Cormac McCarthy Cuts to the Bone

Blood Meridian used to be a much different novel. McCarthy’s early drafts reveal how an American masterpiece was born.

Author Cormac McCarthy.

Author Cormac McCarthy.

Photo by Nerissa Escanlar.

Bloodless dawn. The old cowboy sets out across the sharp-footed malpías toward the volcanic cone. On his pack, below the antique swivel-bore rifle, swing two small pouches of crystal saltpeter and ground alder charcoal like the cheap curio of a traveling tinker. He reaches the slope of the cone and scrambles up the glassy flint of now eroded sedimentary rock. Near the top, he takes off his shirt and lays it flat and sets about chipping off pieces of sulfur with his knife and collecting them in the spread shirt. It’s hot, and he works slow, stopping only to wipe his brow and clean the blade of windblown sand. He chops the little pile of yellow sulfur rock fine and unties the two pouches from his pack and upends them into the shirt. The shirt is light, and he dumps its contents into a furrow in the rock and stands back and unzips his fly and pisses into it. The mixture is a grim, black hash. After kneading it together he leaves it to dry in the desert sun.

Once dry, the gunpowder is packed and the swivel-bore rifle charged, and Cormac McCarthy fires both barrels out into the barren waste.

At least this is what I pictured after I came across a recipe for homemade gunpowder in McCarthy’s notes. The laminated recipe, scrawled in small cursive letters on a bail bondsman’s notepad, is part of the Cormac McCarthy Papers—98 boxes of notes, letters, drafts, and correspondences on all of the reclusive author’s works—archived at Texas State University-San Marco’s Wittliff Collections. Bought for $2 million in 2008 as a joint venture between the university and Bill Wittliff (screenwriter of Lonesome Dove), the collection includes unpublished material such as a screenplay, Whales and Men, and drafts of an upcoming novel, The Passenger (not available for reading until after publication). But of primary interest to McCarthy’s most devoted fans are the multiple drafts of the Tennessean’s magnum opus, Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West. The archives give us a unique look inside the working method of an artist who speaks little about his own work—and gives us clues as to how his reticence, when brought into Blood Meridian itself, transformed a good book into a cold-blooded masterpiece.

As avid McCarthy readers may have noticed, the scene I’ve imagined above is more or less lifted right out of Blood Meridian, a loosely historical novel that trails a gang of desperadoes through the haunted badlands of 19th century Mexico as they maraud for Indian scalps. Judge Holden, the “sooty-souled rascal” at the heart of the bloody epic, bakes up the gunpowder in a last-ditch effort to save his gang from a grisly death at the hands of trailing Apaches. And though McCarthy’s readership has ballooned in recent years—a National Book Award, a Pulitzer, a few good film adaptations, and a visit from Oprah will do that—Blood Meridian remains the primary obsession of McCarthy’s legion of cultish readers and academics.

Can you really make gunpowder out of volcanic rock? And if so, did McCarthy actually bake it? If this were any other writer, I’d be quick to assume not. But this is McCarthy we’re talking about—the stories of his public truancy and commitment to his craft are legendary. For most of his adult life, he’s spurned media attention and bankable offers to speak, even when his young family lived in a barn behind a pig farm and bathed in a nearby lake. He up and moved to El Paso, Texas, from east Tennessee in 1974 just so he could begin researching Blood Meridian. Apparently, he taught himself Spanish along the way. This kind of hands-on research style—he more than once trekked the gang’s trail through Mexico to record topography and flora—makes me think the testing of the recipe was all but necessary.

A book, as Jerzy Kosinski once put it, is born in privacy. It’s rare that we’re afforded a peek behind closed doors. And when we are, it’s usually just a teasing peephole unto conception, like the offhand remark made by Haruki Murakami about lounging in the ballpark drinking beer and being inspired to write a novel purely by the loud crack of a bat. What we almost never get are the stories from a book’s gawky teenage years, when the narrative is slack, the prose awkward.

A week reading material in McCarthy’s archives taught me that early on, Blood Meridian was merely McCarthy’s pet project—a Southerner’s first crack at a Western. (He began working on it off-and-on around 1975 while he was still finishing up Suttree.) Early drafts read more like a parroting of Charles Portis or Louis L’Amour than the “universal tragedy of blood” Harold Bloom called the published version. The prose is cramped, the voice toneless and noticeably devoid of that deep, brassy register we’ve come to expect from McCarthy.

