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Crossing the Blood Meridian: Cormac McCarthy as an American Historian

IN 1844, a kid, age 15, traveled west from Boston. He wandered the Midwest, joined the army outside St. Louis, and in two short years was on the Rio Grande fighting a war with Mexico. He rode with a set of American dragoons, crossed the border, and witnessed acts of brutal savagery — not war as we think of it, but raiding, revenge killing, and frequent massacres, including one that took place down in the depths of a desert cave. He fought with “Rackensackers” from Arkansas, Rangers from Texas, and even “Old Rough and Ready” himself, General Zachary Taylor, the future 12th president of the United States. He was at the bloody but inconclusive Battle of Buena Vista, where men, armed with guns and bayonets, charged and charged and charged again.

It was the kid’s last major fight before deserting and falling in with a group known as the Glanton Gang, a band of scalphunters. After the war, the governor of the Mexican state of Sonora hired them to hunt Native Americans, killing as many as they could, and for every scalp they returned, he paid them a handsome bounty. The men were all cutthroats and fiends, and the kid knew it. Nevertheless, he rode on. At Glanton’s direction, the gang rode through the arroyo of northern Mexico, crossed into the United States, rode up the Colorado, and traversed the desert, all while hunting and killing Apaches, Comanches, and whoever else came their way. In May 1850, after riding with Glanton for more than a year, the kid, not yet 20, and two others arrived sandy and desperate in Los Angeles. Glanton was dead, they told a local official. Apaches had killed him and his posse at ferry crossing near Yuma, Arizona. The kid and the two others were the only ones to survive.

The kid had a name. It was Sam Chamberlain. In the following years, he told his brutal story in a memoir he titled My Confessions: Recollections of a Rogue, written between 1855 and 1861 but not published in book form until 1956. A few decades after its publication, novelist Cormac McCarthy drew on Chamberlain’s Confessions as a basis for his undisputed masterwork, the 1985 epic novel Blood Meridianor the Evening of Redness in the West. It’s all there: Texas, the War, the killing; the mountains and canyons and glowing desert vistas; John Glanton, his gang, the Mexican governor; even the hairless figure of the judge, McCarthy’s most mysterious brigand and a man for whom, to quote Chamberlain, no “cooler blooded villain never went unhung.”

Scholars have long recognized Blood Meridian as a historical novel, but the fact that Chamberlain’s memoir served as a source text is only part of it. The setting, the story, and the conflicts around both the border and the Mexican-American War (1846–’48) class the book as the “ultimate Western,” according to Harold Bloom, the raw distillation of how the West was truly won. Others have read in Blood Meridian a paralyzing critique of Manifest Destiny, an astounding revisionist tale of the frontier and the violence of America’s westward expansion. For precisely these reasons, Blood Meridian has been described as one of the great works of the 20th century and perhaps the great American novel. But beyond the blood and gore, beyond the nihilism of the kid or the judge, beyond the windswept expanse of the desert plain, is Blood Meridian also, at its core, a work of history?

One of the most striking things about reading Blood Meridian now, almost 40 years since its release, is that it anticipates some of the major historical turns of the past decades. Take Native American history as an example. For much of the 20th century, scholars approached Native American history in one of two ways. The older tradition rehashed the trope of the “vanishing Indian,” casting indigenous tribes as barbarous savages inimical to American progress and assuming that they would eventually “vanish,” or die out, when confronted with the racial superiority of white settlers. This is the narrative commonly found in popular dime-store novels and frontier films like Disney’s Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier (1954–’55).

The second camp revised this older tradition. Starting in the 1960s and epitomized by Dee Brown’s classic Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (1970), native peoples became not the villains but the victims. The aggressors in this story were not bands of raiding indigenous horseman but rather the settlers who drove away buffalo herds, built railroads, broke treaties, and put up fence posts in prime grazing lands. Chastened by the Vietnam War, scholars of this generation were also more willing to implicate the US army as a reckless, invading force, an army of conquest that, as at My Lai, had massacred innocents at places like Sand Creek, Camp Grant, and Wounded Knee. Little Bighorn, in their telling, was simply a case of Custer getting what he deserved.

The field is now in a more complex position.

Read entire article at Los Angeles Review of Books