Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Experiencing nature with Peter the Wild Boy - John Williams argues with Emerson and Thoreau

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 Wild 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 Wild Boy?


  1. Very good stuff. I wonder if the numbness and immersion and lack of expectation can relate to the Sublime, capital S, something I remember working over at length without every getting the theory handle on it everybody else seemed to enjoy. Wordsworth always helps here, a good and thorough warm up for Emerson and Thoreau, especially before heading up to the mountains. Poets and Ruskin (one of your guys, I believe, more or less) looked up with expectation and feelings and proper awe, and from what you mention Thoreau had a different experience in the Maine Woods than he did when he was at the pond, 10 minutes from the 7-11.

    Ismael, like the young Melville, gets on the boat, and Andrews isn't so different. Our John Muir (who knows his bible, and builds machines) walks from north to south, makes it to California, walks into the mountains, and never looks back. Immersed, brimming with enthusiasm, later on selling the mountains a little too purple and hard, but he was trying to avert environmental disaster, after all, so you can't blame him. I like my LS because he ran up and down the Cambridge rowing paths and did his Kant and Rationalism on his walk through Germany, got to the Alps and didn't stop to look and feel, but kept going to the top, a lot like Muir. Nothing against Thoreau and Ruskin and others, though, everybody just doing the best they can.

    And Williams has done well here. Would keep pushing you to veer towards Stoner.

  2. Did you look up the Confidence Man line? Because as you say, the epigrams could replace the novel (going by what you've written of it, at least)—they are amazingly well chosen.

    It's my beloved Missouri bachelor, of course, and just a few lines earlier, in answer to the miser's question about whether sick men "ain't...sent out into the country; sent out to natur and grass":
    "Aye, and poets send out the sick spirit to green pastures, like lame horses turned out unshod to the turf to renew their hoofs. A sort of yarb-doctors in their way, poets have it that for sore hearts, as for sore lungs, nature is the grand cure."

    And then, your line. Genius! And I marked this passage in my reading of The Confidence Man too. Butcher's Crossing has just gone to "must-read" status.

  3. Ah wait, just realized you didn't quote the whole thing, so you knew about the context I gave. Anyway, still genius!

  4. Yes, the Sublime, it's all about the Sublime! Muir and Ruskin and Thoreau and young fictional Laura Ingalls encounter the Sublime in an entirely different way then Williams' characters. I don't want to go too far that way, though, since I squeezed the breath out of the idea writing about Little House on the Prairie.

    I'm going to use Muir to write more about that. I almost believe that Williams was at times deliberately parodying My Summer in the Sierra, and presumably, then, many other books in the genre.

    The Muir book is wonderful, but purple, oh yeah. Every once in a while I practically beg Muir to knock it off.

    Ah, the Melville quote is from the Missouri bachelor! Wonderful! The Confidence Man, by the way, has an unusual status for me - years ago I read part of it, a healthy piece, but lost the concentration to finish it. This is a rare occurrence. Someday I'll read it all.

  5. "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." We live across the way from a family of shepherds. They have been shepherds for generations. When a fridge or similar domestic appliance breaks down and they can't fix it, they throw it in the river.

    I once thought that sheep herders were born Romantics. My recent experience tends me to believe that they are more likely to have a brutally functional attitude to the natural world.

  6. Brutally functional - that's pretty good. But they also - this is Thoreau's point - know the names of things. They may not have the attitude we associate with love of nature, but they have knowledge.