Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The dark rich dampness, the Wildness - a start at Butcher's Crossing

C. B. James is running a challenge, encouraging people to read historical novels set in the American West.  There’s another name for this kind of book,  something more compact.  I read Butcher’s Crossing (1960) by John Williams.

A young knucklehead, Will Andrews, under the influence of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Nature” (1836), drops out of Harvard and heads West, seeking a profound and authentic communion with Nature, or something like that:

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 dark rich dampness, the Wildness, and thereby renewed itself, year after year. (21)

With 250 pages to go, it is already clear that Andrews will find that Wildness and then some.  The question is, will this inexperienced idealist escape from it alive, and who or what will he take down with him.

Andrews’ search for true nature sends him into the Colorado Rockies as a member of a four-man buffalo hunting expedition.  A long stretch in the center of the novel describes the slaughter of the buffalo.  One sliver of that section:

Andrews opened the keg of water and got the tufted end of the cleaning rod wet.  When he inserted the rod into the breech of the barrel the hot metal hissed, and the drops of water that got on the outside of the barrel danced for a moment on the blued metal and disappeared.  He waited for a few moments, and reinserted the patch.  Drops of smoke-blackened water dripped from the end of the barrel. (134)

A keen-eyed reader might observe that this passage sounds very much unlike the first one I provided.   Yes, thank goodness!  An entire novel written in that first style would be hard to finish.  Most of Butcher’s Crossing is as meticulously detailed and carefully imagined, as material, as Little House on the Prairie.  Readers impatient with details about how to drive a team of oxen or build a canvas water barrel or skin a buffalo may well find this novel hard to finish.  Not me – I was impressed.

To be specific, a sentence like the last one, with the smoke-blackened drops, moves Williams’ writing out of the category of the instructional manual.  I may not follow every step, but Williams always includes something that I can focus in on, something he imagines and sees (or smells, or hears) clearly that he can give to me.

C. B. James argues that Butcher’s Crossing “does [not] offer an ironic, modern take on the events it describes.”  This puzzled me a bit, but I think he means that Williams is not messing with the conventions of his genre.  Butcher’s Crossing is not a hipster Western; its author does not wink at his reader, signaling that he and I are of course too sophisticated to read Westerns – you know, those other Westerns.  Williams uses the Western as a useful platform to tell this particular story.

The story itself, though, is profoundly ironic.  The novel might actually be a parody, but not a parody of Westerns.  I’ll see if I can develop this idea.

14 comments:

  1. Okay! Nice, and rather exciting. Read this with great interest, then said to myself I can't wait to read my post on BC--and had a very difficult time finding it. For a second I was wondering if I had even written anything, asking myself did I read that great book and post on it? Blog maintenance not my strong suit, but I managed to dig it up. So now I have a new John Williams category, four posts, waiting for me to add Augustus. (At the end of the BC post I promised myself to write more, but that didn't happen.)

    And I think we're pretty much on the same page. "Western Realism" was the category I was using, and the reference to the challenge is a good spur to see something I lacked at the time: a basic list of the better books in the genre.

    As good as BC is, Stoner is that much better and more amazing. Stoner is a hot rediscovered book, and there has been a significant spill off to BC, all good. AR goes his own way of course, but you wouldn't mind moving on to Stoner, as many would tell you. But you know me, I like the mountain stuff, and John Muir is good enough.

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  2. If I can get my thinking box straight - the organic one, not the electronic one - and get this idea put together, you, in particular, should enjoy it. Mountains as far as the eye can see.

    zhiv's Butcher's Crossing post is right here.

    I avoid the word "realism" like the bubonic plague, but I know what you mean. Williams was not trying to write something wild and wacky like Oakley Hall's Warlock or something mythic like McCarthy's Western books. He was using the genre for what it could do, not pointing out what it couldn't or undermining its clichés or whatever. He's working on an entirely different set of clichés.

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  3. When I read Butcher’s Crossing, there was a point when it reminded me of something else I read in the past few years. I finally realized what it was…and, even funnier, today Nicole posted on the exact parts of Heart of Darkness that reminded me of Williams’ book. I thought about posting on the similarities (and differences) between the two books, then decided against it. Now I’m wishing I had explored that because I don't see many other reviews raising that point (and maybe for a good reason, although it still feels like a strong relationship to me). I think there is more in common than I initially would have linked, although, despite its faults, I prefer Williams’ down-to-earth version, at least on the similar themes.

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  4. Oh sure, Miller, the buffalo hunter is a bit of a Kurtz figure. Both are charismatic, both base their power on the slaughter of megafauna, buffalo hides replacing ivory.

    Amusingly, Miller is also a Captain Ahab figure - I would start there, actually, and see what's left for the Kurtz parallel. If the Butcher's Crossing character was exploiting or leading Native Americans, the Kurtz parallel would be a lot stronger.

