By Philipp Meyer, author of The Son and American Rust.
Thirty years ago, if you’d asked someone to name the most important writers in America, Cormac McCarthy would not have been one of them. His masterpiece, Blood Meridian, had drifted out of print. In fact, all of his books had. McCarthy had lived most of his adult life in near-poverty, shunning publicity, turning down teaching and speaking engagements, and – one suspects – guessing his books would not sell much.
McCarthy was born in 1933 and grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee, the son of a prominent lawyer. His family had servants and lived in a big sprawling house; young Cormac likely did not want for much. But, like Ernest Hemingway, who also grew up in comfortable surroundings, McCarthy has never showed any interest in writing about domestic life.
His early works are all set in Appalachia or Tennessee, but in 1976 he moved to El Paso, Texas, on the U.S./Mexico border.
Blood Meridian was the first product of this move. And this book – his masterpiece – marks both a pinnacle and a turning point in his career. It is the first of his western novels and the last of his darker, meaner books. With one exception, all the books that follow Blood Meridian have a softer edge – sympathetic protagonists engaged in sympathetic quests.
Initial reactions were mixed. The New York Times gave this novel a lukewarm review, calling aspects of the book “facile,” and it sold only a handful of copies. This is not an unusual path for literary masterpieces. F. Scott Fitzgerald was dead by the time The Great Gatsby became popular and it was the same with Melville and Moby Dick. McCarthy, thankfully, has lived long enough to see his work reach its proper standing.
McCarthy is in a bit of a strange box. He is the only living writer with a prose style that stacks up against the great modernists – Faulkner, Joyce, Hemingway, and Virginia Woolf – and yet he is a very different writer from any of them. He has no interest in internality: we rarely get a sense of what his characters are thinking. We are not privy to their internal or emotional lives. McCarthy is working in an older – perhaps the oldest – narrative register.
When you are judging a literary masterpiece, you are judging first the substance and ideas behind the work. Are they true, are they worth saying, does the book articulate them organically (without talking over the characters) and in a way no one has done before? You are judging the artist’s ability to capture a world and the people in it and the ability to work in a mode so distinct it can only be hers or his. You would not confuse a Van Gogh with a Rembrandt – in fact you would be able to identify both at a glance. At the highest level, prose should be no different.
In the conventional sense, the protagonist of this book is a young man called “The Kid.” He is never given a proper name and for most of the book he is more observer than participant. Dozens of pages pass without him saying a word or having a thought.
The early parts of the book see the kid grow up, develop “a taste for mindless violence,” and, at fourteen, run away from home. He is shot, stabbed, and beaten, reaches Texas and enlists in a guerilla army which plans (insanely) to invade Mexico. In Mexico, the kid meets up with another guerilla army – a group of men hunting Indians for their scalps. In their company, he rides across most of the American Southwest.
At the time the book takes, 1849–1850, this part of North America was an ungoverned space. The Spanish had been there about three centuries, and, while some Indian tribes had been there several millennia, the two most violent tribes – the Comanche and the Apache – were relative newcomers. The Apache arrived around 1650 – well after the Spanish – and the Comanche even later.
It’s worth pointing out that the group of people we monolithically refer to as “Native Americans” or “American Indians” were in reality composed of thousands of small nations which had nothing in common except skin color. They spoke hundreds of different languages. Their cultures and societies varied radically: they ranged from pacifistic to extremely violent. Some were farmers, others were engineers, others yet were pure warriors and raiders.
The Comanche and Apache were nomadic warrior tribes. The Comanche in particular treated Mexico the way Europeans treated Africa – as a place to capture slaves and other plunder. They would ride down from the north, wipe out a village, and carry off as many horses and captives as they could. The Apache were not much better.
