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British Association for American Studies


Issue 3, Spring 2003: Article 5


Issue 3, Spring 2003: Article 5

U.S. Studies Online: The BAAS Postgraduate Journal

Issue 3, Spring 2003: Special Conference Edition

The American West through an Apocalyptic Lens: Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian

Elizabeth Rosen
© Elizabeth Rosen. All Rights Reserved

Let [no one] suppose that an Indian campaign is a picnic. If he goes out on such business he must go prepared to ride his forty or fifty miles a day, go sometimes on half rations, sleep on the ground with small covering, roast, sweat, freeze, and make the acquaintance of such vermin or reptiles as may flourish in the vicinity of his couch; and finally, be ready to fight Sitting Bull or Satan when the trouble begins, for God and the United States hate non-combatants. [1]
Journalist, John Finerty, 1876

John Finerty’s statement, recounted in his book about his experiences as a journalist accompanying the U.S. Army on the Indian campaigns of the mid-19th century, reminds us of just how pervasive and official the rhetoric was which identified Native Americans with agents of the devil.It is here that I start my paper because I think that Cormac McCarthy is also acutely aware of this association, and that such references influenced the way he approached his first western, Blood Meridian.

Blood Meridian, too, recounts an Indian campaign of a sort.Set in the contested Coahuila-Texas and Sonaran provinces in 1849 during the age of Manifest Destiny, Blood Meridian follows its fourteen year old protagonist, known only as ‘kid,’ from the Tennessee hills through Freedonia and Nacogdoches to Bexar. Here he is recruited by the racist Captain White, whose aim is possibly to take back the territory which has been returned to Mexico in the Guadalupe-Hildago treaty following the war, but definitely to take revenge against what he calls a ‘race of degenerates.’[2] The kid’s tenure with White is abruptly cut short when the group is attacked by Apaches and those who are not murdered are dispersed.It is at this point that the kid becomes part of a second ‘hunting’ group, joining a fierce-looking band of Indian hunters headed by a man named Glanton.The remainder of the novel recounts the kid’s experiences as part of this gang, the violence they inflict and endure themselves as they move across the Mexican desert towards California, and his strange interaction with gang-member judge Holden.The story concludes when the kid, now a grown man some thirty years later, meets his own violent end.

In his novel, McCarthy has overlaid frontier history – in this case, the story of John Glanton’s Scalp Hunters – with the apocalyptic paradigm, and the effect of this strategy is that he gives the reader not just a revisionist frontier history, but a revisionist version of the apocalyptic myth, as well.

John Glanton did exist.He fought in the Mexican War, and supposedly became an Indian hunter in retaliation for the murder of his fiancée during an Indian raid. Glanton’s gang of renegades were notorious, and McCarthy has his protagonist join Glanton’s gang as they are riding out of Chihuahua City, having been hired by the governor to go out and kill the Indians terrorizing the Mexican colonists.

McCarthy has only ever given one interview. In it he talks very little about Blood Meridian, but we can discern, by default, where he took the bulk of his plot from, since there is only one historical mention of the man ‘judge’ Holden who is pivotal in the novel. [3] That document is General Samuel Chamberlain’s My Confession: the Recollections of a Rogue which details, among other things, his time in Glanton’s Gang.Reading Chamberlain’s description of Holden, one can easily see why McCarthy might have become fascinated with this character.Chamberlain describes him as both the best educated man in northern Mexico and an unparalleled villain with a streak of cowardice:

