You are here
ENGL 291: The American Novel Since 1945
- Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian
In this first of two lectures on Blood Meridian, Professor Hungerford walks us through some of the novel’s major sources and influences, showing how McCarthy engages both literary tradition and American history, and indeed questions of origins and originality itself. The Bible, Moby-Dick, Paradise Lost, the poetry of William Wordsworth, and the historical narrative of Sam Chamberlain all contribute to the style and themes of this work that remains, in its own right, a provocative meditation on history, one that explores the very limits of narrative and human potential.
|Low Bandwidth Video
|High Bandwidth Video
The American Novel Since 1945
ENGL 291 - Lecture 17 - Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian
Chapter 1. The Literary Tradition: Allusions and Revisions [00:00:00]
Professor Amy Hungerford: Okay. I’d like to begin. Welcome back. It is good to see you all. It’s a bit startling. I don’t know where those two weeks went. So, tell me: I asked you to read Blood Meridian over break; was this a happy Spring Break task for you? Was it good “beach reading,” as I promised? No? No. I’d like, before I begin my lecture today, just to hear a little bit from you, just so that I know what you’re thinking about as I talk to you about this book. Who liked this novel? Okay, a good, maybe, half of you. Someone tell me why they liked it; someone, someone, someone tell me why they liked it. Okay. Now you’re getting all quiet. Someone can tell me one sentence why you liked this novel. Yes. Thank you.
Student: I like how creepy the judge is.
Professor Amy Hungerford: You like how creepy the judge is. It is impressive how creepy he is, yes. Okay. Why else? Yes.
Student: I actually like how kind of quickly and bluntly some of the atrocities happen in it. So, you’ll be reading a passage where there are pretty mundane things, and then all of a sudden, slaughter.
Professor Amy Hungerford: And you liked that? That was good. Yeah. It certainly is a kind of virtuosic representation of violence, yes, absolutely. What did it remind you of? Well, yes, yes.
Student: I liked how ambiguous the ending was.
Professor Amy Hungerford: Yeah. The ending is very strange, and we’ll talk about that. What else? Yes.
Student: I liked that it read like a nightmare.
Professor Amy Hungerford: It read like a nightmare. What does that mean?
Student: I just remember, reading it, it felt like a nightmare. It was very, sort of, jumbled, and just very sensory, and it felt like a nightmare.
Professor Amy Hungerford: Yeah. It is very sensory. This prose concentrates so much on the material of the world, absolutely, and it does have that feeling of drawing you into its world very completely. I think, also, that sense of nightmarishness is heightened by the fact that the plot is not very strong in this novel. That’s not what’s driving this novel. You’re laughing. Why do you laugh? Why do you laugh about that, about the plot? Yes. You’re still smiling from the laughter, so I’m going to ask you.
Student: Just because yes, that is true. That’s part of the reason that I found it difficult to continue reading, just maybe be interested by the- I guess the dry, sort of emotionless way of presenting violence. It was sort of interesting, but the fact that there didn’t seem to be a point, or a place that they’re going, it made it really hard to not just be, like. “oh, this is going to be disgusting.”
Professor Amy Hungerford: Yeah. It can produce this aversion in readers. How many were averse to this novel? Okay, a few of you, at least. Yeah. I think, - when I first tried to read this novel, I failed twice. I’m a sensitive soul. So, I failed twice to read this novel because of its violence, and then I persevered. But it can get, actually kind of boring, sometimes, I think, because of the plotlessness. So, unless you’re really interested in how the story is being told in that language, it can be repetitive and can numb you as a reader, I think. These are all aspects of the novel that I will try to account for over the course of my two lectures today and on Wednesday. There are two other things I’m going to do in these two lectures. One is, today, to think hard about what it means to track allusions in a novel. So, that’s going to be one thing that I do today.
Allusions appear in most of the things that we read, dare I say all of them, but one never quite knows what to do with them, once you have identified them. Now, the sense of literature as an art with a history depends on our being able to do something with allusions or to have something to say about them. What does it mean that one novel speaks to a novel or a poem or another kind of writing from the past? How are we to make sense of that in the evolution of the art form? This is a foundation of what English literary study looks like pretty much at any university. At any university, if you’re an English major, you’re asked to study a historical range of texts. You’re asked to master, in some portion, or to some extent, the literary tradition in English. What does it mean that we’re asked to do that?
