Butcher's Crossing is a western novel by John Williams originally published in 1960. The book takes place in Butcher's Crossing, Kansas in the early 1870s. The story is about William Andrews, a young Harvard student, who leaves his life behind to go on a Buffalo hunting expedition. He and the people he meet along the way have to survive the harsh conditions of nature in their attempts to get buffalo hide to sell and make a lot of money. Along the way, Andrews contemplates his purpose in life in respect to nature specifically through the influence of Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Butcher's Crossing is the second novel by John Williams, preceded by Nothing but the Night. It is considered by many to be among the first pioneers of a more "realistic" breed of Western, along with a few other notable works including Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian and Oakley Hall's Warlock. Reflecting on the state of the Western genre at the time of writing Butcher's Crossing, Williams wrote: "The subject of the West has undergone a process of mindless stereotyping,". Williams' response to this came in the form of Butcher's Crossing, in which the harshness of life on the Western frontier is emphasized. Ironically, the novel features a protagonist, Will Andrews, who is deeply influenced by the idea of human-nature harmony found in Emersonian philosophy.William Andrews - William Andrews is the main character. Will is 23 years old, a minister's son, and a third year Harvard student. Inspired by Ralph Waldo Emerson's writings and a pull to the wild, he quits college to "find himself in the great West."
Miller - Miller is a zealous guide of the wild that William meets on his journey. Miller is an experienced hunter and mountain man who convinces Andrews to go on a buffalo hunting expedition with him. He prides himself on his trade and is devastated when the men come home to the non-existent buffalo market.
Fred Schneider: Fred is a hide skinner who accompanies Will, Miller, and Charley on the buffalo hunt.
Charley Hoge - Charley is one-handed and Miller's help. He accompanies Will and Miller on their hunt. He always carries his Bible on him and often brings up controversial religious topics that cause debate in the group. Charley is also an alcoholic.
Francine - a "whore-with-a-heart-of-gold" who Andrew finds companionship with.
J.D. McDonald - J.D. knew Andrew's father. He is a businessman and a buffalo hide trader.
William Andrews, a Harvard student in the early 1870s, having become dissatisfied with the mundane life of a student at Harvard heads west with his inheritance from an uncle. Inspired by Ralph Waldo Emerson, he arrives in Butcher's Crossing in Kansas, hoping to discover himself and his purpose by returning to nature and the wilderness.
Upon arriving in Butcher's Crossing, KS, Andrews declines a desk job with an acquaintance of his father and is encouraged to seek out a local hunter called Miller to learn about the area. Miller talks to Andrews about one of the last large herds of buffalo and convinces Andrews to fund the trip in expectation of a big reward.. Miller leaves Andrews and Charles Hoge, Miller's assistant, as Miller takes Andrews' money to buy supplies. Hoge at first respects Andrews as a son of a minister but soon comes to realize Andrews isn't that knowledgeable and his reverence falters into mild amiability. While Andrews waits for Miller to return, he sits in his hotel room and contemplates his life and an awkward romance with local prostitute Francine.
Miller returns with a skinner called Schneider the fourth member of the group and the expedition heads off. The group cuts overland as Miller insists on his ability to find water as he knows the land to the annoyance of Schneider who wanted to follow the river, the expedition almost fails due to lack of water but on the third day they find a stream. The group moves further into the mountains and finds the site that Miller remembers and immediately see a large group of buffalo. Miller becomes obsessed with killing every single buffalo, killing as many as a hundred a day to sell back at Butcher's Crossing. During the hunt Andrews becomes more proficient as an outdoorsman and skinner as the valley floor becomes littered with the corpses of the beasts. Miller insists that the group stays to kill each buffalo of the enormous herd but whilst blocking the escape of several small herds trying to leave the valley a large snowstorm hits and the expedition becomes stranded in the valley for the six to eight months before it thaws out and the pass becomes usable again. Throughout the winter each man retreats into himself, Charlie ceases to do his job, Schneider talks to himself and Miller hunts and disappears into the forest for entire days. Eventually the winter recedes and the group manage to recapture the oxen and horses which they allowed to go wild over the winter and pack up half the skins to return for the rest later in the year. The group manage to force the rickety load back over the pass and return but come to a river swollen with floodwater. As Schneider and Charlie lead the team across a large log comes downriver knocking into Schneider's horse and knocking the carriage filled with furs over. Schneider is killed when his flailing horse kicks him in the head and all the furs are lost to the fast moving waters.
