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.
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.
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.
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.