Cormac McCarthy’s novel gives us the opportunity to take a case study. What does it mean, in this day, in this time, for this writer to be writing in a tradition? So, allusion is one thing I’ll focus on that’s of general interest in literary studies. The second thing, in the second lecture, that I will focus on is what to do with detail, what to do with that odd detail that you notice in the novel. It could be anything. Is there a way of making an argument that will radiate out from that detail into some more holistic understanding of a novel? My second lecture will be a demonstration of that and an argument for that as a literary technique, and I hope that this will be useful to you in writing the next paper, which will be coming up fairly shortly.
So, I want to begin, then, with this quotation from Cormac McCarthy. This was his first interview, 1992. Many of you probably know he’s gotten a lot more press since Oprah’s Book Club chose his latest novel, The Road. He’s sort of been out and about. He gave her an interview. He’s given an interview since then for a magazine. Before that he was a very reclusive writer, and he had been writing since the late ’60s and by 1992–up until that point–he had refused all interviews. He usually refused readings, even when he had zero money. He lived out of hotel rooms, even when he was married and had a son, when he was a young man. He’s on his third marriage now. He would turn down invitations to read even when they were down to their last dollar. His ex-wife tells some amusing stories about this. He’d get an invitation to read, he’d turn it down, and they’d eat beans for another night. So, that’s her take on what that life was like. He says in this interview: “The ugly fact is books are made out of books. The novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written.” So, this is my invitation to take seriously allusion in Blood Meridian. Did anybody on their own recognize some of the sources of Blood Meridian? Did you notice any allusions? Yes.
Student: Oral history, storytelling.
Professor Amy Hungerford: Yes, absolutely. Yeah. The oral tradition is very powerful in McCarthy’s writing. The sound of the prose is very important to him. Yeah. What else? Yes.
Student: Along those same lines, when he frequently talks about the sun coming up or going down, there is a lot of that in The Odyssey, when the sun’s fingers are coming out…
Professor Amy Hungerford: Yeah. A lot of that cosmic imagery, I think he does take from the great epics of our language. Yes. What else? What else did you notice? Yes.
Student: I noticed a lot of references to the Bible: the burning bush and other things.
Professor Amy Hungerford: Yeah, absolutely. The Bible is peppered throughout this, and I’m going to have a lot to say about that–some to say about it, today, but I have a whole argument about that that I’ll get to on Wednesday. Yeah, absolutely. What else? Anything else you noticed?
Chapter 2. Eradicating Interiority: Moby-Dick [00:08:48]
Well, I’m going to start, actually, a little bit closer to home, in the American tradition. I’m going to start with Moby-Dick. This is my lineup of texts that I am going to use today to talk about Blood Meridian [pointing to a line of books on the table]. So, I want to start with Moby Dick. This is probably the single most important book for McCarthy, beside the Bible, as a source for both language, character, ideas, moral questions. All kinds of things come from Moby-Dick. And, if you want to begin in the easiest way, the first thing is to think about Ahab. Ahab is known for his monomaniacal evil, his evil quest to take on the white whale. As a character who is loquacious, charismatic, threatening, violent, he is very much a model for Judge Holden. So, in that simple, general way McCarthy owes a debt to Moby-Dick.
There are many specific ways that this novel owes a debt to Moby-Dick. One, that I’ll joint point out, is from the prophet chapter in Moby-Dick. That’s chapter 19. If you’ve read the novel, you can recall that before Ishmael and Queequeg get on the Pequod they are accosted by a beggar in the street. And his name is Elijah, and he warns them in very cryptic language about what they’ve actually signed away, when they signed the papers to board the Pequod. And he suggests that what they’ve signed away is their souls, not just the couple of years of their life. The version that we get in Blood Meridian can be found on page 40 and 41. It actually starts on 39. The kid has joined up with Captain White’s gang of filibusters, and they are in a bar and there they find–this is on 39–an old, disordered Mennonite in this place. And he turns to study them, “a thin man in a leather waistcoat, a black and straight-brimmed hat set square on his head, a thin rim of whiskers.” And, if you look at the Moby-Dick version, I just want to point out how closely he’s following the cues here.
