©Mary Crockford June 11, 2017
If the American West can claim a process of creation, it would not be the narrativized “romantic heroic life of the Plains” or rediscovered Garden of Eden portrayed in colorist art and literature of the turn-of-the-century United States. Rather, it could be described as a precipitous and painful labor characterized by pangs of “crisis of representation” (Lewis 109) denounced by Naturalist authors of the period as birthing a false and even bastardized national identity. Though separated by decades and elements of literary style, Stephen Crane’s “The Blue Hotel” and Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian as historiographic metafiction subvert the pathetic fallacy behind the romanticized frontier narrative, and unmask an amoral and even godless culture of ethnocentricity, sexism and violence underneath.
Specifically Crane’s Scully and the Swede, and McCarthy’s Judge Holden and the Kid, personify the progressive arc of prejudice and war, the “attraction-repulsion relationship” (Sepich 1) between rugged individualism and interests of governing authority, and ambivalence toward the redrawing of social and geographic borders under Manifest Destiny’s quest for a masculine national identity. Through these characters and the destructive consequences on the communities and landscapes encountered while enacting their vision of Western dominion, McCarthy and Crane reject the appropriation of the Romantic pastoral idyll to justify hegemonic masculinity’s conquest of the ‘primitive’ – especially the Indian, Mexican, black, and immigrant “of ethnic dispositions” (Zanger 160) – and of Nature itself in the taming of the putatively Edenic West.
In “The Blue Hotel,” an immigrant introduced as “a shaky and quick-eyed Swede” is mesmerized by the artificially bright blue facade of the Palace Hotel, which “no traveler could pass…without looking at it” since its proprietor, Scully, “had proved himself a master at choosing paints” (Crane 484). Scully, while appearing to be a “nimble and merry and kindly” good Samaritan, presides as “both a devil and priest” (Juan-Navarro 44) over a literal hell-hole capitalizing on wayfarers’ wish not to offend thus “practically making them prisoners” (485). On the surface, he appears to have rescued the travelers from the sort of violent winter storm that frequently strands in Fort Romper those making the pilgrimage West by train:
At last, Scully, elaborately, with boisterous hospitality, conducted them through
the portals of the blue hotel. The room which they entered was small. It seemed
to be merely a proper temple for an enormous stove, which, in the center, was
humming with godlike violence. (485).
The storm symbolizes the naturalist author’s view of the universe not as breathlessly awaiting godlike male domination and activation, but as hostile and governed by “deterministic forces…over which [men] have no control” (Sorrentino 104). The roaring stove, “luminous and glow[ing] yellow from the heat” (Crane 485) represents the same philosophy’s view of a mechanical, impersonal god who is at best ineffectual, and at worst capriciously endorsing of the violence brewing below the superficial courtly manners of the West.
The “badly frightened” Swede’s bravado and “furtive estimates of each man in the room” reveal the the alien’s horror at discovering not the “glowing commonplace” (485) of a masculine haven which would edify and enlarge the heroic individualist, but a community of men reflecting back upon him a conventionally tropic but directionless masculinity:
Beside the stove Scully’s son Johnnie was playing High-Five with an old
farmer who had whiskers both gray and sandy. They were quarreling.
Frequently the old farmer turned his face toward a box of sawdust–
colored brown with tobacco juice—that was behind the stove, and spat
with an air of great impatience and irritation. With a loud flourish of words
Scully destroyed the game of cards, and bustled his son upstairs with part of
the baggage of the new guests. (Crane 485)
The Swede’s commingled shock and disappointment at the “radical ordinariness” (Trotter 47) behind the Wild West facade, is magnified inside the dimly lit hotel with its deceptively bright exterior symbolizing the commodification “through tourism and touring spectacles” and other false representations of hospitality and nostalgia in the “selling of the West” (Lewis 111).
Scully’s “officious clamor” (Crane 485) toward his daughters and heaping of the emasculating “burden of grievance” on his shiftless son Johnnie (488) while fawning over the provocative and demanding Swede, critiques the monotony and marginalization of women as servants compared to the ‘working men’ in the room, indicative of “the damaging manifestation of the patriarchal tradition” (Lewis 153) behind the mirage of hospitality in the rapidly commercializing West.
