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First edition cover
|Genre||Western, historical novel|
|Media type||Print (hardback and paperback)|
|Pages||327 pp (first edition, hardback)|
|ISBN||ISBN 0-394-54482-X (first edition, hardback)|
|LC Class||PS3563.C337 B4 1985|
First edition cover
|Genre||Western, historical novel|
|Media type||Print (hardback and paperback)|
|Pages||327 pp (first edition, hardback)|
|ISBN||ISBN 0-394-54482-X (first edition, hardback)|
|LC Class||PS3563.C337 B4 1985|
The majority of the narrative follows a teenager 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 Native Americans and others in the United States–Mexico borderlands from 1849 to 1850 for bounty, pleasure, and eventually out of sheer compulsion. The role of antagonist is gradually filled by Judge Holden, a huge, intellectual man depicted as bald from head to toe and philosophically emblematic of the eternal and all-encompassing nature of war.
Although the novel initially generated only lukewarm critical and commercial reception, it has since become highly acclaimed and is widely recognized as McCarthy's masterpiece.
McCarthy wrote Blood Meridian while living on the money from his 1981 MacArthur Fellows grant. It is his first novel set in the Southwestern United States, a change from the Appalachian settings of his earlier work. In his essay for the Slate Book Review from 5 October 2012 entitled "Cormac McCarthy Cuts to the Bone", Noah Shannon summarizes the existing library archives of the first drafts of the novel as dating to the mid-1970s. The review includes digital archive images of several of McCarthy's own type-script pages for early versions of the novel.
Describing events of extreme violence, McCarthy's prose is sparse, yet expansive, with an often biblical quality and frequent religious references. McCarthy's writing style involves many unusual or archaic words, no quotation marks for dialogue, and no apostrophes to signal most contractions. McCarthy has not granted interviews regarding the novel, leaving the work open to interpretation.
McCarthy conducted considerable research to write the book. 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 memoir My Confession: The Recollections of a Rogue, which he wrote during the latter part of his life. Chamberlain rode with John Joel Glanton and his company between 1849 and 1850. The novel's antagonist Judge Holden appeared in Chamberlain's account, but his true identity remains a mystery. Chamberlain does not openly appear in the novel. Some critics[who?] have suggested that "the kid" is a fictional stand-in for Chamberlain.
Elements of the novel are also widely believed to have been at least partially inspired by the writings of T. R. Fehrenbach, specifically his authoritative and highly original[clarification needed] histories of Texas, Mexico, and the Comanche.
The novel follows an adolescent runaway from home with a disposition for violence, known only as "the kid," who was born in Tennessee during the famous Leonids meteor shower of 1833. In the late 1840s, he first meets an enormous and completely hairless character, Judge Holden, at a religious revival in Nacogdoches, Texas. There, Holden shows his dark nature by falsely accusing a preacher of raping both a young girl and a goat, inciting those attending the revival to physically attack and kill the preacher.
The kid carries on journeying alone on his mule through the plains of eastern Texas, and he spends a night in the shelter of a recluse before arriving in "Bexar" (the county that includes modern-day San Antonio). After a violent encounter with a bartender which establishes the kid as a formidable fighter, he joins a party of ill-armed U.S. Army irregulars, led by a Captain White, on a filibustering mission to claim Mexican land for the United States. Shortly after entering Mexico, they are attacked, and many killed, by a band of Comanche warriors. Arrested in Chihuahua, the kid is set free when his cell neighbor and prior acquaintance, the earless Louis Toadvine, tells the authorities that the two of them would make useful recruits for the state's newly hired scalphunting operation, led by the strategic John Joel Glanton.
Toadvine and the kid consequently join Glanton's gang. The bulk of the novel is devoted to the detailing of the gang's conversations and depraved activities. The gang encounters a traveling carnival, and, in untranslated Spanish, each of their fortunes is told with Tarot cards. The gang originally contracts with various regional leaders to exterminate Apaches and are given a bounty for each scalp they recover. Before long, however, they murder any in their path, including peaceful agrarian Indians, unprotected Mexican villagers, and even Mexican soldiers.
