To be encased within a genre is to hold to a set of conventions and deliver on the observer’s expectations. These expectations are developed by consumption of materials which predate and inform the work in question. Paradoxically, it is often the works which break with the conventions of the genre, to which most works are happily constrained, that are considered the greatest examples of the genre. The Western genre is no different, stifled by the constraints of the time period and the need to be morally-simplistic in a deeply morally complex time and place, the genre is codified and uniform. Yet it is Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy that stands head and shoulders above its peers, and it does so by violating the expectations of the Western genre while maintaining the aesthetic of the genre in a formally superior style.
In an interview with AV Club revered critic Harold Bloom was given the following question: “When you called it ‘the ultimate Western’, did you mean merely the paramount example of the genre, or its final expression?” to which Bloom replies “No, I meant the final one. It culminates all the aesthetic potential that Western fiction can have. I don’t think that anyone can hope to improve on it, that it essentially closes out the tradition.” Here Bloom claims that Blood Meridian is the Western to end all Westerns. McCarthy, Bloom claims, created a work which does everything a Western can do, and yet in doing so Blood Meridian often does what Westerns almost never do. Blood Meridian expresses the Western genre completely, yet in exceeding expectations it also defies expectations.
The most prominent expectation that is violated throughout Blood Meridian is the morality of the text. Morality is such an important factor in so many Westerns that it is often color coded throughout texts and films. This color-coding is so consistent, so unified that it is often referred to by critics and fans as the dichotomy between white hats and black hats, where white hats are most often worn by the “good guys” and black hats are worn by the “Bad guys.” Native Americans are either “bad” or are not considered from a sufficiently complex moral interpretation.
In Blood Meridian the idea of a simple moral dichotomy is entirely cast aside. No character throughout the text acts as a moral backbone for the reader to lean against as a way of understanding what is right or wrong, rather the reader is presented with a cast of characters who behave ambiguously or abhorrently. The reader is taken from one perverse act of grotesque violence to the next, at first shocking the reader until eventually numbing the reader, and while the actions displayed in the text are often repulsive no characters seems morally appalled or decide to take action against violence except when it is in self-defense.
A commonly used agent of morality is the figure of the sheriff. In the standard tradition of the Western the sheriff maintains order, protects the citizenry, and bring swift punishment to wrongdoers. In chapter 16 we are presented with a character similar to the sheriff archetype in the form of Lieutenant Couts. Black Jackson murders a bartender named Owens in the garrison that Couts watches over. When Couts confronts Glanton and his gang we are presented with a very standard scene in Westerns. Under normal circumstances the sheriff would confront the wrongdoer (and of course this would more often than not be from the sheriff’s perspective than from the accused’s) and the wrongdoer would either admit to the crime after a brief confrontation or deny it, sparking another confrontation. In Blood Meridian, a book soaked in confrontation, we see something fascinating and completely different. Glanton denies Couts’ accusations directly to his face, then the judge appears and grants further support to Glanton’s denial, stunning Couts into giving up his pursuit of Glanton. The sheriff is not merely bested in combat, he fails to even stand up for the law that he is entrusted to uphold. In the face of such cunning, amoral lawlessness he is rendered impotent. Justice is not served.
Another theme reliably witnessed in the Western genre is the outnumbered cowboy(s) facing off against hordes of Native Americans. The implication here is that a cowboy (or a small group of cowboys,) equipped with technologically superior weaponry, is such a superior fighter that he is equal to a small army of Native Americans. The fate of the lone gunman always ends positively, either he bests the horde by himself or he dies “honorably,” his death depicted in slow motion while sad music plays. In the case of the death of a lone gunman it is often to buy time for another group of “good guys” to make an escape or perform a time-consuming though life-saving task. Blood Meridian very cleverly subverts this theme.
In chapter 13 Glanton and the gang enter into a shootout with a group of Mexicans, massacring most of them almost immediately. As the gang mounts their horses they encounter a badly wounded Mexican captain standing his ground against them with a few men behind him. The scene plays out accordingly: “The Mexican captain was bleeding from a gunshot wound in the chest add he stood in the stirrups to receive the charge with his sabre. Glanton shot him through the head and shoved him from his horse with his foot and shot down in succession three men behind him.”(McCarthy 192) So we see that in the world of Blood Meridian heroism is not rewarded by survival, which is not new to the Western, but it is not rewarded with valor or honor either. The killing of the Mexican captain is quick and uneventful. His bravery is totally meaningless in the face of the onslaught.