Having internalized the glorified Wild West myth marketed by publishers and advertisers in America and abroad, the Swede does not flee the atmosphere of simmering rage which Scully harbors toward guests and even his own children. Rather, he subjugates his intellect and survival instincts and partakes in rituals obliquely parodying the Eucharist and the Last Supper – face washing and drinking from Scully’s hidden stash of whiskey – which foreshadow his death. As “Crane’s paranoid martyr” (Juan-Navarro 4) he mocks the image of the cowboy as an Arthur-type Christ figure, repeatedly prophesies his own murder, insisting that the small collective of male stereotypes gathered in the hotel – a cowboy bound for the iconically ‘rugged’ Dakota Territories, an aloof East Coast intellectual, a grizzled old farmer, and Scully’s sole male heir (Crane 489), Johnnie – agree with his prophesy of a violent death as the only logical outcome of their interaction:
[Johnnie] began to shuffle the cards, fluttering them together with an
angry snap… “He says a good many men have been killed in this room, or
something like that. And he says he’s goin’ to be killed here too. I don’t know
what ails him. He’s crazy, I shouldn’t wonder.” (Crane 488)
The confused transplant’s “inexplicable excitement in spite of believing his life imperiled, and the foursome’s leery “silence of experienced men who tread carefully amid new people” (Crane 485, 487) in light of his increasingly irascible behavior, recall the refusal of Christ’s disciples to accept the inevitability of his crucifixion, and in the case of Johnnie, Peter’s three denials of Jesus, relocated by Crane to a melodramatic scenario grounded in “popular nostalgia and dime-novel fantasy” (Lewis 111) of the West.
The Swede’s acquiescence to his own constructed vision of the West is a response to media “from commercial design and advertising to literature” (Lewis 4) encouraging immigration and investment in the young West:
“And,” said Scully, “there’s a new railroad goin’ to be built down from Broken
Arm to here. Not to mintion the four churches and the smashin’ brick
schoolhouse….Why, in two years Romper’ll be a met-tro-pol-is.” (Crane 490) Such exchanges between Scully and the Swede also illustrate the coopting of Judeo-Christian “illusions of innocence” (Lewis 4) and Kingdom manifestation inspiring would-be Adams to populate a domain proffered as a New Jerusalem – the burgeoning entrepreneurial Utopia of the West.
Cormac McCarthy’s postmodern novel Blood Meridian is an even more brutal departure from the dime-store novel than those of Crane and other forerunners aiming for “the greater verisimilitude of the realists of the late nineteenth century.” McCarthy violently inverts the local colorist’s “lively sketch” endowing cowboys and outlaws alike with “hearts of gold and pure motives beneath their rough and crude exteriors.” Through multiple modes of literary subversion designed to overturn prospects of Western authorship in a “Real West [that] did not exist” (Lewis 111), including intensely graphic violence ranging massacres of women and children to rape and necrophilia, McCarthy rejects altogether the concerns of his turn-of-the-century Realist predecessors having “no wish to affront eastern drawing room and editorial sensibilities” (Etulain 22) when addressing fallacious narratives of American Western Expansion.
Like The Blue Hotel’s Johnnie, McCarthy’s the Kid is an ironic subversion of the Arthur-Christ conqueror of the plains, who at fourteen already has “a taste for mindless violence” whetted by a schoolmaster father who “lies in drink” and “quotes from poets” (McCarthy 3). From the beginning of the novel, women are marginalized within the text, pointing to the interests of male hegemony in frontier expansion, from a sister “he will not see again” to his mother dying in childbearing with a name his father “never speaks” (3). Thus he associates his very existence with abandonment and death, and his individuality and masculinity lack any concrete referent beyond that of his father who likens his birth to the casting out of Lucifer from heaven, in which “stars did fall” leaving “blackness” and “holes in the heavens.” The father’s cruel characterization of his son’s birth as a cataclysmic rending of the heavens – and reference to the year “Thirty-three” (3) suggesting Christ’s age at crucifixion – foreshadow his premature death at perhaps the same age (though in the epilogue he is only called “the man”), as well as Judge Holden’s Gnostic pontifications and blasphemous claims of bringer of divine justice and retribution throughout the novel.
McCarthy’s anti-pastoral inversion of the Edenic West is set during the Mexican-American War, in a post-apocalyptic landscape whose “true geology was not stone but fear” (49). Largely abandoned except by mobs of Mexicans, Indians and other reputed “degenerates” and “heathen hordes…looting and killing with impunity” (36), the “blue and barren…demon kingdom” (49) becomes the site of war for dominion over the Purgatorial wastes of the Darwinian West:
There’s no government in Mexico. Hell, there’s no God in Mexico. Never will be.
We are dealing with a people manifestly incapable of governing themselves. And
do you now what happens with people who cannot govern themselves? That’s right.
Others come in to govern for them. (36)
Though addressing Mexicans in particular, including “[e]nlightened Mexicans” (36) ostensibly supporting secession from Mexico, Captain White’s view as leader of the filibusters espouses not only his own preference for white male hegemony in governing the West, but that of the Naturalist’s view that man is inherently amoral, violent and ungovernable.
