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Review: Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

Blood Meridian: or The Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy and Blood Meridian first came to my attention back in 2000 when noted literary critic, Yale professor Harold Bloom was interviewed on C-Span’s Booknotes regarding his book, How to Read and Why. Bloom, an eccentric character who owns a personal collection of 95,000 books, gave Blood Meridian and McCarthy, of whom at that time I had never heard, a remarkable endorsement:

….One book in particular, a very great book and I’m very glad you bring it up, Brian, a book called “Blood Meridian,” which I write about at some length at one point in this book. Many of McCarthy’s novels are remarkable, including “All The Pretty Horses,” the first volume of the Border Trilogy. I–I don’t think the second and third volumes are quite as fine. And some of his earlier novels like “Suttree” are very Faulknerian, somewhat derivative, are still remarkable books. But he has written one masterpiece, which I would say is–I mean, of contemporary American fiction, of fiction written by human beings still alive and among us, I would list Philip Roth’s “Sabbath’s Theater” and “American Pastoral.” I would list Don DeLillo’s “Underworld.” I would certainly list Thomas Pynchon’s “The Crying of Lot 49” and “Gravity’s Rainbow” and his recent and magnificent “Mason and Dixon.”

But if I had to vote for one novel by a living American, it would be “Blood Meridian,” which is a fearsome story and terrible parable in which I think has a deep, implicit warning for current American society….

….But it’s fascinating to me that you ask that, Brian, because the first two times that I read it, I could not read it. And I admit this to my students and I admit that in this book. I broke down–I don’t know what–after 15 or 20 pages the first time and after 70 or 80 pages the second, because the sheer carnage of it, though it is intensely stylized, is nevertheless overwhelming. It’s–it’s–it’s shocking. It’s–it’s horrifying. And it takes a very strong stomach, but if you break through it, if you–if you read your way into the cosmos of the book, then you are rewarded. You get an extraordinary landscape. You get an extraordinary visionary intensity of personality and character. You get a great vision, a frightening vision of what is indeed something very deeply embedded in the American spirit, in the American psyche. And the more you read the book, I find, the more you will be able to read the book. It is–it’s as close, I think, to being the American prose epic as one can find, more perhaps even than Faulkner, though there are individual books by Faulkner like “As I Lay Dying,” which are perhaps of even higher aesthetic quality and originality than “Blood Meridian.” But I think you would have to go back to “Moby Dick” for an American epic that fully compares to “Blood Meridian.” 

I made a mental note of this despite the fact that Western novels were not my thing. After a while, I read Bloom’s book, which had some interesting, additional insights and then thought no more about the matter until many years later when I watched the film No Country for Old Men, based upon the McCarthy novel. I thought Anton Chigurh was a chilling antagonist, as demonstrated in the scene below:

The screen depiction of Chigurh caused me to recollect Bloom’s commentary regarding the ominous central character and the antagonist of Blood Meridian, Judge Holden, who may or may not have been a historical person:

….And the Glanton gang, an extraordinary group of free booters or filibusters, have with them as their spiritual leader a frightening manifestation, a Melvilleian–a kind of human Moby Dick, Judge Holden, who is a vast albino fellow as round as I am but seven foot tall and who has all languages, all knowledges and who preaches endlessly of the theology of violence and war, and who is still alive and dancing and fiddling and proclaiming that he will never die at the end of the book. And indeed, he has never died. He–he is responsible for those horrible posses we have out there in Idaho. He is responsible for those people who blew up the Federal Building. He is responsible for these mad people who break into schools and shoot children. There is–we–we are a country that has had a kind of perpetual ongoing religious revival since the year 1800, and simultaneously, we have been completely gun crazy for the last two centuries. And in some sense, that’s what McCarthy’s great book is about.

Blood Meridian was inspired by the exploits of the marauding, scalp-hunting, Glanton Gang in the mid-19th century Southwest and Northern Mexico in the years after the Mexican War. The nameless protagonist, known only as “the Kid” escapes massacre and is saved from  abject poverty and starvation in the desert when he reluctantly joins up with Captain Glanton’s mercenary company of Indian fighters. Glanton’s gang is bound for Mexico with a rich contract from a Mexican governor to kill off and scalp the murderous, hated, dangerous Apaches.  Glanton, the leader of the enterprise, is a laconic, impulsively violent, stone-cold, professional killer whose eyes were “burning centroids of murder”; most of his crew of cut-throat vagabonds, renegade Indians and Texan filibusteros the Kid interacts with are cut from the same, if duller, cloth as Glanton, but a few stand out; Benjamin Tobin the ex-priest, Louis Toadvine the outlaw, Davy Brown, who wears a necklace of human ears and repeatedly spars verbally with Glanton’s eerie second in command, Judge Holden.

