It is less useful to gawk at the "ungraspable" numinous essence of the frontier than it is to analyze how the West has been symbolized, and to consider the historical, ethical, and ideological ramifications of such symbolizations.
To move into and across "empty" spaces…is to occupy and claim those spaces.
— Carl Abbott
old and new americas
The representation of the frontier in David Brin’s The Postman (1985) and Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West (1985) not only allows for a critique of the “old” ideological strength of frontier imaginaries, but also opens up questions of the “new” return of these imaginaries during the end of the cold war at the height of the entrenchment of neolibrialism in the United States. The Postman and Blood Meridian operate on both old and new registers at once: each novel’s historical register can be seen largely through the imaginary of the frontier and the historical moment known as the 1980s. In these novels, the frontier is the mediating factor for a history in what once was a push into the space of west is now a push of deregulation and the free market (with their own hidden or obscured spatial attachments). These novels, in markedly different ways, recast the question of the frontier, presenting an opportunity for a political reading that traces the various “old” forms of violence within these novels through frontier history back to their source in a global economy now become neoliberal. This is not to say The Postman and Blood Meridian represent the frontier or their own period in precisely same way; for the former, the strategy remains largely embedded within a narrative frame that reveals how the development of relationships, in this case those of the liberal subject, works by displacing them onto an imagined future. There, the social relations giving way to a shrinking of the state and free market ideology are restaged in the displaced environment of the post-catastrophe west. While in the latter, the narrative strategy is one of disclosure: a de-romanticization of the frontier myth through a fictional situation which plays out the violent dispossession and murder of all parties opposing or merely in the way of Glanton’s gang. Blood Meridian simultaneously rewrites a history of the frontier as it generates a spatial mapping and details a process of accumulation in the west.
Before working through a reading of novels I would also like to put Fredrick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis on the table. Turner’s thesis posited that American development could not be entirely explained by production in the east, but had to take into account “the existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession and the advance of American settlement westward” (qtd, in Walsh 11). According to Turner, the disappearance of the frontier “closed the first period of American history” (qtd. in Walsh 12). In her 1981 study The American Frontier Revisited, Margaret Walsh points out that there are three ways of considering the frontier: “firstly as a condition or as unused resources awaiting exploitation, secondly as a process of recurring stages of settlement, and finally as a specific location or geographic region” (13). Walsh puts pressure on the implications of this within Turner’s argument asking, does freeness simply mean empty or does it mean available at little or no cost? She finds neither satisfactory as these lands were not empty and their seizure entailed an exchange marred by continuing deep inequalities.
Indeed, Turner’s thesis maintains a logical similarity to the Marxian concept of uneven development. Uneven development reads the contradiction of the accumulation of wealth by the capitalist class through the exploitation of the working class geographically, so that particular zones of capital accumulation appear to be more sophisticated or developed than other zones precisely because of their deeper exploitation of the latter. For David Harvey geographical unevenness causes a differentiated return on investment meaning that as different places compete with one another to attract investment this unevenness deepens, staging one local, regional, or national class against others (295). The frontier can be read as a particular zone of lesser development that was consumed in the process of its “Americanization,” to use Turner’s term, for cheap resources and land. The other side of this, something allegoically present in both novels, is the way in which the offshoring of production connected with neoliberal free markets continued the process of “Americanization” that Turner first registered until the label of the “frontier” (which in no way is meant to think the spread of national spaces necessarily as identical with the intimately related subsumption of spaces and peoples under global capital).
the postman as the return of the liberal subject
The Postman follows Gordon Krantz, mounting a liberal political-philosophical development as character development: from a Lockean state of nature, through to the birth of the liberal subject, and then on to the development of a social contract. The first state is short lived: as Krantz is robbed by some bandits but finds personal safety inside of an abandoned, hidden postvan. Here he muses on his situation, “Post-Chaos America had no tradition but survival. In his travels, Gordon had found that some isolated communities welcomed him in the same way minstrels had been kindly received far and wide in medieval days. In others, wild varieties of paranoia reigned. Even in those rare cases where he had found friendliness, where decent people seemed willing to welcome a stranger, Gordon had always, before long, moved on. Always, he found himself beginning to dream again of wheels turning and things flying in the sky” (33). This passage captures the first stage of the novel, and it also displays Brin’s layered narrative style where we can read Krantz’s observations as if they were his own through the mediation of a narrator. Krantz is always “finding” things are a certain way, which works against the frontier fantasy of starting anew.
The next stage of the postman’s progress involves a curious lie. In order to be accepted by small groups and communities, such as the town of Oakridge, Oregon, Krantz claims that he is a postman from the “Restored United States” and that he is one of the first sent to re-establish a line of communication. When challenged about his authority Krantz replies, “Gordon Krantz of the United States Postal Service. I’m the courier assigned to re-establish a mail route in Idaho and lower Oregon, and general inspector for the region” (76). It remains clear that no such restored body politic exists. Here, Krantz lies to be fed and eventually to gain consent for a restored mail route. The interesting consideration for us is that lies that are nation-building cease being lies at a critical point and become reality; as Krantz circulates the mail and his lies about a “Restored United States” reach more people they start to believe in his cause. Their belief is strong enough to allow people to change their behaviour and enact Krantz's lies, making them come true—the social contract is reborn.
