It’s been almost two years since I first heard of the author John Williams, right here on this blog, in the comments to my review of American Pastoral. There Kevin from Canada said “John Edward Williams may be the most overlooked novelist in American history.” Last year, all over the blogosphere, I saw people reading his book Stoner, so hopefully he is getting less and less overlooked. About Stoner: I haven’t read it — at least, I haven’t read all of it. I have it, and I’ve read the beginning of it several times and each time put it down in a bit of ecstasy. Frankly, it was so good I didn’t want to read it yet (yes, strange). I wanted to save it for the perfect reading weekend, which just doesn’t occur that often (i.e. never) when there are young children and busy jobs clamoring for attention. For similar reasons, I had also been saving Butcher’s Crossing (1960), but when I finished Blood Meridian I wanted some more literature taking apart the American west. Oakley Hall, I’ve got Warlock on my radar too.
In its history, America has been looked upon as a land of promise, a place where people can come and reach as far as their hope and hard work will allow them. The land to the west represented, among other things, untapped resources; and these represented untapped wealth to anyone with enough endurance and ingenuity to get there and take it. This idea of America deserves its criticism, and a healthy perspective is as dire yet hard to find today as it was back then. Resources were eaten up with disregard if not pure malice to human life, that of the laborers or natives. Policies were in place to encourage complete exploitation of the resource itself, all but guaranteeing its speedy depletion and the broken dreams of those who came just a fraction of second too late. I grew up in the western United States and saw many dead cities, completely abandoned when the dream of prosperity turned out to be a figment of their imagination. Last September I drove around Southern Utah, looking along the old trails to California for cities of which there is no trace whatsoever (it is haunting to look at barren ground and realize that not long ago it was covered with homes and businesses and families). In other places there are still the bare foundations of homes, a few signs, a small cemetery, but to get there one must drive in the middle of the desert — no one goes there anymore, except we curious few. These cities bore the names of founding families, now forgotten, or collective aspirations and ideals, never achieved. Despite the numerous success stories and the very real wealth gained in the process of expanding the United States westward, this destruction is a substantial part of our past that we tend to forget even as we continue to repeat it.
As an American reader, deeply interested in what literature has to say about this land, its promise, its spirituality, and its emptiness, Butcher’s Crossing hit me with the same force as (if not more than) Huckleberry Finn, Moby-Dick, The Age of Innocence, The Great Gatsby, Martin Dressler, American Pastoral, and Gilead. Yes, I expected Butcher’s Crossing to be great, I expected it to be well written — people told me so — but I was shocked at how much it contained, at how well it balanced jubilance and heartbreak, innocence and depravity, all while reinventing the western to expose the fault lines the American Dream is founded upon. Another part of the shock was that such a book, fifty years old, is all but forgotten. Thanks to the superb work of NYRB Classics for ensuring that this book is available to us again, and in such a lovely volume. Still, it’s been out by NYRB Classics for a number of years now, and I’m still ignorant of any burgeoning awareness.
A week or so ago, via Mark Athitakis’ blog American Fiction Notes (go there for more context in the commentary), I read this 1962 quote from James Baldwin, and it expressed perfectly what I found in Butcher’s Crossing:
One hears, it seems to me, in the work of all American novelists, even including the mighty Henry James, songs of the plains, the memory of a virgin continent, mysteriously despoiled, though all dreams were to have become possible here. This did not happen. And the panic, then . . . comes out of the fact that we are now confronting the awful question of whether or not all our dreams have failed. How have we managed to become what we have, in fact, become? And if we are, as indeed we seem to be, so empty and desperate, what are we to do about it? How shall we put ourselves in touch with reality?