Just the way that description, the very brief description of his outfit, what he’s wearing around his neck, his hat: they match up, in these two little paragraphs. The Mennonite, however, is much more dire, much less playful than Melville’s Elijah. He says to the assembled men: “They’ll jail you to a man” This is on 40:
He offers them these portentous sayings, like this last little epigram about the tavern and the road thereto, and he uses this archaic language. Moby-Dick’s prophet, who occupies the same structural spot, accosting the main characters as they go out on their journey, is much more playful. He is berated by Ishmael for pretending to have a big secret, for speaking as if he had a secret to tell, but not telling it. So, McCarthy takes the model and transforms it slightly, brings it into a realm where sincerity and depth and fear replace the inklings of fear around a core of good will, irony, playfulness. The reason there is that difference, I think, is that McCarthy has decided not to give us an Ishmael. Ishmael is an incredibly charming narrator. He is thoughtful; he’s funny; he is a little self-mocking; he can wax both grand and silly; he can recognize his own silliness. There’s a vast interior of Ishmael’s mind that we see in this narrative. We never see the like of this from the kid, never. This is one way in which McCarthy has revised Melville, so this is one of those observations I’m going to, sort of, put up on the shelf. What does it mean that this is the way he has revised Melville? This is one of the questions that my two lectures, together, will answer. What does that revision mean?
Another specific scene in which McCarthy is revising Melville comes when Toadvine almost kills the judge. Do you remember the scene? The judge has been dandling the little Indian boy on his knee. The men around the campfire are delighted. They laugh. In the morning the judge has killed the boy, and scalped it, and is wiping his hands on his pants. And Toadvine puts his revolver to the judge’s head, and the judge says, “Shoot that thing or put it away.” And Toadvine puts it away. This is the direct echo of a moment when Starbuck stands outside Ahab’s cabin. Ahab’s maniacal quest for the whale has been made apparent to the whole ship. Starbuck, that wise and deliberative man, understands that the fate of the whole ship has now been recruited to Ahab’s maniacal cause. He knows that if he takes the musket and shoots Ahab in his bed he will save the whole ship of men. He does not do it. So, both Toadvine and Starbuck are presented with a moral problem: Do you murder the leader of an immoral, ill-fated, violent quest? Both men decide not to.
This is a scene I’ll come back to next time, on Wednesday, and I’ll have more to say about it. But, for now, one thing that we can say about it is, once again, the lack of interiority for these characters makes a crucial difference. It’s a crucial point of revision. Starbuck, we know, is deliberative. We know he is a wise man. He gives counsel to Ahab over the whole course of the novel: to abandon his quest, to go home to his wife, at the very end of the novel. In a crucial moment, Starbuck gives an impassioned plea to Ahab, reminds him of his wife and child and says, “Leave off chasing that whale. Let us live and go home.” We have no such history for Toadvine. What do we know about Toadvine? Well, he wears a scapular of ears that he’s cut off. He has tattoos from his criminal past on his face. He wears the evidence of a criminal life, not the furrowed brow of Starbuck’s thought. He is a very different kind of character, and that leads us to wonder how we need to understand his failure to shoot the judge. Is it that moral complexity yields lack of decisiveness, as we might say for Starbuck, that moral complexity is presented as a kind of weakness? Or, is that far too much to say about Toadvine? Is Toadvine a morally complex character? Do we have any basis upon which to say such a thing? So, this is another kind of question we want to ask.
Chapter 3. Modeling Evil: Paradise Lost [00:20:50]
Now I’m going to move to my second in line, here, and that’s Paradise Lost. McCarthy rings the changes on the great voices of American literature, but also of world literature in English. You were talking about The Iliad and the epic tradition. In this case, he is entering the great realm of poetry. Now he gives a specific revision of Paradise Lost in Blood Meridian, if you recall. How many of you have taken a Milton class, or have read Milton in class? Okay. Okay, a good number of you, so probably a bunch of you realize this. When the judge makes gunpowder, do you remember this scene? The men are out of gunpowder. They find the judge in the desert. They’re being hounded by the Indians they’ve been chasing all this time. They’re at their mercy. They know they’re going to be massacred. They find the judge sitting on a rock in the middle of the desert. Who knows how he got there? Glanton takes him up. He rides with them, and he takes them to a volcanic cone, a dead cone, and there he instructs them how to make gunpowder. He takes brimstone from the rim of the cone, he mixes it with charcoal and other things, and then he has them piss on it. And from this he makes gunpowder, and they use that gunpowder to defeat the Indians who come after them.
