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;  “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
Continue reading McDonald and the Missouri bachelor
Trevor’s podcast gave me one idea that truly—and somewhat shockingly—had not occurred to me before at all: the idea of Miller as Ahab. The signs are all there, and there is no question of Ahab’s same extreme monomania in Miller’s pursuit of the buffalo in the valley. But the parallels to Moby-Dick are rather extensive.
First, we can start with Andrews. He may not leave home with quite the level of ennui expressed by Ishmael in his opening chapters, but he certainly abandons what he sees as stagnation in favor of adventure and growth. The West is an excellent replacement for the sea, beautiful and terrible as they both are, subjecting man to the wonders and brutality of nature. The pacing of the novel is also similar. It takes a long time to reach the valley—nearly half the novel passes before they set up camp there. And this pacing is fast compared to the length of time Miller has spent obsessing about this particular herd, his “one that got away.”
And this time, he will not let it get away—not one scrap. The party initially intends to stay for just a few weeks, perhaps a month, and be back safe at Butcher’s Crossing before winter sets in. But even the best “stands” of his life are not enough for Miller. When the weather begins to turn, the buffalo sense it and try to make their way out of the valley, to their winter feeding grounds. Despite the dangers of staying longer, Miller cannot allow this, and enlists Andrews and Schneider to help him prevent it. The group spends a day turning back stampede after stampede when the unthinkable happens: it begins to snow.
This is everything short of complete disaster for Miller, Andrews, Schneider and Charley. The first snowflakes waste
Continue reading The monomania of Miller
Will Andrews, the protagonist of Butcher’s Crossing, is a young man who heads West, leaving behind Harvard and everything else familiar to him to do so. He is one of the yarb-doctor’s “sick spirit[s],” sent “to green pastures, like lame horses turned out unshod to the turf to renew their hoofs.” Will the yarb-doctor make him an idiot?
He arrives in Butcher’s Crossing, a hide town in Kansas, looking for work—but not just any work. A family friend is ready to have him as a bookkeeper, but paperwork is just the sort of thing he has left the East to avoid. He wants nature; he wants to meet the hunters. Heedless of his friend’s warning, he does so, seeking out a man named Miller who is supposed to be the best of the bunch.
Miller easily convinces Andrews to fund and participate in, at best, a difficult trip. A decade earlier, Miller found in a high valley in Colorado and untouched herd of buffalo—one of the few remaining large herds, and still with luscious coats, which the plains buffalo now lack. It is a valley untouched by humans other than Miller, or at least it was ten years earlier, and Miller convinces Andrews, Miller’s companion Charley, and an experienced skinner, Schneider, to go along treasure-hunting. And thus begins Andrews strange experience of the West, and of work.
The work begins long before the party reaches the valley. Andrews discovers it is work simply to ride so long and so far—never has he spent more than a couple hours at a time before on horseback. He finds for the first time what it means to be bone-tired, and as they progress through Kansas to Colorado, what it means to be hungry, and viciously thirsty. The traveling alone is dangerous
Continue reading “[A]s the pain of his body increased, his mind seemed to detach itself from the pain, to rise above it, so that he could see himself and Miller more clearly than he had before.”
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
Continue reading Why is Butcher’s Crossing not more widely read?
I hoped to squeeze in a fifth Stoner post on Friday, but you know what Fridays are like—not super motivational. So you get one on Monday instead! On Thursday I discussed Stoner’s class mobility and status as a class protector. Rise pointed, in a comment, to his review of the novel, where he notes the elliptical nature of Stoner’s feelings about these matters: by the end of his affair with Katherine Driscoll, he admits to her that as it turns out, they are of this world: “[W]e should have known that. We did know it, I believe; but we had to withdraw a little, pretend a little…” But that is not to say that everyone is the same, and there are no boundaries and divisions—that Stoner isn’t still separated from his parents and his upbringing, and that he isn’t separated from the way Edith lived, and so forth.
