Blood Meridian

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Blood Meridian Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Cormac McCarthy
Though born in Rhode Island, Cormac McCarthy grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee, where as a young man he attended Catholic schools and even served as as an altar boy at the Church of Immaculate Conception. He would later incorporate the sights and sounds of Tennessee into his novels, especially Suttree (1979), and many of his works treat what might be called a Catholic nostalgia. McCarthy attended the University of Tennessee on and off throughout the 1950s, where he published his first short stories, although he never completed his degree; he also served four years in the Air Force in this decade. The 1960s and 70s saw the blossoming of McCarthy’s career in fiction. He wrote both novels and screenplays throughout this period, living on fellowships and grants. In 1981 McCarthy won his highest honor to date, the MacArthur Fellowship, which he lived on while writing Blood Meridian, conducting extensive research for the novel by traveling in Texas and Mexico. Blood Meridian marked something of a turn in McCarthy’s work, away from the Southern Gothic subgenre in favor of the Western. This turn is evident, for example, in The Border Trilogy and No Country for No Men, famously adapted for the screen by Joel and Ethan Coen. McCarthy continues to live (albeit reclusively) and write to this day.
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Historical Context of Blood Meridian
Blood Meridian takes place against the backdrop of Manifest Destiny—a nineteenth century program of American territorial expansion and imperialism, especially into regions where the local populations were deemed incapable of self-government. It might be said that the American commitment to Manifest Destiny in part motivated the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), a central event in the novel through which McCarthy dramatizes the hypocrisy and viciousness of Manifest Destiny and imperialism in general. Indeed, the novel suggests that the truest embodiment of imperialist ideology is not what Captain White calls “the instrument of liberation” but in fact the ruthless, murderous Glanton Gang. What’s more, McCarthy grounds his treatment of the Glanton Gang itself in the historical record: in 1849 a gang led by a man named John Joel Glanton and seconded by a man named Judge Holden was indeed contracted to massacre the Apaches in Mexico, and after instead murdering Mexicans for their scalps the gang was indeed forced to flee to Arizona where in 1850 they seized the Yuma Crossing of the Colorado River. McCarthy’s primary source on the Glanton Gang is a nineteenth-century memoir by Samuel Chamberlain, entitled My Confession: Recollections of a Rogue. There—and accompanying his text with lush watercolors—Chamberlain recalls his adventures and misadventures as a soldier in the Mexican-American War, as well as his participation in the Glanton Gang’s scalp-hunting expeditions. Chamberlain even describes Judge Holden: he was Glanton’s “second in command,” “a gigantic man,” a “cool-blooded villain,” “destitute of hair,” whose “hog-like eyes would gleam with a sullen ferocity worthy of the countenance of a fiend” whenever blood was shed (McCarthy, slightly altering Chamberlain’s phrase, gives the Judge “small and lashless pig’s eyes”). By grounding his novel in the historical record, McCarthy evades the charge that the violence and atrocities he depicts are merely pessimistic or theatrical: human beings are truly capable of such acts, and, McCarthy implies, always will be.
Other Books Related to Blood Meridian
Blood Meridian is perhaps most deeply indebted to the great epic written during the American Renaissance, Henry Melville’s Moby-Dick. Both Moby-Dick and Blood Meridian are about fiery hunts, perpetrated by whalers and scalp hunters, respectively. Melville’s anti-hero, the fatally willful Captain Ahab, also bears a striking resemblance to McCarthy’s Judge Holden: both men are self-reliant and wish to dictate the terms of their fate. Ahab is characterized as an “ungodly god-like man” who worships his malignant god through defiance, and the Judge would become a god himself by serving the god of war. However, Blood Meridian also owes something to the Dime Westerns of the nineteenth century and later, more sophisticated Westerns like those written by Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour. However, McCarthy resists the romanticization of American activity in the Wild West as presented in such novels, and instead depicts American pioneers and cowboys as being just as, if not more, “savage” than the Native Americans whom they hunted and were hunted by.
Key Facts about Blood Meridian
  • Full Title: Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West
  • When Written: Mid-1970s to 1985
  • Where Written: Knoxville, Tennessee and El Paso, Texas
  • When Published: 1985
  • Genre: Western (sometimes also categorized as an anti-Western) / epic
  • Setting: The Texas-Mexico borderlands
  • Climax: Yuma Indians besiege the ferry on the Colorado River where Glanton and his gang have taken control, killing Glanton and most of the gang members
  • Antagonist: Judge Holden
  • Point of View: Third person omniscient
Extra Credit for Blood Meridian

Visions and Revisions. In a letter sent around 1979, McCarthy wrote to a friend that, out of frustration, he had not worked on Blood Meridian in six months. To inspire himself, he wrote down quotes in his notebooks from Flaubert, Wagner, William James, and Martin Luther King, Jr., among others. Early in the writing process, he also toyed with the idea of including lithographs and woodcuts throughout the novel to illustrate the Glanton Gang’s course, though he later abandoned this idea.

Allusions. Though McCarthy has a reputation for being a primordial and anti-intellectual writer, his novels are steeped in the Western literary tradition. For example, the story that Tobin tells about how the Judge confected gunpowder from guano, among other natural resources, is a direct allusion to the episode in John Milton’s Paradise Lost in which Satan and the rebel angels likewise find “Deep under ground, materials dark and crude,” which they in turn fashion into firearms.