McCarthy’s Early Drafts of Blood Meridian

If you are convinced, as I am, that Cormac McCarthy is among our greatest living writers, and that Blood Meridian is his masterpiece to date, then you’ll want to take a look at this. If you aren’t, or think that McCarthy’s genius is somehow cancelled out by Oprah’s endorsement, or haven’t gotten around to reading Blood Meridian–the absolute last Western that need ever be written–then you will still want to take a look at it.


First page of an early draft of Blood Meridian circa 1975.
Courtesy The Cormac McCarthy Papers, Wittliff Collections, Texas State University, via Slate.

Noah Gallagher Shannon, at Slate, has spent some time immersed in Texas State University-San Marco’s collection of McCarthy’s papers, which include a number of early drafts of Blood Meridian, and he offers a guided tour to the strange making (unmaking?) of the book.

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.

2 Comments

  • Melissa says:

    I neglected to comment originally, but I found this really interesting. I also love the last paragraph of the article, where the writer going through McCarthy’s papers says it’s fascinating and frustrating, trying to assign meaning to why X changed and Y didn’t, and he seems to think it’s almost not worth the effort, that it nearly ruins the enjoyment of the finished product.

    • Jonathan Frey Jonathan Frey says:

      That aspect was interesting to me too, the sense that, instead of enlarging his appreciation of the novel, this peak behind the curtain somehow compromises the alchemy of the thing.

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