Blood Meridian

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Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West  
Cover of the 1st edition
First edition cover
Author Cormac McCarthy
Country United States
Language English
Genre(s) Western, Historical novel, Postmodern literature
Publisher Random House
Publication date February 1985
Media type print (hardback & paperback)
Pages 327 pp (first edition, hardback)
ISBN ISBN 0-394-54482-X (first edition, hardback)

Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West is a 1985 Western novel by American author Cormac McCarthy. It was McCarthy's fifth book, and was published by Random House.

The narrative follows a teenage runaway referred to only as "the kid", with the bulk of the text devoted to his experiences with the Glanton gang, a historical group of scalp hunters who massacred Indians and others on the United States–Mexico borderlands in 1849 and 1850. The principal antagonist is the demonic Judge Holden, an extremely large and intelligent man who is utterly devoted to violence and conflict. Much of the book is based on Glanton gang member Samuel Chamberlain's My Confession, which has been criticized as unreliable, but Blood Meridian is historically accurate in general, and includes numerous references to contemporary occurrences.

Although the novel initially earned lukewarm critical and commercial reception, it has since become widely recognized not only as McCarthy's masterpiece, but also as one of the greatest American novels of the 20th century.[citation needed]


[edit] Background and writing

McCarthy wrote Blood Meridian while supporting himself with money from his 1981 MacArthur Fellows grant. It is his first novel set in the American Southwest, making a move from the Appalachian settings of his earlier work.

Awash with extreme violence, McCarthy's prose is sparse yet expansive, with an often biblical quality and frequent religious references. The book also features McCarthy's somewhat unusual writing style – there are, for example, many unusual or archaic words, no quotation marks for dialogue, and no apostrophes to signal contractions. The media-shy McCarthy has not granted interviews regarding the novel, leaving the work open to interpretation.

McCarthy conducted a considerable amount of research in writing the book, and critics have repeatedly demonstrated that even brief, and seemingly inconsequential passages of Blood Meridian rely on historical evidence. The Glanton gang segments are based on Samuel Chamberlain's account of the group in his book My Confession: The Recollections of a Rogue, which he wrote during the later part of his life. Chamberlain rode with John Joel Glanton and his company between 1849 and 1850, but his book has been criticized as embellished and historically unreliable. The novel's antagonist Judge Holden first appeared in Chamberlain's account, though his real identity remains a mystery. Chamberlain himself does not appear in fictionalized form, but some critics have suggested that the kid is a fictional stand-in for Chamberlain.

[edit] Plot summary

Three epigraphs open the book: quotes from French writer Paul Valéry, from German Christian mystic Jacob Boehme, and a 1982 news clipping from the Yuma Sun reporting the claim of the members of an Ethiopian archeological or anthropological expedition that a 300,000-year-old human skull had been scalped.

The novel tells the story of a teenage runaway named only as "the kid", who was born in Tennessee during the famously active Leonids meteor shower of 1833. He first meets the enormous and hairless Judge Holden at a religious revival in Nacogdoches, Texas: Holden falsely accuses the preacher, Reverend Green, of having sex with an 11-year-old girl as well as with a goat and incites a mob to chase him out of town.

After a violent encounter with a bartender establishes the kid as a formidable fighter, he joins a party of ill-armed U.S. Army irregulars on a filibustering mission led by a Captain White. Shortly after entering Mexico, they are attacked and massacred by a band of Comanche warriors. Few of them survive. Arrested as a filibuster in Chihuahua, the kid is set free when his acquaintance Toadvine tells the authorities they will make useful Indian hunters for the state's newly hired scalphunting operation. They join Glanton and his gang, and the bulk of the novel is devoted to detailing their activities and conversations. The gang encounters a traveling carnival, and, in untranslated Spanish, each of their fortunes is told with Tarot cards. The gang originally contract with various regional leaders to protect locals from marauding Apaches, and are given a bounty for each scalp they recover. Before long, however, they devolve into the outright murder of unthreatening Indians, unprotected Mexican villages, and eventually even the Mexican army and anyone else who crosses their path.

Throughout the novel Holden is presented as a profoundly mysterious and awe-inspiring figure; the others seem to regard him as not quite human. Like the historical Holden of Chamberlain's autobiography, he is a child-killer, though almost no one in the gang expresses much distress at his committing these acts. According to the kid's new companion Ben Tobin, an "ex-priest", the Glanton gang first met the judge while fleeing for their lives from a much larger Apache group. In the middle of a blasted desert, they found Holden sitting on an enormous boulder, where he seemed to be waiting for the gang. They agreed to follow his leadership, and he took them to an extinct volcano, where, astoundingly, he instructed the ragged, desperate gang on how to manufacture gunpowder, enough to give them the advantage against the Apaches. When the kid remembers seeing Holden in Nacogdoches, Tobin tells the kid that each man in the gang claims to have met the judge before he joined forces with Glanton.

