at its own game.” (32) Finally, Gorn nails the backwoodsmen and their gouging practices to the pursuit of honor. “Honorific societies tend to be sharply stratified,” he writes. And since the lower-class rural people were so removed from any chance to gain honor among the higher-classes, they developed their own internal meaning and system of attaining honor, one that took an acta non verba approach. This conclusion is somewhat speculative as Gorn relies on secondary sources as well as studies of similar cultures surrounding that of the backwoodsmen in order to make it. It’s on this plausibility that Gorn assesses that the gougers were “…a product of specific cultural assumptions.” Though readers with little prior knowledge on the subject might easily agree with this assertion, its veracity is hard to trust without additional scholarly opinions.

Perhaps since the subject matter here spans roughly two centuries and shows little evolution throughout, Gorn forgoes chronology and sticks to a topical writing structure. Gorn shows the modern audience how gouging would have looked first from an outside perspective before gradually probing inward. He even uses the first sentence of the article to give readers the chance to brace themselves for the visceral gore later in. It’s a quote from a late 1700’s minister advising backwoodsmen to refrain from “…biting one anothers Lips and Noses off…thrusting out one anothers Eyes, and kicking one another…” (18) It sounds so hyperbolic that it’s comical. After taking a few pages to show that the minister’s warnings were based on real, verifiable, extreme violence, Gorn gives us the big picture (i.e., easier to comprehend) drivers for the rough-and-tumbling. The first broad driver Gorn cites is one tied to local economics, saying, “…rough-and-tumbling was best suited to the backwoods, where hunting, herding, and semisubsistence [sic] agriculture predominated over market oriented, staple crop production.” He then goes on to point out the drivers of class and community status, as well as cultural habits.

Gorn’s extensive establishment of setting via multiple anecdotes effectively carries the reader into an entirely new section of the article. From page 27 to 40, Gorn takes his study from external observance inward to the personal realities of southern backwoodsmen. The first step inward is the establishment of personal connection between backwoodsmen and their local folklore, and their desire to become a part of that folklore. He points out that, “Folklore socialized children, inculcated values, and helped forge a distinct regional sensibility.” He even looks to the poetry of Emmeline Grangerford (a fictional poetry-savant character from Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn) to illustrate the “deep loneliness, death longings, and melancholy that permeated backwoods life” (32) that would drive one to commit the type of violence that was justified in the pursuit of legend. After plumbing these personal depths, Gorn steps back just a little to consider the ethnicities attributed to the backwoodsmen and their associated “Old World” traditions, as well as anthropologically based comparisons of backwoods culture to other honorific cultures. Modern readers will appreciate the redemptive quality of Gorn’s last couple of pages as well as the foreboding closing remarks on the dissolution of rough-and-tumble fighting and its replacement. Gorn’s final remark reads, “Thus, progress and technology slowly circumscribed rough-and-tumble fighting, only to substitute a deadlier option. Violence grew neater and more lethal as men checked their savagery to murder each other.” The allusion harkens the idea that perhaps modern ways are not as civil as we perceive them to be.

For those who can stomach the image of a man reaching into his pocket and pulling out another man’s eyeball to show it off to a stranger, “Gouge and Bite…” is a thrilling (albeit, sobering) look into one of the most extreme cultural quirks that was ever sustained by men across multiple centuries. Though necessarily repetitive at times, the article is more than readable and sheds light on the often overshadowed working and lower classes of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Professional historians will be bothered by—if sympathetic to—Gorn’s dependence on secondary sources; even the primary sources come from middle- and upper-class observers. Nevertheless, all readers will be treated to the telling of a history the likes of which they have probably never heard.

The article serves as good a starting point as any for one to understand the associations between impecunity and culturally accepted violence. It creates a baseline for understanding some aspects of modern American southern culture, which to this day remains distinct from the rest of the country. Whether the history of rough-and-tumbling warrants future research beyond what Gorn presents here remains to be seen. Violence and the pursuit of honor are historical constants, although their manifestations have since evolved. Gorn’s history of gouging teaches us to not dismiss all violence as barbarity. It reminds us that honor was once viewed as more than the mere absence of dishonor; it was something to be sought after and won. Honor pervades all social and economic classes. Though few will be envious of the violent lives lived by the rough-and tumblers, one might still pine for a culture where one’s honor is expected to be gained through action and considered to be more valuable than one’s own eye.

Gorn, Elliott J. “”Gouge and Bite, Pull Hair and Scratch”: The Social Significance of Fighting in the Southern Backcountry.” American Historical Review 90 (1985): 18.

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