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  1. The Weekend Essay
12 August 2023

Cormac McCarthy’s art of war

In Blood Meridian the author reaches the dark heart of the American novel – where violence is timeless.

By Nick Burns

In April 1992, in one of the few interviews he gave during his life, Cormac McCarthy admitted what he tellingly considered an “ugly fact”: books, his included, are made out of other books. He cited William Faulkner and Herman Melville, authors whose influence is perceptible (and everywhere acknowledged) in his work, especially at the level of prose.

The interview did not mention – though it is hardly a secret – that there is one book in particular out of which was made Blood Meridian, the 1985 novel that is considered the late writer’s chef-d’oeuvre. That is the memoir of Samuel Chamberlain, a deserter and outlaw-turned-respectable American Civil War general and New England prison warden.

Written across the second half of the 1850s, My Confession recounts, more or less truthfully, Chamberlain’s service in the US army during the Mexican-American war of 1846-48 – and, less verifiably, his days as a member of the notorious John Joel Glanton gang of scalp-hunters. The work has a Melvillean quality of its own, at least in its presentation as the true testament of a lonely survivor of the massacre of Glanton and his men by Quechan warriors.

Chamberlain’s account nonetheless contains little philosophy: shallow and self-serving, the author invests his misdeeds with Western romance or elides them with unpersuasive appeals to 19th-century morality. Mexican prostitutes become “roguish-eyed poblanas”; a grievous wound inflicted during a dispute is explained as the other man’s decision to “foolishly run onto the point of my Arkansas toothpick”.

Besides murderous Glanton, Chamberlain introduces us to the chilling figure of Judge Holden: a hulking, hairless man with “a dull tallow coloured face destitute of hair and all expression”. Holden’s desires are “blood and women” – yet he is “by far the best educated man in northern Mexico”. He is a child rapist, a student of botany and geology, and a fine dancer; he escapes along with Chamberlain from the final destruction of the Glanton gang.

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Evidently too ribald for circulation, the manuscript was dutifully handed down until it was discovered in a Connecticut antique store and published, complete with gushing introduction, through the efforts of a Life magazine editor in 1956.

The book might then have begun to recede into the American welter from which it had improbably emerged had it not found its way into the hands of Cormac McCarthy. In 1976, by then middle-aged, though not yet a commercial success, and the author of a handful of novels set in the Appalachian South, McCarthy departed his hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee for El Paso, Texas. There he began work on a book to be set in the West.

In Blood Meridian, the outline of Chamberlain’s memoir, its characters and trajectory, is stripped almost entirely of romance and moral pretence and deployed to radically different ends. Its nameless protagonist, resembling Chamberlain in some regards but referred to only as “the kid”, falls in with a band of scalp-hunters led by Glanton and Judge Holden, who in McCarthy’s version is merely referred to as “the judge”. The kid bears witness to endless horror as the cabal, commissioned by Mexican officials to furnish Apache scalps, marauds through the US-Mexico borderlands killing and scalping indiscriminately, in a kind of anti-Bildungsroman set against a world in which the only secure things are the alien beauty of the landscape and the inexhaustible human capacity for violence. McCarthy’s prose enumerates the litany of destruction in a tone neither approving nor disapproving.

[See also: What Cormac McCarthy knew]

The book’s title signals McCarthy’s intent on three levels – juxtaposing human cruelty and mute natural fact, pondering an epistemology of violence, and subverting the Western genre in which My Confession is an early if unacknowledged entry. In the latter association, “blood meridian” refers to the much-mythologised hundredth parallel, the longitude at which the American West is considered to begin and a point closely tied, in traditional accounts, to idealised notions of the frontier and the salutary effects of colonisation on American society.

For the early-20th century American historian Frederick Jackson Turner, the frontier was a place of dynamism, “the meeting point between savagery and civilisation”. At first the European-descended settler adopts the custom of the country – “he shouts the war cry and takes the scalp in orthodox Indian fashion” – but later he transforms it into something new and civilised, neither native nor European but American.

McCarthy recasts the frontier as a bloodland that knows no progress, in which every institution of civil society is shattered by gleeful atrocity. Funerals are interrupted by more slaying, supplicants dragged from altars and scalped, women and children unspared. Banquets descend into gunfire; all visits to drinking establishments end in bloodshed; sexual relations take the exclusive form of rape and (more rarely) prostitution. The judge, exemplary figure of American brutality, inaugurates it all at the book’s outset by organising a lynch mob against an innocent preacher in Nacogdoches, Texas ­– located, as the scholar Steven Frye has noted, just short of the hundredth parallel. His efforts invariably seem to succeed and meet with applause from all those except his victims. After he admits he has fabricated the allegation against the preacher, astonished witnesses buy him a drink at the bar.

In Blood Meridian no nation has a monopoly on bloodshed. Apaches impale infants on a tree; Mexican troops leave behind circles of wizened heads in the desert. Racism is not beyond the novel’s panorama: McCarthy’s Glanton appears as an avatar of white supremacy, directing the slaughter of peaceful and warlike Native Americans alike, of Mexican villagers, vouchsafing his hatred of Indians at critical moments and even expressing an outlaw’s remorse for his brethren (“I don’t like to see white men that way. Dutch or whatever.”) But his eventual fate – head cleft in twain by an Apache axe while he shouts a final slur – suggests a view of race prejudice as simply another moral luxury that the imperatives of the country do not permit. Such is the extent of McCarthy’s social optimism.

