Butcher’s Crossing – John Williams

Butcher’s Crossing is the second book I read by John Williams. I met Williams with his book Stoner long ago. When I finished the book, I was shocked because I didn’t hear this great author’s name before. Stoner was an excellent book, and John Williams had to be read by more people! Then, about a year later, Stoner began to earn its much-deserved reputation.


Butcher’s Crossing is a novel set in West America, written by Williams in 1960. It is 1873; young Will studied at Harvard for three years, but he is confused about the academy. And we are heading to the Butcher’s Crossing with him.

Butcher's Crossing - John Williams

The aimlessness in him and his inability to know what he wants surrounds you at once. Then you learn that the buffaloes were slaughtered for their posts without much thought. There is nothing else to do in Butcher’s Crossing anyway. You suddenly feel that you are very excited when you talk to a famous hunter and that your life will be incomplete if you do not hunt for buffalo. Then the journey begins, which seems never to end.

On the way, you now realise that you are one with the main character of the book. I think this is John Williams’ biggest strength. You can immediately identify with his characters – even if they have nothing to do with you. As a result of this hunting adventure with unexpected events, the change of Will, who is now a completely different man, affects you too. You realise that you are not the same person after reading this book. You take a look at your life, and everything seems completely different. Butcher’s Crossing was a joy to read. Enjoy!

Butcher's Crossing - John Williams

Butcher’s Crossing

In his National Book Award–winning novel Augustus, John Williams uncovered the secrets of ancient Rome. With Butcher’s Crossing, his fiercely intelligent, beautifully written western, Williams dismantles the myths of modern America.

It is the 1870s, and Will Andrews, fired up by Emerson to seek “an original relation to nature,” drops out of Harvard and heads west. He washes up in Butcher’s Crossing, a small Kansas town on the outskirts of nowhere. Butcher’s Crossing is full of restless men looking for ways to make money and ways to waste it. Before long Andrews strikes up a friendship with one of them, a man who regales Andrews with tales of immense herds of buffalo, ready for the taking, hidden away in a beautiful valley deep in the Colorado Rockies.

He convinces Andrews to join in an expedition to track the animals down. The journey out is grueling, but at the end is a place of paradisal richness. Once there, however, the three men abandon themselves to an orgy of slaughter, so caught up in killing buffalo that they lose all sense of time. Winter soon overtakes them: they are snowed in. Next spring, half-insane with cabin fever, cold, and hunger, they stagger back to Butcher’s Crossing to find a world as irremediably changed as they have been.

John Williams

John Edward Williams (August 29, 1922 – March 3, 1994) was an American author, editor and professor. He was best known for his novels Butcher’s Crossing (1960), Stoner (1965), and Augustus (1972), which won a U.S. National Book Award.

Williams was raised in Clarksville, Texas. His grandparents were farmers; his stepfather was a janitor in a post office. Williams attended a local junior college for a year, and then worked in media before joining the war effort in early 1942 by enlisting in the United States Army Air Force. He spent two and a half years as a sergeant in India and Burma. During his enlistment in Calcutta, he wrote pages of a novel, which later became Nothing But the Night, published in 1948 by Swallow Press and later reissued by New York Review Books Classics.

At the end of the war, Williams moved to Denver, Colorado, and enrolled in the University of Denver, receiving Bachelor of Arts (1949) and Master of Arts (1950) degrees. During his time at the University of Denver, his first two books were published, Nothing But the Night (1948), a novel depicting the terror and waywardness resulting from an early traumatic experience, and The Broken Landscape (1949), a collection of poetry.

Upon completing his MA, Williams enrolled at the University of Missouri, where he taught and worked on his Ph.D. in English literature, which he obtained in 1954. In the fall of 1955, Williams returned to the University of Denver as an assistant professor, becoming director of the creative-writing program. His second novel, Butcher’s Crossing (Macmillan, 1960) depicts frontier life in 1870s Kansas.

In 1963, Williams edited and wrote the introduction for the anthology English Renaissance Poetry: A Collection of Shorter Poems from Skelton to Jonson (Doubleday). The publication elicited a backlash from poet and literary critic Yvor Winters who claimed that Williams’s anthology overlapped with his canon and the introduction imitated his arguments. The publishers agreed to include an acknowledgement to Winters in the publication.

Williams’s second collection of poems, The Necessary Lie (1965), was issued by Verb Publications. He was the founding editor of the University of Denver Quarterly[1] (later Denver Quarterly), which was first issued in 1965. He remained as editor until 1970.

His third novel, Stoner, detailing the tragic life of a University of Missouri English assistant professor, was published by Viking Press in 1965. It was reissued in 2005 by NYRB Classics to widespread critical acclaim. It was subsequently translated and published throughout Europe and beginning in 2011, became a best seller in France, the Netherlands, Italy, Israel, and the UK.

His fourth novel, Augustus (Viking, 1972), a rendering of the violent times of Augustus Caesar in Rome, also remains in print. On the year of its release, it shared the National Book Award for Fiction with Chimera by John Barth, the first time that the award was split.

Williams retired from the University of Denver in 1985 and died of respiratory failure in 1994 at home in Fayetteville, Arkansas. He was survived by his wife and descendants. A fifth novel, The Sleep of Reason, was unfinished at the time of his death, but two lengthy excerpts were published in Ploughshares and the Denver Quarterly in 1981 and 1986, respectively.

Williams loved the study of literature. In a 1986 interview, he was asked, “And literature is written to be entertaining?” to which he replied emphatically, “Absolutely. My God, to read without joy is stupid.”

Reading this book contributed to these challenges: 

Read Around the World, A Great Journey

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