Having been hired to kill marauding Apaches, Glanton’s company proves itself Golem-like, to be a cure worse than the disease. With some good fortune, Glanton’s men improbably prevail in their scalping raid despite being outnumbered 500 to 1 by the Apaches. Their fury, goaded by Glanton and Judge Holden, is anarchic and protean, instigating a kaleidoscopic bloodbath akin to a Biblical plague, consuming Mexicans, settlers, women, children, saloon-keepers, whores, herds of livestock and whole villages perish by their guns and bowie knives. Glanton’s men also perish, yet the company fights and murders and rapes and pillages along its way despite ever diminishing numbers until dirt and blood are caked indistinguishably on skin, clothing and horse. In this, McCarthy has captured something of the reality of war, especially irregular war in frontier spaces in a way that exceeds all contemporary fiction. Only reality will do for comparison and we must search for kindred horrors in places like Mexico, the Congo or Iraq. Glanton’s men would be at home with ISIS (or in fighting them), cutting off Zeta heads in Mexican plazas or tearing up Waziristan country, leaving smoking villages and violated mosques in their wake.

Judge Holden figures centrally here. Many critics and fans have commented upon the possibly supernatural nature of Judge Holden, a characteristic that increases and becomes more evident as the novel matures. An albino giant of tremendous size and strength, the Judge is nevertheless nimble and cunning, speaking at need all languages and mastering every art to which he cares to put his hand, the Judge can orate like Cicero, fight like a savage and outdance the Devil.  Judge Holden reflects many different literary archetypes – the trickster, Old Scratch, the mysterious Stranger, Woland and so on, but what Holden is more than any of that is a prophet of war without limit, reason or restraint. The Judge is a Clausewitzian death-god, delighting in the unchaining of chaos and murder:

….The judge cracked with the back of an axe the shinbone on an antelope and the hot marrow dripped smoking on the stones. They watched him. The subject was war.

The good book says that he that lives by the sword shall perish by the sword, said the black.

The judge smiled, his face shining with grease. What right man would have it any other way? he said.

The good book does count war as an evil, said Irving. Yet there’s many a bloody tale of war inside it.

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

He turned to Brown, from whom he’d heard some whispered slur or demurrer. Ah, Davy, he said. Its your own trade we honor here. Why not take a small bow. Let each acknowledge each.

My trade?


What is my trade?

War. War is your trade. Is it not?

And ain’t it yours?

Mine too. Very much so.

What about all them notebooks and bones and stuff?

All other trades are contained in that of war.

Is that why war endures?

No, it endures because young men love it and old men love it in them. Those that fought, those that did not.

That’s your notion.

The judge smiled. Men are born for games. Nothing else. Every child knows that play is nobler than work. He knows too that the worth or merit of a game is not inherent in the game itself but rather in the value of that which is put at hazard. Games of chance require a wager to have meaning at all. Games of sport involve the skill and strength of the opponents and the humiliation of defeat and the pride of victory are in themselves sufficient stake because they inhere in the worth of the principals and define them. But the trial of chance or trial of worth all games aspire to the condition of war for here that which is wagered swallows up the game, player, all.

….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.”

Although he did not see the Clausewitzian absolute war in Holden, Bloom’s analysis comes very close:

The violence is the book. The Judge is the book, and the Judge is, short of Moby Dick, the most monstrous apparition in all of American literature. The Judge is violence incarnate. The Judge stands for incessant warfare for its own sake.

Indeed, as the story shifts for imperceptible reasons, Holden perhaps withdraws his apocalyptic benediction from the gang, Glanton is killed and his men dead or scattered by the vengeful Yuma Indians. The Kid senses the judge is no longer the ally he once was but a dangerous enemy and the ex-priest Tobin knows it and desperately fears what is to come. They take their leave but Holden tracks and hunts them in the desert, seemingly to no avail until, decades later, the Kid and the judge cross paths again, last survivors of the Glanton Gang.

Blood Meridian is a must read book.


Actor-director James Franco is a devoted fan of Blood Meridian and has attempted a video sketch/rough cut of one of the book’s more important scenes. The short video does not make it on all accounts. Their Judge Holden is miscast (if good casting is possible) but the Kid and Tobin are well represented and the dialogue and screenplay are true to McCarthy’s intent. It is worth a watch.

8 Responses to “Review: Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy”

  1. Bryan Alexander Says:

    One of my favorite novels.
    Easily among the most violent I’ve read, and I’ve spent a long time studying horror literature.

  2. Lynn C. Rees Says:

    Bloom can find American Gnosticism in a half-eaten jelly donut. The mind boggles.

