Cormac McCarthy Essay - McCarthy, Cormac

McCarthy, Cormac

Introduction

Blood Meridian Cormac McCarthy

(Born Charles Joseph McCarthy, Jr.) American novelist and playwright.

The following entry presents criticism on McCarthy's Blood Meridian (1985) through 2003. See also Cormac McCarthy Criticism (Volume 4) and Cormac McCarthy Criticism (Volume 101).

While not his most famous work, McCarthy's Blood Meridian is a complex and multi-layered reexamination of the mythology of the American West and is critically regarded as his best writing. Broadly defined as a historical novel, Blood Meridian incorporates documented events chronicling the Glanton Gang, who worked as scalp hunters from 1849 to 1850 before devolving into a ragged band of villains who pillaged and murdered across the Sonora Desert between Texas and Mexico. Ultimately, the marauders were violently murdered by brethren of the gang's most recent victims, the Yuma Indians. From this historical framework, McCarthy has built a gruesome account of the real West that works in direct opposition to the romanticized conventions of heroic roughriders and wild adventure built by John Wayne movies and pulp westerns. Presenting the blunt face of violence, McCarthy examines the dichotomies between strength and weakness, light and dark, and conscience and instinct, within a context of Manifest Destiny and the founding of American society. Due to graphic violence, Blood Meridian is an intense novel for many readers, but contains a tight prose style that lends itself to a number of alternate readings. Critical appraisal of the novel has been widely varied, and is burgeoning.

Biographical Information

An intensely private man, McCarthy has refused to engage in press junkets for his books or accept speaking engagements. Instead, he has relied upon the marginal sales of his books as well as several financial awards, including a William Faulkner Foundation Award in 1966, a Guggenheim fellowship in 1971, and a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” in 1981. During this period, he published two novels, Child of God (1974) and Suttree (1979), and his screenplay The Gardener's Son (1976), was staged and broadcast on PBS. McCarthy had begun writing Suttree, a tale of a lonely drunk who struggles with a fixation on death, in the late 1960s, after completing The Orchard Keeper. Child of God and The Gardener's Son are distinctive in representing McCarthy's first forays into so-called historical fiction—fictional works based upon factual events. The experience he gained in writing these works would later be incorporated into Blood Meridian's melding of literature and fact. Using money from the MacArthur Foundation award, McCarthy decided to pursue his interest in the Southwest and settled in El Paso, Texas, in 1981—one of the settings for Blood Meridian. Researching this novel meticulously, McCarthy visited each of the locations mentioned in his source material and learned Spanish expressly for the purpose of lending authenticity. These elements are reflected in the novel's intricate attention to detail. Released in 1985 to limited reviews and hindered by McCarthy's reluctance to promote the book, Blood Meridian nonetheless garnered several positive appraisals, although it remained a fairly obscure work. McCarthy gained popular fame for his next novel, All the Pretty Horses (1992), a coming-of-age tale of two Texans that was awarded the National Book Award in 1992. Following the novel's success, critics began to work backward through McCarthy's canon and revisited Blood Meridian. Interest in All the Pretty Horses has spurred new scholarship focusing on Blood Meridian, with many hailing the latter as McCarthy's most complete novel.

Plot and Major Characters

Blood Meridian is built upon information found in three primary sources: General Samuel Emery Chamberlain's autobiographical My Confessions: Recollections of a Rogue, gathered together as a manuscript in 1905 and published in book form in 1956; Audubon's Western Journal 1849-1850, (1906) by John Woodhouse Audubon, son of noted naturalist John James Audubon; and Mayne Reid's The Scalphunters (c. 1851). Recalling the savagery of the Glanton Gang, Blood Meridian fictionalizes little. The Glanton Gang contracted with the Governor of Chihuahua to eliminate the threat of rogue tribes of Comanche and Apache Native Americans who had been raiding various border towns. Members of the gang were paid $200 for every Indian scalp they provided to the Mexican authorities as proof of their efforts. The gang engaged in several pitched battles with various tribes, murdering as many members of these groups as they could—women and children included. Finding fewer legitimate targets as time went on, the ruthless gang quickly discovered that any scalp could be presented for payment and commonly attacked the very people their efforts were intended to protect. They became a fearsome presence in the region, scalping all their victims irrespective of race or age in their attempts to sell scalps to the Governor. When the Mexican army became aware of the gang's tactics, the gang was chased out of the area and forced to retreat into a nomadic existence along what is now the border of Arizona and Mexico. In a bloody encounter, the gang hijacked a ferry used by the Yuma Indians to shuttle gold-hunters across a river. Settling into the business of ferrying prospectors, the gang members set up camp at the port of Yuma Crossing until the Yumas retaliated and murdered Glanton and most of his men. Chamberlain, who was both a member of the gang and a firsthand witness to these events, escaped, along with several others who were away at the time of the attack. Chamberlain later recounted the atrocities of the Glanton Gang in My Confessions, judged by critics as equal parts braggadocio and confessional.

