John Williams: Butcher’s Crossing

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 KevinfromCanada 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 (my review here) 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 InnocenceThe Great GatsbyMartin 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.

23 thoughts on “John Williams: Butcher’s Crossing

  1. Lee Monks says:

    Yes, Williams has been much advocated of late, and Stoner is on the list; even Tom Hanks recently raved about it. I will catch up, eventually. Warlock is on the shelf as well, and looks (from the brief glance) superb. NYRB Classics are magnificent.

  2. Amazing, Trevor. You have written an extensive and thorough review and did not even get to the event that actually drives the dramatic last half of the book. That is an observation, not a criticism, and I won’t be the spoiler — I’ll just say for those who are considering this book there is a dramatic stream that Trevor has chosen not to address in his excellent review.

    I too am a Rocky Mountain boy, which I am sure influenced my opinion of this book. I would put Williams, Stegner and Fante on my shelf of American writers who captured the “mountain” experience — I know I am leaving off Steinbeck; he just never landed with me.

    I can’t wait until you got to Stegner and also hope that you’ll expand your Western reading a bit north and include Guy Vanderhaegge (The Englishman’s Boy and The Last Crossing) from Canada when you get there.

    Keep saving Stoner for a special reading experience because it really is that good. I am delighted that John Williams seems to be getting the attention that I think he deserves. And given your diverse background, get a copy of Williams’ Augustus to put on a handy shelf. It is an epistlatory novel that explores what happened after Caesar’s death — as far away from Butchers Crossing as possible and still a great read. I only wish that John Williams had published more work — every word is excellent.

  3. Lee Monks says:

    Kevin, Guy Vanderhaeghe is a brilliant writer, wonderful poetic stuff. Haven’t read all of The Englishman’s Boy but he is exquisite, and my excuse is an oft-used one of late: I’m saving it.

  4. Trevor says:

    Thanks for your compliments, Kevin. I loved this book and writing this review was very hard. There was so much I wanted to say, but I didn’t want it to take the form of a giant essay — but there should be giant essays written about this book! It was great on so many levels. The event that drives the last half felt so tangible to me and certainly exemplifies the fine writing and structure Williams uses here.

    Incidentally, Butcher’s Crossing made me deeply homesick for the west. I love it on the east coast and think it suits my interests and nature just fine, but the book just hit that feeling in the bone that must come from shivering on those cold mornings watching the sun rise through the mountain trees.

    As for your recommendations, I have been looking in the bookstores for Augustus lately (I’ve seen it there before), but so far no luck. I will certainly read it, though. Williams appears to be someone who could write about anything and it would be worthwhile, so I share your wish that he had more work out there. Then again, I cannot imagine the amount of effort that must have went into this book. It is so fine that one can sense the deliberate and painstaking work that must have gone into its creation. I feel that way about what I’ve read in Stoner too.

    And I will look up Vanderhaeghe soon too. With Lee’s good opinion, too, I am certain I will find it fine reading. Also, I have a few Stegner books — Angle of Repose and Crossing to Safety — that I frequently pull out to read but put back on the shelf (there are so many good books to read I can never decide which to read next). You haven’t steered me wrong yet, Kevin. Feel free to recommend whomever you want! I do appreciate, though, that you often seem to know just what I want to read.

  5. I think it must be the NYRB Classics that are helping to resurrect John Williams. Because even though I had never heard of him when I bought Stoner, by the time I posted my review there did seem to be a lot of online attention being given to the book. And right so. I loved it. I forced it upon an unwilling friend and book club and she ended up loving it as well. I am looking forward to exploring more of his work and this review really makes me want to read this one next.

  6. Interesting. I took this one on holiday with me recently oddly enough, but sadly didn’t have time to read it. I’ll have to correct that and so thanks for the reminder Trevor.

    Re The Englishman’s Boy, I read that a little while back. My writeup is here for the curious: http://pechorinsjournal.wordpress.com/category/vanderhaeghe-guy/

  7. Mary Gilbert says:

    I picked this book up as a remainder in a Dublin bookshop two years ago and thought it was wonderful. Although this is a book that focuses on action ( or inaction when they’re holed up for winter!), the characterisation is perfect too. The climactic scene at the river crossing is absolutely thrilling even if it’s not unexpected. Another book that recreates life in the West is Stegner’s Big Rock Candy Mountain though from the point of view of a female protagonist -it’s equally good in its recreation of the sights and smells of very hard lives

  8. Lee Monks says:

    Max, your Vanderhaeghe review is excellent.

  9. That’s very kind Lee, thank you.

    I’m looking forward to Stegner too actually, I haven’t got any yet but he’s on my mental radar thanks to Kevin and Trevor’s discussions.

    One thought strikes me, it’s a relief to read Trevor’s blog and not to be inspired to buy more books this time. Admittedly because I already have it, but still a relief. I really would like to finish more books than I buy after all.

