John Williams, a great and forgotten American novelist

I’d never heard of the American writer John Williams until I stumbled across copies of the recent NYRB Classics reissues of his novels Butcher’s Crossing and Stoner on a display table in a Minneapolis bookstore. Although Williams won the National Book Award for Augustus, a novel of ancient Rome, in 1973, he has since faded into obscurity, and his other books have long been out of print. This is a real shame; Butcher’s Crossing and Stoner are both tremendous novels, and on their strength alone I’d confidently place Williams in the company of America’s best novelists.

Butchers Crossing by John Williams

Butcher's Crossing by John Williams

Butcher’s Crossing (1960) is an engrossing and breathtakingly beautiful western about buffalo skinners in the dying days of the old American West. Sentence to sentence, the book’s primary concern is detailing the day-to-day activities of the buffalo hunting expedition, and then later, the efforts of the expedition’s members to survive a winter while trapped in an isolated valley in the Rockies. But Butcher’s Crossing also contains a compelling coming-of-age narrative, tracing young Will Andrews’ transformation from a naive Easterner with romantic ideas about the Wild West into a man with a much deeper understanding of the world and his place in it.

As Butcher’s Crossing opens, Will considers himself an Emersonian transcendentalist, and expects that the vast wildness of the West will possess the power to move him to some kind of altered and higher state of consciousness. But after experiencing the harsh, dangerous, violent, and utterly indifferent beauty of nature in the unsettled reaches of Colorado, Andrews comes to understand that nature is in not something to be transcended, and that humans have only a very small place in it. The natural world is in fact indifferent to humans—far less malice can be found in its various life-threatening assaults on the members of Andrews’ expedition than in the indiscriminate and excessive slaughter that Andrews and his companions bring down upon the defenseless buffalo of the valley. The natural world resists all personification, philosophizing, and understanding: it is irreducibly itself, entirely apart from whatever sense humans might attempt to make of it.

Butcher’s Crossing also contains a critique of the myths of the American West. In the novel, the idea that even the roughest and hardiest of American adventurers might be capable of in any way taming or conquering the wildness of the West is treated as a vain fiction. Williams holds up the whole of human ambition against the vastness of the natural world, and finds it insignificant in scale by comparison. When the expedition returns from the mountains, they find Butcher’s Crossing well on its way to becoming a ghost town: the bottom has fallen out of the market for buffalo skins, and so the place has lost both its purpose and its primary source of prosperity. Meanwhile, the natural world waits with complete indifference to wipe the remnants of Butcher’s Crossing from the surface of the earth.

Stoner by John Williams

Stoner by John Williams

On its surface, Stoner (1965), the second John Williams book reissued by NYRB Classics, could hardly be more different from Butcher’s Crossing: it’s an academic novel about a Midwestern English professor of no particular distinction. After growing up poor and ignorant on a Missouri dirt farm, William Stoner begins a course of study in agriculture at the University of Missouri. His parents expect him to return to the farm upon graduation, in the hope that the new and unfamiliar science that he will learn there might help the family claw its way above the barest subsistence living. But then Stoner falls in love with literature and the life of the mind, and decides to stay in Missouri to pursue a graduate degree, and then later to make a career as an English professor. For several decades, Stoner endures a disastrous, loveless marriage and the slings and arrows of petty departmental politics, all the while finding some solace in his teaching and (most of all) in his private reading. He has one brief and passionate affair, and also makes a an emotional connection with his loving but distant daughter, but he primarily lives within his own mind. Eventually he succumbs to cancer, having never left Missouri or risen above the rank of assistant professor.

Upon his deathbead, Stoner reflects:

He had dreamed of a kind of integrity, a kind of purity that was entire; he had found compromise and the assaulting diversion of triviality. He had conceived wisdom, and at the end of the long years he had found ignorance. And what else? he thought. What else?

What did you expect? he asked himself.

For Williams, Stoner may be a mediocrity, but he is no failure: he has been a learner, a teacher, and (at least briefly) a lover, and no human can truly expect much more out of life. The book’s tragic weight comes from a sense that the heart longs for more than it can ever truly have, while meanwhile the “assaulting” trivialities of day-to-day existence diminish even what what little love and satisfaction people do manage to find in their lives. The life of the mind can bring great pleasure, but never the transcendent wisdom to which every reader and learner aspires; and love brings joy and meaning above all else, but it is also fragile and vulnerable.

Stoner shows its age a bit more than Butcher’s Crossing; its female characters, in particular, are thinly drawn and unconvincing, and also reflect the dominant ideas about gender roles of its time. Stoner’s wife, Edith, is a one-dimensional hysteric, and though Williams seems to recognize that her condition is rooted in her housebound and circumscribed life, he does little to acknowledge Stoner’s role in keeping her confined and unhappy. He does, however, regard Edith’s fate as having its own tragic dimension, and laments the social and cultural “trivialities” that prevented the two of them from finding a way to connect with one another. But this insight remains a long way from a feminist understanding of all that Edith has suffered on Stoner’s account.

This criticism aside, Stoner remains an uncommonly moving, thoughtful, and memorable book—one that deserves a much broader audience. But, given the themes of Stoner and Butcher’s Crossing, I doubt that Williams would himself lament his own obscurity. Though Stoner dies while clutching a copy of his only published book, it isn’t a gesture of ego or vanity, but instead of wonder and awe:

It hardly mattered to him that the book was forgotten and that it served no use; and the question of its worth at any time seemed almost trivial. He did not have the illusion that he would find himself there, in that fading print; and yet, he knew, a small part of him that he could not deny was there, and would be there.


10 Responses to “John Williams, a great and forgotten American novelist”

  1. 1 mark August 4, 2009 at 10:27 PM

    I picked up this book at the thrift store today, read the first 30 pages or so, then decided to see what people had to say about it online. After clicking on a few links, I came to your site. In any case, just wanted to say: excellent review. I’m really excited about finishing Stoner (maybe tonight) and your review has made me want to order a copy of Butcher’s Crossing.

  2. 2 spencer burke August 7, 2010 at 2:23 PM

    Stoner is quite profound–so many interesting juxtapositions and such insights into life and the importance of relationships. a great read. I enjoyed your review

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