Now back in print with a new preface and two new essays—the essential guide and companion to Blood Meridian Cormac McCarthy's acclaimed novel of the Old West that has been compared to the work of Dante, Homer, Melville, and Faulkner.
Series: Southwestern Writers Collection Series, The Wittliff Collections, Steven L. Davis, editor
Blood Meridian (1985), Cormac McCarthy's epic tale of an otherwise nameless "kid" who in his teens joins a gang of licensed scalp hunters whose marauding adventures take place across Texas, Chihuahua, Sonora, Arizona, and California during 1849 and 1850, is widely considered to be one of the finest novels of the Old West, as well as McCarthy's greatest work. The New York Times Book Review ranked it third in a 2006 survey of the "best work of American fiction published in the last twenty-five years," and in 2005 Time chose it as one of the 100 best novels published since 1923. Yet Blood Meridian's complexity, as well as its sheer bloodiness, makes it difficult for some readers. To guide all its readers and help them appreciate the novel's wealth of historically verifiable characters, places, and events, John Sepich compiled what has become the classic reference work, Notes on Blood Meridian.
Tracing many of the nineteenth-century primary sources that McCarthy used, Notes uncovers the historical roots of Blood Meridian. Originally published in 1993, Notes remained in print for only a few years and has become highly sought-after in the rare book market, with used copies selling for hundreds of dollars. In bringing the book back into print to make it more widely available, Sepich has revised and expanded Notes with a new preface and two new essays that explore key themes and issues in the work. This amplified edition of Notes on Blood Meridian is the essential guide for all who seek a fuller understanding and appreciation of McCarthy's finest work.
- Foreword by Edwin T. Arnold
- 1. Introductions
- The Problem of Information
- Three Sections
- Scalp Hunting and the Glanton Gang
- Indian Haters
- 2. Biographies
- Reverend Green
- Judge Holden
- Captain White
- John Joel Glanton
- Albert Speyer
- Consul Bennett Riddells
- Governor Angel Trias
- Mangas Colorado
- Sarah Borginnis
- Yuma Chiefs
- 3. Settings and Sources
- Comanche Attack
- Hueco Tanks
- Jesús María
- Wild Bull
- June 11, 1850
- Fort Griffin
- Mayne Reid
- 4. Addenda
- Languages: Spanish, French, German
- Map Citations
- 5. Tarot and Divination
- 6. Judge Holden's Gunpowder
- 7. Knitting the Winds
- 8. Why Believe the Judge?
- 9. Concordances
- Narrative Voice
- Smiles and Laughter
- Egg and Dome
- Fools and Crazies
- Hallucinatory Void
- Ritual, Music, and Dance
- Chance, Fortune, and Deception
- "Knitting the Winds" Concordances: Reins, Strap, String, Thread
- "As if . . . in a dream"
- The Kid Helps
- Look . . . Look Away
- Horses Shy, Horses Steady
- Agency, Commitment, Witness
- 10. Massacre Accounts
- New York Daily Tribune
- William Carr's Los Angeles Deposition
- Daily Alta California
The Problem of Information
In Blood Meridian are historically verifiable characters, places, and events, though few of these correspondences are immediately apparent to the novel's reader. After sifting a fair number of documents treating its settings, characters, and themes, I have assembled these notes as a step toward insights into McCarthy's novel. Without an overview of the mid-nineteenth-century Southwest that includes, for example, the significance of the Leonid meteor shower of 1833 or Fort Griffin, Texas, Blood Meridian looks like three hundred pages of grotesque evidence, derived from McCarthy's imagination, to support Judge Holden's claim that war and violence dominate men's lives.
Though the novel is presented as a life of McCarthy's otherwise nameless "kid," historical accounts of the Glanton gang are the backbone of the book. Decorated Union Army general Samuel Chamberlain's narrative My Confession provides McCarthy with his core Glanton tales and the historical basis for his essential character, Judge Holden. It also supplies one analogue to the kid, since the youthful Chamberlain joins Glanton in midadventure, is occasionally sympathetic to the gang's Indian victims, is linked in an attraction-repulsion relationship with Holden, and might have been a filibusterer. Sam Chamberlain's contact with the gang may have suggested McCarthy's use of an "outsider" to contrast with the gang. As a result of this contrast, McCarthy's Holden can reasonably declare that the kid "sat in judgement" during his time with the gang (307; see also 173) and so was not really a member.