All that is a winding preamble to the real question of my post: why doesn’t William Stoner have a harder time than he does entering his new class? When he first arrives in Columbia, where he has never been before, and the bus driver points out the university, the narrator says that “[h]e had never before seen anything so imposing.” But “[b]eneath his awe, he had a sudden sense of security and serenity he had never felt before.” Hi is immediately home, in some sense of the word.
At first I thought this was simply a relic of his rural upbringing. A man brought up to wrestle with something as difficult as the earth itself, the seasons, the sun, and all the wild creatures—what could intimidate him? But I don’t think that’s right, especially in light of the lines quoted above. There is simply never any question of
Continue reading Stoner leaves the farm
One of the things that interested me most about Stoner—at least, potentially—was its being about a child of farmers, raised to be a farmer himself, who goes on instead to perform a serious feat of class mobility and turns up an English professor.
Rohan Maitzen described Stoner’s parents in her post on the novel last year as people who “notably” “misunderstand and thus inhibit him.” I would agree that they fail to understand him, but I see in fact a surprisingly small amount of inhibition here. In fact, none. Much more notable to me is how quickly Stoner moves on and away from his parents and their lives. When he decides to change his major, he doesn’t tell them. This is understandable, given the fact that they will probably disapprove, and in some sense they are only giving him up as a farmhand to send him away to become a better one. Still, his failure to inform them at all of his change in plans—which is a drastic change, as he will not be returning to the farm at all—until his after commencement seems unduly harsh. They are, in fact, expecting him to return home with them then and there, and he lets them know that not only will he not be coming, he will be staying at school for several more years, and that everything is very different. Their reaction is stoical:
Finally his father moved in his chair. Stoner looked up. His parents’ faces confronted him; he almost cried out to them.
“I don’t know,” his father said. His voice was husky and tired. “I didn’t figure it would turn out like this. I thought I was doing the best for you I could, sending you here. Your ma and me has always done the best we
Continue reading “But bad as we are, we’re better than those on the outside, in the muck, the poor bastards of the world.”
William Stoner’s seminar on the Latin Tradition and Renaissance Literature in the fall semester of 1931 is important both to the novel and to my own purposeful reading of it. On the one hand, it is critical to the plot (I feel like I should say, critical to the trajectory of Stoner’s life), and on the other, it provides a twofold example of Stoner at work: both succeeding and failing spectacularly in the same class.
The seminar is one that has grown increasingly popular, and it’s full. A student Stoner has not met before, a Mr. Walker, comes to his office to beg special permission to be enrolled—without this seminar, he will not graduate on time. Quizzing him about his own specialization (Romantic poets), Stoner is disinclined to let him into the course, but relents. The first session has already met; Mr. Walker will begin with the second session.
On that second Wednesday of the seminar William Stoner came into the room a few minutes late; he spoke to the students and began to arrange his books and papers on the small stained-oak desk that stood squatly before the center of a blackboard wall. He glanced at the small group scattered about the room. Some of them he knew…. Charles Walker was not among the group. Stoner waited a few minutes more, shuffling his papers; then he cleared his throat and began the class.
“During our first meeting we discussed the scope of this seminar, and we decided that we should limit our study of the medieval Latin tradition to the first three of the seven liberal arts—that is, to grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic.” He paused and watched the faces—tentative, curious, and masklike—focus upon him and what he said.
“Such a limiting may seem foolishly rigorous to some of you;
Continue reading “He spoke more confidently and felt a warm hard severity gather within him.”
One question that never fails to come up in discussion of the writing about work I’m searching for is whether it’s not just too boring to write about. For some people, the answer is clearly yes—which, again, are the chapters everyone hates in Moby-Dick? I don’t think those people will care much for Kipling’s tales of the cod fishery either. But there is no objective “boring,” and they are sure not boring for me.
