Trevor of The Mookse and the Gripes has, along with his brother, begun a podcast on NYRB Classics with John Williams’ Butcher’s Crossing. The first episode was particularly timely for me, as I planned on writing about the novel this week. I will be cribbing some topic ideas from their excellent discussion, including this first one.
But before I get around to answering that question, I must recommend in the strongest possible terms that you read one of Tom’s posts on the book from last year. These epigrams—and it’s not just because one is from Melville—I do believe they tell the whole story. I said it then, not having read it, and I say it again now, after the fact. Okay, maybe not the whole story, but rarely have I seen epigrams so wisely chosen. (And good on John Williams for reading The Confidence-Man.)
On to answer the question in this post’s title. Trevor and Brian posit a few reasons why Butcher’s Crossing is not so widely read, specifically in comparison to John Williams’s other NYRB-published novel, Stoner. Trevor suggested, as I did when I wrote about that book, that Stoner probably carries especial appeal for the lit blog crowd, concerned as it is with literature—with “the tower of literature,” as he well puts it. And I don’t think it is a mistake to pay more attention to Stoner, which I suspect is the “better” book, but it does give me pause that that is the reason.
The other answer has to do with Butcher’s Crossing itself. Trevor and Brian wonder whether it’s relatively neglected because it’s a Western, a genre in decline since the 1960s. I’m not sure that Butcher’s Crossing is a “Western” so much as “a novel of the West”—and please, don’t ask me to explain the difference between the two before I’ve read more Westerns. They mention that it has been described as a “revisionist Western,” and that could mean the same thing.
I think it has more to do with the specifics of the content of Butcher’s Crossing, and Americans’ continued trouble relationship with the realities of settling the West. Westerns, in a certain way, don’t face this reality. That is perhaps too strong; there is certainly ugliness in The Virginian. But the very jacket copy of the NYRB Classics edition of Butcher’s Crossing describes “an orgy of slaughter,” with men “so caught up in killing buffalo that they lose all sense of time.” This in particular seems like a fair bet at a turnoff for many readers, and for me too these passages were difficult to read.
That is not to say, by a long shot, that such an orgy is celebrated in the book; quite the contrary. But the orgy is there, and it’s brutal and gruesome. The Western may be dismissed as “genre,” but the revisionist Western, or novel of the West, is beautiful and terrible. Less dismissed than, I would postulate, avoided. That is pure speculation, of course, but if any of that is holding you back, I urge you onward. For the rest of the week, I’ll explain why.