Yuma-ferry massacre survivor William Carr's deposition and newspaper correspondent Theodoro Goodman's letter provide a historical source for the novel's ferry-massacre scene. Blood Meridian is built upon the "facts" presented by these men, though eyewitness accounts by others also contribute details to McCarthy's tale.
One of the greatest delights of the historical novel is the reader's comparison of traditional versions of an event with the author's personalized version (Butterfield 27, 80; see also Manzoni 70-71), yet most readers have not apprehended the degree to which Blood Meridian is historical. For example, Edwin T. Arnold's review of Blood Meridian notes that both Glanton and Holden are "apparently historical figures" (Appalachian 103). Jerry Leath Mills writes that in the novel "all but a handful of the named characters are historical figures" (10), and Mark Royden Winchell proposes that "Blood Meridian is loosely based on history" (308). Arnold's review links "the Pilgrims . . . Vietnam, [and] Nicaragua" in his understanding of the novel's import (104). It is nevertheless probably true, given Arnold's temporal sequencing, that he refers to the American interest in Nicaragua during the 1980s and not to William Walker's interest of the 1850s, which is discussed in Chapter 2 in the Captain White section.
The initial critical confusion about the genre of Blood Meridian (its scenes were called, among other things, "wonders of the imagination") illustrates the uniqueness of McCarthy's artifice (Bell, Achievement 124). It is as if McCarthy has taken Manzoni's critical challenge at face value and has made Blood Meridian so particular in its references that "people of that time" would have found the people and places so "probable" that "the novel [might have] been written for them" (Manzoni 125). Readers attempting to identify its genre confront the tension McCarthy creates between the eyewitness testimony ("bare historical facts") underpinning Blood Meridian and the dimension of historical romance that he adds to unify them.
McCarthy does not simplify this problem of information with omniscient introductions of characters, places, events. The kid, McCarthy's protagonist, wouldn't know who Albert Speyer is, since the kid didn't ride with the Rangers during the Mexican War. And it would be the rare reader who would easily connect Blood Meridian's account of Speyer's involvement in the sale of guns to Glanton in Chihuahua City with James Hobbs's eyewitness accounts of the historical Speyer selling guns to scalp-hunting James Kirker in the mid-1840s. Nor would a reader likely be aware of other accounts of Speyer racing to Chihuahua City ahead of Doniphan's American expedition for the purpose of selling guns to the enemy during the Mexican War.
It is of course still possible to appreciate Blood Meridian as a work of pure fiction. However, an underinformed reading of this novel is comparable to the kid's question to Sproule, just after their filibustering expedition to Sonora has been devastated by an Indian attack: "What kind of indians was them?" (56). The assailant's name hardly matters. But readers of historical novels expect to know such names, to know background information and relationships. Blood Meridian's reader would intuitively accept John Bourke's firsthand wonder at the early western settlers' translations of cold geographic "facts" into folk history, since the "unduly excitable brain" of the newcomer to the historical Southwest encountered the "impossibility of learning exactly how many miles it was to a given point. It wasn't 'fifty miles,' or 'sixty miles,' or 'just a trifle beyond the Cienaga, and that's twenty-five miles,' but rather, 'Jes' on th' rise of the mesa as you git to th' place whar Samaniego's train stood off th' Apaches;' or, 'A little yan way from whar they took in Colonel Stone's stage;' or 'Jes' whar th' big "killin'" tuk place on th' long mesa,' and much more of the same sort" (64). A modern traveler, lulled by the regularities of jet and interstate travel, would find the computation of distance and time on an abacus of historical record overwhelming. Blood Meridian poses to the pilgrim reader a need to recognize underlying layers of information, from the geography of its setting to the biographies of its many historical characters. McCarthy's craft can better be appreciated when his reader can distinguish the nineteenth-century backgrounds within the imaginative synthesis of his novel. A review of source texts displays both McCarthy's devotion to historical authenticity and the audacity with which he tailors sources to his own ends.