From this basic outline of events, McCarthy has altered few details. The inherent atrocities of the story—with its horrific slaughters and senseless rampages—lend Blood Meridian its major theme: the book functions as an indictment of the extreme violence inflicted by one group upon another and provides a glimpse into the very real elements upon which the West was founded. As a witness to this world, McCarthy adds “the kid”—a nameless, poorly educated wanderer from Tennessee with a taste for violence. The first six chapters of the book introduce “the kid,” charting his life from birth in an outhouse to his eventual imprisonment in a Chihuahua cell, and his affiliation with the Glanton Gang. Ostensibly, the kid is a stand-in for Chamberlain, who never makes a direct appearance. The next thirteen chapters are concerned with events detailing the degeneration of the Glanton Gang, from its initial operation as an ethnically mixed group and morally corrupt band of former soldiers, into their transformation into a mob of murderers. The gang initially included American Indians, Blacks, Mexicans, and whites. In the novel, as in actual history, nearly all of the Glanton Gang are killed by Indians at Yuma Crossing, Arizona. The kid escapes, as does at least one other member—the charismatic and wholly evil Judge Holden. The last four chapters feature a denouement that follows the kid through his final years as he seeks to make amends. In the last chapter he reencounters Holden, who, the narrative implies, murders the kid in an outhouse.

Blood Meridian features two main characters: the kid and Judge Holden. Holden is well educated, charismatic, and powerful; the kid is none of these. The two develop a type of mentor and protege relationship that devolves into a battle of wills, focused on the spiritual salvation of the kid. Holden, like most characters in Blood Meridian, is modeled upon a historical figure. Described by Chamberlain as a giant, frightening man with a menacing past and a threatening self-assurance, the actual Holden was widely considered responsible for the murder and rape of several children, though charges were never brought against him. Both Chamberlain's and McCarthy's versions depict the character as an omnipresent, wary figure, knowledgeable about science, religion, and the natural world. While Holden officially is second in command, there is no mistaking the power he wields within the gang. McCarthy's portrayal of him is analogous to that of a corrupt preacher—a spiritual leader who simultaneously denounces and indulges in the behaviors that ultimately condemn the gang. Godlike in his core ambition, he assumes a demonic status. Critics have compared Holden to the characters of Kurtz in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Ahab in Herman Melville's Moby-Dick. In a penultimate scene, occurring thirty years after the demise of the gang, the narrative insinuates that Holden kills the kid, equating the murder to a religious act. Holden becomes Blood Meridian's last man standing, challenging the prototypical Western's ideal of normative justice.

Major Themes

Most critical interpretations of Blood Meridian target the seemingly arbitrary violence and grim images that characterize the novel. The events of the book occur south of Nacogdoches, Texas, which is located on the 98th meridian—a spot that historian Frederick Jackson Turner described as the demarcation point between the civilized world and the wild frontier. Many critics have suggested that this geographic location explains the use of the words “blood meridian” in the title. Deliberately stark, the novel portrays images of babies dangling from trees, cut throats, scalped victims, and detailed accounts of bloody battles from the Mexican-American War. While other accounts of American Western expansion are filled with rosy images, historical facts revealed to McCarthy a darker reality. His novel offers a new perspective on the events that are the foundation of much American culture and examines primal instincts as well as societal forces intended to suppress those urges. Most critics conclude the narrative implies that violence is an inherent part of the human condition and that to sublimate its power is to risk the creation of a repression that, in its own way, is equally dangerous. In the only interview that McCarthy has granted to date, he told the New York Times in 1992, “There's no such thing as life without bloodshed. I think the notion that the species can be improved in some way, that everyone could live in harmony, is a really dangerous idea. Those who are afflicted with this notion are the first ones to give up their souls, their freedom. Your desire that it be that way will enslave you and make your life vacuous.”

