John Williams’ Butcher’s Crossing

I knew little about John Williams and less about his 1960 novel Butcher’s Crossing when I purchased it, on a whim, at a local bookstore, but my curiosity has been repaid a thousand times over. Ostensibly a western, Butcher’s Crossing offers us no stand-offs or shoot-outs, no clashes between pioneer and native. Instead, we get four men crossing the country, from the fictional Kansas town of Butcher’s Crossing to the Colorado mountains, in search of an undiscovered valley where buffalo still roam by the thousands – representing a small fortune by their pelts. The expedition is financed by Will Andrews, the youngest member of the group, who has left Boston and Harvard behind him, inspired by the lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Before the novel begins, Williams presents us with two quotations that colour our perception of everything that follows. The first, naturally, comes from Emerson:

…everything that has life gives sign of satisfaction, and the cattle that lie on the ground seem to have great and tranquil thoughts. These halcyons may be looked for with a little more assurance in that pure October weather which we distinguish by the name of the Indian summer. The day, immeasurable long, sleeps over the broad hills and warm wide fields. To have lived through all its sunny hours, seems longevity enough. The solitary places do not seem quite lonely. At the gates of the forest, the surprised man of the world is forced to leave his city estimates of great and small, wise and foolish. The knapsack of custom falls off his back with the first step he takes into these precincts. Here is sanctity which shames our religions, and reality which discredits our heroes. Here we find Nature to be the circumstance which dwarfs every other circumstance, and judges like a god all men that come to her.

The second comes from Herman Melville, and undercuts its predecessor:

Aye, and poets send out the sick spirit to green pastures, like lame horses turned out unshod to the turf to renew their hoofs. A sort of yarb-doctors in their way, poets have it that for sore hearts, as for sore longs, nature is the grand cure. But who froze to death my teamster on the prairie? And who made an idiot of Peter the Will Boy?

Williams presents us with two competing visions of Nature, expressed by the two foremost writers of 19th century America: Nature the redeemer, the source of all things, god-like in its grandeur; and Nature as elemental force, god-like only in its total indifference to human suffering. When Will arrives in Butcher’s Crossing, with a head full of Emerson, it is the first nature he seeks, though he cannot articulate his desire:

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 a 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.

A little later, when the final arrangements for his expedition to the mountains and away from civilization have been made, he returns to this mode of thought, this romanticism of a nature he has yet to encounter:

He felt that wherever he lived, and wherever he would live hereafter, he was leaving the city more and more, withdrawing into the wildness. He felt that that was the central meaning he could find in all his life, and it seemed to him then that all the events of his childhood and his youth had led him unknowingly to this moment upon which he poised, as if before flight.

The novel is divided into three parts, and, not coincidentally, Part 1 concludes with Will’s romanticism intact.

In the second part of the novel, when the expedition reaches the Colorado mountains, it is Melville’s vision of Nature that comes to the fore. The men encounter the herd, thousands upon thousands of helpless buffalo, grazing contentedly in the Edenic valley, and Miller – the group’s leader, and the man tasked with killing them – systematically shoots them down, one by one, picking off the leaders first, before finishing off the stragglers. Having arrived here blinded by idealism and high-mindedness, Andrews cannot make sense of the slaughter.

During the last hour of the stand he came to see Miller as a mechanism, an automaton, moved by the moving herd; and he came to see Miller’s destruction of the buffalo, not as a lust for blood or a lust for the hides or a lust for what the hides would bring, or even at last the blind lust of fury that toiled darkly within him – he came to see the destruction as a cold, mindless response to the life in which Miller had immersed himself. And he looked upon himself, crawling dumbly after Miller upon the flat bed of the valley, picking up the empty cartridges that he spent, tugging the water keg, husbanding the rifle, cleaning it, offering it to Miller when he needed it – he looked upon himself, and did not know who he was, or where he went.

This passage is characteristic of the subtle workings of Williams’ style: we are witnessing the quiet destruction of Andrews’ idealism, the shattering of his entire worldview by the Ahab-like leader of their hunt, and his response is entirely appropriate: deprived of his paradigm, he loses his own sense of himself, of his role and purpose in the world.

The men stay in the valley, high in the Colorado mountains, for longer than they should, trapped there by Miller’s desire to kill every last buffalo. A snowfall takes them by surprise, closing off the exits from the valley, and forcing them to winter there, in the bitter cold, for nearly eight months. When they finally emerge, the following spring, the world they left behind has changed: Butcher’s Crossing, once a promising frontier town, has been bypassed by the railroad, dooming it to abandonment; and the pelt trade, once so lucrative, has collapsed, rendering their entire kill nearly worthless. Their sweat and their toil and their sacrifice have come to nothing. And Andrews, whose idealism was so strong that it took him from Boston to Kentucky, from the city to the very frontier of the nation, must take stock of himself, and what he is left with.

Butcher’s Crossing is one of the must beautiful and subtly evocative novels I have ever read, a masterpiece of restrained writing and psychological acumen that belatedly inserts itself into the one of the oldest of America’s literary traditions and nonetheless manages to force its readers to see the western with fresh eyes.