Best Of The West 2012: Butcher's Crossing, The First Revisionist Western
Photography: Currier & Ives/Courtesy Library of Congress, Aaron Dougherty Photography
There are a few funny things about Butcher’s Crossing author John Williams. One, he’s probably fourth on the list of famous John Williamses. And two, he wrote three books (throw in a couple poetry collections and a disowned early book) that are as dissimilar as they are accomplished. There’s Stoner, a campus novel about a professor who is slowly destroyed by the university and by his marriage. There’s Augustus, a novel in letters, chronicling Octavius Caesar and ancient Rome (a work that earned Williams much acclaim, including a National Book Award). And then there’s Butcher’s Crossing, a western that follows what amounts to the last buffalo hunt of the Old West. All great books, but it’s the western that seems so unusual. You have to ask: What gap in the Western literature of the time caused Williams to step into it, only once?
Butcher’s Crossing, first published in 1960, shows Williams stripping the West of its romanticism, stripping nature of its comfort, and stripping men of their humanity. It is revisionist literature at its best — and perhaps most unblinking. By the time the book came out, Williams had been teaching at the University of Denver for six years and pulp westerns were kicking pretty strong; reading Butcher’s Crossing, you certainly get the sense that Williams, a native of Red River County in North Texas, smelled something phony and was determined to set the record straight by delving — deeply and darkly — into the naturalistic side of man.
Williams has protagonist William Andrews drop out of Harvard in 1873. A fan of Ralph Waldo Emerson, young Will likes to wander in the neighboring woods when he leaves class. Here, he recalls Emerson’s phrase “I am a transparent eyeball” — a complete observation instrument. Mesmerized by Emerson’s idea of truth and beauty in nature, young Will heads west to find the frontier’s untapped transcendentalism. We’ve all heard this story before, but Williams refused to play this generic game. The West will not offer Will subtle beauty: In Butcher’s Crossing, the West is terrifying.
Think of the book as a precursor to Cormac McCarthy — the path to regeneration is paved in blood. That path begins in earnest in the small Kansas town of Butcher’s Crossing, a way station for mountain men and buffalo hunters. There, Will meets Miller, who is about as Ahabic for buffalo as one could be. Will; Miller; a one-handed alcoholic named Charley Hoge, who either quotes the Bible or says almost nothing; and Fred Schneider, a snarky skinner, all head to a Colorado valley to find a supposedly untouched herd. After nearly starving to get there, the men find the buffalo and the butchery begins.
What follows is a gritty examination of not knowing when to quit. We will not beat forces we cannot control, and yet it seems that we keep trying, no matter what the cost to our own humanity. In the words of one reviewer, the novel is “a graceful and brutal story of isolated men gone haywire.” In her introduction, Michelle Latiolais writes, “John Williams’ unflinching attention in Butcher’s Crossing to the mechanical madness of human behavior suggests man at one with nature — man’s nature — to be a horrifying prospect.”
There’s a story that a publishing house accepted Butcher’s Crossing under the condition that it would be labeled “A Western.” Williams refused, despite it being his first big shot. In a typical western, man is often cast out by society and comforted by nature. In the West of John Williams, the inverse is true. In the gaze of his transparent eyeball, nature, it seems, fundamentally doesn’t like us.