The natural world of Blood Meridian also seems set in revolt against mankind. The landscape is inhospitable, waging open conflict against any who seek to tame it or find refuge within it. The book's lack of harmony extends to every aspect of the desert; fauna and flora, fire and rock, stars and sun are all a menace to the Glanton Gang. These elements threaten the gang as much as the hostile Indians and warring soldiers. Such depictions of nature's ill will towards humans function as another example of McCarthy's revision of common cliches and traditional features within Western mythology. McCarthy renders the brutal and unpleasant details with historical accuracy. Where other Westerns idealize the beauty of roughriders rambling across scenes of unrivalled beauty, Blood Meridian features a troop of exiles wandering the desert past flocks of vultures feeding upon the dried scalps of dead men. Religion is also reevaluated in McCarthy's West. The use of such words as “preordained,” “austere,” “destiny,” and “reckoning” suggests a constant but subtle religious presence, though this presence is subverted by the goals of “holy” men like Judge Holden, who preaches passionately and kills indiscriminately. While the book centers around a Christian perspective, other myths, including the legend of the “Sacred Hunter” of the Yuma, inform aspects of the novel. Existential themes are manifest as well; the choices the Glanton Gang members make in succumbing to base instincts recall fundamental questions about being and an indifferent universe.

Critical Reception

McCarthy's literary reputation underwent dramatic revitalization upon his winning the National Book Award in 1992. Consistently a favorite among critics, McCarthy nonetheless struggled as writer in an age in which book sales and public appearances are expected for success. Many critics assert that his unwillingness to publicize his work has limited his career scope, despite being championed by such luminaries as Saul Bellow who, when sitting on the 1981 MacArthur Fellowship panel, lauded McCarthy's “absolutely overpowering use of language, his life-giving and death-dealing sentences.” The critical approval for All the Pretty Horses prompted a surge of new readers as the book became McCarthy's best seller to date. The accolades increased critical attention to his earlier works, particularly Blood Meridian—McCarthy's first Western. Prior to Blood Meridian, McCarthy's narrative structure and prose style derived from a Southern Gothic mode, in the manner of William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor. With Blood Meridian, McCarthy began to reformat the traditional Western into a more complex design incorporating a mélange of historical fiction and philosophical parable. This marked change in style has divided his core audience between those who prefer his early, Southern novels, and those with an affinity for his later Westerns.

Blood Meridian has been hailed as one of his best books, one that, as critic Dana Phillips summarizes, “marks McCarthy's progress towards addressing not just the Wild West, but Western culture as a whole.” While All the Pretty Horses remains his most popular novel, the complex narrative of Blood Meridian is widely considered his most skilled achievement. Despite the stark violence and gory descriptions, McCarthy's prose does not seek to pass judgment or assess a moral imperative. Instead, critics maintain, the evocations of wanton destruction and nihilism require only that readers remain cognizant of the violent impulse inherent in all mankind. Passages describing the most horrific events are understated, using simple and precise language devoid of emotion, forcing readers to acknowledge what is being shown. McCarthy's third-person narrative style functions as an impartial observer, documenting inhumanity in much the way a historian records history.

Principal Works

The Orchard Keeper (novel) 1965

Outer Dark (novel) 1968

Child of God (novel) 1974

The Gardener's Son (teleplay) 1977

Suttree (novel) 1979

Blood Meridian, or, The Evening Redness in the West (novel) 1985

All the Pretty Horses (novel) 1992

The Crossing (novel) 1994

*The Stonemason: A Play in Five Acts (play) 1994

Cities of the Plain (novel) 1998

The Border Trilogy: All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and Cities of the Plain (novels) 1999

*This play,...

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Criticism

Andrew Hislop (review date 21-27 April 1989)

SOURCE: Hislop, Andrew. “The Wild Bunch.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4490 (21-27 April 1989): 436.

[In the following review, Hislop views Blood Meridian as more than a conventional Western, believing it to be a treatise on the interconnection of violence and culture.]

The sheriffs and gun-slingers of European culture have long preferred the American West on film rather than in fiction. While even “spaghetti” Westerns have been roped in as intellectual property, the novelists of the “Wild West”, like Holly Martins in The Third Man, are still not considered quite worthy of literary discussion. Though the abuser-friendly graffiti of any urban...

