Cormac McCarthy’s Surprisingly Emotional First Drafts

Reading between the lines.
Oct. 5 2012 11:30 PM

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.

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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.  

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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.

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Special thanks to Cormac McCarthy and Amanda Urban.

Noah Gallagher Shannon is a writer and editor and works for a literary agency in Washington, D.C.

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