The second in command, now left in charge of the camp, was a man of gigantic size called ‘Judge’ Holden of Texas.Who or what he was no one knew but a cooler blooded villain never went unhung; he stood six feet six in his moccasins, had a large fleshy frame, a dull tallow colored face destitute of hair and all expression.His desires was blood and women, and terrible stories were circulated in camp of horrid crimes committed by him when bearing another name, in the Cherokee nation and Texas;…Holden was by far the best educated man in northern Mexico; he conversed with all in their own language, spoke in several Indian lingos, at a fandango would take the Harp or Guitar from the hands of the musicians and charm all with his wonderful performance, and out-waltz any poblana of the ball.He was ‘plum centre’ with rifle or revolver, a daring horseman, acquainted with the nature of all the strange plants and their botanical names, great in Geology and Mineralogy, in short another Admirable Crichton, and with all an arrant coward.Not but that he possessed enough courage to fight Indians and Mexicans or anyone when he had the advantage in strength, skill and weapons, but where the combat would be equal, he would avoid it if possible.I hated him at first sight and he knew it, yet nothing could be more gentle and kind than his deportment with me and speak of Massachusetts and to my astonishment I found he knew more about Boston than I did. [4]

As we read Chamberlain’s account of his experiences with Holden it becomes clear that Holden is also unscrupulous, violent, and more than a little spooky.

In his interview, McCarthy makes the following comment:

There is no such thing as life without bloodshed … the notion that the species can be improved in some way, that everyone could live in harmony, is a really dangerous idea.Those who are afflicted with this notion are the first ones to give up their souls, their freedom.Your desire that it be that way will enslave you and make your life vacuous. [5]

Combined with McCarthy’s interest in the Myth of the West, we begin to see the elements that led to his apocalyptic interpretation of the frontier.Hence, there are two things this paper aims to explore: how the historic fact alters the apocalyptic paradigm, and how the apocalyptic paradigm alters our historical perspective.

The story of Apocalypse is fundamentally a religious one in which God plays the main character.In it, God battles and defeats the returned Antichrist, destroys the wicked unbelievers, along with the world as we know it, and rewards the true believers with a new Heaven on Earth called New Jerusalem.Reduced to its bare essentials, then, there are three ideas that are fundamental to Apocalypse: God, Judgement, and New Jerusalem.

This presents a challenge to secular writers.How do you tell a secular story with God as the main character?What does New Jerusalem look like to postmodern eyes?Do we even still believe in notions of judgement and reward for the good?Increasingly in the past century neither we have not or our eschatological fiction, while becoming ever better at describing the End, has often neglected the other pivotal part of the Apocalyptic story, New Jerusalem, so that one might say that we have plenty of End-time fiction, but less apocalyptic fiction.But, keeping in mind that the Greek root of eschatology means ‘furtherest’ or ‘uttermost’, there seems no better setting for an apocalyptic story than the frontier.

One of the things we might expect in a postmodern Apocalyptic story is ambiguity and plurality, and we get both in Blood Meridian.One of the first places we encounter this is in the conflation of roles which Holden occupies, for he seems to be God, Satan, and prophet all in one.Nonetheless, he has all the aspects we associate with deities.His learnedness makes him as good as omniscient in this wild setting, but the kid senses an additional extrasensory knowing, noting how the judge turns his horse to watch him leave Nacogdoches, smiling at him as he goes.Later the judge will tell the kid, ‘I recognized you when I first saw you’ and the reader understands that this recognition is not merely a physical one (p. 328).

In terms of omnipotence, Holden repeatedly escapes deadly situations that destroy the other mortals in the novel, whether that is being marooned in the desert or attacked by Indians.In one particularly eerie scene in the desert, the kid, who is an excellent marksman, shoots at Holden, and McCarthy writes that ‘the sands jump behind the judge’ as if the bullets have passed right through him (p. 288).

However, it’s really the element of omnipresence that makes Holden seem otherworldly.Time and time again, Holden appears in places he could not possibly have had time to get to.The first time this happens is the kid’s initial contact with him in Nacogdoches, where Holden has started a riot at a tent revival.As soon as the melee starts, the kid escapes from the tent to the local saloon, only to discover the judge is already at the bar.Gang-member and ex-priest Tobin recounts another of these mysterious manifestations, describing how Glanton’s gang, pursued by Indians deep into a desolate area, came upon Holden ‘in the middle of the greatest desert you’d ever want to see. Just perched on this rock like a man waitin for a coach.’