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John Emil Sepich (essay date fall 1991)

SOURCE: Sepich, John Emil. “The Dance of History in Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian.Southern Literary Journal 24, no. 1 (fall 1991): 16-31.

[In the following essay, Sepich reviews the potential causes for Judge Holden's murder of the unnamed character “the kid,” through an examination of historical sources, as well as through an exploration of the moral universe as it exists in the novel.]

Blood Meridian's odyssey, begun in a Tennessee cabin in 1833, comes to a close when the novel's unnamed protagonist, “the kid,” meets death in an outhouse in Griffin, Texas, in 1878 at the hands of a former compatriot named Judge Holden. But the murder...

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John Emil Sepich (essay date summer 1992)

SOURCE: Sepich, John Emil. “‘What Kind of Indians Was Them?’: Some Historical Sources in Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian.Southern Quarterly 30, no. 4 (summer 1992): 93-110.

[In the following essay, Sepich documents the historical context of Blood Meridian, particularly relying on General Samuel Emery Chamberlain's memoir My Confession.]

A number of critics have remarked that Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian is based on “history.”1 In fact, the dust jacket of the novel's hardcover edition states flatly that Glanton, Holden and “a number of their followers … actually existed, and various accounts of their exploits can be...

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John Emil Sepich (essay date fall 1993)

SOURCE: Sepich, John Emil. “A ‘Bloody Dark Pastryman’: Cormac McCarthy's Recipe for Gunpowder and Historical Fiction in Blood Meridian.Mississippi Quarterly 46, no. 4 (fall 1993): 547-63.

[In the following essay, Sepich argues that Blood Meridian's Judge Holden is in many ways a metaphor for Satan, and that the eventual death of “the kid” is the inevitable result of his association with Holden.]

Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy's tale of a rough gang bounty-hunting scalps in the mid-nineteenth-century American Southwest, contains a remarkable character named Judge Holden. Judge Holden's importance in the novel is far greater than his...

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Bernard A. Schopen (essay date summer 1995)

SOURCE: Schopen, Bernard A. “‘They Rode On’: Blood Meridian and the Art of Narrative.” Western American Literature 30, no. 2 (summer 1995): 179-94.

[In the following essay, Schopen studies McCarthy's complexly integrated narrative structures in Blood Meridian, deeming that these elements fuse together to form a truthful assessment of the nature of humanity.]

Since its publication in 1985, Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, or, The Evening Redness in the West has received little serious criticism. This remarkable neglect of what Denis Donoghue calls “one of the most powerful American novels I have read” (6) is about to end, however. Now...

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Denis Donoghue (essay date summer 1997)

SOURCE: Donoghue, Denis. “Reading Blood Meridian.Sewanee Review 105, no. 3 (summer 1997): 401-18.

[In the following essay, Donoghue presents several possible readings of Blood Meridian as he outlines several key themes, among them McCarthy's muted narrative response to endless violence and the relationship between Judge Holden and “the kid.”]

A year or two ago at New York University I taught a graduate course called Aesthetics and Aesthetic Ideology. The main aim I set myself was to examine the impingement of political, social, and moral considerations on certain works of literature. I did not conceal from myself or from the students the fact...

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Neil Campbell (essay date fall 1997)

SOURCE: Campbell, Neil. “‘Beyond Reckoning’: Cormac McCarthy's Version of the West in Blood Meridian, or, The Evening Redness in the West.Critique 39, no. 1 (fall 1997): 55-64.

[In the following essay, Campbell presents Blood Meridian as a re-creation of the traditional Western novel and its archetypal mythos.]

Depend upon it, there is mythology now as there was in the time of Homer, only we do not perceive it, because we ourselves live in the very shadow of it, and because we all shrink from the full meridian light of truth.

—Max Muller, Introduction to the Science of Religion...

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Jonathan Pitts (essay date spring 1998)

SOURCE: Pitts, Jonathan. “Writing On: Blood Meridian as Devisionary Western.” Western American Literature 33, no. 1 (spring 1998): 7-25.

[In the following essay, Pitts argues that Blood Meridian's encompassing of historical, cultural, and literary styles enhances its ability to serve as a parable for the American vision of life.]

We have yet had no genius in America, with tyrannous eye, which knew the value of our incomparable materials, and saw, in the barbarism and materialism of the times, another carnival of the same gods whose picture he so much admires in Homer.