Into this ungoverned space – fought over by the Mexicans, the Americans, the Apache, the Comanche, and various other Indian tribes – rode the Glanton gang. Both in real life and in this novel, John Glanton was a former Texas Ranger who was paid to hunt Apaches in Northern Mexico. He led only forty men, but they were heavily armed with advanced weapons. (In 1849, repeating firearms were extremely rare – only a few thousand existed on the entire planet – and yet every member of the gang had one.) Glanton’s aim was to get rich collecting the bounty on Native American scalps that various Mexican states were offering.
The two writers McCarthy is most often compared to are Herman Melville and William Faulkner. But, as is commonly the case when comparing great artists, there are more differences than similarities. Faulkner’s works are deeply internal; McCarthy’s are almost entirely external. Faulkner is always searching for redemptive qualities – in his Nobel Prize lecture, he talks about how humans will survive anything (even nuclear war) – he was fascinated by the human capacity to overcome and endure. McCarthy holds the opposite view. Both in his novels and in his real life interviews, he is a stern pessimist. He is sure we are all doomed.
In terms of prose style, McCarthy learned and appropriated enormously from Faulkner, though he tends to exceed his mentor in artistic discipline. While on the surface they are working in the same biblical, incantatory register, McCarthy is relentless about keeping the language tight. The sentences might go on for half a page, but every word needs to be there. This is not always the case with Faulkner.
Comparisons to Melville suffer from the same problem – he and McCarthy are not actually that much alike. What they mostly share is a thematic interest in life and death. Both Moby Dick and Blood Meridian are obsessed with the idea of man’s destiny – or, more precisely, with the question of who among us might control his or her fate.
Both are meticulous with the details of their respective worlds. Moby Dick is a natural history of whaling and life at sea; Blood Meridian is a natural history of the southwest, of horse warfare and combat against the Indians. Every flower is in its proper season, every animal, rock, and tree in its proper place. Even the hallucinations and apparitions are real – the desert in those areas is known for exactly the types of mirages that McCarthy describes.
And yet here the similarities with Melville end. McCarthy wants nothing to do with internality. None of his characters are as developed as Melville’s Ishmael – we see them only from the outside.
This is a bold choice, given that the thing the novel does better than any other art form is innerness. Giving a sense of human consciousness, the workings of a mind. So if McCarthy leaves out so much of what makes the novel so powerful – indeed, if he leaves out most of what makes human life interesting – how can it be that this book is such a masterpiece?
Because he is drawing from older traditions. The Bible. The Odyssey and the Iliad. Works primarily concerned with man’s fate and his place in the universe. Like Aeneas and Odysseus, McCarthy’s characters materialize on the page fully formed. They depart fully formed as well: there is no change nor progression in the conventional sense. Details that might humanize them are left out: such as the fact that in real life, John Glanton’s young wife was brutally murdered by Apaches, which eventually turned Glanton himself into a brutal killer. But this is not something McCarthy is interested in telling us. His John Glanton is a murderer simply because that is what men do.
This is a book full of sermonizing, lecturing, instruction about the nature of mankind. Novels like this typically fail completely; this one works because every sentence is organic to the situation and characters. We believe the Judge when he discourses on philosophy because we recognize him as a kind of devil or war god – his actions are consonant with his lecturing. His tone is biblical, magisterial, and perfectly fitted to a narrative of flesh and blood and damnation.
Most of the book’s storyline is taken directly from a memoir by Samuel Chamberlain, a decorated veteran of both the Mexican–American and the American Civil wars. The memoir was discovered in 1941, long after Chamberlain’s death – the bulk of it describes Chamberlain’s (mostly true) adventures in the Mexican–American war. The final section of the memoir describes Chamberlain’s (possibly false) tales of riding with the Glanton gang.
In addition to Glanton, we also have historical documentation on a few of the other characters – Brown, Davey Walker, and Marcus Webster. As best we can guess, Samuel Chamberlain met Brown or Webster in California and wrote his “memoir” based on their accounts.