Okay — that’s enough of a preamble to the book itself. Butcher’s Crossing begins with a fitting reference to the American spirit. The young Will Andrews has left Harvard in his third year, inspired by the lofty injunction of Ralph Waldo Emerson to go find “an original relation to nature.” Andrews packs up and heads to the frontier in the west, eventually ending up in Butcher’s Crossing, a “hide town,” where a Mr. J.D. McDonald, an old family acquaintance, has set up a business tanning buffalo hides he acquires from the town’s rough buffalo hunters. When Andrews arrives, McDonald takes a paternalistic role and tries to get Andrews to work for him in the tanning business – the paperwork is a burden for him alone, the buffalo hunters are beasts and a curse to any who joins them, and, besides, the railroad is soon coming through town, guaranteeing that anyone with a head for business and real estate can make it rich. That isn’t what Andrews wants, though:
“Mr. McDonald,” Andrews said quietly, “I appreciate what you’re trying to do for me. But I want to try to explain something to you. I came out here — “ He paused and let his gaze go past McDonald, away from the town, beyond the ridge of earth that he imagined was the river bank, to the flat yellowish green land that faded into the horizon westward. He tried to shape in his mind what he had to say to McDonald. It was a feeling; it was an urge that he had to speak. But whatever he spoke he knew would be but another name for the wildness that he sought. It was a freedom and goodness, a hope and a vigor that he perceived to underlie all the familiar things of his life, which were not free or good or hopeful or vigorous. What he sought was the source and preserver of his world, a world which seemed to turn ever in fear away from its source, rather than search it out, as the prairie grass around him sent down its fibered roots into the rich dark dampness, the Wildness, and thereby renewed itself, year after year.
Instead of entering the employ of McDonald, Andrews seeks someone who knows the land, someone who can help him find that “source and preserver of his world.” All fingers point to Miller, a man with a history that goes further west than Butcher’s Crossing into Colorado and the mountains. Miller has hunted buffalo, but he is prideful and will not hunt with the other men in town, nor will he accept McDonald’s requests that Miller hunt for McDonald. The buffalo near Butcher’s Crossing have been weakened by massacres; their hides are scrawny. What Miller wants is a way to get back to Colorado where, nearly ten years earlier, he saw an enormous buffalo herd sheltered in a hidden valley. He’s certain the herd is still there, that their hides are thick, and that anyone who can enact the slaughter and harvest the hides will be rich. His only problem is finding someone who will pay for the voyage.
It is surely obvious what is going to happen here: Andrews doesn’t blink an eye when he offers to underwrite the trip, just let him come along. A few weeks later four men set off for Colorado: Andrews, Miller, Miller’s sad, Bible-reading side-kick Charley Hoge, and the less-than-spiritual skinner. On the journey, Williams shows his writing skill by entering the consciousness of Andrews as he observes the land and begins to soak in what it represents. The land, incidentally, and the men’s experience with the land, is another highlight of the book. The descriptions and the feelings felt real and reminded me of my own time in the mountains; here is an example from one of the first mornings in the Colorado valley:
When Andrews awoke, Charley Hoge was already up and dressed; he huddled over the fire, adding twigs to the coals that had been kept overnight by the banking. Andrews lay for a moment in the comparative warmth of his bedroll and watched his breath fog the air. Then he flung the blankets aside, and, shivering, got into his boots, which were stiff and hard from the cold. Without lacing them, he clumped over to the fire. The sun had not yet come over the mountain against which their camp was set; but on the opposite mountain, at the top, a mass of pine trees was lighted by the early sun; a patch of turning aspen flamed a deep gold in the green of the pines.
Another highlight is the change that overcomes the men in the valley. Miller becomes as tyrannical and obsessed as Captain Ahab (again, there are many connections to Moby-Dick). Andrews transformation is more subtle, more disturbing:
The stench of the buffalo, the feel of the warm meat on his hands, and the sight of clotted blood came to have less and less impact upon his senses. Shortly he came to the task of skinning almost like an automaton, hardly aware of what he did as he sucked the hide from an inert beast and pegged it to the ground. He was able to ride through a mass of skinned buffalo covered black with feeding insects, and hardly be aware of the stench that rose in the heat from the rotting flesh.
One thing that also makes Andrews’ own transformation more interesting is the fact that Andrews himself, at times, is conscious of its occurrence and watches, helplessly knowing that he can never go back and no longer fully understanding all that he’s lost. Butcher’s Crossing deserves to be sitting on the shelf with the great books of American literature, even those that speak with the authority of the American conscience.