In joining the Filibusters and then the Glanton Gang, the Kid subconsciously seeks communion and even the precarious protection from “the perils and accidents of life” (Rockforth) membership affords, dangers from emasculation by sexual molestation, or murder and postmortem sodomy by the same “ignorant heathen savage” (McCarthy 148) that he and the Glanton Gang brutalize through the “unapologetic randomness” of “massacres…shootings, rape” (Jillett 118) and bodily desecration after death:
Then [the judge] ripped open the man’s drawers with his knife. Tied alongside
the dark genitals was a small skin bag and this the judge cut away…he seized
the dark locks and swept them up from the sand and cut away the scalp. Then
they rose and returned, leaving him to scrutinize with his drying eyes the
calamitous advance of the sun. (117)
For the Glanton Gang, scalping of ‘savages’ (a label which includes ethnic females), is not only lucrative, but fulfills the subversive rugged individualist’s desire for male camaraderie and “bully sport” (Rockforth). In the historical American West, a scalp served as “proof of the Indian’s death, given the lengths to which an Indian would go to protect his[/her] body from this disfigurement” (Sepich 7). Upon capturing and scalping an Indian, who believed that loss of the scalp prevented entry into eternity after death, the taking of the scalp served a double purpose of white ‘warrior’ legitimization, and the ‘savage’s’ physical and spiritual emasculation.
On a deeper level, McCarthy’s Kid seeks significance in “the existential abyss” (Schimpf 11) mirrored in the convulsing ecosystems of the American Plains, the Edenic wasteland in whose emptiness he nonetheless still scans “for some guidance” (McCarthy 70) and meaning. But his spiritual blindness finds no remedy riding among the “ordained agents” dividing the Plains’ spoils, but mocks him in the “the drowned and sightless eyes” (73) of Captain White’s severed head floating in a jar of mescal, and from the lacerated eyes of Sproule, who as a dejected Lazarus “would not rise” from the blood-soaked ground (70).
Like Crane’s Scully in “The Blue Hotel,” Judge Holden is a master of language and manipulator of perception, who controls the subversive band of apostles he gathers around him by appealing to primal urges of male dominance, competition and survival. His use of Tarot frames a dangerous brand of gnosticism in which “war is the truest form of divination” and “no line of conduct of [man’s] own can avail him for good or evil” (Schimpf 115) in his quest to dominate man and nature. He is the pale and hairless serpent in the Garden of Eden who rejects scripture and performs acts of ritualistic violence resembling baptism and resurrection of the dead:
[He] stepped into the river and seized up the drowning idiot, snatching it aloft
by the heels like a great midwife and slapping it on the back to let the water
out. A birth scene or a baptism or some ritual not yet inaugurated into any
canon. He twisted the water from its hair and he gathered the naked and sobbing
fool into his arms and carried it up into the camp and restored it among its
Such scenes throughout the novel establish the judge as Lucifer who “among the gods has the ascendancy over” all men, and with it power over life and death. Cast from heaven but granted dominion over the earth represented in the anti-pastoral West, his power is usurped from a God whose “wrath lies sleeping” (43) while he carries his “war of a madman’s making onto [the] foreign land” of the Southwestern desert (43).
Throughout the novel, the judge strips women, orphans, and physical or mental deficients of gender legitimacy by referring to them by terms such as “whore” and “it.” In the novel’s beginning he divines the lack of individual masculine identity within the dispossessed teenager, who in a mock representation of Christ’s triumphal entry to Jerusalem, rides past a burning hotel and falls under the judge’s perversely pedagogical gaze:
A few men sat horseback watching the flames and one of these was the judge.
As the kid rode past the judge turned and watched him. He turned the horse, as if
he’d have the animal watch too. When the kid looked back the judge smiled.
As Scully did with Crane’s homeless Swede, the Judge capitalizes on the directionless vision and “longing for that unknown frontier” (Rockforth) residing in the soul of McCarthy’s Kid, and claims the mantle of mythic masculinity behind the forging of the white man’s West.
With his watchful gaze and smile, the Judge also becomes the archetypal reference point of pedagogic evil – a Pied Piper who recruits the orphaned Kid to enact his satanic vision of the West’s degeneration into a self-styled hell on Earth. His apparent power over the cosmos and nature compels both the awe and fear of his men, though the Kid demonstrates independent thought and occasional sympathy for the gang’s victims, unlike the rest who are both captivated and terrified by the Judge’s depravity and schoolmaster powers of persuasion:
The expriest turned and looked at the kid. And that was the judge the first ever I
saw him. Aye. He’s the thing to study.
The kid looked at Tobin. What’s he a judge of? he said.
What’s he a judge of?
What’s he a judge of?