Well, this is taken directly from Paradise Lost. Satan instructs his fiends in how to make gunpowder, and I’m going to read you a little bit from Book 6 of Paradise Lost. So, the fiends are down in Hell strategizing, somewhat in despair over their chances against God’s angels. The fallen angels are standing around Satan, and they’re taking turns making speeches, and they’ve just heard a speech from a fallen angel who says, “We really need a better weapon. Otherwise we’re never going to win this war.” And here is what Satan has to say.
So, there Satan’s saying, “Look at the world. You look at all these plants. The chemicals we need are in this earth.” So, this is what the judge says, for his part, in like circumstance. This is on 129, 130, and this, remember, is told by Tobin, the ex-priest:
See, there is that same structural position. The judge occupies the place that Satan does in Paradise Lost and gives a speech:
So, the oration urging them to see in the earth all the things they need: exactly out of Paradise Lost. And then, a little further down the page, you see that Tobin speculates about the volcanic terrain they’re crossing - “where for aught any man knows lies the locality of Hell.” He even speculates that this is where Hell’s entrance might be. So, what does McCarthy do when he invites us to see the judge as the parallel of Satan? I think this is one of the most powerful allusions driving readings of this novel. Lots of readers have taken Judge Holden as heroic evil, on the model of Milton’s Satan.
Remember, the famous problem about Paradise Lost is that, here was Milton writing it to justify the ways of God to men, justifying how good God was, and yet Satan is this incredibly compelling character. Milton writes Satan to be irresistible, and in particular he is, rhetorically, incredibly gifted, and so he makes all of these wonderful speeches that Milton writes for him that we get to listen to. So, McCarthy sets up a similar problem in Blood Meridian. Here is the judge. He has this compelling language that we want to listen to. It’s very sonorous. There is that debt to the oral tradition, and yet he is this incredibly evil man. So, there is a problem, here, of moral valence. Can we condemn, or does the book condemn, this figure? It’s the problem in Paradise Lost. It’s the problem, also, in Blood Meridian. If you find the violence in Blood Meridian simply gratuitous, then you’ve answered that, in a certain way, by saying, “No. The character is not so compelling that I can put up with the graphic representation of violence. It doesn’t make it worth it.” But there is another school of thought that says the aesthetics of the violence, the aesthetics of the judge, do make it worth it. So, that is a kind of debt.
The other way this sheds light on the novel is to say that the novel is concerned, like Paradise Lost, with the great cosmic structures of the world. Now, this is another element, too, of its use of the Bible, and I’ll talk about that in a minute. But it gives, for the novel, a certain kind of weight. It makes us read it looking for those big, cosmic structures and statements about those big, cosmic structures. It lends it weight unleavened by the kinds of delightful playfulness that we see from Ishmael. Melville is full of the Bible, and full of portentousness, too, but always Ishmael’s voice is there charming us. What we have here, instead, is sheer portentousness–some say pretentiousness–weighing on every sentence. The allusions to Paradise Lost are part of that portentousness.
Chapter 4. Rejecting Innocence: Wordsworth [00:30:13]
Now, let me move to something smaller, moving a little later in the poetic tradition: Wordsworth. In the opening lines of this novel, we see the line on page 3, “All history present in that visage,” the face of the kid, “the child, the father of the man.” That phrase, “The child, the father of the man,” comes from a short, little poem by William Wordsworth. It’s called “My Heart Leaps up when I Behold.”
This is a lovely little snippet of a poem. The point of it is to say that the child, delighted by the rainbow, gives you the man, delighted by the rainbow, and he says, “Let me die if I’m no longer delighted, if I get to be so old that that childlike delight in the rainbow is gone.” The rainbow comes freighted with its own biblical literary history: that is, it’s the sign of God’s promise to the world, to humankind, that God will no longer send a flood to wipe out the human race as He did in the days of Noah. So, it is a hopeful sign for the fate of humankind, and it reflects well on God’s intentions towards us.