After months of marauding, the gang crosses into U.S. territory, where they eventually set up a systematic and brutal robbing operation at a ferry on the Gila River at Yuma, Arizona. Local Yuma (Quechan) Indians are at first approached to help the gang wrest control of the ferry from its original owners, but Glanton's gang betrays them, using their presence and previously coordinated attack on the ferry as an excuse to seize the ferry's munitions and slaughter the Yuma. Because of the new operators' brutal ways, the U.S. Army and the Yumas set up a second ferry at a ford upriver. After a while, the Yumas attack and kill most of the gang. The kid, Toadvine and Tobin are among the survivors who flee into the desert, though the kid takes an arrow in the leg. The kid and Tobin head west, and come across Holden, who first negotiates, then threatens them for their gun and possessions. Holden shoots Tobin in the neck, and the wounded pair hide among bones by a desert creek. Tobin repeatedly urges the kid to fire upon Holden. The kid does so – only once – but misses his mark.

The survivors continue their travels, ending up in San Diego. The kid gets separated from Tobin and is subsequently imprisoned. Holden visits the kid in jail, and tells him that he has told the jailers "the truth": that the kid alone was responsible for the end of the Glanton gang. The kid declares that the judge was responsible for the gang's evil, but the judge denies it. The kid stoically rebuts all of Holden's statements, but when the judge reaches through the cell bars to touch him, the kid recoils in fear. Holden leaves the kid in jail, stating that he "has errands." The kid is released on recognizance and seeks a doctor to treat his wound. While recovering from the "spirits of ether", he hallucinates the judge visiting him along with a curious man who forges coins. The kid recovers and seeks out Tobin, with no luck. He makes his way to Los Angeles, where Toadvine and another member of the Glanton gang, David Brown, are hanged for their crimes.

The kid again wanders across the American West, and decades are compressed into a few pages. In 1878 he makes his way to Fort Griffin, Texas. The lawless city is a center for processing the remains of the American Bison, which have been hunted nearly to extinction. At a saloon he meets the judge. Holden calls the kid "the last of the true," and the pair talk. Holden describes the kid as a disappointment, stating that he held in his heart "clemency for the heathen." Holden declares that the kid has arrived at the saloon for "the dance" – the dance of violence, war, and bloodshed that the judge had so often praised. The kid seems to deny all of these ideas, telling the judge "You aint nothin," and noting the performing bear at the saloon, states, "even a dumb animal can dance."

The kid hires a prostitute, then afterwards goes to an outhouse under another meteor shower. In the outhouse, he is surprised by the naked judge, who "gathered him in his arms against his immense and terrible flesh." This is the last mention of the kid, though in the next scene two men come from the saloon and encounter a third man (possibly Holden, though it is not stated) urinating near the outhouse. The unnamed third man advises the two not to go into the outhouse. They ignore the suggestion, open the door, and can only gaze in awed horror at what they see, one of them stating only "Good God almighty." The last paragraph finds the judge back in the saloon, dancing and playing fiddle among the drunkards and the whores, saying that he will never die.

The ambiguous fate of the kid is followed by an ambiguous epilogue, featuring a possibly allegorical man augering lines of holes across the prairie, perhaps for fence posts. The man sparks a fire in each of the holes, and an assortment of wanderers trails behind him.

[edit] Major themes

Blood Meridian is a dense, sometimes difficult novel that demands close attention. There are references on nearly every page to historical, religious or mystical concepts, events or persons. John Emil Sepich's Notes on Blood Meridian was the first examination of the novel's sources, their context and significance. Additional books and articles have also examined McCarthy's sources for the novel.

[edit] Violence

A major theme is the warlike nature of man. Violence is present from the early pages of the novel to the end: "the kid" is shot in the chest not long after he leaves home, and in the subsequent years, he witnesses and/or participates in nearly every type of violence and depravity. Throughout the book, Holden expounds his views on the warlike nature of human beings, arguing that there is little more to human existence. This pervasive violence is sometimes criticized, but McCarthy's defenders have made the point that he is merely representing the indiscriminate slaughter of the time, and have noted that the brief, curious epilogue seems to offer a glimmer of hope for humanity.

