5 March 2013

In Butcher’s Crossing, Williams Andrews drops out of college and moves west in search of the frontier. His dad is a Unitarian minister, who encouraged reading Emerson more than the Bible. His contact in the west is a man in the buffalo hide business. He offers Will a job immediately upon meeting him, but Will declines. Will has come to the west in search of the frontier, and taking a job would hardly allow him to be a conqueror.

Instead, Andrews decides to fund the fantasy trip of a legendary buffalo hunter. Miller (the hunter) knows of a perhaps too good to be true herd of buffalo to be found in a valley in the Colorado Rockies. Miller hasn’t been there for ten years, but he is certain that the buffalo will still be there. Andrews is eager to fund the trip and take his place in the hunting party.

The irony of a diehard transcendentalist funding a buffalo slaughter is obvious. I wonder what Williams is trying to say. Is the Emersonian ideal inextricably tied up in the ruthless domination of nature? I’ve written elsewhere about the irony of the frontier desire and its relation to the American character. We have as a basis for our identity the desire to conquer the frontier, but the frontiers we have conquered have never been truly frontiers. Americans like to think that they have created something new, but there is a limit to the possibility to create something truly new. Emerson wrote often of his desire to see a truly American scholarly tradition.

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