Crossing the Blood Meridian: Cormac McCarthy and American History

By Bennett PartenFebruary 9, 2022

Crossing the Blood Meridian: Cormac McCarthy and American History
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 Meridian, or 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. Thanks to the rise of what’s known as “New Indian History,” scholars no longer treat indigenous peoples as either villains or victims, instead seeing them as people who had agency — as people, in other words, who didn’t just “vanish” or suffer but who waged war, wielded power, and fought rival tribes over territory, treaties, and trade routes. Some tribes, scholars have argued, even commanded their own empires and, as such, had their own imperial struggles, which made the frontier an ambiguous zone where violence reigned and alliances tended to shift. There’s even now an entire field of “borderlands” or “frontier studies” that aims to reflect the complexity of these kinds of spaces and interactions.

This is the world of McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Well before this shift seeped into historical scholarship, McCarthy imagined a vast border region where colonial empires clashed, tribes went to war, and bounty hunters roamed. These historical conflicts provide the shape and form to an otherwise meandering plot: Comanche bands descending on Texas haunt soldiers and scalphunters alike, Mexicans and Americans fight over a seemingly nonexistent border, and it’s Apache raids into Mexico that prompt the governor to hire a gang of scalphunters in the first place. Moreover, the ongoing action that drives the story reflects this turn to indigenous agency, for while the Glanton Gang hunts native warriors, native warriors hunt them right back, creating the terrible spasms of violence that the novel has become famous for.

Yet the harrowing violence of Blood Meridian is historically credible. Colonial powers — first the Spanish, then the Americans — settled the Southwest though violence, which forced native tribes to respond in kind. The result was a situation in which overwhelming force became the only political currency that mattered. This is why the governor hires a band of scalphunters; it’s why members of the Glanton Gang wear necklaces lined with ears sliced from their victims; it’s why the gang includes indigenous scouts, members of a rival tribe that sought vengeance on the Apaches by tracking them across the plain. Let’s also not forget that a war of conquest — the Mexican-American War — frames much of the story. The book’s violence may therefore read as excessive, but as McCarthy shows, violence held its own kind of political calculus.

Still, the violence of Blood Meridian is difficult to endure. It hits like a crack on the skull, almost making you want to close the book to cleanse your soul. Women and children are slaughtered, whole villages are razed, and members of the gang kill each other over the blaze of a campfire. There are dead babies strung up like ornaments on a Christmas tree, raped soldiers, and violent killings galore. The kid, McCarthy’s main character, kills a man in a bar by jabbing broken glass into his eye; the judge — large and hairless, described as the “devil” — kills for his own amusement while pondering the mysteries of the universe. And there’s still so much more. Every scene seems to describe some new horror, and McCarthy just keeps on writing in his detached, matter-of-fact style, as if he wants to numb us to what’s on the page.

The violence of the book is tough to swallow not just because of the scenes it describes or the intimacy with which McCarthy describes them, but because it kills one of the true darlings of American history — the idea of the frontier, or the great myth of the American West. For most of American history, the West has beckoned as a place of opportunity, a place of rugged individualism, and a place, more or less, of democratic equality. In 1890, just as the Western frontier was coming to a close, historian Fredrick Jackson Turner formalized this idea in his famous “Frontier Thesis,” in which he argued that the frontier was the lifeblood of American democracy. The process of settling and surviving on America’s western edge, he believed, cultivated a sense of egalitarianism that in turn shaped our governing systems and institutions, and he held that, the more this frontier moved, the more it revived our sense of democratic optimism. He also wondered what would happen now that, as of 1890, the frontier had officially closed?

Historians have long disputed Turner’s claims as themselves mere myth, but nowhere have they been more contested in recent years than in the popular origin story of the state of Texas. According to the story Texans typically tell, the state’s founders were nothing but a bunch of freedom-loving ranch hands. They fought a war of independence from Mexico, defended themselves to the death at the Alamo, and later, after defeating a Mexican army at San Jacinto, formed their own republic, the Republic of Texas. Less than a decade later, Texas formally joined the US as the 28th state, the only one that had formerly been an independent nation. To Texans, this unique history is partly why everything is bigger and better in Texas, a place where personal freedom and individual liberty supposedly reign supreme. Hence, Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s recent endorsement of the 1836 Project, a Texas-sized take on patriotic education meant to mock and rebut The New York Times’s 1619 Project, thus imitating the Trump administration’s 1776 Commission.

Historians aren’t so easily fooled, however. While this version of Texas’s past was once the Lone Star State’s creation myth, it, too, is, well, mostly a myth. As recent historians have been quick to point out, Texas’s true origin story is one of conquest. White settlers arrived in Tejas en masse, often with coffles of slaves, provoking conflicts with Mexico. They fought their war of independence partly because Mexico abolished slavery and the incoming settlers preferred independence or American statehood to Mexican control. Not to mention, a decade after independence, the US — led by a slaveholding expansionist president, James K. Polk of Tennessee — deliberately provoked war with Mexico over a border dispute: Mexico said the border lay along the Nueces River, just south of San Antonio, while Texas settlers and the US government said it was much further south along the Rio Grande. In either case, the rest is history: the US invaded, stormed the Halls of Montezuma in Mexico City, formalized Texas statehood with the Rio Grande as its border, and, as a spoil of war, annexed most, if not all, of the Southwest, including what’s now New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah, and parts of Colorado.

