By Jim Casada
Note: This is a revised and shortened version of Jim Casada’s introduction to the 1987 Premier Press reprint of De Shootinest Gent’man.
Nash Buckingham was born in Memphis, TN, on May 31, 1880, the son of Miles Sherman and Annie (Gyfford) Buckingham. Growing up in Memphis exposed him to the ideals of gentility and humanity that characterized Southern society at its best, and these praiseworthy attributes were to be the essence of the man throughout his career. An innate courtesy and respect for his fellow man, no matter what his race, lay at the heart of Buckingham’s very being. The uninitiated or casual reader of his poetry and prose might be tempted to condemn him unjustly of being condescending if not forthrightly racist in his treatment of blacks. A more careful reading of his work, however, will reveal the esteem in which he held members of that race and the prominent (and favorable) role they are assigned in both his writings and real life.
In Buckingham’s adolescent years, Memphis was the commercial heart of a region where cotton long had been king, but within short distance still lay marvelous hunting and fishing territory. Though we know less than we wish about Buckingham’s development during this period, his writings suggest that he spent a lot of time in the field. In all likelihood his parents were quite affluent, because published recollections of his youthful hunting contacts and the nature of his formal education suggest comfortable circumstances.
An individual whose bonhomie was matched by a powerful intellect, Buckingham enjoyed the opportunities to expand and develop his mental abilities as an undergraduate at Harvard University and the University of Tennessee. He also pursued legal studies at the latter institution. Although there is apparently no concrete evidence to confirm this, one suspects he transferred from the sometimes sterile atmosphere of Cambridge to the more appealing environs of Knoxville as a result of the combined effects of homesickness and the absence of river bottoms and pointing dogs. Certainly the full years of Buckingham’s subsequent career, as well as specific statements he made, indicate that an abiding love of the South and the genteel pace that moved its people were deeply imbedded in his character.
Buckingham’s athletic abilities — he was a four-sport star at the University of Tennessee — naturally figured prominently in the duck blind and afield. From an early age he was a first-rate wing shot. The original introduction to De Shootinest Gent’man quotes the gun editor of Field and Stream, Captain Paul Curtis, on Buckingham’s abilities, and the author of the piece, Colonel Harold Sheldon, also praises his shooting prowess. If Buckingham was a master with the shotgun, eventually he would make even more of a mark as a writer and commentator. Surprisingly, he pursued a variety of occupations, even though the first of them was as a journalist, before eventually deciding that writing was his métier.
His apprenticeship as a sports writer came immediately after college with a stint on the staff of the Memphis Commercial Appeal, where, as a sports writer, he was especially noted for his coverage of football. His marriage in 1910 to Irma Lee Jones ended his work with the newspaper. Doubtless feeling an increased sense of responsibility as a result of his new marital status, Buckingham tried his hand at a number of occupations over the next two decades, but all related in some way to the sporting instincts that were so deeply ingrained in him. These included, among others, ownership of a sporting goods business in Memphis from 1917 to 1925, a directorship with the Western Cartridge Company, and an associate editor’s position with Field and Stream magazine. The latter position, together with a growing string of published tales to his credit, led directly to the publication of his best-known book, De Shootinest Gent’man.
Once Buckingham reached a juncture in life where he possessed sufficient introspection to realize just how much the sporting life meant to him, he abandoned all pretense of pursuing other careers and gave himself fully to his first love. His prolific pen produced a steady stream of articles for the best sporting journals of the day, and his knack of crafting sprightly, well-told tales served him well. All of his books are, in essence, collections of such tales spiced with an ample sprinkling of his simple, unaffected poetry.
Both Buckingham’s poetic and prosaic endeavors drew heavily on his own experiences or those of individuals with whom he was familiar. One of the finest ways to grasp the measure of the man lies in reading his works and recognizing the pronounced autobiographical strain they contain. He was a master of dialect, especially that of the blacks who served as cooks, dog handlers and sporting jacks-of-all-trade in the real-life world he knew, and he makes good use of this ability in his writings. Buckingham has been criticized on more than one occasion for his extensive use of dialect, but in truth it gives reality to his work. For anyone with Southern roots, his words soon come to have an almost uncanny audibility — as if they were actually being spoken — and even the untrained ear easily adjusts to their rhythmic quality. From the outset reviewers recognized this special ability of Buckingham’s, although one should hasten to add that he was masterful in producing well-turned phrases in normal English.
Ever the obliging gentleman, in literary pursuits as well as everyday affairs, Buckingham followed his first full-length work with a number of similar efforts. These included six further volumes in much the same vein: Mark Right! (1936), Ole Miss’ (1937), Blood Lines (1938), Tattered Coat (1944), Game Bag (1945) and Hallowed Years (1953). Later Buckingham coauthored, with William F. Brown, National Field Trial Champions: An Authentic and Detailed History of the National Field Trial Championship Association Since Its Inception in 1896 (1955). This highly specialized, carefully researched work was a labor of love, for Buckingham long had been a fixture at regional field competitions, and beginning in 1933 he regularly judged at the National Field Trials.
Field judging was but one of many examples of the manner in which Buckingham closely paralleled his literary endeavors by giving unstintingly of himself to causes devoted to the betterment of hunting, sporting literature and the preservation of the American outdoor tradition. A man of considerable perception with a shrewd eye to the future, he was among the first to recognize the variegated ways in which the changing face of America would affect the sport.
As one of the founders of OWAA, Buckingham realized that as access to habitat declined, there would be a concomitant rise in demand for literature about that habitat and the game it supported. In the same vein, he became a noted conservationist and regularly raised his voice to help that cause. His services in this regard were recognized by a number of awards, and rightly so. Buckingham was tireless in his efforts to reduce the bootlegging of game, to eradicate widespread indifference to (and even official connivance in) game law violations and he was one of the staunchest advocates of the Migratory Bird Treaty. In short, he left far more to future generations of sportsmen than his wonderful literary legacy.
Ever the athlete and a man of surpassing physical fitness, Buckingham lived to a ripe old age and hunted virtually to the end. Buckingham died on March 10, 1971, just two months short of his 91st birthday in Knoxville, TN, home of his daughter. More than 20 years earlier a journalist had called Buckingham “one of a disappearing American strain,” and there is no question that he stands among our great sportsmen and sporting writers. A gentleman in the original and finest sense of the word (“gentle man”), Buckingham has left to posterity his own memorial. His books capture forever the flavor of the man and his milieu, and without question he ranks well to the forefront of OWAA’s legends.
Jim Casada of Rock Hill, SC, is a freelance writer, book author, editor, columnist and lecturer. A member of OWAA since 1986, Casada recently served as OWAA’s president.