Canyonlands National Park, Utah; 103ºF under a cloudless summer sky. I’d call the canyon floor below “bone-white,” if it looked like anything had ever lived there long enough to leave its bones behind. This is the part of the world where Edward Abbey (in his 1968 Desert Solitaire) said he came “to look at and into a juniper tree, a piece of quartz, a vulture, a spider, and see it as in itself, devoid of all humanly ascribed qualities, anti-Kantian.” And something like what Thoreau had in mind when he talked about “Earth … made out of Chaos and Old Night … no man’s garden, but the unhandselled globe.”
If you’d told me a month earlier that when I reached southern Utah humanity would soon start feeling like an irrelevancy—even a kind of irreverence—I would barely have looked up from my latte and iPhone long enough to chuckle. Still, it happened. I had a glimpse of “Matter, vast, terrific” (Thoreau again) and a sense of what a juniper tree or a piece of quartz might be up to … without me. I don’t know if the feeling was anti-Kantian, but it sure was memorable.
Yet as I struggled with the arid skeleton-scape of Canyonlands, my best guidance came from a book deeply skeptical about the redemptive power of that kind of inhuman emptiness. The way John Williams’s Butcher’s Crossing (1960) tells it, the idea of embracing Nature’s inhumanity is not only naive, it’s downright destructive. Thoreau’s dreams of “Contact! Contact!” do not solve humanity’s rapacious relationship with Nature—they are simply another incarnation of that rapacity. An opening epigraph from Melville sets the novel’s uneasy, almost sinister tone: “Aye, and poets send out the sick spirits to green pasture, like lame horses … Poets have it that for sore hearts … nature is the grand cure. But who froze to death my teamster on the prairie?”
Critics have singled out movies of the early 1970s (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Outlaw Josey Wales, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Jeremiah Johnson) and some novels of the early 1980s (especially Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian) as the first wave of “revisionist Westerns.” But back in 1960, without McCarthy’s lurid baroque extravagances, without any cool Hollywood soundtrack, John Williams wrote what may be the perfect anti-Western. Butcher’s Crossing is a novel that turns upside down the expectations of the genre—and goes to war with a century of American triumphalism, a century of regeneration through violence, a century of senseless slaughter. To say it’s an attack on Eisenhower’s America is right enough; only we shouldn’t be so sure that it doesn’t also apply to Kennedy’s New Frontier, and to a half-century of triumphalism and exceptionalism since, under Republicans and Democrats alike.
In recent years scholars and readers have rediscovered Stoner, John Williams’s 1965 campus novel about a farmer’s boy turned unhappy and ultimately unsuccessful professor. Its Hollywood pitch might be “Jude the Obscure meets The Professor’s House”—can’t you hear producers rushing to acquire the rights? About Williams’s 1948 first novel, Nothing but the Night, the only good thing to be said is that he quickly disowned it. Williams’s austere, meditative Augustus (a National Book Award winner in 1973) may not rival Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, but it offers a very touching portrait of ancient Stoicism, a doomed but admirable effort to preserve one’s private dignity in the face of public horror.
Butcher’s Crossing is in a different league from these other works. The novel is about a buffalo hunt in the late 1870s, just before the coming of the trains finished carving up buffalo country and the European market for buffalo robes collapsed: the bursting of the Buffalo Bubble. The novel chronicles a hunting party that heads out from Butcher’s Crossing, Kansas, into the Front Range of the Rockies. They’re searching for a valley hunters haven’t yet emptied of its buffalo herd—one of those herds that stretches far as the eye can see. Wealthy Bostonian Will Andrews, an Emerson- and Thoreau-quoting preacher’s son, hires the hardened mountain man Miller and a pair of his old-school associates (a skinner and a cook) in the novel’s first part. The second and longest part follows the hunt itself; the third details its miserable aftermath back at Butcher’s Crossing.
Early on, Miller comes across as positively satanic. The one appearance Native Americans make in the novel is in a remark he tosses off en route to the killing valley: “River Indians … they ain’t worth shooting anymore.” When Andrews witnesses Miller becoming a killing machine, no reader can doubt where the true evil resides:
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.
In an idyllic valley tucked between towering peaks, straight out of Zane Grey, Miller mills buffaloes into salable piles of hides.
We know how to read this: a clash between young civility and bloodthirsty evil. In Heart of Darkness terms, Andrews is the novel’s Marlow, its callow, suffering storyteller, and Miller its demoniacal Kurtz. Yet Williams makes it brutally clear that Will Andrews, no matter how innocent he may seem, does also unmistakably will the slaughter he laments. His money bought the guns, the wagons, even the lead they melt for Miller’s bullets. The way Williams tells it, we not only (as Wordsworth put it) “murder to dissect,” we also murder just by being alive. There is no way for westward-moving white men to encounter “virgin land” without roughing or using it up. The seemingly stable distinction between encountering and exploiting ain’t what it’s cracked up to be.
It’s not about whether you bring a rifle; as Williams sees it, you yourself are the rifle. In a 1980s interview about the genesis of Butcher’s Crossing, Williams said that on first moving to Denver in 1954, he “wondered if there has ever been anything that was really the white American West, or whether it was just an invention of the East.” If that’s not a chilling enough account of what Williams is trying to say about the so-called discovery and development of “our Great West,” we might also think about a metaphor that runs through a lapidary 1986 poem by Williams, “The Skaters.” The poem opens by relating the skaters’ joy in sheer speed across fresh sheets of ice. Yet the cost of that speed turns out to be inescapable:
Through all the warming air they turn and spin,
And do not feel that they grow old
Above the fragile ice they scrape and thin.
