The Wolves that America Made

Jon T. Coleman. Vicious: Wolves and Men in America. 2004. History.

Coleman_Vicious_book_coverColeman’s shrewd, genre-bending, and surprisingly informal environmental history lays out how Anglo-Americans have perceived and treated wolves since colonial times. The author approaches his sprawling topic from the angle of encounters; specifically, he examines how the Anglo-American perception of our furry brethren shifted over time. We dreaded wolves as fearsome monsters, criminalized them as skulking robbers and rustlers, demonized them as troublesome vermin, and ultimately lionized them as romantic heroes. As he documents these shifting perceptions, Coleman reviews how Americans have perpetuated myths about Canis lupis and projected their own psychosocial concerns onto wolves.

The Little Red Riding Hood motif eventually faltered because gray wolves are NOT aggressive toward humans. One ghastly anecdote describes a wolf cringing and whining as a trapper cuts the wolf’s hamstrings. Eventually, colonists came to malign wolves as little more than untameable outlaws skulking in the woods and raiding livestock. To ensure the triumph of domesticity over nature, wolves had to be exterminated—poisoned, trapped, mutilated, or herded together to be slaughtered. And the vast majority were.

Vicious is not perfect. Given that Anglo Americans put bounties on the scalps of wolves and Indians alike, it’s a shame that Coleman fails to compare perceptions of the two groups. The book’s other drawback is its language, which can be surprisingly polemical and colloquial for a book published by Yale University Press. For example, Coleman ridicules one wolf-killer as an “underemployed lover of guns, beer, and bear hunting” and hunting as a way to “make a small man feel big”—a fair critique, perhaps, but one applicable to any non-essential human activity, including writing. Even so, Jon Coleman’s Vicious delivers a solid, engaging study of the interaction of wolves and Americans, though one lacking the profundity that accompanies greatness.

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