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Long read: the ideology of nature in Butcher’s Crossing

Nicholas A. Tonelli

Despite the huge and belated praise now surrounding John Williams’ novel Stoner (1965), much less attention has been cast to his earlier novel, Butcher’s Crossing (1960). Still, it’s been rightly hailed as part of a pantheon of western masterpieces alongside Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (1985) and Oakley Hall’s Warlock (1958).

Some surface commentaries have hailed Butcher’s Crossing as the better “hit” novel. But more pertinent in this great literary western is the need to acknowledge John Williams’ focus on the ideology of nature in Butcher’s Crossing, which merits only a digression in the smidgen of present coverage.

The ideology of nature is a term that refers to the representation of nature as something that is pure and undefiled, according to the late Scottish geographer Neil Smith. The frontier of the American 19th-century landscape, as external to modernity and the urban city form, existing as a world to be conquered or a place to return and go back to, is a common indicator of the ideology of nature.

John Williams. Wikimedia Commons

Butcher’s Crossing is set in 1873. William Andrews abandons Boston and his studies at Harvard College to travel to the town of Butcher’s Crossing in Kansas. There is a sense of unease about both his own self and his urban surroundings, with Andrews yearning for an engagement with the vastness of the wild.

Trekking westward, Andrews seeks contact with J.D. McDonald, a businessman trading in buffalo hides, orchestrating the production of curing and tanning the hides, linked to wider commodity networks in the larger urban centre of St. Louis. Driven to the edge of extinction, it is estimated that the American bison numbered more than 50 million at one time but the population declined to a mere 500 by 1905.

The reader is informed that McDonald traded 100,000 hides in the previous year and estimates a continued spike of two to three times that for the present year. Hunters, he laments, are just people living off the land, “not knowing what to do with it”, without his crucial assistance. The latter entails bringing the natural landscape into processes of capitalist production.


Also linked to the ideology of nature is its representation in terms of femininity, with mankind attempting to dominate and oppress, ravage and romanticise nature and women as objects of conquest and penetration. No better example of the ideology of nature would be needed than Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay Nature (1836) wherein it is stated:

a nobler want of man is served by nature, namely, the love of Beauty.

It is with these such phrases in his mind, delivered in a lecture room at Harvard College in Boston, that Will Andrews sets off for the rolling landscape, distant horizon, and the infinite space of the west to behold its beauty as part of his own “undiscovered nature”.

With the railroad soon to arrive at Butcher’s Crossing, Andrews associates with the buffalo hunter Miller, the hide skinner Fred Schneider and Charley Hoge the kitchen-hand, to set off for the Rocky Mountains and Colorado Territory. The hunt expedition is planned for six weeks, targeting a pristine herd hidden in a valley of up to perhaps 1,000 buffalo.

For Andrews, this is the world beyond the cottonwoods, a crucial spatial arbiter in the novel, at the edge of the town of Butcher’s Crossing, which assumes “in his mind the proportions of a vast boundary that lay between himself and the wildness and freedom that his instinct sought”. Prior to his departure, Andrews visits the sex worker Francine at Jackson’s Saloon, without consummating his lust.

Saloon, Montana, circa 1890. Montana State University Library

From a dominant perspective, the ideology of nature as pure and undefiled, as with the ideology of femininity, must be preserved. Man’s conquest of the former is linked to the dominion of the latter in this literary treatise on the production of nature. It is no coincidence that John Williams has epigraphs from both Ralph Waldo Emerson (Nature) and Herman Melville (The Confidence Man, 1857) at the start of this journey into the geography and political economy of space.

Yet, the ideology of nature as hostile and external, dominated and subjugated, cannot be taken as a given. Instead, returning to Neil Smith in his classic study Uneven Development (1984), nature is an inherently social product, so that there is an ideological function to the universal conception of nature as external to humankind (the ideology of nature) whereas, in contrast, nature is nothing but social.

“The human-nature argument is one of the most lucrative investments in the bourgeois portfolio,” Neil Smith reminds us. And so, as Butcher’s Crossing reveals, the relation with nature under capitalism takes a specific form: nature becomes a universal appendage of the production process. The appropriation of nature and its general transformation into means of production occurs under capitalism in specific ways explored through the buffalo hunt in Butcher’s Crossing.