—Emerson, “The Poet”...

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Joshua J. Masters (essay date fall 1998)

SOURCE: Masters, Joshua J. “‘Witness to the Uttermost Edge of the World’: Judge Holden's Textual Enterprise in Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian.Critique 40, no. 1 (fall 1998): 25-37.

[In the following essay, Masters views the ambiguous character of Judge Holden as a trailblazer of the Wild West who seeks to fill the moral vacuum of that space with his own brand of “amoral logos.”]

At the center of Cormac McCarthy's epic fifth novel, Blood Meridian (1985), we find Judge Holden,1 a Mephistophelean figure who seduces a nomadic horde of scalp hunters into a “terrible covenant” (126), which consigns both their spiritual and...

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Jay Twomey (essay date spring-summer 1999)

SOURCE: Twomey, Jay. “Tempting the Child: The Lyrical Madness of Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian.Southern Quarterly 37, nos. 3-4 (spring-summer 1999): 255-65.

[In the following essay, Twomey characterizes Blood Meridian as a battle between the madness of Judge Holden, who converts the Glanton Gang to his irrational mindset, and the resistant kid—a battle in which the judge finally triumphs.]

I walked in a desert.
And I cried,
“Ah, God, take me from this place!”
A voice said, “It is no desert.”
I cried, “Well, but—
The sand, the heart, the vacant horizon.”
A voice said, “It is no desert.”

—Stephen Crane

...

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William Dow (essay date March 2000)

SOURCE: Dow, William. “Topographical Strides of Thoreau: The Poet and Pioneer in Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian.Revue Française D'Études Américaines, no. 84 (March 2000): 89-105.

[In the following essay, Dow examines Blood Meridian as a topographical study in the tradition of Henry David Thoreau's Walden.]

A general knowledge of the topography is, then, the main guide, enabling one to determine where the trail ought to go—must go.1

(John Muir)

We must look to the West for the growth of a new literature, manners, architecture, etc. Already there...

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Jason P. Mitchell (essay date spring 2000)

SOURCE: Mitchell, Jason P. “Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine, Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, and the (De)Mythologizing of the American West.” Critique 41, no. 3 (spring 2000): 290-304.

[In the following essay comparing Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine and Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, Mitchell argues that, despite the surface dissimilarities between the two books, they are both borne from the myths of the American West which they ultimately refute.]

“Fighting; his way with knife and gun,” the Texas cowboy was evolved, a fearless rider, a workman of sublime self-confidence, unequaled in the technique and tricks...

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Sara Spurgeon (essay date 2002)

SOURCE: Spurgeon, Sara. “The Sacred Hunter and the Eucharist of the Wilderness: Mythic Reconstructions in Blood Meridian.” In Cormac McCarthy: New Directions, edited by James D. Lilley, pp. 75-101. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2002.

[In the following essay, Spurgeon suggests that Blood Meridian attempts to bridge the difference between the mythic representations of the old West and the true natural world, particularly through its reworking of the traditional figure of the sacred hunter.]

One of the many complex relationships Cormac McCarthy explores in Blood Meridian, or, The Evening Redness in the West is between humans,...

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Christopher Douglas (essay date fall 2003)

SOURCE: Douglas, Christopher. “The Flawed Design: American Imperialism in N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn and Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian.Critique 45, no. 1 (fall 2003): 3-24.

[In the following essay, Douglas proposes that N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn and Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian are borne from the need to critically examine the European-American foundational tenets upon which the Southwest was colonized.]

The first colonists saw in America an opportunity to regenerate their fortunes, their spirits, and the power of their church and nation; but the means to that regeneration ultimately...

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Dwight Eddins (essay date fall 2003)

SOURCE: Eddins, Dwight. “‘Everything a Hunter and Everything Hunted’: Schopenhauer and Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian.Critique 45, no. 1 (fall 2003): 25-33.

[In the following essay, Eddins uses the philosophical theories of Arthur Schopenhauer to examine the aesthetics of Blood Meridian.]

The great novelists of modern times have tended to be those whose visions estrange us from our familiar world to bring us back to it with unique new perspectives and an expanded sense of the human domain. Joyce, Faulkner, Mann, and Pynchon—to take four prominent examples—all destabilize and unsettle to construct an enhanced reality. Their subversion can be...

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