Death occurs frequently and with little fanfare throughout Blood Meridian. The text does not shy away from the most famous occurrence in the Western genre: shoot-outs. Many people are shot and killed throughout, but Blood Meridian shatters expectations with who is killed. In chapter 12 Glanton and his gang happen upon the Gileños and commences killing and scalping them. In the midst of the slaughter we see the following scene: “and one of the Delewares emerged from the smoke with a naked infant dangling in each hand and squatted at a ring of midden stones and swung them by the heels each in turn and bashed their heads against the stones so that the brains burst forth through the fontanel in a bloody spew.”(McCarthy 164) Later the judge is seen carrying a young Apache child that he cares for, other members of the gang feed the child and make the child laugh. Soon after the judge is found having killed and scalped the child, casually leaving its body to be discovered by Toadvine. While Toadvine takes offense to the killing of the child the statement is clear that children are no safer than anyone else.
In the Western genre and indeed in most fiction children are all but untouchable, but in this text we again see a clear subversion of expectations. This subversion illustrates two clear points, the first point is that no one is safe from destruction, the second point is that anyone is capable of an act of savage barbarism. The second point is itself a subversion of Western genre expectations as well. While we may be inclined, having been inundated with the conventions of the Western, to believe that the Native American is the one most likely to exhibit brutish, inhuman violence against infants, we soon find out that the judge, a white man, is capable of an even crueler premeditated murder. The playing field is leveled. Anyone can be a predator, and anyone can be prey. As was said by W.E.B. DuBois “After this the descent to Hell is easy. On the pale, white faces which the great billows whirl upward to my tower I see again and again, often and still more often, a writing of human hatred, a deep and passionate hatred, vast by the very vagueness of its expressions.”( DuBois 32) Only the writing is action itself, etched with cruelty into the very fabric of human society, no matter how sparse and dilapidated it may seem.
Perhaps the greatest subversion of the Western genre is Blood Meridian’s sense of what lies beyond the temporality and spaciality in which the Western takes place. Blood Meridian a begins with a series of quotes, the last of which, attributed to The Yuma Daily Sun, is as follows: “Clark, who led last year’s expedition to the Afar region of northern Ethiopia, and UC Berkeley colleague Tim D. White, also said that a re-examination of a 300,000-year-old fossil skull found in the same region earlier shows evidence of having been scalped.”(McCarthy I) The implications here are vast and haunting. I recall pausing after reading this passage, somehow struck by the implication of primordial brutality that almost seems inborn in humanity. As observed by Gareth Corwell in his piece Ambivalent National Epic: Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, “the claim is clearly being made for the ‘exceptionalism’ of the circumstances: the passage implies that this is the last time in modernity that humans would be free to act, untrammeled by social constraint in a ‘wild and barbarous’ state of nature.”(Corwell 532) Here Corwell makes the claim that McCarthy’s usage of this eerie passage challenges the concept of American Exceptionalism by perhaps insisting that the only thing exceptional about America, and in particular the “wild west” is its exceptional brutality.
McCarthy evokes a sense of time much deeper than what is normally referenced in the Western. The Western is often concerned with its present time and space; America, right now in the days of the “wild west.” We often see an ironic reference to technology that is commonplace during the time of the production of the material, for example a character is shocked to see a car for the first time or something to this effect, but the Western rarely seems to demonstrate an awareness of what lies beyond or before the time that the characters inhabit. McCarthy uses this quote to make an implication about time and human nature far beyond the narrow scope of the Western. Further, McCarthy implies that what is exceptional about America and its frontier is its connection to a kind of proto-human brutality. What was most terrible about humanity was suppressed only to be revealed once more in the American landscape, unleashed in the form of a truly horrifying commodification of mutilated human body parts.
Blood Meridian is a book deeply layered with subversions of genre expectations. Despite its subversions it is still seen by some as the greatest example of the Western. I believe that this is in part because of touches like the aforementioned quote. McCarthy makes powerful connections with the actions of the text to time and space beyond its confines, he operates within the genre while reaching far beyond its confines, both ascetically and thematically, achieving a kind of commentary impossible in the standard Western. In effect, McCarthy uses the Western to transcend the Western, and to say something about America and the human beings that walked and killed upon its soil.
McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian or Evening Redness in the West. Random House, 1985
Bloom, Harold. Interview by Leonard Pierce. Harold Bloom on Blood Meridian. 15, Jun. 2009, https://www.avclub.com/harold-bloom-on-blood-meridian-1798216782. Accessed 12 Mar. 2018
DuBois, W.E.B. Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil. Shocken, 1969.
Lea Brandy. Ride, Boldly Ride: The Evolution of the American Western. University of
California Press, 2012
Powell, Liz. “The Good, the Bad, and the American: Interrogating the Morality of the Western in
A History of Violence.” Cinema Journal, Fall 2011, Vol. 51, pp. 164-168.
Cornwall, Gareth. “Ambivalent National Epic: Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian.” Critique:
Studies in Contemporary Fiction, 2015, Issue 5, Vol. 25, pp. 531-544.