As the ruthless hunter Miller states:

Buffalo’s a curious critter; there ain’t a part of him you can’t use for something.

This prompts a revisiting of Karl Marx’s statement in Capital (1867) that:

it appears paradoxical to assert that uncaught fish […] are a means of production in the fishing industry. But hitherto no one has discovered the art of catching fish in waters that contain none.

Paraphrasing Marx, it appears paradoxical to assert that uncaught buffalo are a means of production of the bison industry; but hitherto nobody has discovered the art of catching buffalo in plains that contain none.

Colorado plains. Nicholas A. Tonelli

But, as the band of hunters travel through the wilderness, the yellow sea of undisturbed grass, the spaces of the vast prairie, the limitlessness of the land, the social production of nature is at once revealed in Butcher’s Crossing as linked to the growing generalisation of the capital relation.

The buffalo graveyard on the Smoky Hill Trail – stretching across the Great Plains of North America extending west from Atchison, to Kansas, to Colorado – is recounted and how the bones will be used for fertiliser by hunters and prospectors. In contrast, Miller states, “the Indians used these bones for everything from needles to war clubs—knives so sharp they could split you wide open”, as well as bows and arrowheads, necklaces, toys and combs.

From the production and consumption of use-values by indigenous human needs, there is the production of surplus appropriated from nature by capitalist social production. Before venturing off the Smoky Hill Trail, the group encounter some Indians – “River Indians”, Miller relays contemptuously:

they live on catfish and jack rabbits. They ain’t worth shooting anymore.

Here, then, supposedly unproduced nature is actually a highly social product, a produced environment, in every conceivable sense through the human agency of both the anterior native Indian and the subsequent generalisation of the capitalist in relation with nature.

Most compelling in this sense is the New York Review of Books Classics edition of Butcher’s Crossing that contains the brilliant cover artwork of Albert Bierstadt.

The Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak. Schizoform/Flickr, CC BY-NC

The book jacket reproduces The Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak (1863), or at least the alternate smaller version of the painting. But take a look at the artist’s major work of the same name produced on his first trip to the west and now held in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Here, the major larger version of Albert Bierstadt’s The Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak presents nothing less than geographical space and nature as a social product through the presence of the native Indian.

Buffalo soldiers

These points are revealed with acuity and subtlety in Williams’ narrative in Butcher’s Crossing. Likewise his critique of the commodification of nature is compelling, gripping, and unrelenting. Dissecting the novel at the halfway point, the slaughter of the buffalo herd – numbering actually between 2,000 to 3,000, maybe more – unfolds with clinical efficiency at the hands of the skinner Fred Schneider.

Miller, the hunter, engages the first major cull as an automaton, a mechanism, embarking on the cold destruction of all life that surrounds him in a manner of mindlessness. After the initial bloodlust, Andrews casts his mind back to Francine in the town Butcher’s Crossing and his night of unrequited lust:

It came to him that he had turned away from the buffalo not because of a womanish nausea at blood and stench and spilling gut; it came to him that he had sickened and turned away because of his shock at seeing the buffalo, a few moments before proud and noble and full of the dignity of life, now stark and helpless, a length of inert meat, divested of itself, of his notion of its self, swinging grotesquely, mockingly, before him.

Here, the assertion of space and time in rethinking the production and ideology of nature comes to the fore in Butcher’s Crossing. In The Production of Space (1974), French philosopher and sociologist Henri Lefebvre states that:

a new political economy must no longer concern itself with things in space, as did the now obsolete science that preceded it; rather, it will have to be a political economy of space (and its production).

The political economy of space and its production in Butcher’s Crossing is intrinsically linked to the cyclical rhythms of nature and the repetitive movements of human agency. During the slaughter the herd circle “almost mechanically … in a kind of dumb rhythm, as if impelled by the regular explosions of Miller’s guns”.