The three men return to Butcher's Crossing but the town is empty, Macdonald who was to buy their furs is not there and they later find him sleeping in an abandoned building. He tells them that the buffalo hide market fell through and that all their work was worthless. Miller spirals into depression Miller spirals into depression eventually burning the furs of Macdonald and riding into the night followed by Charlie. Andrews begins a short relationship with Francine before leaving her most of his money and riding away from town.
Several of Butcher's Crossing's themes revolve around the plot in William Andrews' quest to find himself in the vast expanses of the unsettled West. Many reviewers of the book have considered the theme of nature to be prevalent in the novel. Ideas regarding Ralph Waldo Emerson's takes on nature, especially that of Transcendentalism and the Transparent Eyeball, centralize Andrews' experience in the wilderness. The theme of nature is challenged by the theme of societal expansion, and the novel uses comparisons between the purity of nature and the development of society to create this binary. The theme of nature and the natural world even leads to additional themes that include man vs. nature, more specifically, human drive, motivation, and endurance, as William discovers how powerful nature is and must use all of his strength to survive it. Additionally, Butcher's Crossing explores the theme of self-realization, and the components that play a role in understanding one's self, which includes maturity, a loss of innocence, and the exploration of one's spiritual standing. According to reviewer Derek Harmening, Butcher's Crossing includes themes such as "imperialism, manifest destiny, perils of the free market, the enduring contempt of Native Americans (and anything else that existed on American soil before Europeans did, really), and— perhaps most importantly—man’s eternal judgment."
The book Butcher's Crossing is considered a classic romantic American Western, but one written with complete seriousness. John Williams' take on the classic western includes not only common western themes but a reflection of America itself, and the deconstruction of the American Dream, as well as incorporating ideas of destiny and Emerson's concept of being one with nature. John Williams' way of writing is straightforward but gives a gritty look into the behavior of man along with nature, and that madness that can overcome them when they become emerged with one another.
The reception of Butcher's Crossing, though somewhat mixed, is predominantly positive.
Author and Pulitzer Prize nominee Oakley Hall called Butcher's Crossing "the finest western ever written." Adam Foulds, a writer for The Spectator magazine, agrees, writing, "The novel culminates beautifully in action and stingingly in thought." A writer for The Guardian, Nicholas Lezard, found himself especially intrigued by Williams' ability to focus on events that drive the story. He writes:
"Williams, in reducing the elements of his story to nothing more than close attention to events, has produced something timeless and great. And in its pitiless depiction of men reduced to the most basic and extreme of situations--thirst, cold, heat, exhaustion, isolation, not to mention the undesirability of each other's company--this book very nicely fits into the contemporary vogue for survival-manual entertainment."
Waggish calls Butcher's Crossing "the most flawed, the most peculiar, and the most exuberant of Williams' three mature novels." The article also comments on Williams' writing in Butcher's Crossing as compared to his two other novels, saying, "Williams' writing is a little too lush and artful in Butcher's Crossing, lacking the architectural precision of the later two novels. He is still a wonderful writer, but one is more conscious of him making an effort." Archie Bland, a writer for Independent magazine agrees with this, saying that parts of Butcher's Crossing, specifically the ending, don't quite hold up to his later novel Stoner.Mookse and Gripes Review: compares the novel and the character Miller to Moby Dick and Captain Ahab
Express Review: calls Butcher's Crossing "a masterpiece"
Word Riot Review: describes the important messages in Butcher's Crossing about humankind and nature