Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Go west, young man

He saw Charley Hoge more frequently. Usually their conversations were brief and perfunctory. But once, casually, in a remote connection, he mentioned that his father was a lay minister in the Unitarian Church. Charley Hoge's eyes widened, his mouth dropped incredulously, and his voice took on a new note of respect. He explained to Andrews that he had been saved by a traveling preacher in Kansas City, and had been given a Bible by that same man. He showed Andrews the Bible; it was a cheap edition, worn, with several pages torn. A deep brownish stain covered the corners of a number of the pages; Charley explained this was blood, buffalo blood, that he had got on the Bible just a few years ago; he wondered if he had committed, even by accident, a sacrilege; Andrews assured him that he had not. Thereafter Charley Hoge was eager to talk; sometimes he even went to the effort of seeking Andrews out to discuss with him some point of fact or question of interpretation about the Bible. Soon, almost to his surprise, it occurred to Andrews that he did not know the Bible well enough to talk about it even on Charley Hoge's terms--had not, in fact, ever read it with any degree of thoroughness. His father had encouraged his reading of Mr. Emerson, but had not, to his recollection, insisted that he read the Bible. Somewhat reluctantly, he explained this to Charley Hoge. Charley Hoge's eyes became lidded with suspicion, and when he spoke to Andrews again it was in the tone of evangelicism rather than equality.

~~~

Listening to Charley Hoge, thinking of King's Chapel, he realized quite suddenly that it was some irony such as this that had driven him from Harvard College, from Boston, and thrust him into this strange world where he felt unaccountably at home. Sometimes after listening to the droning voices in the chapel and in the classrooms, he had fled the confines of Cambridge to the fields and woods that lay southwestward to it. There in some small solitude, standing on bare ground, he felt his head bathed by the clean air and uplifted into infinite space; the meanness and the constriction he had felt were dissipated in the wildness about him. A phrase from a lecture by Mr. Emerson that he had attended came to him: I become a transparent eyeball. Gathered in by field and wood, he was nothing; he saw all; the current of some nameless force circulated through him. And in a way that he could not feel in King's Chapel, in the college rooms, or on the Cambridge streets, he was a part and parcel of God, free and uncontained. Through the trees and across the rolling landscape, he had been able to see a hint of the distant horizon to the west; and there, for an instant, he had beheld somewhat as beautiful as his own undiscovered nature.

~~

Looking out at the flat featureless land into which he seemed to flow and merge, even though he stood without moving, he realized that the hunt that he had arranged with Miller was only a strategem, a ruse upon himself, a palliative for ingrained custom and use. No business led him where he looked, where he would go; he went there free. He went free upon the plain in the western horizon which seemed to stretch without interruption toward the setting sun, and he could not believe that there were towns and cities in it of enough consequence to disturb him. He felt that wherever he lived, and wherever he would live hereafter, he was leaving the city more and more, withdrawing into the wilderness. He felt that that was the central meaning he could find in all his life, and it seemed to him then that all the events of his childhood and his youth had led him unknowingly to this moment upon which he poised, as if before flight. He looked at the river again. On this side is the city, he thought, and on that the wilderness; and though I must return, even that return is only another means I have of leaving it, more and more.

~~~

NYRB classics reissued National Book Award winner John Williams' western, Butcher's Crossing, back in January and I am enjoying it very much.

William Andrews has dropped out of Harvard and is using an inheritance from his uncle to see the country. After meeting a hunter in a small town saloon in Kansas, he agrees to finance an expedition to hunt buffalo in the Colorado Rockies if he can be taken along.

I'm expecting things to go horribly awry in this coming of age tale; I'm less than a fourth of my way through at this point.

2 comments:

Matt said...

Ah, I have this on my TBR list and highlighted it on my blog awhile back. Glad to hear you're enjoying it, that's always encouraging for a book I plan on reading.

SFP said...

I'm already looking forward to reading Stoner, which I picked up at ALA.