Then about the meridian of that day we come upon the judge on his rock there in that wilderness by his single self.Aye and there was no rock, just the one.Irving said he’d brung it with him….He had with him that selfsame rifle you see with him now….And there he set.No horse.Just him and his legs crossed, smilin as we rode up.Like he’d been expectin us….He didnt even have a canteen.It was like…You couldnt tell where he’d come from (p. 124).

This image of a smiling Buddha-like figure sitting calmly on a rock is one of several allusions to the god-like appearance of Holden.Others, such as when Holden steps through fire, or sits naked on a wall during a raging storm ‘declaiming in the old epic mode,’ associate him further with deities and prophets (p. 118).

His sobriquet, ‘judge,’ indicates this function, but the kid raises the pertinent question: ‘What’s he a judge of?’ (p. 135). In fact, this question is asked three times in a row, like an echo.The answer comes later in a delirious dream the kid has in which he imagines Holden looking down at him. In his eyes he

could read whole bodies of decisions not accountable to the courts of men and he saw his own name which nowhere else could he have ciphered out at all logged into the records as a thing already accomplished (p. 310).

Like any apocalyptic god, Holden is the judge of men, and in his opinion at least, man is a bit uppity.Like the residents of Babel, they aspire beyond their place, and the judge makes this clear, warning,

For whoever 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 (p. 146).

Holden has the habit of sketching the things he comes across in the gang’s travels, whether botanical samples or artefacts of extinct Indian culture, but it is only the man-made artefacts that Holden destroys, rubbing out ancient rock paintings, or tossing pottery shards into the fire. [6] Questioned about this, Holden answers,

“Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent….This is my claim,” he says, identifying the earth around him, “And yet everywhere upon it are pockets of autonomous life….In order for it to be mine nothing must be permitted to occur upon it save by my dispensation” (pp. 148-149).

Asked what he will do with his notes and sketches, Holden says it is ‘his intention to expunge them from the memory of man’(p. 140). As a deity, Holden is more like Shiva the Destroyer than Christ the Redeemer.He is a walking memento mori, reminding us at every turn the ludicrousness of our thoughts of permanence or control.

But notions of good and evil are ambivalent at best in the postmodern sensibility, so it is not just the wicked who are struck down in this version of apocalypse.Evil and good, implies McCarthy, are meaningless designations in a setting where death comes haphazardly and life is preserved as much by luck as by practical, hard-eyed decisions.More than this, the author calls into question whether such designations can ultimately even be made in a world of rapidly shifting alliances and changing circumstances.To shoot your wounded riding companion in the head may seem murderous in the drawing rooms back East (or alternatively in the comfortable chair of the reader), but calling such an act evil is simplistic in a world where the reality is that your wounded companion, caught by the Apaches, or the Scalp Hunters masquerading as Apaches, will be hung by his heels over a fire so that his brain boils in his head. [7]

Thus far, then, we can identify both a deity and judgement in McCarthy’s novel, and we can recognise, as well, how each of these elements have been revised to be relevant and plausible for a reader influenced by postmodern sensibilities.What, though, about New Jerusalem?

Typically, it is this idea of New Jerusalem which seems the hardest to translate to secular and postmodern writing.In part, we might trace this difficulty to a steadily growing pessimism that begins post-World War I and reaches a kind of zenith with the Holocaust and the invention of atomic weapons. [8] The despair these and other events inaugurated in the Western world of letters does not bode well for a concept such as New Jerusalem, which is predicated on hope.We could also speculate that the notion of heaven itself comes under pressure starting with the Victorian age. The increasing reliance on empirical sciences to explain the universe raises some difficult questions regarding Heaven and New Jerusalem.Heaven used to be ‘up there,’ but modern science has shown us that what is actually ‘up there’ is more a question for quantum physicists than religious preachers. [9] Heaven then, like the soul, must undergo some significant re-visioning as science becomes more adept at looking deeper into the mind, body, and stuff of universal origins.Add to those factors the ambivalence and ambiguity of postmodernism, and readers are well within their rights to wonder if New Jerusalem as a concept can plausibly be portrayed at all. [10]