"The kid," adhering to a certain personal code of morality to some extent, contrasts sharply with the scheming brutality of the Judge, though he is party to the group's various killings. This is perhaps attributable, at least in the case of "the kid," for a general human tendency not to go against the prevailing trend or crowd behavior. The protagonist is never vindicated in killing the villain, which is perhaps uncommon in Western novels; indeed, the book closes with the Judge dancing after his meeting with the kid, having earlier drawn an analogy to an "endless" dance of violence, or perhaps the balance existing in life between the righteous and the wicked, each of which is never able to overcome the other, no matter what the time and place.

Critic Harold Bloom[1] praised Blood Meridian as one of the best 20th century American novels, describing it as "worthy of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick,"[2] but admitted that he found the book's pervasive violence so distasteful that he had several false starts before reading the book entirely. Caryn James argued that the novel's violence was a "slap in the face" to modern readers cut off from the brutality of life, while Terrence Morgan thought that, though initially shocking, the effect of the violence gradually waned until the reader was bored.[3] Lilley argues that many critics struggle with the fact that McCarthy does not use violence for "jury-rigged, symbolic plot resolutions… In McCarthy's work, violence tends to be just that; it is not a sign or symbol of something else."[4]

McCarthy uses the gang’s forceful imposition of their beliefs upon Mexican towns and Indian villages to parallel certain Christian doctrines. Referring to the gang’s ruthless practices, critic Jay Ellis[5]says, “In these acts the gang performs an antinomian function.” Antinomian refers to the idea that Christians are released by grace from the obligation of observing moral law. Despite Jesus’ teachings, some Christians cite the idea of grace—the salvation of sinners through belief in God—as justification to disregard moral laws. While antithetical to Thomistic or Augustinian strains of Christianity, which view the Natural Law as binding and constitutive of the moral order, antinomian strains of Christianity tend to understand God's rule as binding simply on God's authority to promulgate commands, a theological view called Voluntarism. Because God does not issue commands grounded in Laws (and thus rationality), those who are "saved" find no need to follow the law themselves. Making Mexicans and Indians fight for their lives, the Glanton Gang gives them no choice but to succumb to the Darwinian conception of rights that the judge propagates. Antinomian misconstructions allow McCarthy to highlight the hypocrisy that religion can create in this regard. The judge, explaining the flaws of moral law, highlights the Glanton Gang’s adherence to its own sort of antinomian philosophy.

[edit] Ending

As noted above, the most common interpretation of the novel is that Holden kills the kid in a Fort Griffin, Texas outhouse. The fact that the kid's death is not depicted might be significant. Blood Meridian is a catalog of brutality, depicting, in sometimes explicit detail, all manner of violence, bloodshed, brutality and cruelty. For the dramatic climax to be left undepicted leaves something of a vacuum for the reader: knowing full well the horrors established in the past hundreds of pages, the kid's unstated fate might still be too awful to describe, and too much for the mind to fathom: the sight of the kid's fate leaves several witnesses stunned almost to silence; never in the book does any other character have this response to violence, again underlining the singularity of the kid's fate.

Though most readers (and many critics) seem to fill this vacuum with the kid's death, Patrick W. Shaw argues that Holden has sexually violated the protagonist. As Shaw writes, the novel had several times earlier established "a sequence of events that gives us ample information to visualize how Holden molests a child, then silences him with aggression."[6] When the kid is imprisoned in San Diego, Holden visits him in jail and reaches towards him through the bars; the kid recoils in fear. According to Shaw's argument, Holden's actions in the Fort Griffin outhouse are the culmination of what he desired decades earlier: to rape the kid, then perhaps kill him to silence the only survivor of the Glanton gang. If the judge wanted only to kill the kid, there would be no need for him to undress as he waited in the outhouse. Shaw writes,

When the judge assaults the kid in the Fort Griffin jakes… he betrays a complex of psychological, historical and sexual values of which the kid has no conscious awareness, but which are distinctly conveyed to the reader. Ultimately, it is the kid's personal humiliation which impacts the reader most tellingly. In the virile warrior culture which dominates that text and to which the reader has become acclimated, seduction into public homoeroticism is a dreadful fate. We do not see behind the outhouse door to know the details of the kid's corruption. It may be as simple as the embrace that we do witness or as violent as the sodomy implied by the judge's killing of the Indian children. The kid's powerful survival instinct perhaps suggests that he is a more willing participant than a victim. However, the degree of debasement and the extent of the kid's willingness are incidental. The public revelation of the act is what matters. Other men have observed the kid's humiliation… In such a male culture, public homoeroticism is untenable and it is this sudden revelation that horrifies the observers at Fort Griffin. No other act could offend their masculine sensibilities as the shock they display… This triumph over the kid is what the exhibitionist and homoerotic judge celebrates by dancing naked atop the wall, just as he did after assaulting the half-breed boy.

