Archived Reading Room

Digging up John Williams

Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams. New York Review of Books, 1960 reissued 2007. 274 pages.

For those of us who truly love books, our greatest pleasures are often derived from discovering the “neglected classics” — remarkable books that somehow manage to pass under our personal radar. In the great deluge of novels that have flooded this country for the past 50 years, it is not surprising to discover that many distinguished works were published with little or no fanfare — they fade quietly, unnoticed by either the critics or the media.

Well, it is gratifying to learn that somebody noticed John Williams and lifted his three novels (Butcher’s Crossing, Stoner and Augustus) from obscurity. (The New York Review of Books is devoted to finding “lost or missed” classics). Although the Denver-based author of Butcher’s Crossing died in 1994, his works are being re-evaluated (and critically acclaimed). Almost 50 years after their publication, his works continue to attract attention. Current critics compare Butcher’s Crossing to Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and graduate students are finding the novels of John Williams on their required reading lists.

Butcher’s Crossing is a western. The setting is the 1870s when Will Andrews arrives in the raw and primitive town of Butcher’s Crossing, Kansas. A Harvard graduate and a fervent admirer of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Andrews is on a spiritual quest. He wants to encounter Nature in its most brutal aspect (“bloody in tooth and claw”) so that he can merge, or “become One” with it.

Essentially, this is the clichéd beginning of a hundred potboilers: the eastern “tenderfoot” confronts a daunting “rites of passage,” but his innate courage and moral principles enables him to survive. He emerges hardened and confident, ready to take his place among the stalwart natives of the rugged west.

However, Will Andrews is destined to encounter a dark and brutal world that bears no resemblance to Emerson’s precepts. His six-month ordeal as a member of a buffalo hunting party not only change his perceptions of the natural world; it also affords him with the dubious opportunity to experience a dark and mindless violence that has much in common with Joseph Conrad’s descent into the heart of darkness.

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When Andrews arrives in Butcher’s Crossing, he makes the belated discovery that the great buffalo hunts are virtually over. (The fashion craze in the East for buffalo coats has diminished and customers are complaining about the “smell that they can’t get rid of.”) The surrounding prairie is littered with thousands of bone piles that the local farmers are slowly converting to fertilizer. However, by chance, he meets Miller, a buffalo hunter who tells him of a remote valley in Colorado where an enormous herd grazes peacefully. Using his inheritance, Andrews offers to finance a hunting expedition, on the condition that he is included in the party.

Thus begins a journey into an immense wilderness; yet it is a transitory world that is forever altered by the passage of these men who seem to have a desire to destroy everything they see. In addition to Miller and Andrews, the hunting party includes Charlie Hoge, a one-handed alcoholic with a penchant for quoting scripture, and Fred Schneider, an angry, taciturn man who glares at world around him with contempt. Hoge is a gifted cook and driver; Schneider is a skinner. Miller promises that they will return with several thousand hides — enough to make them all wealthy.

The journey is memorable. The author’s ability to describe natural phenomena, a terrifying snowstorm, thirst, drought and the immensity of the natural world is remarkable. However, I feel that John Williams’ real purpose is to demolish the “myth of the West.” The author does not describe a primitive world where men are ennobled by travail and hazardous encounters. Instead, he takes his tenderfoot to the brink of an abyss where he glimpses the mindless and destructive violence in his own heart.

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