Judge Holden, who re-enters the story as a fellow scalphunter, is presented as a profoundly mysterious and awe-inspiring figure; the others seem to regard him as not quite human. He is strongly implied to be a child-killer, though almost no one in the gang expresses much distress about this. According to an ex-priest gang-member named Ben Tobin, the Glanton gang first met the judge while fleeing from the onslaught of a much larger group of Apaches. In the middle of the desert, the gang found Holden sitting on an enormous boulder, where he seemed to be waiting for them all. He took them to an extinct volcano and improvised gunpowder from natural materials, enough to give them the advantage against their Apache pursuers. When the kid remembers seeing Holden in Nacogdoches, Tobin explains that each man in the gang claims to have met the judge at some point before joining Glanton's gang—though he ends his tale by stating that he first met with the judge in the desert with the others. This suggests a potentially disingenuous quality to the refrain "the priest doesn't lie" uttered by several characters throughout the course of the novel.
After months of marauding, the gang crosses into U.S. territory, where they set up a systematic and brutal robbery operation at a ferry on the Colorado River near Yuma, Arizona. Local Yuma (Quechan) Indians are approached to help the gang wrest control of the ferry from its original owner, but Glanton's gang betrays the natives, 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, a group of U.S. Army soldiers sets up a second ferry at a ford upriver to cross—which the Yuma briefly appropriate until their ferryman is decapitated and thrown in the river. Eventually, after the gang had amassed a fortune by robbing the settlers using the ferry, the Yumas suddenly attack the gang and kill most of them, including Glanton.
The kid, Toadvine, and Tobin are among the few survivors who flee into the desert, though the kid takes an arrow in the leg. Heading west together, the kid and Tobin again encounter Judge Holden, who first negotiates, then threatens them for their weaponry and possessions. Holden fires a non-fatal shot to Tobin's neck and Tobin and the kid hide among bones near a desert creek. The judge delivers a speech advising the kid to reveal himself. Tobin and the kid continue their travels independently, passing each other along the way. Although the kid has several opportunities to shoot the judge, as Tobin advises, he only attempts so once and fails.
Both parties end up in San Diego, but the kid gets separated from Tobin when he is caught by local authorities and imprisoned. Holden visits him in jail, stating that he 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 evils, but the judge denies it. After reaching through the cell bars to try to touch the kid, Holden leaves the kid alone, stating that he "has errands." The kid then tells the authorities where the Glanton gang's fortune can be found, and he is released to go seek a doctor to treat his wound. Under the influence of medicinal ether, he hallucinates that the judge is 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 he witnesses the execution of the last remaining members of the Glanton gang—Toadvine and David Brown—leaving now only Tobin (assuming he is alive), the judge, and the kid.
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, and is now referred to by the author as "the man." The lawless city is a center for processing the remains of the American bison, which have been hunted nearly to extinction. At a saloon the man yet again meets the judge, who does not seem to have aged in the intervening years. Holden calls the man "the last of the true," and the pair talk on equal terms. Holden describes the man as a disappointment, stating that he held in his heart "clemency for the heathen." Holden declares prophetically that the man has arrived at the saloon for "the dance"—in other words, the dance of violence, war, and bloodshed that the judge so often praised. The man seems to deny all of these ideas, telling the judge, "You aint nothin" and, notes of a trained bear at the saloon that is performing a dance, that "even a dumb animal can dance."
The man hires a prostitute, then afterwards goes to an outhouse under another meteor shower. In the outhouse, he is surprised by the judge, naked, who "gathered him in his arms against his immense and terrible flesh." This is the last mention of the man, though in the next scene, two men from the saloon approach the outhouse, open the door, and gaze in awed horror at what they see, stating only, "Good God almighty." The last paragraph finds the judge back in the saloon, dancing in the nude and playing fiddle wildly among the drunkards and whores, claiming that he will never die.
A brief epilogue features an unspecified person auguring a row of holes across the prairie. The worker sparks a fire in each of the holes while an assortment of passionless wanderers crosses the row. The line of holes is described as "a validation of sequence and causality as if each round and perfect hole owed its existence to the one before it there on that prairie."
