I’ve been obsessed with Cormac McCarthy’s book Blood Meridian (Ecco,1985) for a good twenty years now. The late actor Rockets Redglare turned me onto it— “James, you gotta read this one, it’s right up your alley….can you lend me $6 dollars?”. Rockets (whose film credits can be found here: IMDB.com) wanted to play the Judge in the film version (which will probably never be made which is fine with me). Lately I’ve gone back and reread all of McCarthy’s early novels (Outer Dark, The Orchard Keeper, Suttree) looking for a clue. A clue to what you ask? If there is a main theme to McCarthy’s work, as near as I can figure it is the idea of the absence of God. What I want to know, is, seeing as his work references the bible so much, does McCarthy believe in God? Well, I’m still wondering. He gives up nothing in the few interviews he’s given. In fact, the best interview out there is one where McCarthy himself interviews the Cohn Brothers soon after the filming of No Country For Old Men. He’s mainly interested in how Josh Brolin reacted to the dog which was trained to rip out a human’s jugular. You can read it here.
One thing I did turn up was historical evidence of the Judge Holden and John Glanton, Blood Meridian’s most chilling characters. The Texas State Historical Society published in 1996 a very handsome volume, profusely illustrated by it’s author and annotated by William H. Goetzman a most unusual manuscript called My Confession: Recollections Of A Rouge, the memoirs of one Samuel Chamberlain, a rounder and roustabout who claims to have ridden with scalp hunters John Glanton and the Judge Holden in the 1840s. There is much debate about the authenticity of this document, and many inconsistencies (such as the above drawing by Chamberlain showing Holden with a full head of hair while the manuscript describes him as bald as a cue ball), Goetzman addresses these subjects in detail. Let’s face it, there are few first hand accounts from the world of commercial scalp hunting (if my cirrhosis gets any worse maybe I’ll write one myself), and that makes this book a fascinating read. My Confession is still in print and is not hard to find. Cheap too, only $30 for a big coffee table job with dozens of color plates.
I also wonder if McCarthy read any of Paul I. Weilman’s books such as Spawn Of Evil (1964), Death On The Prairie (1934), Death In The Desert (1935) and A Dynasty of Western Outlaws (1961), all nonfiction, they deal with “The Evening Redness In The West” unflinchingly. This is the part of American history we weren’t taught in school.
While I’m pondering, I wonder if his Knoxville novels (The Orchard Keeper, Suttree, Child Of God) were influenced by Harry M. Caudill’s Night Comes To The Cumberlands (1963), a study of violence in the depressed area where Kentucky borders West Virginia, a place where fueds lasted generations and blood was shed over things like the placement of a fence post. Whether McCarthy is familiar with the above works of history I guess really doesn’t matter, but if you care to know about who and what we, as Americans (hell, check that, we as people period) really are, you owe it to yourself to track down these volumes. These books are not for the faint of heart or soft of head.
One last thought, a quote from Mr. McCarthy that I agree with wholeheartedly:
“There’s no such thing as life without bloodshed, I think 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.”
Thanks to Jeff Roth at the New York Times for turning me onto Spawn Of Evil, and that smelly bookshop in Paris for selling it to me.
4 thoughts on “The Evening Redness In The West (West 19th St. that is…) or Scalphunting for fun and profit”
If you haven’t already done so, you should check out the works of John Myers Myers (The Saga of Hugh Glass, The Westerners, Doc Holiday, Etc…) as well as ‘Crow Killer: The Saga of Liver-Eating Johnson’ by Raymond Thorpe. They are all in keeping w/ the brutality of plains living.
My sister in law has a picture of Liver Eating Johnsonon her wall! Handsome chap. I really should get around to re-reading those books, I read ’em so long ago I probably forgot 90% ‘what’s in ’em. Thanks for reminding me.
Whatever he might believe about God, McCarthy crafts a pretty elaborate Satan from the historical figure Judge Holden. Where do Glanton & Co 1st encounter the Judge? Empty sulphur flats of the Chihuahuan desert, i.e. Hell. He plays fiddle, collects souls, speaks all languages, lives forever and can't stand for anything to exist without his knowing. The Devil. So can you have one without the other? It's just that in Blood Meridian, and to some extent that Coen Bros flick (coz the bad guy there is a sort of watered-down rehash of the Judge), the Devil seems to win. Mwah ha ha.
Just like in real life! The devil sure seems to be winning from where I sit. But now you got me thinking, does that make the slightly hopeful ending of the Road dishonest? This is making my head hurt….