William Andrews, a third year Harvard student and son of a Unitarian Church lay minister, for reasons unclear to himself, seeks to experience a freedom and a vigor he found lacking at home in Boston. Under the spell of Emerson and others he heads west and ends up financing and riding along on a buffalo hunt to the Colorado Territory. While Williams highlights the destruction involved as the country moved west, he avoids a simple “innocence lost” tale. There was a high price paid for the westward movement, not just on the land and resources but on those settling the area. The Forward quotations, one by Emerson and one by Melville, remind today’s reader, insulated as we are, that nature can heal and destroy.
Andrews, warned that he will come back different from this outing declares “I will only become myself!” For precisely that reason he should have been more concerned at what he would ultimately find. When leaving the valley in the Spring, Will finds that “he would be leaving something behind, something that might have been precious to him, had he been able to know what it was.” Understanding and comprehension elude many of the characters. Even worse, several characters are driven to actual or near madness or to a desolate nihilism.
Williams avoids judgment in the book, preferring to present the struggle to tame the West as a mirror to the human soul. Just as man is capable of heroic and horrific deeds, often at the same time, so reads our history. Very highly recommended.
A tremendous adventure story set in 1870s Kansas and Missouri. This book has the most amazingly grisly scene of a buffalo skinning gone bad. Man vs. nature to the max. Nature more of less wins. Highly recommended. Not be missed. John Williams is the best!
I went from never having heard of John Williams (not to be confused with the composer) to thinking of him as one of the great neglected American novelists of the second half of the 20th century, even though he only wrote four books, the first of which he disavowed. Despite his small output, these books are incredibly different from one another. "Stoner" (1965) is a deliberately paced, Jamesian novel about an English professor, "Augustus" (1972) is a historical novel about the Roman emperor (and winner of the National Book Award), while "Butcher's Crossing" (1960) is a bleak western that predates similar work by Cormac McCarthy by decades. Despite being a quintessential American genre, we have very few truly great Western novels. There is a lot of pulp, a few classics ("Little Big Man," "True Grit") and not much in between. "Butcher's Crossing" centers around a buffalo hunt, which is more a buffalo slaughter and it's this that Williams finds a symbol for the violence, darkness, and greed of the West. Those who like their westerns bathed in myth and romance will no enjoy this, but those who appreciate ambiguity and irony will find this a very interesting and satisfying take on the genre. "You're crazy. What are you trying to do? You can't kill every god damned buffalo in the whole god damned country."
Modern revisionist Western well beyond its time. There is a dream inducing poetry in the violence and wild beauty describing a bounty lost, a way of life little lived, a hallucinogenic travel through blood and dust and snow and storm that takes one from their chair into the heart of darkness. Nearly fully lost to us this is wholeheartedly recommended.
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