Judge Holden, the most important character in Blood Meridian, was probably an invention of Samuel Chamberlain’s. As Chamberlain describes him, the Judge is an enormous hairless giant possessed of inhuman strength and intelligence. He speaks numerous languages and is acquainted with all the great cities of the world. He is an excellent dancer, horseman, tracker, marksman, and musician, he knows “the nature of all the strange plants and their botanical names, [he is] great in Geology and Mineralogy.” He is also a rapist and a murderer.
McCarthy takes Holden and ups the ante – he makes the Judge the hero of the book, in the most ancient sense of the word. The ancient hero (think again of Aeneas, Odysseus) is not quite fully divine, but is certainly more than human. Like any other demi-god, he does not develop psychologically over the course of the story – he is fully formed from the first page, and moves through the landscape fighting – and triumphing over – both gods and men. The only creature in American literature anything like the Judge is Melville’s whale – Moby Dick himself.
The Judge, of course, can speak. He tells us that war is all that matters. War, as he sees it, is the ultimate expression of free will; the individual asserting himself over society, other men, and even death. So as McCarthy and the Judge see it, this is a story about free will. About creation and authorship: the Judge is constantly recording things in his notebooks, sketches and observations, in attempt to replace or supplant the real item (which he physically destroys when possible). This is not so different from what the artist hopes to do. Few of us know anything about fifteenth-century Danish kings, but most of us know the story of Hamlet. Such as it is with Chamberlain and Cormac McCarthy. Art has eclipsed the Real.
And in reality, life in the 1850s Southwest did not bear much resemblance to the world described in Blood Meridian. At the same time the book takes place, Thoreau was writing Walden, Whitman was writing Leaves of Grass, and Melville was writing Moby Dick.
Americans were flooding into Texas and New Mexico because life in those places was so good. The 1850s saw the population of Texas triple, while New Mexico’s doubled. Meanwhile, reading this book, you get the sense that not a single person was left alive in either place.
This is what Great Art does. It becomes more real than the real, more true than the truth. It is the mechanism by which our mythologies form.
For writers a few generations behind McCarthy, he is the presence that looms over all of us. None of us has ever met him, but we all refer to him as Cormac. I have read this book dozens of times; I used to walk around reading Blood Meridian to myself out loud. Like Joyce’s Ulysses, Blood Meridian pushes the boundaries of what a book can do.
Cormac’s style is infectious. He exerts a kind of gravitational force on the minds of younger writers, both in terms of style and tone. A lot of authors seem to have used him as a handbook and even the more conscientious among us is affected. I once had a very strange dream and at the risk of revealing how insane I really am, I will share it: Along with some friends, I was standing outside the ruins of an old Greek temple. Cormac and his followers were barricaded inside, all armed with automatic weapons. My friends and I were topping off magazines, checking our carbines, preparing our assault. When I woke up I thought it was a pretty great dream, but the truth is I have deleted entire chapters of my own novels because they sounded too much like Cormac. Apparently I cannot not escape his influence, even in my sleep.
As for the real-life Cormac, no other novelist since Ernest Hemingway has inspired such legions of imitators. McCarthy is—at least in the English language – the biggest stylistic influence of the past fifty years. A friend suggested that for this reason alone, McCarthy should win the Nobel Prize. He is probably right.
A lot has been made of this book as a gnostic text – an examination of the idea that some men are closer to God, more touched with a divine fire. Certainly the Judge is, for better or worse. And in the book’s epilogue, a man moves about a barren plain “striking fire that God has placed” in the earth. He is digging holes for fenceposts, creating the demarcation between civilization and the wild; or, depending on your point of view, between a new civilization and an old one. Other men follow him blindly. They see only the holes he has dug. They don’t see the man. They don’t see his fire.
The man leads them alone, and in isolation, calling this divine fire from the raw materials of existence. This of course is what Great Artists do. They follow their inner voice into places others will not understand; they work knowing they will be ignored and misunderstood. The lucky few – like Cormac McCarthy – will live to see their masterpieces recognized.
READ THE FIRST CHAPTER OF BLOOD MERIDIAN