Butcher’s Crossing begins with a pair of epigrams that, if properly understood, could replace the novel, although I had to read the novel to understand them, so what good do they do? The first is a long slab of Emerson’s “Nature” which can be compressed thusly: “satisfaction… tranquil… halcyons… Indian summer… knapsack of custom… sanctity which shames our religions… judges like a god.” Strange, gassy stuff. The second epigram is a little different. Poets, Emerson, perhaps, prescribe nature as “the grand cure” for “sick spirits”:
But who froze to death my teamster on the prairie? And who made an idiot of Peter the Will Boy?
This is so odd that it can only come from Herman Melville, stripped out of who knows what context from The Confidence Man (1857). Will Andrews, the center of Butcher’s Crossing, abandons the knapsack of custom for the wilderness, for its Emersonian judgment, and his sick spirit is, in fact, cured, but the medicine has some powerful side effects.
In Butcher’s Crossing, the authentic experience of Nature destroys the self. Personality is effaced by wildness. All of the characters, not just Andrews, regress in the wild. Or perhaps they do move forward, stepping out of their humanity, beyond personality, beyond thought. Thoreau develops an idea like this in the “Higher Laws” chapter of Walden, the chapter I found hardest to understand.
Thoreau, however, also associated experience of nature with knowledge of nature:
Fishermen, hunters, woodchoppers, and others, spending their lives in the fields and woods, in a peculiar sense a part of Nature themselves, are often in a more favorable mood for observing her, in the intervals of their pursuits, than philosophers or poets even, who approach her with expectation. She is not afraid to exhibit herself to them. (“Higher Laws,” first paragraph)
This comes just after Thoreau resists the temptation to devour alive a woodchuck, but I think he means this. Thoreau became an expert naturalist. Andrews approaches nature with expectations, but knows nothing, absolutely nothing, and he learns nothing about nature along the way. Everything he learns in the novel – how to ride a horse, how to skin a buffalo – only leads to further mental numbness. Perhaps that is what he was seeking.
Andrews' ignorance extends far past nature:
Soon, almost to his surprise, it occurred to Andrews that he did not know the Bible well enough to talk about it even in Charley Hoge’s terms – had not, in fact, ever read it with any degree of thoroughness. His father had encouraged his reading of Mr. Emerson, but had not, to his recollection, insisted that he read the Bible. (45)
Andrews’ father is a Unitarian minister! I even wonder how well Andrews read Emerson.* Further down on the same page, Andrews remembers his attempts to “become a transparent eyeball” (a “phrase from a lecture by Mr. Emerson that he had attended”, emphasis mine) in “the fields and woods” near Cambridge.** Andrews never reads anything, or writes anything. At Harvard he feels nothing but “meanness and constriction.” Buried in his buffalo hide sleeping bag, waiting out a Rocky Mountain blizzard (182-3), Andrews is entirely constrained, but there is no meanness, nothing outside himself.
I believe Williams is critiquing the fecklessness of one side of Emerson and Thoreau’s response to nature. He wants to bring the danger and wildness back into the picture. Thoreau seems to have learned a similar lesson after he wrote Walden, but I have only read passages of the “Ktaadn” chapter of The Maine Woods, which contains Thoreau’s shattering encounter with real wilderness, so I cannot be sure. Williams carefully outlines the negative space of an alternative path. Tomorrow, I will glance at another disciple of Emerson and Thoreau, another authentic encounter with Nature, but one that is brimming with personality.
* Or how well anyone reads anything. See p. 199, when Andrews asks Charley to read something from his Bible.
** A later, almost literal exercise in transparent eyeballing results in a three-day snow blindness (202). Who made an idiot of Peter the Will Boy?