First page of an early draft of Blood Meridian circa 1975.

First page of an early draft of Blood Meridian circa 1975.

Courtesy The Cormac McCarthy Papers, Wittliff Collections, Texas State University.

The key moment in transforming Blood Meridian into the book it would become was the invention of the judge. In early drafts, that grotesque patchwork of up-river Kurtz and Milton’s Satan never bares his bald head. Sometime in the late ‘70s, McCarthy created the judge, based on a historical figure from Samuel Chamberlain’s My Confession, and the novel’s voice deepened, hitting those howling biblical octaves McCarthy’s now so famous for.

For the next seven years or so, all the way to galley proof in 1984, McCarthy whittled Blood Meridian down into the lean nightmare we now know. He cut whole characters and became more and more sparing of his description of the ones that remained. This was nowhere more pronounced than with the character of the kid, the nameless ruffian and pseudo-protagonist of the tale. 

McCarthy scoured all mention of the kid’s family and heritage from the published version. Brief allusions in early drafts to the kid’s sister—“sent to live with a relative in North Carolina”—and his mother—“your mother fine, fineboned”—went under the knife. As did comments from the father about the kid’s childhood: “You were a grand child.” Offhand remarks about him being “Black Irish” and of some “Saxon and Spanish blood” had to go as well. In the scheme of things, these are all relatively small editorial decisions, but decisive ones. The removal of explanation, of emotion and psychology, keeps the reader’s knowledge of the kid limited and, in a frustrating way, firmly out of reach. Even the novel’s famous opening, “See the child,” was winnowed down from the more evocative, playful “See the child let in the snow.”

Though McCarthy is a famously slow writer, the traditional author’s worries of plot and pacing and voice appear to only take up a modicum of McCarthy’s time. While I’m sure stylistic concerns gnaw at him, there are also whole pages of Blood Meridian that were, incredibly, written on first try (including the astonishing “legion of horribles” passage). Instead, McCarthy seems to spend most of his time hunched over in the post-production editing bay, mulling over the access he’s willing to grant the reader and splicing out any descriptive bits that might risk tainting us with a character’s psychology. In drafts, he writes sentences that make the contemporary reader sit up straight in his chair in revelation—“the kid could have shot the judge … His fatal weakness” or “The kid gives his own moral stand”—only to omit them in the next draft. It’s as if McCarthy writes these expository moments only for his own reference, knowing that later he’ll erase them and leave the reader to navigate by as dusty and torn a map as possible.

Since his first novel, 1965’s The Orchard Keeper, and through nine more, McCarthy has barely even acknowledged the idea of mind. By his own admission, he doesn’t much care for cerebral-obsessed writers like Henry James or Marcel Proust. “To me, that’s not literature,” he told one interviewer. For a McCarthy character, “He lay in the dark thinking” is about as close as you’re likely to get. Denis Donoghue has gone as far as to refer to McCarthy’s characters as “recently arrived primates, each possessing a spinal column but little or no capacity of mind or consciousness.”

These edits, though, help me understand McCarthy’s pathological resistance to elaboration as merely the final step in a multiphasic process. So when in an early draft the stoic leader of the mercenaries, John Joel Glanton, is for a fleeting moment almost three-dimensional, it’s not an alternative edit but the first step in a writing exercise:

Glanton looked like a man on whom reflection did not sit well. He looked like a man burdened with a thought beyond his utterance, yet he rose and put away his pipe and smiled at the men about and spoke of some piece of rogue wit and turned from them to seek his blankets.

That smile and reflection, of course, went out with the trash.  

McCarthy’s rubbish bin must be brimming with scraps of little sweat-tempered moments like this one—a pile that could amass to something like moral credit for his characters. In an early draft, for example, after wandering thirst-ridden and ravenous in the desert for days, the kid and another cowboy named Sproule ask a traveling team of Mexicans for some water, and the kid immediately hands the canteen to Sproule and “helps him” to drink from it. And then, a moment later when Sproule complains of pain in his gangrenous arm, the kid chimes in: “Quick as it gets light I’ll look at it if you want.” In Blood Meridian, however, the kid hauls off and gulps down the canteen and leaves Sproule to shake loose the last drops—and he certainly doesn’t give a shit about anyone’s arm.  

