The Cormac McCarthy novel widely cited as the Tennessean’s magnum opus

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Blood Meridian the Cormac McCarthy novel widely cited as the Tennessean’s magnum opus, is perhaps the text on this section of the course that most definitively fits under the banner of ‘Borders and Conflict’. In contrast to his earlier novels, McCarthy switches his regional focus to the Southwest, and more specifically the geographical overlap of the United States – Mexican borderlands, in which the narrative largely takes place – though its action stretches from San Francisco through El Paso to Chihuahua in Mexico and beyond.

The novel is loosely historical, with the dominant narrative thread of the kid’s interactions with the Glanton Gang as they maraud through the badlands of 19th century Mexico for Indian scalps, ostensibly to attain the bounties on Apache Indians from Mexican Authorities, being largely derived from Samuel Chamberlain's account of his time as a member of the gang in the mid-19th century in My Confession, though the character of John Glanton and the events of his life are of course to an extent fictionalized in McCarthy’s novel.

The novel is a ‘revisionist western’ “reusing and parodying elements of the genre and of the historical record in order to critique the historical myth of […] traditional narratives of the West”.1

It is “epic in scope, cosmically resonant, obsessed with open space and with language, exploring vast uncharted distances with a fanatically patient minuteness” and like Moby Dick in the view of Steven Shaviro in ‘The Very Life Of Darkness’: “savagely [explodes] the American dream of manifest destiny, of racial domination and endless imperial expansion”2.

As well as the book itself, I will draw a fair bit from Robert L. Jarrett’s book – Cormac McCarthy, and what I’ll be talking about falls largely under the headings: Borders and Violence; The Corrupt and Corrupting Myth of Manifest Destiny; and The Demise of Western Expansionism.

  • Borders and Violence

“The Southwest is represented in the novel as a hostile landscape, a violent “border zone” of conflicting Anglo, Hispanic, and Native American cultures”3 and this clash of cultures along abstract borderlines leads inevitably to violence – symbolised by the “novel’s dominant image [… of] the bloody Western sunset from which the novels title is derived”4 and which recurs throughout as the landscape’s constant reminder of blood on the horizon. Though by tracking the Americans we perceive their violence more actively, the sense is that all are exceptionally violent here, from individuals murdering each other in bars, to the Apaches particularly, who are shown to be truly brutal in the defence of their lands, which in turn leads to the Mexicans hiring the scalp-hunters.

The violence in Blood Meridian is “unremitting” arguably pushed to a sardonic ubiquitous extreme to heighten the critique, and foreground the grim nature, of America’s violent Western expansion and beyond in the past and present.

As Jarrett puts it “the blood meridian of the title is used as an extremity, peak, or climax; the period when the bloodshed of the West is at its peak […] acknowledging the extraordinary brutality of this historical period in Western expansionism.”

Even the kid comes to the realisation that “this country was filled with violent children orphaned by war” on page 339, not least himself and the effect of this bloody region has the ultimate effect on the kid of madness in Chapter 22 when “In his cell he began to speak with a strange urgency of things few men have seen in a lifetime and his jailers said that his mind had come uncottered by the acts of blood in which he had participated.”

In this wasteland, McCarthy expresses a savage, blood-soaked, dark and ironic indictment of Manifest Destiny, a conception which still plays a significant psychological aspect in American history, self-identity and foreign relations up to the present day.

Jarrett, citing historian Alan Weinberg, defines Manifest Destiny as an expansionist ideology, the rhetoric of which “justified territorial acquisition by combining racism [in the perceived supremacy of the Anglo-Saxon over the Native American and Mexican] with an appropriated version of the Puritan notion of predestination” i.e. “America held the true title to the American landscape” which provided “justification for the individual and communal enterprise of expansion and settlement”, and was ostensibly proven by the “military successes of the new American nation” with particular regard to the Revolution and the Mexican-American War of the period.

By questioning positive associations between westward migration and the apparent holiness of the American pioneering spirit as a force of renewal and development, this ideological force is shown to be a myth.

From the opening pages the interrogating purpose of Blood Meridian on this ideology is suggested: “Not again in all the world’s turning will there be terrains so wild and barbarous as to try whether the stuff of creation may be shaped to man’s will or whether his own heart is not another kind of clay.”