Beyond the contribution to an understanding of Blood Meridian that the assessment of sources and analogues can supply, the book challenges its readers with webs of arcane reference. As Samuel Chamberlain's account of the man Judge Holden yields insights into McCarthy's character Holden, so, too, for instance, an examination of the tarot symbolism associated with Holden is necessary to appreciate the mythic dimension with which McCarthy endows him. What is presented here is, then, an examination of McCarthy's novel in light of scholarship significantly wider afield than has so far been applied.
Blood Meridian divides into three sections. The first begins with the birth of the kid and ends with his membership in Glanton's gang. This section includes the kid's home life, travels in Texas, experiences with the filibustering expedition, and imprisonment in Chihuahua City. The first section of Blood Meridian, though "historical" in its events and experiences, exists as a vehicle designed to introduce the world of the late 1840s and the Glanton gang. The information about scalp hunting, below, and the Leonids (Chapter 3) provides the reader of Blood Meridian with a perspective on McCarthy's treatment of the period. The filibustering expedition appears to be the novelist's conflation of later and verifiable filibusters.
The second section spans the period of the gang's scalp-hunting, ending with their arrival at the Yuma ferry. It includes the gang's three expeditions out of Chihuahua, their contact with the gypsy family, their stop at the Santa Rita del Cobre mines, the knifing of Grimley at Nacori, the fight at Jesús María, the brush with Elias, and ends with the scenes in and around Tucson, which involve Mangas Colorado. The second section of the novel (and a majority of the third) is often based on information derived from historical sources on the Glanton gang.
The third section of the novel covers the time between the arrival of the gang at the Pima villages until the death of the protagonist some twenty-eight years later. It includes the skirmish with the Yumas, two trips to San Diego for provisions, the massacre, the escape of the survivors and their trip west to San Diego, the accelerated presentation of the kid's years from 1850 until 1878, the reappearance of the judge, and the murder of the kid (then known in the novel as "the man") by the judge. The third section's key events are, generally, historically verifiable. Information about the Yuma-ferry massacre and the flight of the survivors is presented in several sections, based on historians' documents, in the next chapter, but particularly in the sections on Glanton and Holden and in Carr's deposition. The final chapter of the novel appears to be largely of McCarthy's dramatic design. The Fort Griffin section, along with the essays, provides clues that mark Griffin as an appropriate place for the novel's end.
Scalp Hunting and the Glanton Gang
The identity of these regions [between El Paso and Chihuahua City] with the names of certain stormy characters supports the law of the survival of the fittest. Among the hardiest of these persons were certain Apache chiefs and scalp hunters like Captain Santiago Kirker, Captain John Joel Glanton, Major Michael H. Chevallié, Major J. S. Gillett, Colonel Joaquín Terrazas, and Captain Juan de Mata Órtiz. (Smith, "Indians" 38)
Cormac McCarthy's gang leader is a historical figure. His name punctuates any number of histories of the mid-nineteenth-century Southwest. He appears, for example, as a character in Jeremiah Clemens's 1856 romance Bernard Lile. As recently as 1956 he was featured in Life magazine as a character in the serialization of Samuel Chamberlain's long-lost personal narrative of the late 1840s, My Confession. The story of John Glanton, though, is an unsettling one. He has been seen as a misfit since word of his adventures first spread.
But Captain Glanton did what the state of Chihuahua hired him to do, and his life story, as well as the conditions of the time in which he lived, is presented in McCarthy's novel with remarkable fidelity. The conflicts existing in and among the states of Texas, Chihuahua, New Mexico, and Arizona in 1849 and 1850 involved many peoples: Mexicans, both peon and military; United States Army troops; Texans, both Ranger and civilian; Comanches and Apaches; and Anglo gold-rush travellers on the Gila Trail.