  3. zen Says:

    H Bryan,
    For me the novel developed a horror feel at the end, after the Yuma attack. It is my suspicion, not sure how you inferred it, from the scene with Tobin related the gunpowder tale to the kid, that the Glanton gang except for the Kid, were damned in a Fausian kind of way and Tobin knew it and suspected what Holden was.
    Hi Lynn,
    Yeah, I’m not very clear on what “American Gnosticism” is supposed to mean. Bloom is almost too well read; he’s seeing some patterns that no one else can see and perhaps are not there. OTOH, he spotted Blood Meridian early and grasped its importance and without his effusive praise I’d probably never have gotten around to reading it

  4. Lynn C. Rees Says:

    Hi Zen,


    I’m not sure what “American Gnosticism” is supposed to mean either. Bloom writes as if he knows what it means but even his meaning shifts as he lumbers from writer to writer. It’s a major Bloom trope, one pervading those works I’ve read: American religion is, somehow, gnostic.


    Prompted by your post, I skimmed the Wikipedia entry on Blood Meridian. What to my wondering eyes would appear? gnosticism. It may be that McCarthy embedded Gnostic themes in his book. I don’t know. I do know that Bloom sees gnostics everywhere with little prompting and little warning to innocent passersby.


    It reminds me of nothing so much as VIctor Davis Hanson’s thesis of “The Western Way of War”. Hanson’s argument that Western Europeans revert to a pattern of decisive face to face infantry tactics seems to rely on some sort of subterranean transmission belt that keeps the Western Way of War alive even during those periods where Western Europe apostatized to “Eastern” Way of War silvery tongues like P. Flavius Vegetius e.g. “..the main and principal point in war is to secure plenty of provisions for oneself and to destroy the enemy by famine. Famine is more terrible than the sword.”. “It is better to beat the enemy through want, surprises, and care for difficult places than by a battle in the open field”, &tc.


    Perhaps there are enough hibernating hoplites or Franks hiding under mountains to revive this flagging Western Way of War whenever Hanson needs an emergency cherrypick. Perhaps they’re sharing the same cold storage with Bloom’s gnostic transmitters who periodically emerge through European literary and religious history to infect it with subversive Gnostic elements only Bloom can see. Perhaps the house of every significant Western literary figure of the past 1/2 millennium has a Cathar in the closet. Check under the beds and scan the attic: you too may need Albigensian repellant.


    Bloom is a hoot and a good read but his literary criticism is profoundly ahistorical, Bloom’s cosmic gnostic Shakespeare being my favorite example. Barzun’s work of literary criticism has THEMES just as Bloom’s, but his seem anchored in a concrete history rather than free floating outside time.

  5. zen Says:

    Good comparisons.
    Barzun was a historian and Bloom is what we used to call “a man of letters” and a fairly emotional and excitable one at that. His field really isn’t bound to evidence beyond the text (and most of his peers dispense with that and make their political ideology and personal narcissism the focus of their academic careers with books as a prop) it is pretty subjective and it is up to the critic to forge something rational

  6. T. Greer Says:

    I am not disposed to like this book. I haven’t read it (though I read its Wikipedia summary after hearing an interview where Bloom called it the best novel of a living American author), so this might not be fair. But the extreme violence of the novel was not typical of life in the American West. Presentations like this further a mythical misrepresentation of what Western expansion actually looked and felt like. The experience of Glanton’s gang’s was peripheral and alien to most who “tamed” the West.

    I’ll quote from my Amazon review of Steve Udall’s Forgotten Founders: Rethinking the History of the Old West:

    Midway through The Forgotten Founders appears a sentence that aptly summarizes the the work as a whole: “The real story of the settlement of the West was work, not conquest” (83). As Steve Udall sees it, the Wild West of popular perception is a falsehood; it’s most important figures were not mountain men and trappers, gunmen and cowboys, or 49ers in search of gold. These men lived on the periphery. At the core were those resolute souls who spent their days struggling to bring the West into the domain of American civilization. It was these pioneers who immigrated to the Western frontier, staying there, breaking sod and forming towns that “founded” the West.

    This contention provides Udall with many subjects to excoriate, an activity Udall sets about with some delight. The California gold rush is described as one of the most “hare-brained ventures” in history (132). Politicians in the East speaking of Manifest Destiny were but “windbags” and “indolent speculators” (115). The army (and her generals) primary role was to “author atrocities” (176). Trappers, explorers, and gunslingers, are flippantly dismissed as “transitive outliers” (6).

    With the familiar caricatures of the dirty miners, stoic sheriffs, and daring outlaws gone, who is left to populate the West of our imaginations? If they are but romance, where can we find reality? Udall points to two groups – the religious leaders and missions of the early West, and the pioneer families who followed in their wake.

