McDonald and the Missouri bachelor

This will certainly be my most spoilerific Butcher’s Crossing post, so, fair warning.

I mentioned earlier in the week that Will Andrews had gone out to Butcher’s Crossing because a family friend was based there, working in the hide trade. This man, McDonald, is a trader and outfitter of buffalo-hunting trips. Most of the hunters in the town work for him, and he pays them for their skins before sending them back East, where they are in demand.

McDonald makes another connection to Melville, and to the book cited in the epigraph—The Confidence-Man. My best overview of that novel is here, but I am most interested in a particular character: the Missouri bachelor, Pitch.

Seen in one light, the Missouri bachelor could be Miller. Possibly modelled on James Feminore Cooper, he is a man of the West (or at least the Midwest). He is cool and calculating, and recognizes that the forces of nature are more often arrayed against man than not. But these are, I think, superficial resemblances, and it is at the end of Butcher’s Crossing that McDonald comes to channel him most.

The Missouri bachelor enters the scene of Melville’s riverboat of the damned after witnessing the confidence-man, here and herb-doctor, sell an old man one of his remedies. “Yarbs and natur will cure your incurable cough, you think,” he sneers to the old man.

“Think it will cure me?” coughed the miser in echo; [165] “why shouldn’t it? The medicine is nat’ral yarbs, pure yarbs; yarbs must cure me.”

“Because a thing is nat’ral, as you call it, you think it must be good. But who gave you that cough? Was it, or was it not, nature?”

“Sure, you don’t think that natur, Dame Natur, will hurt a body, do you?”

“Natur is good Queen Bess; but who’s responsible for the cholera?”

“But yarbs, yarbs; yarbs are good?”

“What’s deadly-nightshade? Yarb, ain’t it?”

“Oh, that a Christian man should speak agin natur and yarbs—ugh, ugh, ugh!—ain’t sick men 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. But who froze to death my teamster on the prairie? And who made an idiot of Peter the Wild Boy?”

(That last paragraph is Butcher’s Crossing‘s second epigraph.)

In The Confidence-Man, the Missouri bacherlor is condemned for his cynical view—for his lack of confidence, in this case, in nature. It is McDonald who delivers this message to Andrews, after the hunting party returns to a devastated town: McDonald is bankrupt, the bottom has fallen out of the hide trade, nearly everyone has left Butcher’s Crossing, and the hunting party failed tragically on their way back to town, losing their wagon and all the hides on it. More hides than they could carry remain piled up in their hidden Colorado valley, but these too are worthless. McDonald is a bit of an “I told you so,” but the learning experience he tries to impart to Andrews is not wrong—though it may be wasted on a man who can no longer receive it.

“Young people,” McDonald said. “Always wanting to start fro mscratch. I know. You never figured that someone else knew what you was trying to do, did you?”

“I never thought about it,” Andrews said. “Maybe because I didn’t know what I was trying to do myself.”

“Do you know now?”

Andrews moved restlessly.

“Young people,” McDonald said contemptuously. “You always think there’s something to find out.”

“Yes, sir,” Andrews said.

“Well, there’s nothing,” McDonald said. “You get born, and you nurse on lies, and you get weaned on lies, and you learn fancier lies in school. You live all your life on lies, and then maybe when you’re ready to die, it comes to you—that there’s nothing, nothing but yourself and what you could have done. Only you ain’t done it, because the lies told you there was something else. Then you know you could of had the world, because you’re the only one that knows the secret; only then it’s too late. You’re too old.”

“No,” Andrews said. A vague terror crept from the darkness that surrounded them, and tighteend his voice. “That’s not the way it is.”

“You ain’t learned, then,” McDonald said.

If McDonald is hard on the young man, he is no less hard on himself. “I came out with nothing, too,” he says, but there’s a reason.

“Because I forgot what I learned a long time ago. I let the lies come back. I had a dream, too, and because it was different from yours and Miller’s, I let myself think it wasn’t a dream. But now I know, boy. And you don’t. And that makes all the difference.”

“What will you do now, Mr. McDonald?” Andrews asked; his voice was soft.

“Do?” McDonald straightened on the bed. “Why, I’m going to do what Miller said I should do; I’m going to get out of this country. I’m going back to St. Louis, maybe back to Boston, maybe even to New York. You can’t deal with this country as long as you’re in it; it’s too big, and empty, and it lets the lies come into you. You have to get away from it before you can handle it. And no more dreams; I take what I can get when I can get it, and worry about nothing else.”

Talk about a man with no confidence! The West did not freeze to death any teamsters on the prairie, at least not this time, but its very vastness and wildness can’t help but bring false ideas about nature. These ideas infected Andrews when he was young, before he ever got out there, and presumably they infected McDonald like that too—otherwise he wouldn’t likely be in Butcher’s Crossing to begin with. He may not be as steady as the Missouri bachelor; after all, he forgot the lesson he had learned from the country. But after his latest tragedy he knows the only way is to flee the seductive untamedness of nature; he can’t trust it, and he can’t trust himself while he’s still in it. This nature that is supposed to cure, supposed to help men discover themselves and do great things they felt impossible back home, can be as deadly as nightshade, as bad for clarity of mind as any drug.

I have confidence in nature? I?,” asks the Missouri bachelor. “I say again there is nothing I am more suspicious of. I once lost ten thousand dollars by nature. Nature embezzled that amount from me; absconded with ten thousand dollars’ worth of my property; a plantation on this stream, swept clean away by one of those sudden shiftings of the banks in a freshet; ten thousand dollars’ worth of alluvion thrown broad off upon the waters.”

His interlocutor demands he have confidence that “by a reverse shifting that soil will come back after many days,” but the Missouri bachelor, like McDonald, believes no such foolishness. The confidence-man questions further: “Now, can you, who suspect nature, deny, that this same nature not only kindly brought you into being, but has faithfully nursed you to your present vigorous and independent condition? Is it not to nature that you are indebted for that robustness of mind which you so unhandsomely use to her scandal?” But is it not also just such a nature that drives men like Andrews into danger, that “robustness of mind” which is perhaps not robustness but a fantastic desire to find, at least in McDonald’s opinion, something that simply is not there?

1 comment to McDonald and the Missouri bachelor

  • But the soil may well come back. I guess that may take a few too “many days” to be much of a consolation.

    This is the strangest link of all that you’re working on, a clear text (Williams) making use of (parodying, arguing with) an obscure text. I guess those last couple of quotations form Melville are more or less clearly going after transcendentalist Nature, which ties them clearly to Williams and his use of Emerson.

    What I am trying to say is, what you are doing seems difficult. This has been a good start.
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