It was not too boring for John Williams to write about work in Stoner. At the second link above, I quoted some early descriptions of Stoner working on his parents’ farm. There is more of that, and there is also something I’d like to get into later this week: as John McGahern notes in his introduction to the novel, “living” is just as much work for Stoner than the actual work he does. The novel, in some sense, is simply work-oriented. For now, just a taste of that, along with his teaching.
Though he was to teach only the fundamentals of grammar and composition to a group of unselected freshmen, he looked forward to his task with enthusiasm and with a strong sense of its significance. He planned the course during the week before the opening of the autumn semester, and saw the kinds of possibilty that one sees as one struggles with the materials and subjects of an endeavor; he felt the logic of grammar, and he thought he perceived how it spread out from itself, permeating the language and supporting human thought. In the simple compositional exercises he made for his students he saw the potentialities of prose and its beauties, and he looked forward to animating his students with the sense of what he perceived.
But in the first classes he
Continue reading “He now spent nearly all of his free time in the study”
I don’t know if any statistical analysis would bear this out, but Stoner, by John Williams, originally published in 1965 and reprinted by NYRB Classics in 2006, seems to be one of the more popular titles from that imprint around the litblogosphere. I have always assumed that was, at least to some extent, because it’s a novel about an English professor (and therefore about books and reading), and I avoided it a bit in part for this reason and also because I don’t care for the title.
But it’s not just the blog world that loves Stoner—it’s got some serious blurbs as well. Morris Dickstein of the New York Times Book Review calls it “something rarer than a great novel—…a perfect novel;” The Dallas Morning News calls it “one of the most extraordinarily fine novels published in the past fifty years.” It is very, very good. Perfect? I would not have used the word myself—Stoner does not seem small enough for it, somehow—I am not sure anything so fully about the entirety of a life could seem “perfect” to me. Still, it’s hard to find a false note. If there is anything to complain of here, for me, it’s a failure to convey the conversion of Stoner from farmer to literature student.
It’s a religious experience, basically, and it’s rare that I’m convinced by such things in fiction. I’m not sure it’s anyone’s fault; it seems like it would be terribly hard to do. Stoner, taking a required survey of English literature, is “troubled and disquieted” by the course in a new way. He is touched somehow by the instructor, Archer Sloane, whom he daydreams about; he does poorly on his examinations, no matter how much time he spends with the materials; and one day, when Sloane asks him
Continue reading “He felt his inadequacy to the goal he had so recklessly chosen…”
I don’t like to say that “the work project is under way,” or that it’s gotten under way, since my last week’s post on it, because really the work project was always under way—or at least, it has been for several years. It’s just one of those things that I notice when I read, which is probably, of course, why I thought about doing a “project” on it to begin with. But I have dug in. To some work, you could say.
Anthony suggested the anthology of short stories edited by Richard Ford Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar, a volume that had been on my shelf for several months, making me feel rather guilty for not working on this project in earnest sooner. I hoped it would give me some ideas for further reading at the very least*, so I started in on it shortly after writing my description of the project. I have read the first six stories: “Business Talk,” by Max Apple; “The Gully,” by Russell Banks; “Me and Miss Mandible,” by Donald Barthelme; “Unjust,” by Richard Bausch; “The Working Girl,” by Ann Beattie; and “Zapatos,” by T.C. Boyle.
Of these six, two show absolutely no work—in “Unjust,” a sheriff is accused of sexual harassment and the story follows his difficulties at home while he’s on administrative leave, and “Working Girl” gallops away from work as quickly as it can and into what one might call “the rest of life.”
In a third story, “Me and Miss Mandible,” Miss Mandible is at work during most of the present action of the story, but she’s teaching the narrator, which is at the very least an unusual depiction of work.** There is also some reference to the work the narrator used to do, though only in very general
Continue reading “Is it true what you told me jest now, that you never done a hand’s turn o’ work in all your born life? Must feel kinder awful, don’t it?”