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Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
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Books for Adults - Nonfiction

Cover Art: Gentlemen's Blood
Gentlemen’s Blood
A History of Dueling from Swords at Dawn to Pistols at Dusk
By Barbara Holland
Bloomsbury, 2003, ISBN 1-58234-366-7, $24.95


For centuries the duel was a time-honored way for men to settle their differences. To not meet on the field of honor was to forever be deemed a coward. The duel permitted one man to prevail over another by following a set sequence of rules meant first to avert the duel, and if not, then to insure fairness. The duel settled questions of loyalty, land ownership, job preference, legislation, gambling debts, honesty, courage, and female chastity. The injured party did not always triumph; sometimes the person who issued the insult won. It mattered not whether the insult was slight or imagined or whether dueling was illegal. As Robespierre said, “Honor is above the law.”

Barbara Holland traces the evolution of the duel from its origins in medieval trial by combat, through its emergence as a rite of passage into manhood, from Europe to America to Russia, until dueling fell out of favor in the twentieth century. She compares duels fought with swords versus those fought with pistols, and shows how they evolved from a prerogative solely of the upperclass to one embraced by common folk. Although few men engaged in duels over a woman’s love, some women met to recoup their honor. Men, who wrote accounts of all duels, failed to take them seriously. Their participation merely served to prove women were silly, spiteful, jealous, poor sportsmen, and bad marksmen. After all, women had no honor to defend, just their chastity, which fathers, brothers, and husbands defended.

The first recorded duel occurred in 501, the last in 2002. This is an entertaining, eye-opening, and lighthearted look at an important aspect of our social history. How people of each century regarded the duel provides an interesting revelation about their society and those that served on juries and chose not to punish the lawbreakers.

A wealth of controversial passages make great fodder for debates. One that I took exception to was the author’s comparison of the duel to practices of Scottish Highlanders. “Without rules, all Europe might be like the Highlands of Scotland, when clans lived in a constant state of organized war, ambushing each other in groups, laying waste to the neighborhood, killing as many as they could reach, and then carrying off the womenfolk and anything else portable, always for perfectly sound ancestral reasons.” On the surface, this passage illustrates Ms. Holland’s sarcasm and lighthearted treatment of the subject of dueling. Historically speaking, though, it exaggerates the truth and reiterates the stereotypical portrayal of Highlanders as uncouth warriors.

On the other hand, her inclusion of a quotation from South Carolina’s Governor John Lyde Wilson’s The American Code; or, Rules for the Government of Principals and Seconds in Dueling (1838) explained the necessity of dueling in a unique way even though he claimed not to favor dueling. “If an oppressed nation has a right to appeal to arms in defence of its liberty and the happiness of its people, there can be no argument used in support of such appeal which will not apply with equal force to individuals.”

What particularly enriches this treatise are the abundant examples of specific duels, including passages from newspaper reports, journals, and first-hand accounts. Although few will know the lesser-known participants, most readers will have heard of Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, Stephen Decatur, Alexander Pushkin, Lord Byron, Wild Bill Hickok, the Earps at the OK Corral, and the Hatfields and McCoys.

Book Review Copyright ©2003 Cindy Vallar

Q & A with Barbara Holland

What gave you the idea to write a book about dueling in the first place?

As full disclosure, it wasn't originally my idea. It was an assignment for Smithsonian Magazine, from a great editor there, to write a piece about duels. It ran in 1997, I think, and I forgot about it until a couple of years ago, when the idea came up to sponsor some books based on past articles. My dueling piece was mentioned--it was called "Bang Bang You're Dead"--and I was happy for the chance to learn more.

Obviously you didn't have hands-on experience, and nobody's still around to interview. How did you do the research?

There's the great blessing of the Internet. For the initial article, I was crawling around back rooms in libraries and used-book stores forever, and kept coming up dry--it's not a well-documented subject, to say the least. Now with a click of the mouse I can have any ancient, out-of-print book still in one piece, from anywhere in the world. Books on political duels, duels in twentieth-century Germany, duels in New Orleans, swordsmiths. And then just poking around on my own, I turned up local legends, newspaper archives, memoirs, that kind of thing.

How could you tell how reliable they were?

I couldn't. When it sounded like a pack of lies, I say so, but you can't find the bedrock truth. Duels were more or less illegal more or less everywhere most of the time, so nobody called disinterested reporters in to watch--or at least not until twentieth-century Europe, where they liked to have photographers too. So the seconds all wrote accounts saying that their man was brave and noble and the other man was a sniveling coward. Then the seconds challenged each other and fought another duel.

Did anything you found surprise you?

I was stunned at how much of it there was, and how long it lasted. Some of us learned in school about the Burr/Hamilton duel, but nobody told us that the rest of the Founding Fathers could scarcely get a lick of work done for challenging each other and breaking out the pistols. Not to mention the newspaper editors, especially in the American South and West. It's a wonder they ever got a paper out, in between the challenges. Judges and lawyers, senators and congressmen, all busy blowing each other's ears off.

What about the change from swords to pistols? What effect did that have?

You had better control over a sword than a gun, especially a primitive pistol. If a good swordsman was only slightly cross with his opponent, he could give him a whack on the elbow and disable his arm, then shake hands and buy him a drink. With a pistol you might accidentally blow an old friend to pieces. In one pistol duel, both principals fired simultaneously and simultaneously killed each other's seconds.

On the other hand, pistols were more democratic. Swordplay was an aristocratic tradition, and took practice and training, but anyone can pull a trigger. Pistols opened the duel up to ordinary folk.

Do you have a favorite duel?

That would be a hard call. Duels were mostly either comic or tragic. Ridiculously silly or hideously inevitable. I think, though, I like La Maupin, the opera singer, who enjoyed wearing men's clothing and dancing with pretty ladies. One pretty lady's gentlemen suitors, several of them, ordered her out of the room at a ball, and she called them out and skewered the lot of them. Then she went back to the ball.

What about a favorite duelist?

I like Saint-Foix, a French writer--the French literary scene was a bloodbath: Voltaire, de Maupassant, Dumas, even Proust, everyone dueled. Saint-Foix had fought so many duels he could afford to say no. He told an officer of the Guard he smelled like a goat, and when the officer challenged him, he said, "Put up your sword, you fool. If you kill me you will not smell any better, and if I kill you, you will soon smell much worse."

You suggest we might bring the duel back. Why?

It had its points. It certainly siphoned off a lot of hostility and testosterone. It took the strain off the courts, since nobody sued anyone they could shoot at instead. It livened up the political scene. And it was great for the white man's self-esteem, which I hear is in sad disarray these days. Maybe we should.

Wouldn't that encourage violence?

Violence doesn't need much encouragement. It seems to be here to stay, and the duel was set up originally to limit it. Keep it organized within strict bounds, with an elaborate code of rules all gentlemen had to obey or get shunned socially. Better to defend your honor with regulated swordplay and witnesses than to hire some thugs to break your enemy's skull on the highway or burn down his house at midnight.

Now, of course, we defend our honor with libel suits, and wash away the insult with cash. We consider ourselves more civilized. Our forebears might consider us a bunch of cowardly poltroons.

Interview courtesy of Bloomsbury and printed with permission.

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