Cormac McCarthy is renowned for the violence of his works, his minimalist approach to punctuation (some would say hatred of) and his intensely Faulknerian writing style. With Blood Meridian, he earns fervent praise from critics, with Harold Bloom declaring it the ultimate Western. It has even joined the sacred ranks of The Great American Novel. Bloom elucidates in an interview with AV Club:
AVC: When you called it “the ultimate Western”, did you mean merely the paramount example of the genre, or its final expression?
HB: No, I meant the final one. It culminates all the aesthetic potential that Western fiction can have. I don’t think that anyone can hope to improve on it, that it essentially closes out the tradition. And in the sense that it serves as an extension of the pastoral tradition, it provides an interesting and ironic contrast with American Pastoral by my friend Philip Roth.
Such laudatory comments do not go unwarranted. The book is an entrancing, merciless descent into savagery. It is loosely based on the real-life Glanton gang, a horde of scalp hunters led by Texas Ranger John Joel Glanton. They travel the stark Mexican borderlands, murdering and scalping countless Native Americans for bounty and entertainment during the dark times following the Mexican-American War (1849-1850). The first few chapters leave no doubt that Blood Meridian is gruesome, with excruciating scenes of trees hung with dead babies, the massacring and scalping of innocent women and children, deserts bathed with blood.
We follow the Kid, who joins the gang in their destruction and in so encounters John Glanton, the very picture of a bloodthirsty bounty hunter and the intimidating, ominous figure of Judge Holden. In many ways, Judge Holden stands as one of the best villains of modern fiction. A hairless man of gargantuan bulk, he is eloquent, speaking on the nature of man, war and the law at the campfire before his fellow murderers. He behaves bizarrely, from striding around naked, to documenting artifacts and promptly destroying them, asserting that:
Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent.
He appears a strange, all-knowing, almost supernatural spectre. After the gang comes upon Anasazi ruins, he is the sole character who understands and holds respect for this relic of an ancient Mexican civilisation.
For whoever makes makes a shelter of reeds and hides has joined his spirit to the common destiny of creatures and he will subside back into the primal mud with scarcely a cry. But who builds in stone seeks to alter the structure of the universe and so it was with these masons however primitive their works may seem to us.
This comment amplifies the wickedness of the judge, for he knowingly participates in the destruction of Mexican civilisation whilst other men desecrate out of hatred and greed bred of ignorance. The Judge is the living embodiment of the naked, undeniable human instinct for destruction. He is the very agent of war. He preaches:
It makes no difference what men think of war, said the judge. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way.
This is the nature of war, whose stake is at once the game and the authority and the justification. Seen so, war is the truest form of divination. It is the testing of one’s will and the will of another within that larger will which because it binds them is therefore forced to select. War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. War is god.
The kid’s travels span the height of the gang’s victories, the riotous revelry which wrecks the towns they pass through, to the ultimate fall of Glanton and the demise of the gang. The kid does not come away unscathed. He is pursued by the judge for being “mutinous”, and he is accompanied by an ex-priest who cautions the Kid against the judge, whom he deems to be the devil itself. The kid evades the judge, but encounters him years later. The bleak conclusion is vague, in McCarthy’s characteristic style, but it is clear that the kid, who represents the wavering flame of morality, eventually succumbs.
McCarthy’s skill with prose is nearly beyond compare. What stands out the most are the landscapes described in Blood Meridian. It will not make for easy reading, but it frames the brutality of the story perfectly. Oftentimes I was transported to stark deserts and salt plains, parched and dusty, beneath painfully clear night skies and bright stars. The landscape is essential to the narrative. As McCarthy puts it:
The desert upon which so many have been broken is vast and calls for largeness of heart but it is also ultimately empty. It is hard, it is barren. Its very nature is stone.
And his talent goes beyond this. Read this beautiful paragraph from the opening chapter.
The mother dead these fourteen years did incubate in her bosom the creature who would carry her off. the father never speaks her name, the child does not know it. He has a sister in this world that he will not see again. He watches, pale and unwashed. he can neither read nor write and in him broods already a taste for mindless violence. All history present in that visage, the child the father of the man.
There are scholars who see Blood Meridian as an anti-western work due to the manner in which “McCarthy’s narrative diverges from the traditional mythology of American westward movement […] Unlike traditional westerns, McCarthy’s novel makes “visible those violent episodes that accompanied the fight over land” (Eaton 157), and reveals a different kind of violence: the violence of cultural amnesia. After all, the problem with southwestern mythology is not only that the “myth was easier to swallow than the reality” (Eaton 157), but that the American national identity was grounded in a willed forgetting of the violence of these events.” (Shawn Mark Jasinski) In simpler terms, McCarthy exposes the brutality and violence of America’s expansion, one that has been glossed over in Western fiction and American history.
Others see it as a universal statement on the prevalence of conflict and mankind’s predisposition towards violence, any time, anywhere, amongst all peoples. No man, white, black or Mexican is innocent of violence in Blood Meridian. An old hermit warns in the book:
You can find meanness in the least of creatures, but When god made man the devil was at his elbow. A creature that can do anything.
I am more inclined to agree with the second camp; certainly, McCarthy framed it in that historical context but he is too brilliant an author to have meant it to be a simple statement on American expansionism and wilful blindness towards the darker sides of its history. Blood Meridian, as Bloom says, is too grand for that. I have to agree with Caryn James (NYT) who observes:
Blood Meridian makes it clear that all along Mr. McCarthy has asked us to witness evil not in order to understand it but to affirm its inexplicable reality; his elaborate language invents a world hinged between the real and surreal, jolting us out of complacency.