Though it is an historical novel, in its tenebrous invocations of cosmic finality and in its demand that the violence it depicts be considered timeless, Blood Meridian often resists historicisation. So too in McCarthy’s unmatched depictions of the inhuman Western landscape and his juxtaposition of primordial natural perfection with the wretched temporariness of man. In one, after suffering through parched wastes Glanton’s men are rained on for days as they pass through a land of stunning beauty. “Wild vines of blue morninglory” pass by the men “slouched under slickers hacked from greasy halfcured hides”.

The beautiful landscape takes on a tragic aspect in its remoteness: in the end its beauty is mute and distant, unable to intervene in the wreck of human affairs. Is a real, reciprocal relation between man and nature conceivable? Perhaps, perhaps not. Crossing a lava bed, we are told, “the alabaster sand shaped itself in whorls strangely symmetric like iron filings in a field and these shapes flared and drew back again, resonating upon that harmonic ground and then turning to swirl away over the playa… As if in the transit of those riders were a thing so profoundly terrible as to register even to the uttermost granulation of reality.”

As if. In the next paragraph the riders are reduced, more emphatically, to facts like any other: “In the neuter austerity of that terrain all phenomena were bequeathed a strange equality.” Such qualities have helped nurture a school of “eco-criticism” of McCarthy’s novels that looks more to the environmental than the human dimension of his work.

Yet McCarthy is a human and a political writer, too, and traces of his own time reveal themselves in the novel. Like Melville and Pynchon, McCarthy maintained a strong scientific interest (a regular presence at the technical institute where he held a position for much of his later life). Yet unlike Melville he is little interested in psychology, more concerned with man’s actions and final destiny than with the contours of the mind – even, notoriously, discounting Proust and Henry James as unconcerned with literature’s ultimate questions of life and death. This was something that would favour him in the 1980s and 1990s, in a climate of opinion marked by an assault on Freud’s legacy, one that opted for biological ways of thinking that were better adapted for an age re-equipped with laissez-faire notions of the economic survival of the fittest.

Blood Meridian was written amid a new wave of westward migration in America. The author was not alone in moving from the East to Texas, home to some 3 million more people when the novel was finished than when it was begun. The city of Tucson, Arizona – in the novel a group of houses within a thinly defended fortress – expanded ten-fold in the space of the early decades of McCarthy’s life, topping a third of a million inhabitants. Cold War military-industry and corporations’ abandonment of the unionised North and Midwest ushered a still-ongoing flight of money and people to the employer-friendly South and West. The avatar of this process was Ronald Reagan, midwesterner turned Californian, movie-star cowboy who, when elected president, doubled military spending and quashed union resistance. As America deindustrialised, organised labour withered, mass-membership organisations gave way to donor-funded non-profits and Americans began to “bowl alone”, in the sociologist Robert Putnam’s phrase to describe the decline of the country’s voluntary societies, from rotary clubs to churches. With the middle classes lonely in their suburban redoubts, American cities tumbled towards a nadir of violence and neglect.

Blood Meridian, released in 1985, and its 1979 precursor Suttree, McCarthy’s autobiographically inflected last Southern novel, face each other across this divide in American history. Suttree’s eponymous protagonist is still able to find a certain solace in the company of a familiar set of drifters. The world of Blood Meridian, in contrast, is one where no social comfort is forthcoming – one where stable relations between men are no longer possible at all. Even members of Glanton’s gang murder each other without warning. In this non-stop cavalcade, all interactions are fleeting and never to be repeated, the law of blood the only one availing.

If McCarthy’s passage westward is often cast as inevitable due to his supposed interest in mythic landscape, it has, too, a certain symmetry with its historical moment. In the 1980s the national spirit was expressed most clearly in the West – the region par excellence of anomie. And in Blood Meridian social disintegration is illuminated in all the bright colour and sharp contrast of a Western sunset.

Among the novel’s personages, it is the kid who stands, if passively, for what is left of established morality. If he bears in his youth already a “taste for mindless violence”, he seldom seems to indulge it. Like Melville’s Ishmael, the kid often disappears from view in the novel’s set-piece sequences; in the more heartless massacres he is not enumerated among the perpetrators. He fights and kills when in danger or when provoked. He refuses to administer a mercy killing to an injured comrade who is to be left behind for the approaching Apache. Decisions such as this may or may not be genuinely merciful, but they do place the kid in the sights of the judge, who accuses him: “There’s a flawed place in the fabric of your heart… You alone reserved in your soul some corner of clemency for the heathen.”

McCarthy’s judge is often described as a late-20th century Ahab, a monomaniac whose obsession is war – and plenty of evidence can be supplied to confirm the notion. For him war is “the ultimate game… the truest form of divination… a forging of the unity of existence”. But unlike Ahab the judge is a man of many interests – or else war is a more capacious art than typically imagined, dark queen of the sciences.

He is a chemist, a riddler, a killer of puppies. He is a phrenologist and lawyer, quotes Coke and Blackstone, performs feats of strength. With his ledger full of sketches of bone tools and potsherds, accounts of murder and of men, he is a consummate man of Enlightenment, infinitely adaptable and curious, intent on taxonomising – a sinister Kant who sees perpetual war rather than perpetual peace, he declares that “the order in creation which you see is that which you have put there”, that “whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent”.

The novel closes as he murders the kid in a Texas outhouse and takes up a raucous bar-room dance: “He never sleeps, the judge. He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die.” In these chilling sentences the judge is finally identified with the author himself – the one who records, the one to whom no atrocity is strange, the one convinced of his own immortality.

[See also: The high plain style of Cormac McCarthy]

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This article appears in the 23 Aug 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Inside Britain’s Exclusive Sect