The rifle shots are repeated with steady, monotonous insistence against the silent resignation of nature. The herd is reduced from its actual figure of 5,000 to less than 300 over the duration of a month-long kill. Eventually, the rifle shots lessen in regularity, becoming more briefly spaced, marking a new rhythm by which the group can pack the hides for the return journey.

But with a huge snowfall, nature keeps the group stranded for at least another six months. Bivouacked with his fellow huntsmen and cook, Will Andrews begins to blend with the elements; his movements flow into the landscape. While snowed-in, Andrews’ mind relapses to the life of comfort in Boston, as well as back to Francine whose flesh, softness, and warmth is now sought.

With the arrival of a thaw on the snow in late-March and early-April, the valley springs to life with the myriad sounds of nature, the greening of the earth, the rustling of the breezes through the pine boughs, the growing of the grass, “and the sound of the men’s voices carrying across distances and diminishing into space”.

Kristal Kraft

The political economy of space and its production comes to a head as the hunting party leave with 1,500 hides teetering atop their wagon, leaving a cache of about a further 3,000 in the valley, looking to sell roughly 4,600 to 4,700 in total to make about US$18,000 in profit.

On leaving the valley, Andrews reflects that he had come to know the landscape as well as the palm of his own hand while the wasting corpses of the buffalo simply remained behind to decompose. After a tragic journey back to Butcher’s Crossing, involving death and dementia for some, the remainder of the group discover that the market in buffalo hides has collapsed, more than 40,000 prime hides are stockpiled at McDonald’s tanning pit with them having no more worth than ten cents apiece.

The land associated with McDonald’s business is also deemed worthless as the railroad will now bypass Butcher’s Crossing. The byproduct of the buffalo kill once also deemed worthless, the meat of the slain animals, paradoxically becomes the most valuable commodity, sellable to the railroad company at 5 cents a pound but left in the mountain valley for the flies and the wolves.

Against the charge that McDonald has ruined the hunt group, his statement is declaratory on the choices made by those involved:

You ruin yourself, you and your kind. Every day of your life, everything you do. Nobody can tell you what to do. No. You go your own way, stinking the land up with what you kill. You flood the market with hides and ruin the market, and then you come crying to me that I’ve ruined you.

As McDonald concludes: “You can’t deal with this country as long as you’re in it; it’s too big, and empty.”

Meanwhile, finally consummating his relationship with Francine, Andrews has:

lost all consciousness of time, much as he had lost it back in the mountains, during the storm, under his shelter of snow and buffalo hide [so that] morning became indistinguishable from afternoon.

Yet, his relationship with Francine alters. For Andrews, in the morning light her hair is now lustreless, laying in tangles about her face; she breathes heavily in her sleep with her mouth open and wrinkles, albeit barely visible, now spread across her eyes; finally, with her flesh sagging in its repose, she is deemed to retain a previously undetected ugliness.

Samantha Kulpinski

In the final sections of the novel, Andrews’ thoughts turn to the flat landscape that lies east and the urban spaces of Boston, the sun rising on empty streets and churches along Bolston Street and St. James Avenue, Arlington and Berkeley and Clarendon, and the architectural spaces of his father’s bourgeois house.

In contrast, the seesaw of capital is set to move out of Butcher’s Crossing as it seeks new spatial fixes of accumulation and geographical expansion primarily linked to the railroad and associated forms of fixed capital investment and production (in plant, transportation, and the built environment).

Capturing this uneven development, Williams writes:

Even now, in the light of the early sun, the town was like a small ruin; the light caught upon the edges of the buildings and intensified a bareness that was already there.

As Neil Smith puts it in Uneven Development, “human nature is levelled downward” by the socially created and organised conditions of capitalist production generating conditions of development in one place while simultaneously creating renewed conditions of uneven development elsewhere.

With streaks of red lying on the soft banks in the east, a thin edge of sun flames above the eastern horizon in the closing pages of Butcher’s Crossing with Will Andrews passing once more the cottonwood grove and the narrow river and looking ahead at the flat country before him.

His shadow ends up lying on the edges of the crisp new prairie grass and he rides into the open country. “Except for the general direction he took, he did not know where he was going …”, other than into space.

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