She had wanted to call it the Navajo House of Prayer because it originally commemorated her Navajo mentor and spiritual guide, Hastiin Klah, and his weavings reproducing sacred Navajo sand paintings. Display of the weavings upset traditional Navajos, and they are now either stored in the museum’s archives or, mysteriously, dispersed.
I’m not talking about either whores or museum builders, although all those women are important to remember for their effects on history, disparate but always controversial. For a woman to establish a museum seems almost as outrageous as for a woman to establish a successful brothel. Both require business skills, self-confidence and high levels of energy and enterprise—still barely acceptable, even today, in women.
The adventurers in the West, the explorers, buffalo hunters and Indian killers don’t seem to include many women except perhaps as camp cooks, guides or mistresses. The raw energy of those adventurers has begun to interest me, and I wonder whether that particular narrative has ever been told in a female voice.
I’m indebted for this new interest in two books I’ve read recently: Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams and St.Mawr by D.H. Lawrence.
I am fortunate because my son Chris brought Butcher’s Crossing to my attention.
Having fallen out of print and lost its readership, the novel was republished by the estimable New York Review of Books, which resurrects unjustly forgotten masterpieces. (Is there such a thing as a mistresspiece?).The narrator, usually called Mr. Andrews—he has a money belt with cash which will fund the buffalo hunting expedition—has come West after dropping out of Harvard, traveling cross country in the lumbering coaches of the mid-nineteenth century to Butcher’s Crossing, a wretched Western town somewhere on the plains. There he engages himself with a group of three men who embark upon one of the last buffalo hunts in Colorado, described in a way that does not pay lip service to the destruction of this last great herd but memorializes the skill, daring and determination of the four men who spend the winter snowed in under buffalo hides. They find, when they finally make it back to Butcher’s Crossing, that buffalo robes are no longer popular and their hides have no value.This is a passionate and passionately written story of male initiation, courage, craziness, and daring, without moralizing, intent on the deep description of hunting, finding, shooting, gutting and shucking the skin off fifteen hundred buffalo.
Mr. Andrews, having escaped “the droning voices in the chapel and the classroom,” flees Cambridge because “he has been able to see a hint of the distant horizon to the west; and there, for an instant, he had beheld something as beautiful as his own undiscovered nature.”
In the blood and guts of the slaughter, he finds it—undefined, but glimmering as he rides away from Francine, the Butcher’s Crossing whore with whom he has spent five days.
“He could hardly recall, now, the passion that had drawn him to this room and this flesh…nor could he recall the force of that other passion which had impelled him half way across a content into a wilderness where he had dreamed he could find as in a vision, his unalterable self.” He sees this, now, as a form of vanity.
And in a shrouded spasm of instinctive understanding, he half-realizes that the same shame, fear and disgust that overwhelmed him when he was first gutting a buffalo is the same shame, fear and disgust he now feels at the thought of “gutting” Francine sexually.
I don’t believe a woman writer could have, or would have, written this novel. Perhaps we are too civilized to deal in blood and guts, of a buffalo or a woman. Our lives are so often devoted to preserving order.Nor could a woman have written D.H. Lawrence’s masterpiece, the short novel St. Mawr, although the narrators are two women, an American matron and her daughter traveling in Europe, who buy the almost uncontrollable stallion, St. Mawr, and transport him to this country.
There is tragedy at the heart of the book, but the story is not tragic—Lawrence believed “tragedy ought really to be a great kick at misery”—but the transformation of the confused and debilitated young American woman, Lou, through her developing relationship with St. Mawr, whom Lawrence describes as a bunch of flames, a fountain—and also as a death-dealing snake.
In James Lasdun’s introduction, he mentions Kate Millett’s “influential” book, Sexual Politics where Lawrence is blamed for “a pervasive misogyny, and helped to lose him a generation of readers.”
I was one of those so lost—and it was a great loss. Now, re-reading St. Mawr in the context of Butcher’s Crossing, I begin dimly to perceive that our narrative voice, as women writers and storytellers, is in some way limited. The great Western adventures have not been our meat. I can think of only one exception, Pam Houston’s ultimately dismaying Cowboys Are My Weakness, expert short stories displaying our passion for wilderness deformed into chasing ultimately unattainable men.
As women writers finally claiming our own—look at the number of books we are publishing and our increasing presence as critics and reviewers—we can no longer afford to be squeamish (if we ever could). We can’t write as victims, or as sympathizers with victims because the great wide reaches of subject matter and the great wide Western horizons have nothing to do with our sensitivity—of which we are so proud—our care-taking, or our side-tracking into the mystical and the spiritual.
The novels we have yet to write must confront issues of life and death. It is time. And the ur-stories of the West are still ours to tell, not the stories of whores or missionaries of one kind or another, but of buffalo killers who gut and skin their prey.
[For more, please read my post Black Pip in the First Snowfall.]