    Udall’s illustrates this point in a very personal way. A decedent of such “founding” pioneers, Udall sketches a life history of both his and his wife’s great-grand parents to reveal the day-to-day process by which the West was won. I found this section of the book to be one of the most interesting — the eight individuals presented range from William Maxwell, the founder of a dozen towns across the West, to Jacon Hamblin, a famous “peacemaker” between Native American tribes and Mormons, to John Wesley Powell, an early scientist, geologist, and explorer of the West. While each of these vignettes presents lives as diverse as the West could provided, their stories are woven together through the central theme of settlement and toil.

    There was another facet that united Udall’s ancestors: religion. All were members of the Mormon faith, and their stories show this. William Maxwell would not have been scrambling around the West building towns if the Mormon leadership in Salt Lake City had not been telling him to do so. Understandably, Udall maintains that religious communities and leaders were the backbone of the American West. This argument is expanded beyond the Mormon theocracy: Udall documents the important function Franciscan Friars played in California, Reverend Jason Lee and his role in promoting settlement in Oregon, and Catholic missionary Evsebio Kinor, Arizona’s “founding father.”

    Most of these names are unfamiliar to Americans – but this is exactly Udall’s point. We have replaced the true heroes of the Old West with the likes of Butch Cassidy and Billy the Kid. Udall’s case has its limits (the independence of Texas, for example, was quite undeniably the work of the adventurers and scalawags that have no place in Udall’s Old West), but in general it is sound. The Old West was the domain of communal endeavors, not unbridled individualism. It was a land conquered by the plow, not by the gun. The stories of the men and women who made their lives in Western vales and plains may be prosaic, but they are the story of the West itself. The Forgotten Founders does a fine job of reminding us of this easily forgotten reality.</blockquote

  7. zen Says:

    Hi T. Greer
    You wrote:
    Presentations like this further a mythical misrepresentation of what Western expansion actually looked and felt like. The experience of Glanton’s gang’s was peripheral and alien to most who “tamed” the West.
    The Forgotten Founders appears a sentence that aptly summarizes the the work as a whole: “The real story of the settlement of the West was work, not conquest”
    This is true, however I don’t think McCarthy imagined he was creating a mythology of the West ( or Mexico where much of the most horrific killing takes place). the setting and characters are “western” but the story is not. It could be re-written in other times or places without skipping a beat in much the same manner Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” could be recast as Apocalypse Now.
    As for terrible violence/war, it was peripheral and spastic to settlement of the American West but always present from the first European arrival on the Eastern coast to the closing of the frontier in 1890. The Range Wars are forgotten but they were real, as were the Indian Wars, the Mexican War, shoot outs in cattle drive towns, vigilantee committees and so on. Law was thin in new territories and the Mormon experience enjoyed some advantages of scale and shared values, it too was initially driven from life in rough and violent Illinois and Missouri “borderland” to a wilderness haven they named “Deseret”

  8. T. Greer Says:

    heh. I’ve always objected to the ‘mythical misrepresentation’ of Apocalypse Now‘s Vietnam as well.


    The Mormons were plenty familiar with violence, both before and after they arrived in Deseret. The West was a ‘wild’ place, filled with physical peril. Surviving nature’s fury was difficult; surviving that and the violence of warring men was even more so. This is why Mormons banned together so tightly. Community meant survival.


    But that is exactly the point.


    The Mormons were not the only one’s to found communities, or to migrate together in one. Spanish missions were centers of community life from their origin; the pioneer trains that settled Oregon and Washington were group endeavors. These last groups as particularly interesting; many a company all came from the same town and community, got up together and moved as one body–thus we sees Springfields in Massachusetts, Ohio, Missouri, Colorado, and Oregon, each named by pioneer settlers who had from another Springfield further east.


    Gang’s like Glanton existed, but they could never exist for long. Old West subjected all who traveled through it to a cold Darwinian trial. It declared their doom the moment they took to saddle. By death they lived, and with death they met. No group of outlaws could long survive the rigors of the Old West — Sun, snow, gunshot or arrow would bring all to their end, often at the hand of their own companions.


    McCarthy seems to capture this at least–his gang does not rule triumphant. It is destroyed; what remains is turned on itself. But the idea that this violent anarchy was central to the West is deeply flawed. The problem is not that Violent men of this type were peripheral to most of the Old West–it is that these men were peripheral precisely because or their unrestrained violence. There was no place for them in the civilization struggling to emerge from the wilderness. So they perished, ephemeral wisps of smoke before the concourse of history. The real symbol of the old west was not the tough individual, but the ordered community, not the horse and the pistol, but the ox and the wagon.


    There are implications of this. I don’t know if the ISIS comparison can be supported. ISIS brings not only terror, but order; along with violence they bring belonging. The Glanton Gangs of world history cannot build. They cannot rule. They really cannot do ‘politics’ at all. Thus they exist only on the fringes of greater powers and greater movements. They can’t hope for anything more until they become something more than roving brutality.

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