Tobin glanced off across the fire. Ah, lad, he said. Hush now. The man will hear
ya. He’s ears like a fox. (McCarthy 141)
Such moments of questioning of the judge’s authority foreshadow the Kid’s doom because he does not fully succumb to the Judge’s offering of “universal fascination of utopian speculations of both the apocalyptic and demonic sort” (Dudley and Novak 30) and power over the cosmos, nature, and human will.
The Judge does not simply profess manhood, but claims the mantel of godhood. Described as “a ponderous djinn” (McCarthy101), he is bald and covered with “folds of hairless skin” (97). But the “cunning old malabarista” (100) is a master of sleight of hand and claims knowledge of truths “that no man’s mind can compass” (256). His philosophy of life echoes the philosophy of social Darwinism, but even more so the fallen angel presiding over the West’s “whited regions where [men have] gone to hide from God” (46), demanding worship for himself:
Man’s vanity may well approach the infinite in capacity but his knowledge
remains imperfect and howevermuch he comes to value his judgements
ultimately he must submit them to a higher court. Here there can be no special
pleading. Here are considerations of equity and rectitude and moral right
rendered void and without warrant and here are the views of the litigants
The Judge justifies his barbarism as a matter of righteousness, claiming “War is the ultimate game…a forcing of the unity of existence” and that “War is god” (261). He is the ironic shadow of the Wild West sheriff whose deputies maintain order in a virginal and lawless West, the demonic mirror of the angel guarding the Garden of Eden whose flaming sword prevents reentry of sinful humanity.
The kid, as a rebellious disciple of the Judge’s, openly challenges him when he is condemned to die for the Judge’s “[E]ventuating in the massacre at the ford” (318). Though not innocent of his own amorality and violence as a member of the gang, he refuses to accept the the version of events the Judge recites through the bars of his jail cell as he waits to be hanged:
You came forward, he said, to take part in the work. But you were a witness
against yourself. You sat in judgement on your own deeds. You put your own
allowances and you broke with the body of which you were pledged a part and
poisoned it in all its enterprise. (319)
To the Judge, humanity is a collective of “vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing,” enacting “separate wills thereby made manifest” (261), yet subject to a moral law under which he is always guilty and condemned.
If the bulk of Blood Meridian’s narrative is grotesque, its ending is genuinely carnivalesque. Through an aura of hallucination and nightmare, he fulfills the role of scapegoat or “dumb animal” cast into the wilderness, or “down into the darkness” (345) of hell, for sins not his own. The serenade by a company of a dancing, bullet-riddled bear, a fiddler, and whores “calling drunkenly for the music” while wearing “men’s drawers” and other “trophies” scavenged off the bodies of slain soldiers (348), echoes the the novel’s beginning in which he first slaked his thirst for violence in the “small and perilous garden” with its trickle of unholy water, and bush “hung with dead babies” (60).
The Kid not only challenges the adequacy of the romantic conceits of heroism and individuation found in early Western novels, but he is a type of Adam violently expelled from Eden, and arguably an blasphemous inversion of Christ raped and murdered in Gethsemane, thus prevented from redeeming America from its collective warring and capitalist sins. In his dizzying graduation from orphaned child to serial murderer, he tortuously tests the view of Zola’s insistence that “naturalism is but a form of romanticism after all” (Dorson 126).
As literary casualties of postmodern brutality and violence, the deaths of both Crane’s Swede and McCarthy’s Kid are self-fulfilling prophesy facilitated by their own decisions to join their fates with men of godlessness and violence. One part prisoner to the exigencies of survival in the West, and one part willful participants in its violent manifestation, their stories function marginally as “constructed…captivity narratives” (Lewis 111) defying the utopian vision of the West that both Crane and McCarthy reject.
The Swede’s infuriating attachment to this imaginary vision of the West, and the effectuation of his trumpeted death “alone in the saloon” with his “eyes fixed upon a dreadful legend” above the establishment’s cash register (Crane 506) is an ironic surrendering his own individual authenticity on the altar of New West commerce. The Kid’s refusal of the Judge’s “string in a maze” vision of the “order of creation” (McCarthy 245), and his rape in view of “squadrons of whores” (345) is the grotesque “gesture of the martyr” (Crane 488) and a horrifying symbol of the crisis of confidence of “postbellum America[n] …anxiety and insecurity” regarding literary authenticity in a West still under imaginative and actual construction.
Both men are symbolic Adams, cast out of a false Eden founded on flawed conceptions of individualism and masculinity, and complicated by “the epistemological problem of man’s inability to interpret [a] universe” (Juan-Navarro 37). In the ‘universe’ of the romanticized West, embodied in the dangerously duplicitous Scully and Judge Holden, Crane’s and McCarthy’s problematic but visionary protagonists learn too late that “the same object can possess two different natures or essences” and that “some dreams are better pursued than realized” (Dirda 41-42).
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