“This is prose that is akin to a neo-archaic channeling of the King James Old Testament by way of Herman Melville”
By Juvenal Early
Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian is, in the estimation of many critics, among the finest half dozen American novels of the 20th Century. The late Harold Bloom thought it the greatest novel since As I Lay Dying. Unlike no other novel in contemporary letters, the book has been called an American Iliad, also compared to The Anabasis of Xenophon. Published in 1985, Blood Meridian is a revisionist, maybe even a nihilistic, Western. It’s also an epic. If you want a sense of how the West was won, you will find no finer fictional work.
The Plot: A character known only as the Kid, born in Tennessee with a predilection for “mindless violence, in 1833, runs away from home at 14, and by 1850 finds himself in Texas. He takes up with filibusters—mercenaries—hired to solve the new state’s Indian problem. The Comanches and Apache had dominated the plains for three centuries. Texans demanded eradication.
The fictional Kid eventually joins the historical Glanton Gang, and falls sway to the gang’s philosophical leader, Judge Holden. McCarthy learned from his sources that the Judge was an uncommonly tall man, a completely hairless albino. In Blood Meridian, he turns the bare facts into the mythical. The Judge is perhaps the most nightmarish monster in all of fiction. Not Ahab but Moby Dick himself.
The Glanton Gang murders its way across Texas, Northern Mexico, Arizona, eventually to the sea. They take many Indian scalps (proof for the money men). They take non-Indian scalps too. Who can tell the difference? It all pays the same. In time, these bounty hunters will have a bounty on their own heads. Few are left by the end of the narrative.
Blood Meridian may be the most appallingly violent great novel ever written. Be prepared for several particularly graphic scenes but do stick with it. As Shelby Foote said, the book’s hero is the American Language, and here it is presented in prose that is akin to a neo-archaic channeling of the King James Old Testament by way of Herman Melville.
There is movement, always movement, mixed with a sense of place in Blood Meridian. Few have ever combined the two better than McCarthy. To take a random sample:
On the day that followed they crossed a lake of gypsum so fine the ponies left no track upon it. The riders wore masks of boneblack smeared about their eyes and some had blacked the eyes of their horses. The sun reflected off the pan burned the undersides of their faces and shadow of horse and rider alike were painted upon the fine white powder in purest indigo. Far out on the desert to the north dustspouts rose wobbling and augered the earth and some said they’d heard of pilgrims borne aloft like dervishes in those mindless coils to be dropped broken and bleeding upon the desert again and there perhaps to watch the thing that had destroyed them lurch onward like some drunken djinn and resolve itself once more into the elements from which it sprang.
How do McCarthy’s mercenaries talk? Aside from the Judge, they are as terse as a John Ford Western. But, oh!, when the Judge does speak, you hang on every word. Here’s a short speech he delivers about halfway through the novel. He expounds on the nature of God’s cruel universe and man’s place in it. It explains the book’s cryptic title:
If God meant to interfere in the degeneracy of mankind would he not have done so by now? Wolves cull themselves, man. What other creature could? And is the race of man not more predacious yet? The way of the world is to bloom and to flower and die but in the affairs of men there is no waning and the noon of his expression signals the onset of night. His spirit is exhausted at the peak of its achievement. His meridian is at once his darkening and the evening of his day.
Notice that the passage quoted contains no punctuation, save for periods and question marks. Commas appear infrequently in McCarthy, but little else. There are no quotation marks. Even James Joyce set his dialogue off with dashes. McCarthy assumes you’ll figure it out. You will. McCarthy’s oeuvre is all this way. He used 42 semicolons in his first novel and only one in the nine that followed. Most writers need a more formalistic approach. But I wouldn’t try to enforce Strunk and White on Homer—and not the modern Homer either. Art has no rigid rules, and Blood Meridian is high art. But don’t be intimidated by art. Blood Meridian is not particularly arcane. After four readings, I think it’s lucid—and exhilarating.
Does McCarthy take sides, Cowboys or Indians? We never really get to know the Indians. From the viewpoint of the settlers who hired the filibusters, they’re a problem to be solved. As for the Glanton Gang, it takes a tough bunch to solve a tough problem. I doubt McCarthy was concerned with questions of right or wrong—only about getting the story right. In that, he succeeds triumphantly. The reader—grateful for such poetic prose—can make of the ethical lessons what he will.
Cowboys and Indians alike, they are forces of nature, compelled to do what they have always done. The novel’s 3rd epigraph is your first clue.[i] Scalping didn’t originate in the Wild West of the 19th Century. The culmination of Blood Meridian could not be otherwise than what it is.
We would do well to keep this in mind as we go about assigning blame among our own ancestors.
[i] “Clark, who led last year’s exhibition to the Afar region of northern Ethiopia, and UC colleague Tim D. White, also said that a re-examination of a 300,000-year-old fossil skull found in the same region earlier showed evidence of having been scalped.
THE YUMA DAILY SUN
June 13, 1982”