A major theme is the warlike nature of man. Critic Harold Bloom praised Blood Meridian as one of the best 20th century American novels, describing it as "worthy of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick," 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. Billy J. Stratton contends that the brutality depicted is the primary mechanism through which McCarthy challenges binaries and promotes his revisionist agenda. 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."
Three epigraphs open the book: quotations from French writer Paul Valéry, from German Christian mystic Jacob Boehme, and a 1982 news clipping from the Yuma Sun reporting the claim of members of an Ethiopian archeological excavation that a fossilized skull three hundred millennia old seemed to have been scalped. The themes implied by the epigraphs have been variously discussed without specific conclusions.
As noted above concerning the ending, 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.
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." 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"
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)"
Various discussions by Leo Daugherty, Barclay Owens, Harold Bloom and others, have resulted from the second epigraph of the three which are used by the author to introduce the novel taken from the Gnostic mystic Jacob Boehme. The quote from Boehme reads as follows: "It is not to be thought that the life of darkness is sunk in misery and lost as if in sorrowing. There is no sorrowing. For sorrow is a thing that is swallowed up in death, and death and dying are the very life of the darkness." No specific conclusions have been reached concerning its interpretation and the extent of its direct or indirect relevance to the novel.
These critics agree that there are Gnostic elements present in Blood Meridian, but they disagree on the precise meaning and implication of those elements. One of the most detailed of these arguments is 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 Hellenic 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."
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". 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'. In 2009 Bloom did refer to Boehme in the context of Blood Meridian as, "a very specific type of Kabbalistic Gnostic".
Daugherty contends that the staggering violence of the novel can best be understood through 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." Barcley Owens argues that, while there are undoubtedly Gnostic qualities to the novel, Daugherty's arguments are "ultimately unsuccessful," because Daugherty fails to adequately address the novel's pervasive violence and because he overstates the kid's goodness.
Another major theme concerning Blood Meridian involves the subject of theodicy. Theodicy in general refers to the issue of the philosophical or theological attempt to justify the existence of that which is metaphysically or philosophically good in a world which contains so much apparent and manifest evil. Douglas Canfield in his essay "Theodicy in Blood Meridian" (in his book Mavericks on the Border, 2001, Lexington University Press) has made the assertion of the centrality of this theme throughout Blood Meridian. James Wood in his essay for The New Yorker entitled "Red Planet" from 2005 took a similar position to this in recognizing the issue of the general justification of metaphysical goodness in the presence of evil in the world as a recurrent theme in the novel. This was directly supported by Edwin Turner on 28 September 2010 in his essay on Blood Meridian for Biblioklept. Chris Dacus in the Cormac McCarthy Journal for 2009 wrote the essay entitled, "The West as Symbol of the Eschaton in Cormac McCarthy," where he expressed his preference for discussing the theme of theodicy in its eschatalogical terms in comparison to the theological scene of the last judgment. This preference for reading theodicy as an eschatological theme was further affirmed by Harold Bloom in his recurrent phrase of referring to the novel as "The Authentic Apocalyptic Novel."
Aleksandar Hemon has called Blood Meridian "the greatest American novel of the past thirty years." In 2006, The New York Times conducted a poll of writers and critics regarding the most important works in American fiction from the previous 25 years; Blood Meridian was a runner-up, along with John Updike's four novels about Rabbit Angstrom and Don DeLillo's Underworld while Toni Morrison's Beloved topped the list. Novelist David Foster Wallace named Blood Meridian one of the five most underappreciated American novels since 1960 and described it as "[p]robably the most horrifying book of this century, at least [in] fiction."
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." Comparisons have been made to the work of Hieronymus Bosch and Sam Peckinpah, and 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." After reading Blood Meridian, Richard Selzer declared that McCarthy "is a genius--also probably somewhat insane." 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 (sic) 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"
American literary critic Harold Bloom praised Blood Meridian as one of the 20th century's finest novels. Time magazine included the novel in its "TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005".
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