However, it is with his reinterpretation of New Jerusalem that McCarthy seems most to have revised both the apocalyptic paradigm and the Western genre.McCarthy is fully aware of the intricacies of the Myth of the West and the debate about how it has been used to define American identity, so it is here that he plays upon both the idea of the frontier and the pivotal role that the Myth of the West has had in defining national identity.

According to this myth, there is only one direction that this new heaven on earth can exist and it is to the west where the hope of a new, uncorrupted life is seated.We remember Thoreau’s essay ‘Walking’ which articulated this idea, claiming that mankind progresses from east to west:‘We go eastward to realize history and study the works of art and literature, retracing the steps of the race; we go westward as into the future, with a spirit of enterprise and adventure.’[11] Blood Meridian undermines this myth when McCarthy reverses the idea entirely.Man does not progress as he goes west, quite the contrary: no matter how far west the kid goes, the violence, the randomness of death and destruction, remains a constant.History is realised through a westward motion, not an eastward one, in this novel: Holden retraces the steps of mankind using artefact and geology as guides and is heard more than once holding forth on the subject of history:

It is not necessary that the principals here be in possession of the facts concerning their case, for their acts will ultimately accommodate history with or without their understanding. But it is consistent with notions of right principle that these facts – to the extent that they can be readily made to do so – should find a repository in the witness of some third party (p. 85).

New Jerusalem is going to be radical in McCarthy’s novel.In this version of Apocalypse, New Jerusalem is not a place, but a new way of seeing and understanding.The world which is destroyed is the old optimistic and mythic view of the West as the ‘land of beginning again,’ the chance of a better life. This is the worldview of the traditional western in which Right triumphs in the end, where the protagonist survives confrontation and suffering either to occupy a moral and privileged position finally or to undergo a redemptive transformation.

McCarthy sets the reader up for this traditional western ending when he has the kid ask the bonepicker boys whether they like meanness and because the kid has questioned meanness so little in the novel, it’s impossible not to read an implication in this question that meanness is not something to be liked (p. 319). But, McCarthy reverses the reader’s expectation just pages later when the kid actually kills one of these boys. And he uses this strategy to even greater effect when the kid makes his first offer of protectorship to the lone survivor of a massacre he happens upon in the desert.

He told her that he was an American and that he was a long way from the country of his birth and that he had no family and that he had traveled much and seen many things and had been at war and endured hardships.He told her that he would convey her to a safe place, some party of her countrypeople who would welcome her and that she should join them for he could not leave her in this place or she would surely die (p. 315).

When this old woman turns out to be a mummified corpse, McCarthy signals the futility of this kind of identification with the whole of the human family.

New Jerusalem, then, is the new understanding of universal order which judge Holden enunciates in the final pages of the novel, the same idea which McCarthy has voiced in his interview: that you give up your soul and your freedom if you invest yourself in the notion of harmony among men [12]. This is a radical undermining of traditional ideas about Heaven, where harmony is the whole point.And to seal the coffin on the traditional notions of both New Jerusalem and the Western novel, McCarthy ends with the unknowing kid going into an outhouse and into the murderous arms of the judge who awaits him there, so that even after all he has lived through, this kid will not get to ride off into an optimistic sunset.In fact, the novel’s subtitle, ‘the evening redness in the west,’ and the repeated references to the blood red sunsets would seem to signal that many things other than the day are ending in this story, not least of which might be the traditional Western.