Skating is not just gliding, it is also wearing away what’s beneath your blades.
Not only is this a novel about the price to be paid even for the most innocent kinds of movement over virgin land, it is also an exploration of the instability of all the categories we set up to distinguish between white-hat and black-hat behavior. The role played by the novel’s only significant female character, Francine, brings home how intimately Williams links Emerson’s Transcendentalist desire to explore the ever-new with the seemingly diametrically opposed desire to turn everything beautiful into a cash transaction. Francine, a prostitute, is unapologetic about her reasons for liking Butcher’s Crossing: fewer girls to compete with here than back in St. Louis. Yet she also likes the very same thing Andrews likes: virginal newness, freshness, youth—which is why she’s willing to take a break from her profession and sleep with Andrews for free. You might say that what the prairie represents for Andrews, Andrews represents for Francine. Francine, then, is somewhat like Miller, an unapologetically profit-seeking hunter after easy buffalo kills; but she is also somewhat like Andrews, who is only on the hunt for fresh, new experiences. The novel draws no bright line between profit and high-minded passions—only a troubled and troubling continuum.
So what finally does Williams want his readers to make of Andrews’s Emersonian optimism, Miller’s pragmatic murderousness, Francine’s compassionate search for oblivion? After the failure of the hunt, Andrews and Miller come back home to meet the embittered hides dealer McDonald, who has been bankrupted by shifting fashions back in Europe and is now surrounded by worthless piles of buffalo hides. He offers the novel’s bleakest diagnosis. “You’re no better than the things you kill,” he informs Andrews, then goes on to tell him why “young people … always think there’s something to find out,” when really:
There’s nothing. … You get born, and you nurse on lies, and you get weaned on lies, and you learn fancier lies in school. You live all your life on lies, and then maybe when you’re ready to die, it comes to you—there’s nothing, nothing but yourself and what you could have done. Only you ain’t done it, because the lies told you there was something else.
Rather than leaving us with this piece of late Mark Twain darkness, however, Williams ends the novel by following Andrews back to Francine for a week of thoughtless beauty and pleasure, a space apart from the world.
Butcher’s Crossing also follows him when he sneaks away from her, leaving the money she had pointedly refused to accept from him—money that makes their week together another salable commodity. That mercenary moment hints that at its core the novel is pushing readers to relate the pointless slaughter of unsalable buffaloes to the absence of Native Americans (except for those “River Indians” Miller finds not worth killing) from this spookily white West. The well-meaning Andrews’s unwitting swathe of destruction (which he can stand back and blame on the rapidly obsolescing Miller and his killing ways) mirrors the destructive zeal of Cold War America, reaching out eagerly, with Emersonian zeal, to the east, west, north, and south. Remember that this book came out in 1960: Louis L’Amour ruled the Western novel, and Hollywood featured leather-skinned John Wayne’s machismo and the liberal piety of Gary Cooper’s High Noon. Is it surprising there was so little space for Williams’s un-American pessimism?
Butcher’s Crossing ends with the reader certain, dead certain, that the destruction of the past cannot be undone. Yet there’s a hint of hope in the novel’s final line: “he rode forward without hurry, and felt behind him the sun slowly rise and harden the air.” Andrews is riding westward, even though he is travelling over the very land he and his cronies turned from wilderness into waste, past now-worthless piles of hides, and past the buffalo meat they had poisoned to kill off timber wolves. Go west, not-quite-so-young man. The novel takes seriously both the cost and the appeal of what it calls “vitality”—it’s what Andrews feels moving through him during a river crossing late in the book.
As the animal stepped slowly forward, Andrews felt for brief instants the sickening sensation of weightlessness as he and the horse were buoyed and pushed aside by the swift current. The roaring was intense and hollow in his ears; he looked down from the point of land that dipped and swayed in his sight, and saw the water. It was a deep but transparent greenish brown, and it flowed past him in thick ropes and sheeted wedges, in shapes that changed with an incredible complexity before his gaze.
Five minutes later the river sends a log crashing into Andrews’s partner Schneider—a log that kills horse and rider both, then casually tips their winter’s worth of buffalo hides into the flood. But those “thick ropes and sheeted wedges” are still there, still haunting.
Williams does not aim to shows us Nature as it is when we are not around; instead he details what it feels like when it tugs at us, makes us respond to its lineaments and its power. That helped me realize something was missing from Thoreau’s dream of “Contact! Contact!” with Nature in its unapproachable inhumanity. Touching a realm of Nature beyond Man won’t stop us from being Millers; those who shoot and those who just pay to watch are not so very different. If there is Nature to be found out there, it’s also to be found in ourselves.
There is no reason we should congratulate ourselves for being among the living: “vitality” is not a virtue, just a fact of life. Still, we make sense of Nature by being buoyed and pushed aside by it. It is right and good to reckon up the consequences and the costs of all the elegant skating we do over Nature’s face: trace your carbon footprint, and ask yourself whose bullets you may be inadvertently paying for. Finally, however, to make sense of Nature means to experience it. If everything we do has a price, that doesn’t mean it has no value.