McCarthy’s child, father of the man, is a very different sort. Just read that sentence right prior to the allusion: “He can neither read nor write and in him broods already a taste for mindless violence.” What McCarthy announces here, in his revision of Wordsworth, is that, although to invoke Milton’s Satan is already to project us into the realm of Romantic figures, he is rejecting the later Romanticism of the early nineteenth century which found in humankind, especially in the child as the epitome of pure humankind, a kind of great hopefulness. This is not what McCarthy sees in humankind. This is not what the kid gives to us, even though we are told, a little later on, on page 4, the child’s face is curiously untouched behind the scars, the eyes oddly innocent. What does that innocence mean? Is it, here, an innocence like Wordsworth’s child, who can behold the rainbow with joy and a pure relation to the world and to a caring god? Is it that kind of innocence? Is it the innocence simply of not knowing something? Is it that kind of innocence? Is it an absence of guilt? Is that what the innocence is?
These are questions, again, I’m going to put up on the side. What is the quality of the kid’s innocence? This is something I’m going to answer on Wednesday, but I want you to think about it. The allusion to Wordsworth causes us to ask that kind of question. The revision tells us we are in a much darker world. Now, I’m actually going to skip over some of the biblical allusion and trust you to read, in the first couple of pages, just in that first section. I’d like you reread it and think about how the Bible is woven in there. You see lots of Garden of Eden imagery there. You see a parricide, the image of the murdered father. There is an echo there of Cain and Abel, even though they are brothers. There is a sense that this is a world in which violence and murder has already entered. So, you can think about that.
Chapter 5. Historical Sources: Samuel Chamberlinís My Confession [00:34:59]
I want to go, now, to my last in the pile of books. This is an historical source called My Confession, and it is by a man named Samuel Chamberlain. Chamberlain fought for the U.S. in the Mexican War, and after the war was over he joined up with the Glanton Gang. The Glanton Gang is a historical fact, as far as we know. It was a gang of scalp hunters that operated around the border right after the Mexican War in the 1840s and ’50s. Sam Chamberlain–I want to show you–he was quite a remarkable guy. He was from Boston, born in New Hampshire, grew up in Boston. At sixteen he left Boston and went out West, taking a sort of circuitous route. He went to find his fortune and to find adventure, but he also went with a box of paints. And he produced these amazing watercolors everywhere he went, and he wrote this testimony of his adventures called My Confession. It reads like a picaresque. It’s full of his own heroism, all the senoritas that he romances, all the great battles he fights in, but he really gives us an amazing set of paintings. You can just see these. I’m going to show you a couple.
While I’m waiting for this [image] to come up, I’m going to show you something you can’t see on this web site. This is the Texas State Historical Society where these documents are kept. The pages are written– I don’t know if you can see this. This is a reproduction. See, he writes in this gorgeous hand, and he embellishes all the pages with little drawings. And this is hundreds of pages long, with hundreds of watercolors in it. My bet is that McCarthy actually saw this manuscript in the Texas State Historical Society. That’s where he lived. That’s where he was living when he wrote this book. And it just is amazingly visual and gorgeous. He ended up making three copies of this with all its paintings. When he got back to New England he married and he had three daughters (which he named after various senoritas that he had romanced) and he made a copy of My Confession for each, so there are three of them. One is at Annapolis; one is at the Texas State Historical Society, and I think one is with the family. All right.
So, this isn’t giving you the paintings that I want, and I’m going to–These are two that I took up. This one on the right– Well, we’ll do the little one on the left. The one on the left is his drawing of the Grand Canyon, and he claims that it was the first ever painting of the Grand Canyon (and I think this is probably false). That’s them crossing through, the gang. This is Judge Holden, here, discoursing on evolution in a very Judge Holden-ly way. So, we actually hear about this sermon on evolution in the novel. Well, here it is in Chamberlain’s Confession.
Now, I want to read to you a little bit from the Confession.
