The wild west has caught the imagination of many, American and non-American alike, for years. Recently, the remake of The Magnificent Seven was released, and though critics have given it mixed reviews, it shows that the western is not dead as genre. The idea of traveling to unknown country for reasons such as bettering one’s life, escaping troubles at home, or material advancement appeals to the wanderlust of humankind. However, wherever people go, they bring with them their natures, and much of human nature can bring forth despicable actions. There are many despicable things going on in the world of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.
The novel, published in 1985, had a similar trajectory of fame as a number of media releases during the 1980s. As with the films Blade Runner and The Thing, critics and audiences initially gave Blood Meridian mixed-to-negative reviews. Later, it became more of a cult classic. Now, it’s considered a critical masterpiece not only of the western genre but of twentieth century literary fiction. The critic Harold Bloom considers McCarthy to be one of the greatest living novelists. What brought McCarthy to the development of Blood Meridian? With his initial novels, McCarthy was considered to be the heir of William Faulkner. These works, set in the Appalachian hinterlands, have the morbid character of the Southern gothic. His more comedic-but-still dark tale, Suttree, later helped him earn a MacArthur Fellowship. Then, for the next few years, he researched the bloody deeds of the Glanton gang, which became the foundation for the plot of his next novel.
Who were the Glanton gang? Lead by John Joel Glanton, they were men hired by the Mexican government to hunt down Apache warbands and collect their scalps as proof following the Mexican-American War. However, due to greed and insatiable bloodlust, they began murdering non-violent Indians and Mexican citizens. Thus, with bounties on their own heads, the gang was pursued throughout the west until the majority met their end during an attack by the Quechan Indians. These were men that lived for violence and died by it. Thus, one can see why there are no true blue heroes in the novelization of those violent events of 1849-50. That, however, doesn’t mean there’s not a sympathetic protagonist in the book.
Though the leader of the scalp-hunting expedition is Glanton, the protagonist of the story is a teenager known just as The Kid. Brought up in difficult circumstances in Tennessee and remaining illiterate, he runs away westward to Texas, and eventually ends up in Mexico, where the gang recruits him. During his journey, he meets characters that will drench his young mind and body in the horrors of the unrestrained amorality that seems omnipresent in the untamed landscape. There’s Captain White, an ex-US soldier, who believes the United States has squandered their victory, and seeks to lead an expedition to claim territory beyond that was attained during the war. There’s John Jackson, the sole black member of the scalp-hunters, whose response to prejudice is silence at times and terrific reprisal on other occasions. An ex-priest named Tobin joins in on the crime spree, but is repulsed at the extremes of the other gang members. There are other men such as Toadvine, who are vicious, but don’t revel in depravity as the more amoral characters. Then there is Judge Holden, called by many of the other characters just as “the judge.”
He’s probably one of the most compelling villains in literary history. Though his feet are planted in the dirt of the Southwest, there is something otherworldly about Holden. First, he’s described as hairless giant of man; almost as if he was a nearly seven-foot tall infant stepping into the chaotic turmoil of the frontier. However, this man, who’s central to the gang but clearly distinct from the others, is no innocent. He’s cruel, without mercy, and a child predator and murderer. He’s also the most intelligent gang member and clearly the guidance by the which the gang survives. These are some of his chilling pronouncements: “It makes no difference what men thinks of war. War endures.” “War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. War is god.” “Moral law is an invention of mankind for the dis enfranchisement of the powerful in favor of the weak. Historical law subverts it at every turn.” Because of his vast knowledge in fields as varied as theology, law, history, biology, and chemistry, the other characters are drawn to him as a mysterious figure. Yet, his amorality that surpasses even Glanton’s, (probably because he has codified it), in turn puts a symbolic space between him and the others of the gang. That Holden often separates himself from the rest of the outlaws during the lull between action emphasizes his philosophical distance from the others. Everybody, including The Kid, are ill at ease at times in the presence of Holden; and they have a reason to be, as shown in both the climax and the finale of the novel.
Blood Meridian is not an easy read. And it’s not just because McCarthy eschews quotation marks and apostrophes, among other aspects of modern grammar. McCarthy has a strong vocabulary reserve, and he uses it not pretentiously, but to heighten the epic/Biblical tone of the novel. I’m familiar with a number lesser-known and less-used words in the English language, but at times, I searched an online dictionary to make sure I got the correct meaning of the sentence and situation. Furthermore, unless you’re familiar with the geography of the Southwest, prepare to have that dictionary open, so that you can know the specific terms describing that dramatic landscape; this way, the setting is real in the mind’s eye and not some alien place. Ultimately, it’s difficult because of the brutal and realistic content. I hesitate to call it a revisionist western, because in some minds, that simplistically means Americans-bad, Natives-good. In the novel, nearly all, no matter their nationality, tribe, or ethnicity, exhibit savage behavior. Though culture affects how violence expresses itself, it’s due to the fallen nature of humankind that such cruelty occurs. McCarthy chose the Southwest in 1849-50 for the setting of his work, but these characters could be placed in other epochs. The bloody and senseless rage boiling up in the characters is universal and that is a terrifying thing. Perhaps, unknowingly, we come in contact with Judge Holdens and Glantons daily, and only a veneer of civilization is holding back their ravenous instincts.