Monday, January 7, 2013

John Williams, Butcher’s Crossing (1960)

Some would call this an anti-western. It reflects the dark underside of the 1950s and overturns some of the mythology of the West. It’s central character is a young man who flees the deadening effects of civilization as it’s practiced in 1870s Boston and heads out West to find adventure on the frontier.

William Andrews is 23 years old and wants above all to experience the wildness of the West, to immerse himself in its freedom. In that freedom, he expects to find goodness, hope, and vigor. He is a living example of Emerson’s belief in self-reliance and the wholesomeness of unspoiled nature.

Plot. Arriving in a settlement called Butcher’s Crossing, in central Kansas, he bankrolls a bison hunter who claims to know of a hidden herd in the mountains of Colorado. Bison hides are selling for $4.00, given market demand and the growing scarcity of the animal. Not only will the hunt be an adventure, it will turn a profit of thousands of dollars for them.

The trip to Colorado and back, with three experienced hunters, turns into an unexpected odyssey of many months. The party is headed by Miller, who is expert with a buffalo gun. He hires an experienced skinner, Schneider, and persuades the older Charley Hogue to go with them as driver of their oxen-drawn wagon. Andrews is to help with the skinning.

Bison hide yard, Dodge City, Kansas, 1878
It takes weeks to travel across western Kansas and eastern Colorado. Taking a shortcut across the arid prairie, they run out of water and nearly die of thirst. All the time, until Miller finds them, there is doubt that his herd of bison even exists.

But they do exist, in the thousands, surviving summer by summer in a mountain valley. Finding them, Miller gets right to work, and before long the hides pile up far beyond the number they can take back in one trip to Butcher’s Crossing. Over Schneider’s objection, Miller stays on, intending to wipe out the entire herd.

But he waits too long, and they get snowed in. The final third of the novel is an account of their fierce struggle to survive the winter. With the hides, Miller constructs a shelter and “sleeping bags” for them to keep from freezing to death. They live on game and a carefully rationed supply of coffee.

When enough snow has melted from the mountain pass leading out of the valley, they pile the wagon high with hides and head back to Kansas. That journey is marked by an accident that reverses their fortunes once again. Yet more bad news awaits their arrival at Butcher’s Crossing.

Dead bison in snow, 1872
History vs. myth. The killing off of the bison herds is an accepted fact of western history, but seldom if ever has it been the subject of a novel. Williams describes grimly but matter-of-factly the systematic conversion of thousands of living animals to skinned carcasses. Somehow, none of the men regards what they are doing as the extermination of a species.

Meanwhile, the relentless killing and skinning has an effect on them more deadening than the worst to be had in tired old civilized Boston. Andrews is first physically repulsed as he butchers one of the animals. He desperately washes the blood from himself and his clothes in an ice-cold mountain stream. Then he gradually succumbs to the machine-like process of slaughter.

He half realizes that instead of the thrilling excitement of living wild and free, he is being numbed by death and bloodshed. The irony is that the myth itself does not die for him. By novel’s end, he heads off again westward, with no destination in mind, but only a belief that he will eventually find what he is looking for.

Prostitute, 1912
Romance. The novel also has something to say about the way the myth of the West affects male-female relations. Emersonian self-reliance evolves into a kind of rootless self-indulgence. We see this portrayed in the way a young prostitute, Francine, figures into Andrews’ story.

Before leaving on the hunt, Andrews regards her with tenderness and pity. She offers herself to him with honest affection, but he flees from her, not ready in his innocence to yield to carnality. Returning, he finds her again and surrenders to desire. But after several days and nights with her, he awakens to what he has always been—a man on a quest and thus a drifter.

Though Francine has clearly become attached to him, and his leaving will break her heart, he sneaks off in the dawn light without saying goodbye. Instead, he leaves some money for her. No longer someone loved, she’s again reduced by him to a prostitute. And so he sheds any connection to her.

Wrapping up. This is a cold though illuminating novel. Readers will discover maybe more than they wanted to know about the hunting frenzy on the Great Plains that nearly wiped out the bison. Much of the novel is told at a slow pace, replicating the length of time and energy needed to cross long distances on the frontier.

The tone of the narration is deliberately flat and unmodulated. There’s not a moment of lightness or humor. With Andrews as the point of view character, we do not get inside the other men who spend most of the novel with him. Miller is especially opaque. It’s impossible to know what he’s thinking or feeling. His obsession with killing is simply that, an obsession.

John Williams
As a leader of men, he is undaunted by either untoward circumstances or Schneider’s challenges to his authority. We can be amazed and grateful for his numerous and competent survival skills, but there’s no knowing how he came into possession of them.  The final destructive act which he stages in Butcher’s Crossing like a scene from a Wild West Show is unexplained.

John Williams (1922-1994) was born and grew up in northeast Texas. He published three novels and won a National Book Award for one of them, Augustus (1972). Butcher’s Crossing is currently available at amazon, Barnes&Noble, and AbeBooks, and for kindle and the nook.

Photo credits:
Wikimedia Commons
Author's photo, The University of Denver

Coming up: Brian Keith, Maureen O'Hara, The Deadly Companions (1961)


  1. Ron,

    An anti-western here and there is probably a good thing, don't you think? It is a way of countering the excessive romanticizing that is sometimes found in western novels.

    Your very good review reminded me of two novels that seem to share some characteristics of "Butcher's Crossing": "The Last Hunt" by Milton Lott and "Slaughter" by Elmer Kelton.

    I haven't seen it in years, but I remember that a pretty good movie based on Lott's novel was made in the 50s, starring Robert Taylor and Stewart Granger.

    I have put "Butcher's Crossing" on my to-be-read list.


    1. I don't know Kelton's novel, but I'm guessing he does well with the material.

  2. This looks very good. I always like to see myths from a second view.

    1. This one kind of shoves your face right into some ugly history.

  3. This one sounds good, a little grit to it. History v. Myth always makes for good reading. A few years ago I drove across central and western Kansas in July-over 100 degrees all the way. That area can be very tough on people who are not ready for it.

    1. Living in that kind of climate, I cannot believe people actually survived without air conditioning. I would perish.

  4. Williams wrote four novels and two books of poetry. Of the novels, three- Stoner, Butcher's Crossing and Augustus- are masterpieces.
    I haven't read the first- Nothing but the Night- but even if it's juvenilia, Williams's juvenilia would be well worth reading.

    1. I've read comments about STONER that make it sound worth reading. It seems somewhat autobiographical, and having had a similar experience as an academic, I'd expect to feel some sympathy for his protagonist.