The Big Bear of Arkansas

by T. B. Thorpe

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 538

The narrator, an educated gentleman knowledgeable about the people and manners of the frontier, describes a short journey by Mississippi River steamboat on which, he asserts, the entire gamut of humanity can be observed. Although he intends to avoid socializing with his fellow passengers, he and they become enthralled by the loud, bragging bear hunter who enters the cabin.

Jim Doggett immediately introduces himself as the Big Bar of Arkansaw, ridicules New Orleans “green-horn hunters,” and declares the superiority of life in Arkansas. His first tale involves a forty-pound wild turkey, and when a cynical Hoosier challenges his account of the turkey’s size, Doggett explains that the exceptionally rich soil and air in Arkansas make all wild animals fat, so he habitually chases bears before shooting them because he wants their flesh and fat well mixed. After a foreigner questions his account of chasing a bear until his bullet released a ten-foot geyser of steam, Doggett insists his land is so rich that neglected beets and potatoes were mistaken for cedar stumps and Indian mounds and a stray grain of corn shot up so fast that the stalk killed a good-sized sow. He even brags about the ferocity of Arkansas mosquitoes.

The narrator intervenes, asking Doggett to describe a memorable bear hunt. After Doggett mentions several large bears that he has killed, he promises to tell how “the greatest bar was killed that ever lived.” First he establishes the tremendous size of the bear; then he demonstrates its superior cunning. In the first pursuit, Doggett realized this bear could outrun his horse and his phenomenal hound, Bowie-knife. For two years Doggett unsuccessfully pursued the bear, which brazenly killed his hogs but always eluded the hounds. Repeated accidents and bad luck caused the hunter to believe the bear might actually be a devil, hunting him.

Determined to end this standoff, Doggett began a final great chase, but the bear seemed to taunt him by moving at a leisurely pace. Apparently trapped, the bear twice jumped over the encircling dogs and hunters, eventually plunging into a nearby lake, where Bowie-knife fought him and apparently killed him. Retrieving the bear’s body from the lake, however, Doggett discovered that the dead bear was female. Once again the bear had embarrassed him because the hunter had to endure his neighbors’ taunts.

Doggett vowed Monday morning he would again hunt the bear, not returning until he was successful. Sunday morning, however, when he went into the woods to relieve himself, the bear appeared, walking toward him. Doggett shot; the bear “gave a yell” and walked away. Attempting to follow, Doggett tripped over his own underwear, but he soon found the dead bear nearby. It took six men to load the bear on a mule, and the bear’s skin, which Doggett used as a bedspread, was several feet larger than his bed on each side.

Doggett concludes his tale by suggesting this was an “unhuntable” bear, which merely “died when his time come.” The narrator comments upon the “superstitious awe” common among “children of the wood” when they encounter extraordinary situations, but the spell is broken when Doggett invites everyone to “liquor” with him. During the night the narrator leaves the steamboat.

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