It could be said that McCarthy favors questions over answers. And that having too many redeemable qualities in a character or granting too much access to their psychology—however curt and brutish—gives the reader an unfair advantage in answering thorny questions about the book: Is the kid moral? Is he the judge’s moral foil? And, indeed, questions about the world: Is this the end of God and ethics? Whatever answers he might have in mind, McCarthy refuses to bend his rules to the reader’s demands. He’s committed to making us swallow Blood Meridian—and the savage realities of life—bones and gristle and all.

Because we’re robbed of the salve of psychology, every arrow hanging out of a man’s neck and every tree slung with dead babies is left to fester in our bellies. And we’re forced to puzzle out for ourselves just what to make of the judge and his unyielding diatribes:

Had you not seen [the world] from birth and thereby bled it of its strangeness it would appear to you for what it is, a hat trick in a medicine show, a fevered dream, a trance bepopulate with chimeras having neither analogue nor precedent, an itinerant carnival, a migratory tentshow whose ultimate destination after many a pitch in many a mudded field is unspeakable and calamitous beyond reckoning.

His inflamed oration, while orotund, borders on psychotic babble. And yet it offers very little clarity on just what to think of him. Madman or demon, it’s never even clear just what he’s the judge of. McCarthy probably could have told us. His editorial style confirms at least that much. And as a matter of fact, lurking in one draft is something—not quite an answer, but a faint relief. We learn that what we know of the judge is that of a “false mirror” and that Glanton has a “corrected” view of the “great ponderous djinn.” This confirms our deepest-held suspicions: The judge is a liar and something other than he says. But lucky for us, McCarthy never elaborated, and he went back and erased these clues. They would have eased our digestion of the novel and, indeed, might have ruined the whole show.

Early draft of jail scene with handwritten notes.

Early draft of jail scene with handwritten notes.

Courtesy The Cormac McCarthy Papers, Wittliff Collections, Texas State University.

Near the end of Blood Meridian, the kid drifts along the beaches of San Diego alone and stares out at the ocean. In an early draft, McCarthy made use of the solemn moment and took stock of the young man:

Nowhere in the universe was there a surface that could given him back his visage. …  Child of man … there is no reflection of your face. … False image of the myriad self in countless clones multiplied upon the earth’s frail crust in suicidal liceswarm and that false image of your figure repeated in countless clonings cannot speak. … Nothing to contain to confine to shape him to himself.

What’s truly revealing about McCarthy in this moment is how he abruptly cuts in on his own narration and addresses the kid directly. He tells him he’s lost himself, that’s he’s as good as dead. We see something in this moment that we almost never see: McCarthy given over to emotion.

It’s easy to forget that McCarthy is blood and bones. We often fall into the trap of thinking about artists, particularly the reclusive ones, as single-minded and stoic. But releasing your personal papers is, invariably, an exercise in vulnerability—and there are moments of it in McCarthy’s notes. In a letter sent around 1979, he told a close friend that he had not touched the Blood Meridian manuscript in six months out of frustration. In his notebooks he searched for inspiration, jotting down quotes from William James, Joseph Heller, Lord Byron, Martin Luther King Jr., Flaubert, and Wagner. And he was certainly not immune to bad ideas: Early on he fancied Blood Meridian to include period prints, mainly lithographs and woodcuts, illustrating the gang’s Western journey.

Peepholes into the lives of writers are, in the end, delusive—and perhaps best left alone. After reading through McCarthy’s papers, I now often find myself paralyzed by sections of his books, unable to go on when I taste a residue of meaning scrubbed from its bare textures. It’s as if in the margin of every haunting dreamscape or blind man’s musing I can see the palimpsest of that familiar note-to-self: “You can use this, but you must rewrite.” What was rewritten? What was here before? I can speculate and surmise and reasonably assume, but those sentences that were erased or left on the writing table were never to be. McCarthy seemed to have exactly this sentiment in mind when in The Road he asks, “How does the never to be differ from what never was?” He never answers.

Special thanks to Cormac McCarthy and Amanda Urban.

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