Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Butcher's Crossing by John Williams (1960)

I wish to thank James of James Reads Books for suggesting I read Butcher's Crossing by John Williams.  I don't know for sure if I prefer it to Stoner but I hope to read John Williams much acclaimed novel based on the life of a Roman emperor, Augustus, very soon.

Butcher's Crossing is set in the American West in the 1870s.  I think this is a book which will resonate most strongly with Americans, for people who grew up with the myth of the cowboy and American manifest destiny and exceptionalism as nearly part of their DNA.   

Michelle Latiolais in her very interesting introduction to the New York Review of Books edition of Butcher's Crossing points out that the book was first published when the United States was engaged in it's very controversial now clearly absurd war in Vietnam.  Latiolais leans toward the view that the barbaric events in Butcher's Crossing, the incredibly wasteful and cruel killing of huge numbers of buffaloes, the evidence of the destruction of aboriginal culture, the sense that land was limitless, and the rampant environmental destruction reflect the attitude of cowboy righteousness that pushed Americans into believing violent action was the solution to all problems.

The lead character in the novel is a young man from Boston, Will Andrews, who just completed three years at Harvard, the premier American university then and now.   His intellectual idol was Ralph Waldo Emerson, the most American of intellectuals.  Will has caught the fever in the slogan, "go West, young man" and has left Boston and security to seek a deeper experience of life out west.  

I do not wish to restate much of the plot but will just go over some of the great things I found in this book.  Will winds up in the small town of Butcher's Crossing, it got that name because it centers around the ecomonics of killing buffaloes.  Will wants to make a lot of money, he has six hundred dollars with him, and he decides to try his luck hunting buffaloes, American Bisons.  At the time buffalo skins were desired highly for coats and such.  Millions were slaughtered and skinned with their bodies left for the vultures.   In this he meets four men that will play an important part in the story.  Each one can be seen as representing an aspect of the American dream, one, a buffalo skinner, is a German immigrant as is a prostitute who plays a big part in the story.  Mr. McDonald is a broker and financier of buffalo hunts.  Miller is a very experienced buffalo hunter who knows the west and the buffalo.  His side kick is harder for me to categorize.  He is addicted to whiskey, reads the Bible a lot, and slavishly devoted to Miller.  

The very long, maybe fifty pages, description of the slaughter of the buffalo was very powerful, quite nearly overwhelming.  It is very vivid and detailed.  We see the sufferings of the hunters and the hunted.  We watch Will change from an idealistic Emersonian boy from Harvard into a filth incrusted killer thinking only of profit.  The hunt was meant to take about six weeks but they ended up trapped by winter in a mountain valley for six months.  The trip back was horrible, I won't spoil any of the plot turns for new readers though it was tremendously exciting.   

I guess this is a darker work than Stoner, the most read, I think, of his novels.  They are both superb works of art.

(1922 to 1994, USA)


Brona said...

I have Stoner on my TBR pile & hope to get to it soon.

This one sounds quite harrowing though - not sure I'm ready for it just now.

Mel u said...

Brona Joy. It is very harrowing. I am looking forward to participating in your event, Australian Literature Month, in November,