Sunday, August 21, 2022

The “Western”: Definition of the Myth

John Williams (1922–1994)
From John Williams: Collected Novels

A Storm in the Rocky Mountains, Mt. Rosalie, 1866. Oil on canvas by American artist Albert Bierstadt (1830–1902). Wikimedia Commons.
The following introduction is adapted, with additional material, from the Note on the Texts in John Williams: Collected Novels, edited by Daniel Mendelsohn.

“There’s a very real sense in which ‘The West’ does not, did not ever, exist. It’s a dream of The East—almost as if The East made up The West,” John Williams told fellow novelist Dan Wakefield in 1981 while describing the basic idea behind Butcher’s Crossing: “What if a guy from Harvard with all kinds of Emersonian notions comes to the West and sees nature, sees what it is and what’s going to happen to him, and that’s where the novel begins.”

In 1954, during Williams’s first year as a faculty member at the University of Denver, he undertook extensive research for a novel set in the American West—from the Kansas plains to the Colorado Rockies—of the 1870s. He lost a year’s worth of notes when he moved his office to a new building with the rest of the English Department. He later called it a “most fortunate accident” and imagined how his research might have inhibited him. “I might have tried to force what I had learned into the novel,” he recalled; “as it was, I simply wrote the novel, and I found that when I needed a fact it would come to me.”

Even so, the novel progressed slowly. In the summer of 1958, Williams sent the completed first draft of “The Naked World”, as it was then called, to another Swallow Press author, Janet Lewis, whose historical novel The Wife of Martin Guerre he greatly admired and often recommended to students. She recognized the power of his novel, writing that the characters “exist only in the moment. They have no pasts and no futures. This makes the events very intense. . . . Congratulations.” That same summer, Williams secured an experienced agent, Marie Rodell, to represent the book. Before Rodell was able to submit the typescript to publishers, Cecil Scott at Macmillan, acting on a tip, approached Williams directly, inquiring about the manuscript. “I made it quite clear to him that you were handling the book,” Williams wrote to Rodell, “and that if he became seriously interested that he would have to work through you.” With Williams’s consent, Rodell submitted the novel to Macmillan after Scott promised to enter it in Macmillan’s new fiction award contest, which carried a prize of $7,500. In May 1959, Williams’s novel came in second in the contest, but Scott made an offer anyway—and then a counteroffer, when Rodell received a late competitive bid from Little, Brown & Co. Williams accepted Macmillan’s counteroffer.

With the publication of “The Naked World” scheduled for spring 1960, Williams began to have reservations about his title, despite reassurances from Scott, and proposed several alternatives, including “The Crossing,” “The Hunt,” “Hunt in the Valley,” and “The Western Path.” “I like best of any of your suggested titles, and better than any title I have come up with myself, Butcher’s Crossing,” Scott wrote in the summer of 1959; “it will give the reader a certain clue to the contents.”

Published on March 15, 1960, the novel received several positive notices, notably in the Chicago Tribune and the St. Louis Post Dispatch. “Brace yourself for a shock next Sunday,” Rodell warned her author toward the end of the month. The New York Times had assigned the book to its “Western Roundup” columnist, Nelson C. Nye, founding president of the Western Writers of America and author of dozens of Western novels, including that year’s novelization of Leon Uris’s screenplay for Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Alongside capsule reviews of such pulp Westerns as The Bride Stealer, Tombstone for a Troubleshooter, and Guns of Revenge, Nye condemned Butcher’s Crossing as “plotless” and generating “little excitement.” “The story . . . moves as though hauled by a snail through a pond of molasses,” Nye wrote. “You can leave it anytime, a lot of people will.”

More than Nye’s harsh judgments, the treatment of his novel as a “Western” troubled Williams, especially because it was intended to call into question the conventions of the genre. Unlike the typical Western, Butcher’s Crossing contains no struggle (as he put it) “between the personified forces of Good and Evil, as these are variously represented by cowboy and rustler, cowboy and Indian, the marshal and the bank robber, or (in a later and more socially conscious version of the formula) by the conflict between the squatter and the landowner.” Years later, he described what his novel was trying to achieve:
The events themselves, though imagined, had their source in certain historical forces that were crucial in the latter half of the nineteenth century: in large, the movement from East to West and the expansion of the American Frontier; in small, the few years that saw the extinction of the great buffalo herds of the West and the concomitant impact upon economics, politics, and man’s relation to the land he lived on and the culture he inhabited. It was, in short, a species of historical novel, in which specific detail and character were not minutely determined but influenced in a large sense by the forces of history.
Butcher’s Crossing sold only modestly—a few thousand copies in its 1960 hardcover and short-lived 1962 paperback editions. Ten years later, two paperback publishers, first Curtis Publishing and then Popular Books, approached Rodell, who was still Williams’s agent, about reprinting the novel. Williams declined both offers because they were contingent upon labeling and marketing the novel as a Western.

In November 1961, Williams published an essay in The Nation outlining what he believed were the shortcomings that plagued Western genre novels as well as more literary works that are “serious treatments of the Western theme.” The essay is, in part, a response to the Times dismissal; although he doesn’t mention his own novel, Williams derides Nye and similar writers as “contemptuous of the stories they have to tell, of the people who animate them and of the settings upon which they are played.” Yet he also offers a way forward for writers of novels about “The West,” a path traveled by numerous writers in the six decades since the essay appeared.

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Given the dense history of the American West, nearly unexplored in its most fundamental aspects and potentially the richest of American myths, why has there not emerged a modern novelist of the first rank to deal adequately with the subject? . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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