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John Glanton and his crew traverse the American south-west in the backdrop of the 19th century US-Mexican conflict. They are a criminal gang led by a former Texas Ranger and armed with the latest weaponry of the time, hunting for Native American scalps that pay a hundred dollars a piece, possibly in order to clear the road to the gold mines. Blood Meridian starts with the birth of a young man known as 'the kid' (till the final chapter) joins the gang.
There is no escaping violence in Blood Meridian. War is a necessity, and a product of every period & circumstance. As explained in Philipp Meyer's introduction - man is violent by nature - there is no other reason or explanation.
There are raids on villages, snake bites and swollen heads, rape, hostile towns, warring tribes, drink and tobacco, bowie knives and scalped heads; and there is a final stand on a cliff where under the stewardship of Judge Holden the gang make their own gunpowder in a pit of piss and minerals. But towering above all this literally and metaphorically is the judge himself. One of popular cultures obscure treasures, Judge Holden is a force of nature compared to the white whale Moby Dick himself. Of superhuman strength and intellect he is the embodiment not of violent man but violent nature itself.
As Blood Meridian progresses and the Glanton gang disintegrates the remaining men divide into two camps - those who are happy to remain under the protection of Judge Holden, and those who cannot continue anymore. Another stand-off over parched desert sets up the conclusion of the book and the inevitable clash between the kid and judge Holden in the final chapter.
Blood Meridian is not a page turner; its difficult to read and has been described as bleak, nightmarish, pessimistic, gothic western, anti-western etc. You have to plough through the obscure references and the lack of dialogue; but McCarthy writes vivid scenes, and chaotic paths of violence that make the book unforgettable. Harold Bloom calls Blood Meridian the ultimate western.
'The second in command, now left in charge of the camp, was a man of gigantic size who rejoiced in the name of Holden, called Judge Holden of Texas. Who or what he was no one knew, but a more cooler-blooded villain never went unhung. He stood six foot six in his moccasins, had a large, fleshy frame, a dull, tallow-colored face destitute of hair and all expression, always cool and collected. But when a quarrel took place and blood shed, his hog-like eyes would gleam with a sullen ferocity worthy of the countenance of a fiend… Terrible stories were circulated in camp of horrid crimes committed by him when bearing another name in the Cherokee nation in Texas. And before we left Fronteras, a little girl of ten years was found in the chaparral foully violated and murdered. The mark of a huge hand on her little throat pointed out him as the ravisher as no other man had such a hand. But though all suspected, no one charged him with the crime. He was by far the best educated man in northern Mexico.'
- My Confession: Recollections of a Rogue by Samuel Chamberlain
Judge Holden is a literary leviathan, often compared to the white whale Moby Dick himself and sometimes his arch nemesis Captain Ahab. He is a gigantic albino, erudite, obsessed with war, a rapist, a genius with vast amounts of data in his brain ready to be called upon in any situation, he carries a book in which he takes copious notes of the natural world and claims 'that which exists without my knowledge exists without my permission'. Even devoid of his physical presence he is a manipulator of men using words and his reputation alone has carried him out of hopeless situations. Chamberlain's Holden (if he existed) probably died along with John Glanton at 'the Yuma massacre'; McCarthy's Judge claims that he will never die.
To imagine the judge picture Superman's nemesis Lex Luthor or Daredevil's arch enemy The Kingpin. Though Judge Holden finds mention in Samuel Chamberlain's memoir there is no other historical record of the man; read with the otherwise factful-ness of Chamberlain's book and the general exaggeration of conventional writing, finding evidence about Holden's existence has become a favoured activity for McCarthy's fans.
Cormac McCarthy is the author of No Country For Old Men, All The Pretty Horses, and The Road; but before writing these three novels he was critically acclaimed as a writer's writer. Around the time he wrote Blood Meridian he was given a MacArthur Fellowship (referred to as a 'genius grant') - one of several in recognition of his writing skill.
Cormac McCarthy was born in a well-to-do family and didn't want for anything in his youth but struggled as a writer for over twenty years. All his early books met with literary success which led to him receiving several grants in his career, but none of them achieved commercial success and many went out of print. He is known to have refused teaching assignments, interviews and book readings despite his financial constraints on account of having written down everything he had to say in his work. He first achieved commercial success with All The Pretty Horses.
“There’s no such thing as life without bloodshed. I think the notion that the species can improved in some way, that everyone can live in harmony, is a really dangerous idea. Those who are afflicted with this notion are the first ones to give up their souls, their freedom. Your desire that it be that way will enslave you and make your life vacuous.”
The book is loosely based on the diary of Samuel Chamberlain who was a veteran of the Mexican American war. It was discovered almost a century after his time and possibly contains some fictions about Chamberlain's exploits, a common exaggeration of the era.
Samuel Chamberlain's book 'My Confession: Recollections of a Rogue' chronicles his time with the Native American scalp hunting gang led by John Glanton. The gang's second-in-command was a self styled judge - Holden, from where McCarthy develops the character. Chamberlain writes about his actions - even the ones excessive for his time and circumstance, which contributed to the eventual outlawing of the Glanton gang by the Mexican government. Other than inspiring McCarthy, Chamberlain's book is a first hand source for historians which details a typical experience of a solider in the war. Though exaggeration was common in writings of the time, research into Chamberlain's book has authenticated much of his writing.
Chamberlain began his military career aged seventeen after he ran away from home to join a volunteer regiment headed for the Mexican-American war in Texas. About nineteen years later he was nominated by Abraham Lincoln for and awarded the rank of an honorary (Brevet) Brigadier for his conduct. He was a noted painter and his book has over a hundred illustrations.