There is that same Toadvine-Starbuck moment. It’s right in My Confession, as is that particular strange description of Judge Holden as huge and hairless. Now, in the nineteenth century hairless just meant that he didn’t have a beard, but McCarthy takes that and makes it into this really freakish character. It’s almost like he’s a giant infant. What does it mean that McCarthy gets the most powerful character in the novel so directly from this source? That’s one question. Second question is: what does it mean that he’s actually taking an historical fact, the Glanton Gang and their adventures, and using these as the kernel of his novel, when–as my little pile of books here has demonstrated–he’s totally absorbed in the novel’s relationship to literary history?
So, what’s he doing by doubling the literary history with an American history? He’s pursuing two sets of links back through time: one in the realm of art, one in the realm of history. What’s the relationship between the two? When I first read this, I will say, I was extremely surprised. Are you surprised, too, to see that it takes so directly from Chamberlain’s manuscript? The problem is the problem of originality. This is a problem that, I think, McCarthy’s quotation, that I wrote up on the board, points towards: “The ugly fact is that books are made out of books.” Why is that an ugly fact? What’s ugly about that? “The novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written.” Is it ugly because it calls into question the very principle of originality? This is what someone, a reader like Harold Bloom, might say. Harold Bloom argues that it is the “anxiety of influence” that shapes many writers in the tradition. As they take on the great writers of the past, they feel that they are ever belated, that there is no room yet in the world to push the art form further. Is that why it’s an ugly fact? Is its ugliness, or the way that word is used in this quotation, is it registering McCarthy’s anxiety about his own belatedness? Can he really be original? Can he really answer the portentous, cosmic aura that he invokes over and over again in the very style of this novel? The style keeps telling you, “Come and look for a deeper meaning.”
Now, I want to point out one last thing for you, since I do have just the couple minutes that I will need. This is on 4 and 5. At the top of 4, as the kid moves from Tennessee down to New Orleans, and then out to the West, he moves through the South:
The landscape itself is already an artifact; it’s paper. It’s as if it’s of McCarthy’s own construction. But if you look just across the page, on 5, this is a tiny thing, and probably it didn’t register to you at all.
Do you notice the way the words are repeating there? “Spiderlike among the bolls of cotton,” “his hands balled in the cotton pockets of his coat.” It’s a tiny, little thing. I would argue, however, that what we’re seeing here is the way the very style and tone perpetuates itself, out of itself. So, I want to add a final layer in my excavation of allusion, and here say that he’s alluding to himself, that there is a constant re-layering that takes the language and the repetitiousness of that language builds within the text.
There is a lot of anxiety about origin, right here in these couple pages. We’re told, “Only now is it”–as he goes to Texas–“only now is the child finally divested of all he has been.” And you note, at the beginning, that he is, and his folk are known for, “hewers of wood and drawers of water.” These are the traditional adjectives given to the sons of Ham, the hewers of wood and drawers of water. Ham’s crime against his father, Noah, was that he saw his father, Noah, naked in his tent. Noah planted a vineyard, got drunk, and I guess he was naked in his tent while he was passed out. Ham happened to peep in and saw his father naked. His two brothers covered the father. The two brothers are therefore blessed; Ham is cursed. Why is this a curse-worthy action? Why is this a curse-worthy mistake? I think it’s because, in seeing the father naked, you see the mystery of your origin. And so, the kid is likened to someone cursed for looking upon their origin. There is a sense in which he can almost understand it. This is meant to be mystery, and yet by looking, somehow, he is closer to it than he should be. The problem for the kid is to divest himself of origin, to forget it, so if Ham is cursed because he saw his origin, the kid’s curse lies, in part, in the divestiture of all origin. He forgets it. It’s not that he sees it; he forgets it.
And then you can get a sentence like this: “His origins are become remote as is his destiny and not again in all the world’s turning will there be terrain so wild and barbarous to try whether the stuff of creation may be shaped to man’s will or whether his own heart is not another kind of clay.” I want you to read the sentence several times before Wednesday, and ask yourself if you can figure out what it means fully, all of it. Parts of it are more clear than others. Think about the balance between the rhythm of that sentence and its content, the tone, what its tone says to you, what its diction says to you, and what the sentence itself actually says to you. So, that’s what I’d like you to think about. And on Wednesday I’m going to take this discussion of allusion, and I’m going to sort of ball it up and it’ll become part of another argument, and that’ll stem from one tiny detail I’m going to take out of the novel. So that’s where I’m going.
[end of transcript]Back to Top