I do not mean to suggest here that McCarthy has done something unique in replacing the western hero with the violent amoral characters of Blood Meridian.The traditional western hero was already metamorphosing four decades ago as the western genre matured and changed with the times.Western scholars have tracked the gradual transformation of the traditional Hero into a cynical, troubled Antihero more in accordance with the turbulent Sixties and Seventies, and then into the amoral Antihero of the Eighties, ‘representing the last stage in the breakdown of the genre’s conventions and principles’ where ‘the amoral western [strips] away all vestiges of moral dimensions, its antiheroes winning out solely because they are more cold-bloodedly vicious and treacherous than their opponents.’[13]

McCarthy is as well aware of this evolving western protagonist as he is of the Myth of the West.It is not the carefully crafted amoral tone of the narration or demeanour of the characters which is unique in this novel so much as it is that McCarthy has identified a useful and appropriate match in combining the Apocalyptic and Western myths [14].

Calling westerns ‘myth in action,’ Jeffrey Wallmann describes how westerns rely on oppositions for their power, noting ‘the duality most often associated with westerns is the conflict between good and evil … In stark black and white, the forces of good confront the forces of evil in a contest of wills – of free will, the innate power to choose one or the other, with wickedness ultimately vanquished.’ [15]

Put a white hat on Christ and a black one on the Antichrist and we see that the western as a genre is a close cousin to the Book of Revelation.In a 1961 article for The Nation, John Williams posited that this elemental struggle in westerns mesmerises Americans, not because of the Myth of the West, but because it appeals to our Puritan roots:‘Beneath the gunplay, the pounding hooves, and the crashing stagecoaches there is a curious, slow, ritualistic movement that is essentially religious.’[16] Richard Slotkin addresses this issue of the purification of violence in his book Gunfighter Nation.

What is distinctly “American” is not necessarily the amount or kind of violence that characterizes our history but the mythic significance we have assigned to the kinds of violence we have actually experienced, the forms of symbolic violence we imagine or invent and the political uses to which we put that symbolism. [17]

McCarthy understands how violence has been used in the traditional western, as indeed in the Book of Revelation, to signify something about justice and injustice, morality and immorality.His aim seems to be to debunk this idea that violence signifies anything beyond itself, that those who commit it act in a just manner and that those who suffer it, are deserving of their fates. [18] But if it’s not just the villains who are the victims of violence, if the heroes don’t always use violence fairly in westerns, as Blood Meridian seems to indicate, the implication is that the same is true for the original myth of righteous violence in the Book of Revelation.The suggestion implicit in the analogy is that the Book of Revelation and its myth of righteous justice deserves the same critical, perhaps cynical, eye that the traditional western does.

McCarthy allies himself with fellow author Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s ideas about ‘primary realism,’ which argue that:

man’s beliefs must accommodate both the brute force of nature and the affirmation of nature … the brutality and indifference which so impressed the naturalist, as well as the empathy and meaning which so impressed the romanticist. [19]

Hence, in a passage that appropriately enough echoes Nietzsche, Holden tells the kid:

As war becomes dishonored and its nobility called into question, those honorable men who recognize the sanctity of blood will become excluded from the dance, which is the warrior’s right, and thereby will the dance become a false dance and the dancers false dancers…. Only that man who has offered up himself entire to the blood of war, who has been to the floor of the pit and seen horror in the round and learned at least that it speaks to his inmost heart, only that man can dance (p. 331).

Finally, if McCarthy has used the western to rework traditional notions of Apocalypse, his use of the apocalyptic paradigm has implications for western history as well.Part of the appeal of the apocalyptic story is its oppositional structure: Good vs. Evil, Justice vs. Injustice.The duality in the myth is comforting in its clarity: there is no grey area to confuse us.By applying this paradigm to a historical era that is far more complex, McCarthy asks that his readers pay attention to the ‘reality’ of the frontier in a way they might not otherwise.Wallmann notes in his study of the Western genre that to remember reality is to destroy myth. [20] There is no moment of Blood Meridian in which the reader is not aware that the characters and events simply cannot be forced into the easy opposition of good or evil.All men are equally vicious and violent in this novel. And all violent men are capable of moments of mercy and compassion, as well. In the end, the constant scraping of the ‘real’ against the duality of the apocalyptic paradigm encourages the reader to consider how problematic it is to apply this simplistic perspective to our historical past, and in doing so, also makes us reconsider both America’s apocalyptic origins and its rhetorical tradition of interpreting historical events through this lens of good and evil.