    All too often there’s a matter of minutes before finishing reading a review and ordering a new book…

  10. Trevor says:

    One thought strikes me, it’s a relief to read Trevor’s blog and not to be inspired to buy more books this time. Admittedly because I already have it, but still a relief. I really would like to finish more books than I buy after all.

    All too often there’s a matter of minutes before finishing reading a review and ordering a new book…

    I’ll see if I can change that soon, Max :)

  11. Trevor,

    This is offtopic, so apologies, but looking at your sidebars I noticed you link to some publishers I’m unaware of (Twisted Spoon, Open Letter) and another that I am aware of but don’t know well (Dalkey).

    Would you be able some time to share some of your thoughts on these guys? I’d be fascinated to hear about how you came across them, if there’s any titles you’ve tried you’d particularly recommend, that sort of thing.

    No worries if not, but there’s some interesting selections there. I fear already the Twisted Spoon link may be another occasion on which I read your blog and reach for my wallet…

  12. Dwight says:

    If it’s any indication of his resurgence, I’m up to sixth on the hold list for Stoner in our county library system. Only one of the two copies of Butcher’s Crossing had been checked out, though, so I’ll be happy to start with that as an introduction to Williams. Thanks for the review!

  13. As an early adopter, I am delighted at the resurgence of interest — perhaps Williams will finally acquire his rightful place. I can’t wait until people get to Augustus. :-)

  14. Trevor says:

    Hi Max, I’ll get to your question later. I only have a second to respond right now (in San Francisco doing work).

    I think it’s great that more and more people are reading Williams, too, now. But are they going to venture to Augustus and Butcher’s Crossing?

  15. Trevor says:

    Max,

    I’m finally responding to your question above (hope you haven’t forgotten it!).

    I can give you my thoughts on Twisted Spoon first and easiest: I just think their books look amazing and attractive. With sadness, I must say that I have never even held one of their books in my hand. I look to them for a catalog of European writers, but I have so many other books that I haven’t purchased theirs.

    Open Letters and Dalkey, now, I have read them and have several of their books. Both of these publishers tend to look out of the box when determining what titles to publish. In particular, I don’t think Dalkey is in sight of the box, which is not a bad thing at all. They do quite a bit of literature in translation, and it’s nice to get such a wide variety. I recommend reading Dalkey’s “About” Page, which comes in the form of an interview with their founder. They don’t always suit my taste, but I have never doubted the quality of what they publish.

    Open Letter is a little bit less “out there,” again, not because “out there” is bad and they’re looking to avoid that (Chad Post, Open Letter’s publisher, used to work at Dalkey). I think what they publish is unconventional, though I often have heard of their authors.

    I think Dalkey, Open Letter, New Directions and even NYRB Classics have a bit of overlap. They all tend to bring neglected but worthy titles to us, though they have their own goals and cover their own ground.

    If you look at my “Authors” menu on the right-hand sidebar, you can scroll to “Dalkey” or “Open Letter” and you’ll see the books I’ve reviewed from each.

  16. I haven’t Trevor, so thank you.

    The Twisted Spoon books certainly do catch the attention. Putting them in your sidebar has at least brought them to my attention, so thanks for that too. It’s good to see guys like that getting a little exposure.

    I’ll read that about page, and check out your reviews for Dalkey and Open Letter. Boxes are all very well, but one doesn’t want to spend one’s life in one. Trips outside are no bad thing at all.

    Incidentally, I just recently finished an Antal Szerb you might find interesting, and an NYRB (A Way of Life, Like Any Other). Hopefully Skylark, a book I bought after reading your review, in the very near future too. Pushkin Press and NYRB, how I love them both…

  17. Dwight says:

    Wow…just finished this book. I’ll try and write something up but you’ve already addressed the major part of it. Thanks again for reviewing it and bringing it to my attention.

  18. Trevor says:

    Excellent news, Dwight! So glad you liked it. Let’s spread the word!

  19. leroyhunter says:

    I wanted to comment on this last week when I finished it Trevor, but circumstances meant I’ve let the book percolate in the meantime. It’s a wonderful novel, deceptively simple in some ways, but leaves me even more keen to read the rest of Williams slim output. And to read more westerns: Oakley Hall is on the shelf, and I’ve already put Stegner and Larry Watson on the wish list (thanks to you and Kevin).

    Your point about “how much is in the book” is perfectly made. Even the way Williams brackets the central experience of Andrews and his companions with the contrasting views of the eponymous town tells you so much. Mary alludes to the river crossing episode: I can’t think of higher praise then to say how much it reminded me of a similar incident in As I Lay Dying. But as you’ve said, this deserves to stand alongside the great books about the American landscape and the communities that have made their passing mark upon it.

  20. Trevor says:

    Ah, good to hear, leroy! Though it has been over a year since I read this one, thinking about it I’m struck yet again by how wonderful it is.

    I myself have been meaning to get to Warlock and some Stegner. I keep saving them, for whatever reason, but I need to stop doing that.

  21. Paul says:

    If you’re going to read Stegner, I would recommend starting with Angle of Repose.

    And now I’m off to research Larry Watson.

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