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  5. I didn’t get the Ahab figure as much since it wasn’t a revenge or personal cause for Miller…simply exploiting what was there…doing what was asked of him to the nth degree… which is why I see the Kurtz parallel as the stronger one. Exploiting or leading natives wasn’t all of what Kurtz was about, although obviously it was a strong component of how and why he turned. But first was the clearing…the preparation for or bringing of civilization, which is why I see a stronger case for Miller.

    But then, that’s why I didn’t post the comparison. He’s not a perfect fit for either one but a decidedly American West twist on both.

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  6. Or another way to look at it... a perversion of the American dream (which embodies part of it) with imperial dreams.

    Sorry to ramble on so... just bottled that up too long...

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  7. Now there's a difference of interpretation. I don't think Miller has the slightest interest in civilization or clearing its way. If anything, he is threatened by it. He's like Andrews, in quest of Wildness.

    The irrationality of his insistence on destroying every single buffalo is Ahab-like (and highly "personal"). Also, his white nemesis bit off his limb - this is displaced just a bit.

    There is no way I would want to follow that "American dream" argument. What a vague concept. Much to gassy for Williams. If he were going after Horatio Alger, he would have made that clear, but what a thin target.

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  8. Come to think of it, the hide-dealer who hates "paperwork" and wants to hire Andrews to deal with it - that's the Horatio Alger parody. Andrews is offered a quick rise from the mailroom, but rejects it. Or maybe it's all a Bartleby joke. Or both.

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  9. Hi A.R.

    This blog seems to travel at the speed of light! I just discovered that Peacock is quirky very much to my liking. It is fascinating to read how much Kant’s philosophy was still on the minds of educated people forty years after the “Critique of Pure Reason”.

    Peacock also seems to read very much like Mark Twain -- only Peacock is dealing with ‘intellectuals’ while Twain is dealing with children and the undereducated.

    It is possible that cynical writers will sound the same but I can’t believe that Twain didn’t read Peacock.

    Are you going to come back to Peacock?

    Vince

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  10. Ah, I've overstated as usual. Looking back on my write-up I played down much of what I'm talking about here and played up more of Williams' matter-of-fact presentation...this is how the "story" is.

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  11. Dwight - Oh, no, I know what you mean. The blankness of some of the characters, the hero but also Miller the buffalo hunter, that matter-of-factness you describe, really invites us to fill them in somehow. And some of that filling will necessarily be with literary precedents.

    One could imagine an ecological rewrite of Conrad that emphasized the massacre of the elephants. Butcher's Crossing may, in part, be that book.

    Vince - Guy Davenport died at age 83, so it may be a while before I turn to Peacock for similar deathbed comforts. Plus, my week of Peacock is likely the longest treatment of that writer in the history of book blogs. Dwight is one of the very few book bloggers who ever surpasses me in comprehensiveness.

    Now, a related project that would be useful would be to take another look at Coleridge's prose, to re-read Biographia Literaria and try to make either head or tail of it. A lot of Peacock's teasing of Kantian ideas is really aimed at Coleridge.

    Glad you liked Peacock - he deserves his readers. I'll bet you're right about Twain.

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  12. I'm right there with you on Ahab. There's the drive and the zeal. Williams adds the Emerson/Thoreau go west, through Andrews. I'm thinking that you're getting into this in your next installment, which I will read momentarily. It was natural for Melville to do uber-transcendentalism at sea, or whatever you want to call MB, because he, well, had been at sea. But Williams hit a nice vein, I think, when he found a way to adapt the structure and characters to the West and the "slaughter of megafauna," as you say so well.

    The big basic, obvious discrepancy with HofD is that Andrews signs up with Miller and goes on his journey, just as Ismael is on Ahab's boat and they sail off, while the structure of HofD is very different, and finding Kurtz is the journey. Isn't Kurtz the whale/the pristine valley full of buffalo--not that I'm ready to try to catch up with either Dwight or Nicole on a book I haven't read in 30 years.

    Funny: the longest treatment of Peacock in book blog history: yeah, that's a pretty safe bet.

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  13. Wow, this is one of those serious "I had no idea that's what this book was" moments for me. Gotta get on this one, obviously.

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  14. nicole - I know what zhiv is talking about when he advocates Stoner. Butcher's Crossing would not make my list of, I don't know, top 100 American novels, but Williams pursues some ideas that you would find most interesting.

    Better make that top 50 - like I know so much about American novels.

    zhiv - I had assumed that eco-critics would be all over this novel. Google, for what that's worth, suggests otherwise.

    I suppose Williams thought that the pursuit of a magical, super-intelligent, super-strong gigantic white buffalo would be too obvious. Not me. I'd read that one, although it's more like an episode in a Pynchon novel.

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