The Comanches had moved eastward into what would be north-central Texas at least a hundred years before the Anglos began their settlements. They had come for the buffalo and for the area's convenient access to trails southward into north-central Mexico (Smith, "Comanche Invasion" 4-8). John Hughes described them as "uncompromising enemies" (131). Annual trips into Chihuahua, and as far south as Zacatecas, provided the Comanches with Mexican horses, livestock, and slaves, all of which could be traded to more northern Indian tribes and to Anglo traders on the Arkansas River:
For [the] decade [of the 1840s] columns in gazettes of north Mexican states overflowed with pitiful tales about Indians sweeping away unfortunate persons and confirm what one historian of the Comanches (Rupert N. Richardson) has described as "the most horrendous holocaust ever enacted against a civilized people in the Western World." In exchange for their staples of trade, they received from the civilized people cloth, paints, rifles, powder, lead, knives, guns, and iron from which to make arrow and lance points. Eastern tribes moved by the United States government to the Indian Territory sold many of their government-issued rifles to Comanches for five dollars each. Mexican authorities complained about American traffic with these Indians and also saw the Yankee image behind Apache raids. (Smith, "Indians" 41)
During the time in which Blood Meridian is set the Comanches were following an established economic pattern of raids based in part on the productivity of the Mexicans, but also in part fuelled by what Ralph A. Smith calls "a taste for European manufactures" ("Mexican" 103). The Indians at this time also found swelling numbers of westward-bound caravans of gold seekers: "As the Forty-niners swarmed across the vast vacancies of west Texas, there were hardly enough warriors to go around, but the Indians did the best they could" (Sonnichsen, Pass 130).
The decade of the forties saw the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua, in its attempt to break the cycle of Indian incursions, hire Anglo aliens to kill the raiders. James (don Santiago) Kirker, in particular, brought hundreds of "proofs" of the deaths of Indians and thousands of head of livestock to Chihuahua City during the first half of the decade. "Proofs": that is, the scalps of Indians, or "receipts." James Hobbs, a professional Indian hunter with James Kirker's gang in the 1840s, apparently held to the practice. Decades later and still scalping, but then in the company of gentler folk, he writes: "some of the party said it looked barbarous; but I kept on scalping, saying that business men always took receipts, and I wanted something to show our success" (409). Ralph Smith quotes the historical Marcus Webster: "For those of posterity who considered scalping a 'grewsome business . . . it was a war necessity'" ("'Long' Webster" 106; see also Sack 92-93).
Evidence of an Indian's death depended on a hunter producing a scalp. And an Indian's scalp was dearer to him than is immediately obvious. Of the "two ways in which the Indian soul can be prevented from reaching [its] paradise:"
The first is by scalping the head of the dead body. Scalping is annihilation; the soul ceases to exist. This accounts for . . . the care they take to avoid being themselves scalped.
Let the scalp be torn off, and the body becomes mere carrion, not even worthy of burial.
The other method by which an Indian can be cut off from the Happy Hunting Grounds is by strangulation.
Should death ensue by strangulation, the soul can never escape, but must always remain with, or hovering near the remains, even after complete decomposition. (Dodge 101-103)
The scalp is both proof of an Indian's capture, given the stipulation that the scalp must show the crown of the hair (and in some cases, for further specificity, the ears), and proof of the Indian's death, given the lengths to which an Indian would go to protect his body from this disfigurement (Smith, "Comanche Sun" 39). Chamberlain, travelling with Wild Tom Hitchcock to meet Glanton's gang, recounts the Indian's desire, even over life, to keep his scalp:
The wounded warrior presented a ghastly sight, he tried to call his pony to him, but the affrightened animal stood at a distance, snorting in terror. The savage then gave a wild startling yell, and by his hands alone, dragged himself to the brink of the deep barranca, then singing his death chant and waving his hand in defiance towards us he plunged into the awful abyss.
"Cincuenta pesos gone to h——l, muchacho," cried Tom. "The doggone mean red nigger done that thar, to cheat us out of his har!" (263-264)
Chihuahua paid scalp bounties not only to licensed alien parties, but also to peon guerilla bands, who found that the governmental payment for a single scalp exceeded the amount that a peon who became a gang member "could earn by hard labor in a year" (Smith, "Scalp Hunt" 125). Even for Anglos, the money was attractive. Pay in the United States Army at about that time ran between seven and fifteen dollars a month when bonuses were included (Chamberlain 239; Nevin 24). A group of fifty Indian hunters paid two hundred dollars a scalp would have to bring only four scalps a month into Chihuahua City in order to exceed the army's rate of pay, and for work not much more hazardous than the army's. Kirker's group was known to have killed as many as two hundred Indians on a single trip, bringing in one hundred and eighty two scalps. This approach yielded sixty times what the men would have earned in other employment. At one point, Chihuahua owed James Kirker $30,000 (Smith, "King" 30). Chihuahua was desperate to have the Comanche invasions stopped. So aliens and peons—even some Indians—were paid by the scalp for their contribution to Chihuahua's protection (Richardson 202).
