Whenever I study Cormac McCarthy I go back to a statement he made in a 1992 New York Times interview:
“The ugly fact is books are made out of books. The novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written.”
For traces of this maxim in McCarthy’s work, look to his masterpiece, the brutal western epic Blood Meridian, a novel in which esteemed Yale critic Harold Bloom believes McCarthy “attained genius.” The novel features Judge Holden — without question one of the most horrifying characters in the history of the American novel. In many ways the judge is a construct of tradition, and perhaps the single greatest example of McCarthy’s acknowledgement of literary tradition as a writer. Blood Meridian is an epic and Judge Holden is the hero. The judge is part Melville’s Ahab, part Milton’s Satan, two precedents of heroic evil that McCarthy addresses throughout the novel in order to expand upon philosophically, as they also expanded upon their predecessors. That function of addressing great works and furthering a perpetual artistic dialogue is an inherent part of the classical paradigm as far back as Homer and the beginning of western poetic and literary traditions. Through the judge, McCarthy’s legitimacy is backed by the totality of epic literary tradition.
In my experience, the extent to which someone values Blood Meridian has something to do with Judge Holden, and the extent to which someone values the judge has a distinct correlation with their value of the referential, allusion-heavy style of writing McCarthy employs in constructing him. The purpose of this blog is not to argue one way or the other. To do so inevitably devolves into a statement for or against the canon, which is a tired debate I would just as soon avoid. A more modest goal (and admittedly a more achievable one)is simply to acknowledge that in Judge Holden, and consequently Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy demonstrates an irrevocable fact about the nature of the written word and the art form that surrounds it, that nothing is off limits. The seemingly untouchable literary monuments like Moby Dick, Paradise Lost, The Iliad and The Odyssey, are fair game. In other words, the liberty of the writer ought to know no bounds — an idea that might inspire optimism in a time when the general consensus across the world of the Arts is that things are bad, and getting worse.
For a more thorough analysis of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, see the two-part lecture given by Amy Hungerford through the Open Yale Courses at: http://oyc.yale.edu/english/engl-291
Also, a collection of McCarthy’s papers are kept as part of the Wittliff / Southwestern Writers collection at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas.