Image credit: Henry Jacob Winser / Wikimedia Commons
The most famous environmental book ever written in America is Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published in 1962. But just two years before, another book was written (by a writer who shared Carson’s literary agent) that was arguably equally important, albeit in an entirely different register. Usually classified as a Western, John Williams’s Butcher’s Crossing should be seen as one of the most important books ever written in English about environmental destruction and the ways Americans have imbricated killing and destruction—particularly in the American West—into our national identity and psyche.
In an article in the New Yorker, Tim Kreider called Williams the “author of the greatest American novel you’ve never heard of” (2013). Williams wrote only four novels: Augustus, an epistolary story set in Ancient Rome; Stoner, a novel about an ineffectual academic; Nothing but the Night, a portrait of mental illness; and Butcher’s Crossing. While Augustus won a National Book Award and Stoner inspired that effusive New Yorker praise, until recently Williams’s books had been only sporadically read; he died in 1994 mostly in obscurity. Perhaps one reason is that Williams is hard to pin down. His books are so different from each other that it can be hard to accept that one person wrote them; Williams is not easily placed into any one school or genre. In the 2010s, however, Stoner was revived in Europe and became a best seller. In recent years Williams has attracted substantial scholarly attention (Asquith 2018; Shields 2018), and some critics have recognized Butcher’s Crossing as a great work of environmental writing (Morton 2014).
Williams’s books are dark, and none more so than Butcher’s Crossing, whose title unflinchingly alerts us of its bloody interior. Anyone accustomed to thinking of “environmental” books as celebrations of nature will be not merely disappointed by Butcher’s Crossing; they will be horrified. The novel is an unflinching portrayal of how American men destroyed the American bison, not just for money—although that played a driving role—but also as an expression of a form of toxic masculinity, in which men defined themselves through sex and slaughter. While Butcher’s Crossing can be read as a Western, it can also be read as a visceral portrait of how the American nation was forged in a frenzy of environmental annihilation.
Naomi Oreskes is the Henry Charles Lea Professor of the History of Science and affiliated professor of earth and planetary sciences at Harvard University. Her most recent book is Why Trust Science? (Princeton University Press, 2019).