As the New York Daily Tribune noted on its front page for August 1, 1849: "The Government of Chihuahua has made a bloody contract with an individual named Chevallie, stipulating to give him a bounty of so much per head for every Indian, dead or alive, whom he may secure. The terms of this atrocious bargain are published in the Mexican papers, which, to their credit be it said, denounce them as inhuman and revolting. The Chihuahuans themselves are disgusted with the treaty." Michael Chevallié had been a Texas Ranger and a volunteer in the Mexican War. Clarence Wharton writes that he was on his way to California for the gold when, out of money, he took a scalp contract with Chihuahua on May 27, 1849 (34-37). The "inhuman" aspects of the job apparently didn't deter him or John Glanton, who applied for a license on June 27 of the same year (Smith, "Poor Mexico" 90-91).
The scalp hunters' problem, though, arose in late 1849 and early 1850 as the scalp business peaked (Smith, "Scalp Hunter" 20). A "depletion" of the number of Indians venturing into Mexico occurred, in part because of Chihuahua's willingness to pay for the scalps of women and children, though at a rate below that for warriors (Smith, "Scalp Hunter" 21; "Comanche Sun" 44). The response to Chihuahua's desire to end Indian incursions, signalled to all by the fabulous amounts of money involved, exceeded the state's ability to determine the origins of scalps. Besides a large Indian population antedating Spanish settlement, Chihuahua was inhabited by mestizos, whose hair was similar to the Indians' in color and texture. The hair of fighting and farming Indians looked about the same. And Glanton's scalpers found this "problem" of identification to be a boon, enriching their coffers with the surreptitious murder of Mexican citizens until their deceptions were discovered by the authorities.
Glanton fought Mexicans during the Mexican War, and later killed Indians and Mexicans for profit. Chamberlain writes that Glanton's seventeen-year-old fiancée had been taken and killed by Indians in Texas: "From this tragic scene Glanton returned a changed man. . . . He drank deeply and sought the companionship of the most hardened desperados of the frontier; in all Indian fights he was the devil incarnate" (269).14 The reader of Blood Meridian recognizes McCarthy's Glanton in these details: the drinking, the desperados, the Indian fights. Jeremiah Clemens, in Mustang Gray, touches on the question of Texans' regard for Mexicans during the period of the Mexican War, and the aftermath of that war, when he writes that Texans
remembered only the retaliation. To be just, we must judge of actions in connection with the causes from which they flow. No wonder that a man whose house had been burned down, his property pillaged, and his fields laid waste, should seek to spoil the spoiler in his turn. No wonder that a man whose brother had been murdered, should long to smite the murderer. No wonder that a man whose wife had been violated, and then her body mangled with wounds, should be deaf to the cry of mercy when the ravisher is at his feet. To all this, and more, the Texans had been subjected. They felt it like men—like men they avenged it. He who would have done less, can claim little kindred with humanity. (269)
The brutal crimes attributed to the Indians in the death of Glanton's fiancée are also present in Clemens, yet are laid at the feet of Mexicans. Glanton's Texan background can be thought to predispose him, in general terms, when taken with the profit motive, to his murders of Mexicans.
Early in Chamberlain's narrative, in a scene that precedes his running away from home, he fist-fights with a "rough" after the other fellow used "profane language on the Holy Sabbath": "'I consciously believed,'" Chamberlain defends himself before a Church committee, "'that I had acted as a good Christian should act, and for the interest of the Church!' My good friends appeared for me and I was cleared of all sinful intention in this wholesome rebuke to a sinner" (8). Fighting the "good fight" was an apparently literal injunction for Chamberlain and, possibly, Glanton: Chamberlain writes, "Nothing remarkable distinguished Glanton in his youth from the other young men of the settlement [except] a deep religious feeling and a strict moral conduct" (268; original emphasis). McCarthy would have seen this detail. As noted in the next chapter in the Holden section, Glanton also had "recollections of the Bible teaching his young mind had undergone" (Chamberlain 276). The reader wonders if Chamberlain's "church" is not somehow also Glanton's, though Chamberlain was not trained in Glanton's hard Texas Ranger environment. Neither man has a moral compunction against hunting Indians for their scalps, though Chamberlain shows some sympathy for "harmless" Indians (264), whereas McCarthy's Glanton does not (97-98).