McCarthy wasn’t so easily fooled either. In Blood Meridian, he presents Texas in the 1840s in exactly this light, as the ground zero of American expansion, a border region where the frontier slammed into reality. His Texas wasn’t a laboratory of democracy so much as it was a slaughterhouse, a space where drunken sots and outlaws on the make went to kill Native Americans, fight Mexicans, and hopefully strike it rich. Indeed, if McCarthy has any thesis at all, it is the old idea of frontier justice — that extrajudicial violence was the only law worth observing on the frontier. He even got the migration patterns right. Sam Chamberlain, McCarthy’s model for the kid, was a New Englander who arrived in Texas by way of the Midwest. But in the book, the kid comes from a more statistically accurate direction, arriving by way of the Tennessee hills, through Memphis and Arkansas, before finally landing in East Texas. In the early 19th century, this was the path to the West and the route that turned Spanish Tejas into the Republic of Texas.

The piece missing from McCarthy’s depiction of the kid’s journey, however, is the institution that sparked this migration — chattel slavery. East Texas — along with West Louisiana and the Arkansas Territory — was the last great slave frontier, and in the early 19th century, countless Southern settlers flooded into Texas along with scores of enslaved Africans, turning Texas into the newest province of the Cotton Kingdom. This is the future Texans fought for at the Alamo. It’s the future they fought for in the Civil War. New research has even shown that a robust underground railroad developed, with enslaved peoples fleeing across the Rio Grande for freedom in Mexico, and it’s no coincidence that our new federal Emancipation Day holiday is Juneteenth. Texas was a slave state.

That said, while McCarthy may not have made slavery a central part of his narrative, its influence is still there, especially when it comes to his treatment of race. Again, McCarthy’s frontier shares little of Turner’s democratic optimism; instead, it is place where ideas of racial difference create hierarchies and govern interactions. One of the characters — an African American named “black” Jackson — kills another member of the gang over a series of racist taunts. The native scouts lead the gang but are never of the gang. In addition, ideas of race tend to justify the violence, often in ways that are circular, self-fulfilling, and more than a little ironic. The army, for example, invades Mexico on the grounds that Mexicans are “savage” and “barbarous,” which then prompts a “savage” and “barbarous” war. Similarly, the Glanton Gang hunts native warriors because of their presumed barbarity, but it’s Glanton and his men who take the scalps. In Blood Meridian, ideas of race inform and shape the violence of the frontier, a point that’s now a fundamental premise among scholars of American empire.

Slavery is also present in the book in the sense that we can see the Civil War coming. McCarthy knows that what happened in Texas in the 1840s didn’t just pass with the setting sun. The kid may ride along the Western frontier, fight in a seemingly superfluous war, and meander through a world far away from national politics, but McCarthy knows that all the frontier fighting would throw open the question of slavery in the West and turn the area into a national powder keg. He knows that, while his characters exist on the American periphery, what happened there was central to America’s own making. This history hangs over the book like a dark prophecy. There’s even a moment when we’re warned of the coming peril: the warning comes from a Texas Mennonite, who begs the soldiers not to march on to Mexico, saying ominously: “The wrath of God lies sleeping. […] Hell ain’t half full. Hear me. Ye carry war of a madman’s making onto a foreign land. Ye’ll wake more than the dogs.”


Yet if Blood Meridian is a work of history, there’s a tension here in the sense that McCarthy isn’t your typical historian. Historians, after all, like sequence. We like causes and effects, clear change over time, and neat narratives that we can mold into compelling stories. We mostly don’t see the job as “complicating” the past, despite what some might say, but rather to explain it, to make its complications clearer and more conclusive. Put differently, we like answers. The past is a problem, and the tools of history allow us to seek explanations as to why. Why, for example, was the frontier so bloody? Why was Texas such a battleground? Why was slavery so crucial to American expansion? History empowers us to answer these questions, and over the past 30 years, historians have largely done so.

McCarthy shares none of these inclinations. His characters ride aimlessly through the desert and kill for what seems like no reason at all. Blood Meridian is a book that reflects a particular moment in history, but his characters have no sense of that history, are otherwise immune to time, and seem oblivious to the forces ordering their world. The plot feels circular, not linear. There are no real motives or interests. The kid never says why he rides on, and neither does the judge or Glanton or any of the other members of the gang. We can ask questions of the book and interpret it as we wish, but the author remains a cipher, telling us simply that evil exists and needs no reason or logic, only a place to thrive.

That, however, is the subtle brilliance of Blood Meridian as a work of history. Throughout the book, McCarthy writes as if he knows something that more conventional historians aren’t always keen to accept: that the past doesn’t always make sense, that it’s often cruel and irrational, and that some things aren’t so explainable. History is not a book waiting to be opened so much as a Pandora’s box that might curse us and leave us chastened by what we find inside. Thus, where one historian might want to take the kid and use him to prove a historical point, McCarthy is just as content to let him keep riding through the desert, his back outlined against the setting sun.


Bennett Parten is a PhD candidate in History at Yale University. His writing has appeared in We’re HistoryThe History New Network, and The Washington Post.

LARB Contributor

Bennett Parten is an assistant professor of history at Georgia Southern University. He holds a PhD in history from Yale University. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Civil War Monitor, and Zocalo Public Square.


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