Why is Butcher’s Crossing not more widely read?

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.

6 comments to Why is Butcher’s Crossing not more widely read?

  • This was said to belong to the so-called three great Westerns, with Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy and Warlock by Oakley Hall. I hope to read it soon.

  • I like your distinction between the “Western” and the “Revisionist Western,” and reacted to the notion that the Western is in decline by thinking of the very successful Cormac McCarthy “Border Trilogy” books or the popular Larry McMurtry Lonesome Dove media empire (perhaps it’s just that the Western genre is in decline for writers whose names don’t begin with “Mc”?). I don’t pretend to know anything about the genre, but I’ve been struck by the many Western films that tackle some of the troubling aspects of the westward expansion – the devastating criticisms of racism in John Ford’s The Searchers and Stagecoach, or, in Howard Hawks’ Red River the implicit criticism of the annexation of open land as though it were there for the taking (not to mention another take on profit-motivated monomania akin to what’s in the Williams novel). Perhaps the reluctance is to a more specific kind of depiction of reality: the horrific “orgy” of blood – not the individualistic episodes of violence as in McCarthy, but the wholesale destructiveness on a mass scale.

    When I was most of the way through Butcher’s Crossing, I thought, well, this is odd for a Western: no Indians. The near extermination of the buffalo is a potent enough story in itself, but it also seemed to represent the general “there for the taking” attitude that governed the genocidal decimation of Native Americans, who suddenly seemed conspicuous by their absence.I don’t know that Williams is hinting at this, but he certainly invokes the sheer monumental scale of what has occurred in the West, and that is a reality difficult to swallow.

    I should probably stop here and write my own post, since this is getting inexorably long, but just one other distant thought: I wondered if Butcher’s Crossing intentionally wrangled more with the cinematic genre of the Western than with the literary one. There are so many moments in the novel – one of the passages you selected for your next post contains a few – of recognizable descriptions of tropes and gestures and stock ingredients from Western films. And then the ending of the novel is really the classic Western ending turned upside down and inside out – at least temporally and astronomically.

  • Rise—I haven’t read the other two (though both are on my soon-list), but I’m sure you would like this one. And your writeup had me itching to read Augustus as well.

    Scott—Before reading The Virginian I did some very light research on the genre, largely to find out where it “began.” The general consensus seems to be that it went into decline after a mid-20th-century glut, both of books but also TV and movies. I think what we’re seeing now is continued but subdued popularity, mostly meaning less “filler.”

    I have not been a great watcher of Western films, so I’m sadly unfamiliar with most of them, but I’ve always enjoyed the ones I have seen. And as a side note, may I recommend “The Proposition”—it’s an Australian film, an Australian Western, and it’s just great.

    I do think you’re right about Willams hinting at the “sheer monumental scale of what has occurred in the West,” and how difficult it is to swallow. Indians do in fact appear—although not quite. Like the buffalo of the prairie, with their ruined coats, the Indians are likewise ruined and thus not a threat to be feared or a group to be interested in. I guess one thing that might make Butcher’s Crossing unusual, which I hadn’t thought of before, is that it is about the buffalo trade but at the tail end of it. Other Westerns are set similarly late, but are about ranchers. This is an “end of an era” book.

  • Funny – my partner discovered “The Proposition” recently and we watched it together just after both of us had read Butcher’s Crossing, and were both struck by how many elements seemed to overlap. I came away convinced that the filmmakers had read Williams’ novel, but upon later reflection thought maybe it’s just that the themes of works about the West touch on so many common experiences that to try to tag an influence like that is awfully difficult. Flying southeast-to-west across the country recently after having just read Butcher’s Crossing felt so – depressing. One looks down, sees those hundreds of miles of oil fields in Texas, that whole eastern half of Colorado described in the novel now just a patchwork of agricultural plots with a few rough wild patches peeking through – the sense of loss was just staggering to me. No valley like that one described in the novel exists anymore. I thought the cover choice for the NYRB edition was inspired – that nearly hallucinogenic, romantic vision of the wild west….

  • I just read a review for a book that may be described as a distant cousin to Butcher’s Crossing…or at least part of it–Prairie Fever: British Aristocrats in the American West 1830-1890 by Peter Pagnamenta. I may have to check it out.

  • “Western” vs. “novel of the West” – brilliant.

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