The Anglos' hatred of Indians was a concomitant of the westward expansion of the United States. From this perspective, "the white man's burden of Winning the West was . . . global folly," for:
The West was quite literally nowhere—or everywhere, which was to say the same thing. For Homer's Greeks and North American tribal peoples alike, the West was the land beyond. Spiritland, the land of mystery, of death and of life eternal. It was not a Dark and Bloody Ground to be "won." But for Anglo-Americans it was exactly that, the latest conquest. Yet how could they conclusively "win" it? If the West was at bottom a form of society, as Turner contended, then on our round earth, Winning the West amounted to no less than winning the world. It could be finally and decisively "won" only by rationalizing (Americanizing, Westernizing, modernizing) the world, and that meant conquering the land beyond, banishing mystery, and negating or extirpating other peoples, so the whole would be subject to the regimented reason of one settlement culture with its professedly self-evident middle-class values. (Drinnon 465)
Toadvine, late in the novel, runs "plumb out of country" (285). The judge declares in favor of zoos and an end to the thought of mystery (199, 252). His intellect demands Drinnon's "regimented reason," even though his murder of children seems at odds with this demand.
But the gang is also a group of businessmen, in this novel of businessmen (examined in the Speyer and Riddells sections, Chapter 2). The morality of scalp hunting is not problematic for them. Scalpers are licensed to do a job for the benefit of the state. The conflicting Indian and Mexican cultures in Chihuahua in the mid-nineteenth century, as Ralph Smith has documented, often came to bloodshed. The imposition of a third culture, the Texas American, brought a state of equilibrium, but only after fifty years of warfare, and that equilibrium came, in large part, only as a result of the extinction of the southern buffalo herd. Glanton's Indian and Mexican scalping, then, is both of individualized (his fiancée murdered) and of culturally widespread, generalized origins.
James Hall's Indian hater would kill any Indian he found (Legends 259-260). Yet Glanton rode with Indians in his gang and rode with Mexicans (Blood Meridian 86, 98; Smith, "John Joel Glanton" 9). Robert Eccleston reports that Glanton's party consisted of "27 Americans, 30 Mexicans, & 1 Apache who had proven traitor to his nation" (232).
McCarthy's John Glanton is less rigidly an Indian hater than Hall's model would suggest. He is also less compulsively a hater of Mexicans than is Clemens's Mabry "Mustang" Gray. The absolutely predatory nature of bigotry in the sources that McCarthy may have used is paradoxically softened in the novel. When Black Jackson killed white John Jackson at the gang's campfire, "Glanton rose" (107).16 He said and did nothing else. Glanton's acceptance of his gang member's murder in this scene is a careful demonstration by McCarthy of Glanton's unqualified acceptance of both John Jacksons as equals. This scene's group dynamic is similar to that described by Clemens, presented in the Chamberlain section in Chapter 3. Only if the men had found Black Jackson's act abhorrent might Glanton have confronted the killer. Glanton's loyalties seem not to favor Anglos over Indians, or Anglos over Mexicans, but gang members over outsiders.
Indeed, Richard Drinnon's words on Herman Melville and James Hall might with few changes apply to McCarthy on the "terrain of racial hatred" in Blood Meridian:
Melville knew his Hall. By the 1850s the collective moral confusion was so dumbfoundingly pervasive that Melville's surrealism was in truth the harshest realism, just the means for ripping off false fronts and exposing sham and deception, floating identities, the true patriotism of empty rhetoric. "The Metaphysics of Indian-Hating" gave the reader the best single overview to date of the terrain of racial hatred. It was an acute progress report on the state of the animosity after only two and a half centuries of growth. (214)