- Evening in America:Blood Meridian and the Origins and Ends of Imperial Capitalism
The strange title of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, or, The Evening Redness in the West (1985), hints at the apocalyptic vision awaiting its reader. “Meridian” means both a line of longitude and, common in the mid-nineteenth century when the novel takes place though now obsolete, the time when the sun reaches its peak, or noon. Figuratively, “meridian” means the “point or period of highest development or perfection, after which decline sets in; culmination, full splendour” (“meridian,” 4.b.). Blood Meridian, then, suggests a perfectly violent time and place: in this case the southwestern US and northern Mexico in 1849 and 1850. Yet, if Blood Meridian invokes a zenith, The Evening Redness in the West sounds like an elegiac end.
At about its midpoint, the novel expands on the significance of its title. A gang of scalp hunters under contract with the state of Chihuahua is camped for the night “in the ruins of an older culture,” the Anasazi, who built impressive cities and then mysteriously disappeared (139; Lange 128). Judge Holden, the gang’s most loquacious member and an amateur anthropologist, tells a parable to his fellow scalpers in reference to the lost tribe, at the end of which he generalizes to the whole of humanity. “The way of the world,” says Holden, “is to bloom and to flower and die but in the affairs of men there is no waning and the noon of his expression signals the onset of night. His spirit is exhausted at the peak of its achievement. His meridian is at once his darkening and the evening of his day” (146–47). Holden takes the example of the Anasazi as a single case of the general truth that, compared to the cycles of the natural world, human civilizations suddenly end upon reaching their meridian. Here we can recognize how it resonates with the novel’s title and the story it tells. In an [End Page 362] earlier draft of this passage, McCarthy notes, “(meridian = evening / as in title)” (“Early”). The note highlights what is strange: McCarthy uses a metaphor from the natural world—the movement of a day—but denaturalizes it by excising the afternoon, by making noon become immediately night. The fusion of Blood Meridian and The Evening Redness in the West, Holden’s “at once,” marks temporal collapse at multiple levels: of the quotidian distance between noon and evening; of the chronological distance between the mid-nineteenth century and the years of the novel’s genealogy and publication, 1975–1985; and of the distance between mid-nineteenth-century US scalp hunting in the southwest borderlands and the contemporary imperial capitalism this practice worked to institute.
The title opens peculiar questions. In what sense did the US peak in the years the novel spans, between 1833 and 1878? What sense does it make to suggest the nation’s decline when, in 1985, when the novel was published, it seemed to many as strong as ever? Blood Meridian follows its protagonist, “the kid,” from birth to death, as he moves west, joins first a band of filibusters who intend to invade Mexico, then a gang of scalp hunters paid with hopes of exterminating the Apaches, before finally, after many years, meeting his end in an encounter with Holden. The novel centers on the intersection of the US, Mexico, and Indians from both sides of a border they did not recognize, in the years 1849 and 1850. After the US-Mexican war, the US faced pressing questions regarding its empire: would it continue settling new lands by force, as the filibusters hoped, or would it turn its focus to the economic penetration of foreign lands?
My study of new historical sources leads me to identify Blood Meridian’s scalp hunters as agents for the US consul Bennet Riddells, whom McCarthy calls Riddle: McCarthy has hidden his meticulous historicism in this quizzical pun. With attention to the history of the southwest (or, for Mexico, northern) borderlands and the novel’s genealogy in travelogs and historical romance, I show how the scalp hunters serve as ignorant actors in the institution...