University College London


[1] John Finerty, War-Path and Bivouac, Introduction by Oliver Knight(Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994), 80-1.

[2] Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West (London: Picador, 1989), 34. Subsequent page references will refer to this edition and will be cited parenthetically in the text.

[3] John Sepich’s book, Notes on Blood Meridian (Louisville: Bellarmine College Press, 1993) documents all the historical references in McCarthy’s novel.

[4] Samuel E. Chamberlain, My Confession: the Recollections of a Rogue, Introduction and postscript by Roger Butterfield (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1956), 271-2.

[5] Richard B. Woodward, ‘Cormac McCarthy’s Venomous Fiction’, The New York Times, April 19, 1992. Magazine. Lexus-Nexus online. (Nov. 2, 2002)

[6] In actuality, it was Chamberlain, not Holden, who had the habit of sketching.

[7] Peckinpah’s film The Wild Bunch has a scene depicting exactly this scenario.

[8] For a more complete discussion of how the atomic bomb in particular affected American culture and letters, see Paul Boyer’s By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985).

[9] Colleen McDannell and Bernhard Lang trace the changing ideas about Heaven in their book Heaven: A History, 2nd Edition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001).

[10] Thomas Pynchon’s work is sometimes held up as an example of a postmodern writer whose writing is apocalyptic, but it seems to me that New Jerusalem is missing from his work, as well.A novel such as Gravity’s Rainbow, which is focused on entropy, portrays the running-down of the world, but no new world afterwards, so would be a good example of an eschatological, but not apocalyptic, work.

[11] Henry David Thoreau, ‘Walking’, The Atlantic Monthly, June, (1862). (Nov. 12, 2002).

[12] McCarthy foreshadows this theme with his three epigraphs, particularly in choosing Jacob Boehme, who elsewhere has written: ‘In nature one thing has always been set against another, so that one is the enemy of the other, and yet not to that end that it is its enemy, but rather that one moves the other in struggle, and reveals the other in itself.’

[13] Jeffrey Wallmann, The Western: Parables of the American Dream (Lubbock, TX: Texas Tech University Press, 1999), 168.

[14] McCarthy seems to challenge even the idea that the amoral hero is new by choosing John Glanton as one of his pivotal figures, since Glanton himself engaged in an amoral switch of allegiances during his lifetime.Glanton served underColonel James Fannin in the Texas Army and was one of the few Americans who escaped execution at the hands of Mexican General D. José Urrea at Goliad. The mass execution of prisoners who had voluntarily surrendered – 330 were killed – outraged Americans, and Urrea became known as the Butcher of Fannin’s Command. After the war, however, Glanton entered the service of Urrea as an Indian fighter.

[15] Jeffrey Wallmann, The Western, 30.

[16] John Williams, “The ‘Western’: Definition of the Myth”, The Nation, 193:17, (Nov. 18, 1961), 401-6.

[17] Richard Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America (New York: Atheneum, 1992), 13.

[18] Western writer Vardis Fisher notes that western ‘history’ is largely myth, rather than factual, in his essay with Opal Laurel Holmes, ‘Fact or Fiction: The Blend of History and Legend’ collected in The Western: A collection of Critical Essays, Ed. James K. Folsom (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1979), 95-110.This means that McCarthy is debunking a simulated history of the west, as well as a real Myth of the West.

[19] Max Westbrook, ‘The Western Esthetic’, in Critical Essays on the Western American Novel, Ed. William T. Pilkington (Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1980), 76.

[20] Jeffrey Wallmann, The Western, 150.