Patrick W. Shaw, "The Kid's Fate, the Judge's Guilt"[7]

Yet Shaw’s effort to penetrate the mystery in the jakes has not managed to satisfy other critics, who have rejected his thesis as more sensational than textual:

Patrick W. Shaw's article . . . reviews the controversy over the end of McCarthy's masterpiece: does the judge kill the kid in the 'jakes' or does he merely sexually assault him? Shaw then goes on to review Eric Fromm's distinction between benign and malignant aggression – benign aggression being only used for survival and is rooted in human instinct, whereas malignant aggression is destructive and is based in human character. It is Shaw's thesis that McCarthy fully accepts and exemplifies Fromm's malignant aggression, which he sees as part of the human condition, and which we do well to heed, for without this acceptation we risk losing ourselves in intellectual and physical servitude. Shaw goes in for a certain amount of special pleading: the Comanches sodomizing their dying victims; the kid's exceptional aggression and ability, so that the judge could not have killed him that easily; the judge deriving more satisfaction from tormenting than from eliminating. Since the judge considers the kid has reserved some clemency in his soul, Shaw argues, that the only logical step is that the judge humiliates him by sodomy. This is possible, but unlikely. The judge gives one the impression, not so much of male potency, but of impotence. His mountainous, hairless flesh is more that of a eunuch than a man. Having suggested paedophilia, Shaw then goes back to read other episodes in terms of the judge's paedophilia: the hypothesis thus becomes the premise. And in so arguing, Shaw falls into the same trap of narrative closure for which he has been berating other critics. The point about Blood Meridian is that we do not know and we cannot know.

Peter J. Kitson (Ed.), "The Year's Work in English Studies Volume 78 (1997)"[8]

[edit] Gnosticism

It is generally agreed that there are Gnostic qualities present in Blood Meridian, but their precise meaning and implication have been debated. Among the most detailed of these arguments was made by Leo Daugherty in his 1992 article, "Blood Meridian as Gnostic Tragedy." Daugherty argues "gnostic thought is central to Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian" (Daugherty, 122); specifically, the Persian/Zoroastrian/Manichean branch of Gnosticism. He describes the novel as a "rare coupling of Gnostic 'ideology' with the 'affect' of Hellenistic tragedy by means of depicting how power works in the making and erasing of culture, and of what the human condition amounts to when a person opposes that power and thence gets introduced to fate."[9]

Daugherty sees Holden as an archon, and the kid as a "failed pneuma." The novel's narrator explicitly states that the kid feels a "spark of the alien divine" and despite his violent streak, he has a measure of awareness and free will that sets him apart from his peers: he is one of the few in Glanton's gang who seems to express any degree of remorse, however slight, or who ever questions, however haltingly, the propriety of their actions. Furthermore, the kid rarely initiates violence, usually doing so only when urged by others or in self-defense. Holden, however, speaks of his desire to dominate the earth and all who dwell on it, by any means: from outright violence to deception and trickery. He expresses his wish to become a "suzerain", one who "rules even when there are other rulers" and whose power overrides all others'.

Daugherty contends that the staggering violence of the novel can best be understood though a Gnostic lens. "Evil" as defined by the Gnostics was a far larger, more pervasive presence in human life than the rather tame and "domesticated" Satan most Christians believe in. As Daugherty writes, "For [Gnostics], evil was simply everything that is, with the exception of bits of spirit imprisoned here. And what they saw is what we see in the world of Blood Meridian."[10] Barcley Owens argues that, while there are undoubtedly Gnostic qualities to the novel, Daugherty's arguments are "ultimately unsuccessful,"[11] because Daugherty fails to adequately address the novel's pervasive violence and because he overstates the kid's goodness. But Daugherty has responded that the "pervasive violence," while admittedly present, is irrelevant to his or anybody else's argument about either Gnosticism or tragedy, and that he does not believe, and does not believe his criticism says, that the kid is anybody's model of "goodness" at all.