In many ways ‘the kid’ functions as an emblematic individual symbolising the inherent corruption of this conception of ‘Manifest Destiny’ on the Western Frontier. Whilst the journey of the kid implies a form of ‘bildungsroman’, tracking his growth from an abandoned child escaping to the West, up to his briefly relayed adulthood as a drifter, and some significance to his life is implied by the fact it is tied up with and bookended by the apparent omens of the meteor-shower known as the Leonids on his birth in 1833 and the night of his apparent death in 1878, which perhaps lies behind his ability to survive even the most dire of slaughters, the character is ultimately denied any real relevancy in terms of his actions or development particularly morally.

This first point is evidenced by the fact his will really shapes nothing, his story instead shaped by the Judge, the help of Toadvine, the expriest etc. and given narrative thrust by being carried along on the tide of others like Captain White and Glanton.

And on the latter score though his eyes are “oddly innocent” and he perhaps commendably disappoints the embodiment of ultra-violence” and 18th Century Mars, Judge Holden who accuses him of reserving “in [his] soul some corner of clemency for the heathen”; any feasible sense of the kid’s goodness is absent, and his life is reduced to murderousness and base desires – and appropriately he dies in an outhouse.

This, the ultimate conclusion of his life’s journey westward, can be taken as McCarthy’s symbolic judgement upon the ultimate end of America’s passage into the West, certainly morally – dead, apparently mutilated, and potentially in the eyes of Patrick W. Shaw, horrendously sexually abused by the Judge – and the fact that we never see this act of violence or its consequences in such an overtly violent novel is all the more harrowing.

In a similar vein, the examples of ‘pioneering Americans’ venturing out into unknown lands are shown to be little more than murderous mercenaries and filibusters. On that last phrase it might be helpful to define and contextualise it, as I didn’t know its meaning til’ doing this.

A filibuster, or freebooter, is someone who engages in an unauthorized military expedition into a foreign country to instigate or support a revolution. The character of Captain White partially based on figures like William Walker – an American who eventually came to rule Nicaragua for a short time - is an American supremacist who believes that Mexico is a lawless nation to be conquered by the United States is just such a filibuster, taking an army of odds and ends into the country and achieving an exceptionally grizzly end at the hands of the Apaches.

As Harold Bloom puts it: “the Glanton foray can seem a post-Homeric quest, where the various heroes (or thugs) have a disguised god among them, which appears to be the Judge’s Herculean role. The Glanton gang passes into a sinister aesthetic glory at the close of chapter 13, when they progress from murdering and scalping Indians to butchering the Mexicans who have hired them.”

The treatment of the Mexicans at this point of the novel is emblematic of America and its people as an invading force: “the violence of the novel’s unsympathetic characters [… representing] the bloody historical work of nationalism during the period of Manifest Destiny.”

As McCarthy describes on page 186, the locals had grown used to seeing Americans, “months out of their own country and half crazed with the enormity of their own presence in that immense and bloodslaked waste, commandeering meal and meat or indulging a latent taste for rape among the sloe-eyed girls of that country”.

From taking advantage of the Governor’s hospitality in Chihuahua City, Glanton and his men proceed to treat them with disdain - “ignorant alike of diplomacy and any name at all from the pantheon of their sister republic”, before stealing, fighting, whoring, and eventually turn murderously on the Mexicans themselves, not just the Apaches – destroying the towns of Coyame and Nacori for instance.

  • The Demise of Western Expansionism

Ultimately then, the story of Western expansionism is shown to be bloody, corrupt and ultimately despairingly pointless business on all sides.

As Judge Holden puts it at the close of the novel “This 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.” (348)

The novel’s conclusion significantly takes place for Robert L. Jarrett “two years after the extinction of the buffalo, a symbol of the historic closure of the Western Frontier” and this sense of closure, is reinforced by the brief epilogue at the end of the narrative.

In this section, a man is apparently setting about the construction of a fence, cordoning off territories into plots of land serving simultaneously as part of the beginning of the ‘reservation’ as a concept being enforced upon the Apaches and other Native Americans, as well as perhaps crucially at the end of this violent, depraved envisioning of life on the frontier beyond the ‘Blood Meridian’ – enacting the domestication of the “Old West”, the construction of this physical border serving “as the harbinger of the more ordered and settled civilization which will soon replace the war-torn chaos of the West” its construction "a validation of sequence and causality” as McCarthy puts it.

1 Jarrett – Cormac McCarthy

2 Shaviro

3 Jarrett

4 Jarrett

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