[edit] Literary significance and reception

Blood Meridian initially earned a lukewarm critical and commercial reception, but has since become widely recognized as McCarthy's masterpiece and one of the greatest American novels of the century. In 2006, the New York Times conducted a poll of writers and critics regarding the most important works in American fiction in the last 25 years; Blood Meridian ranked #3, behind Toni Morrison's Beloved and Don DeLillo's Underworld.[citation needed]

Academics and critics have variously suggested that Blood Meridian is nihilistic or strongly moral; a satire of the western genre, a savage indictment of Manifest Destiny. Harold Bloom called it "the ultimate western;" J. Douglas Canfield described it as "a grotesque Bildungsroman in which we are denied access to the protagonist's consciousness almost entirely."[12] Comparisons were made to the work of Hieronymus Bosch and Sam Peckinpah, or of Dante Alighieri and Louis L'Amour. However, there is no consensus interpretation; James D. Lilley writes that the work "seems designed to elude interpretation."[4] After reading Blood Meridian, Richard Selzer declared that McCarthy "is a genius – also probably somewhat insane."[13]

The novel is notable for its bleakness (innocents and combatants are massacred alike), its Faulkneresque and Old Testament-influenced language and its apparent exploration of Gnostic themes. It earned rather little notice upon its publication, but its reputation has grown tremendously. Critic Steven Shaviro wrote:

In the entire range of American literature, only Moby-Dick bears comparison to Blood Meridian. Both are epic in scope, cosmically resonant, obsessed with open space and with language, exploring vast uncharted distances with a fanatically patient minuteness. Both manifest a sublime visionary power that is matched only by still more ferocious irony. Both savagely explode the American dream of manifest destiny, of racial domination and endless imperial expansion. But if anything, McCarthy writes with a yet more terrible clarity than does Melville.

Steven Shaviro, "A Reading of Blood Meridian"[14]

American literary critic Harold Bloom praised Blood Meridian as one of the 20th century's finest novels.[15] Time magazine included the novel in its TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005.[16]

The Canadian indie rock band Blood Meridian took its name from the book.[17] In Fall 2008, Ben Nichols, singer of the southern rock band Lucero, released a concept album based on the book entitled The Last Pale Light in the West. The name of the album (and title track) is taken from a line towards the end of the book, and the other songs are named for and inspired by the novel's characters.[18]

The novel was noted as a large influence on The Moon and Antarctica, the 2000 album by indie rock band Modest Mouse.

A song appearing on the Left of Hope of the States band is called after the novel as well.

[edit] Adaptations

A film adaptation to be written and directed by Todd Field and produced by Scott Rudin is in the works.[19] Ridley Scott was previously attached to the film before Field took over.[20]

[edit] Footnotes

  1. ^ Bloom, Harold, How to Read and Why. New York: 2001. ISBN 0-684-85906-8
  2. ^ Bloom, Harold, "Dumbing down American readers." Boston Globe, op-ed, September 24, 2003.
  3. ^ Owens, p. 7.
  4. ^ a b Lilley, p. 19.
  5. ^ Ellis, Jay, "What Happens to Country in Blood Meridian" Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature. 60(1) (2006): 85-97.
  6. ^ Shaw, p. 109.
  7. ^ Shaw, p. 117–118.
  8. ^ Kitson, p. 809.
  9. ^ Daugherty, p. 129.
  10. ^ Daugherty, p. 124; emphasis in original.
  11. ^ Owens, p. 12.
  12. ^ Canfield, p. 37.
  13. ^ Owens, p. 9.
  14. ^ Shaviro, pp. 111–112.
  15. ^ "Bloom on "Blood Meridian"". 
  16. ^ The Complete List | TIME Magazine - ALL-TIME 100 Novels
  17. ^ "Blood Meridian". From Retrieved December 30, 2008.
  18. ^ Duke, Samuel (November 14, 2008). "STREAM: Ben Nichols – The Last Pale Light in the West + Interview". Retrieved December 30, 2008.
  19. ^ Horn, John (August 17, 2008). "Cormac McCarthy's 'The Road' comes to the screen". The Los Angeles Times. 
  20. ^ Medina, Jeremy (August 28, 2008). "Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian film changes directors". Los Angeles Times. 

[edit] References

  • Canfield, J. Douglas. Mavericks on the Border: Early Southwest in Historical fiction and Film; University Press of Kentucky, 2001; ISBN 0-8131-2180-9.
  • Daugherty, Leo. "Gravers False and True: Blood Meridian as Gnostic Tragedy" Southern Quarterly 30, No. 4, Summer 1992, pages 122-133.
  • Lilley, James D. "History and the Ugly Facts of Blood Meridian"; in Cormac McCarthy: New Directions; University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.
  • Owens, Barcley. Cormac McCarthy's Western Novels; University of Arizona Press, 2000; ISBN 0-8165-1928-5.
  • Shaviro, Steven. "A Reading of Blood Meridian", Southern Quarterly 30, No. 4, Summer 1992.
  • Shaw, Patrick W. "The Kid's Fate, the Judge's Guilt: Ramifications of Closure in Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian"; Southern Literary Journal, Fall 1997, pages 102-119.

[edit] External links

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