Krantz sutures existing social relationships, forming a coalition between townspeople, a group of scientists called the Servants of Cyclops, and eventually a group of peaceful farms from South Oregon. Feeling the pressure of his lies, Krantz considers abandoning the coalition, but an emergent conflict intervenes. Just as he is about to abandon his position as postman, the Holnists – a gang of lawless toughs – attack the seat of the coalition's power: Corvallis, Oregon. Krantz responds by diving into battle: “Gordon had no illusions that he was a real leader. It was his image that held the Army of the Willamette together...his legendary authority as the Inspector—a manifestation of the nation reborn” (200). The characters feel the symbolic power endowed to Krantz by his postman uniform immediately and explicitly: the power vested in the uniform signals the lurking power of the nation that is actively imagined by Krantz as a still-available form for mobilizing bodies and harbouring belonging.
This movement of narrative focalization, from individual, to town, to state, although always centred on Krantz, is expanded on at the closing of the book: Krantz dreams of California and what survivors it may hold. The novel stages a broad series of events in the development of the liberal state working through the state of nature, the idea of the social contract, the formation of alliances against common enemies, and the expansion of the space of the state (both in the sense of territorial expansion and ideological expansion). A set of social relations are unfolding subtly at the same time under a developing mode of production. Here the development of liberal political-philosophy is shadowed stage by stage as the political economy of the collective moves from subsistence survival, to the reproduction of daily life, and then on to the possibility of full-scale agriculture and production within the diegesis of the novel. The fantasy of starting anew and yet replaying the stages of historical development that led to our historical present conjuncture marks the novel’s attempt to meditate on a different future. It does so in the sense that the displacement of the liberal narrative onto an imagined future space, despite its ideological residues, still attempts to imagine that this narrative future could be a better one. Which, it turns out, is the opposite of the drive in Blood Meridian, which instead re-imagines the past in its sheer brutality.
blood meridian an alternative history of the west
Some critics of McCarthy’s novel argue that it reworks a history of the south west that struggles to overcome the deeply racialized ideological oppositions that most frequently characterize frontier imaginaries. Billy Stratton argues that McCarthy’s treatment of the “emblematic mythico-historical themes” of the frontier “deconstructs the conventional narrative of the Western adventure novel that Blood Meridian initially seems modeled after” (152). Historian Neil Campbell reads Blood Meridian as an accurate representation of frontier history over and above Turner’s thesis: “According to Turner’s influential analysis, the frontier signified advancing waves of conflict across a wide and ever moving geographic plain where the social Darwinistic contest between Euro-American and Indigenous cultures took place, at the same time demarcating the boundaries for the symbolic ‘meeting place between savagery and civilization’” (qtd in Stratton 155).
Unlike The Postman, where the opening sharply displays the fantasy at the heart of some apocalypse survival stories, it is the ending of Blood Meridian to which I turn for an interpretive opening onto its gruesome exegesis. This passage comes at the end of the entire work, recalling the movement of Glanton and his gang, the bizarre archival activities of Judge Holden, and the horrible end faced by the kid; that is to say, it remains a critical tool for glancing into the registers of the text. I quote at length:
In the dawn there is a man progressing over the plain by means of holes which he is making in the ground. He uses an implement with two handles and he chucks it into the hole and he enkindles the stone in the hole with his steel hole by hole striking the fire out of the rock which God has put there. On the plain behind him are the wanderers in search of bones and those who do not search and they move haltingly in the light like mechanisms whose movements are monitored with escapement and pallet so that they appear restrained by prudence or reflectiveness which has no inner reality and they cross in their progress one by one that track of holes that runs to the rim of the visible ground and which seems less the pursuit of some continuance than the verification of a principle, a validation of sequence and causality as if each round and perfect hole owed its existence to the one before it there on that prairie upon which are the bones and the gatherers of bones and those who do not gather. He strikes fire in the hole and draws out his steel. Then they all move on again. (337)
In the passage, the man’s progress is not only marked by interplay between a metric and logic of extraction, the narrative offered around this sequence of extraction draws out a level of possibility within the passage which posits several categories for subjectivity: First, there is the man progressing; then, the wanderers in search of bones and those who do not search marked by their posture of restraint by prudence or reflectiveness,; finally, there are the bones, the gatherers of bones, and those who do not gather.
The Epilogue plays out the novel in meta-fictional miniature: Glanton’s gang are those who search, of course they include or generate their opposite, those who do not search, who remain static. Straton points out that the phrase, “and they rode on” is the most repeated one in the novel—it occurs more than thirty times. The last, short sentence of the epilogue explicitly states: “Then they all move on again.” The Epilogue also considers the repetition of the phrase in the novel through the digging of the fence posts, which each signify the next in a series and together construct a limit—property. This spatial-temporal relation is entrenched by the form of the passage on the level of the sentence—the process is described first in a long figurative Faulkner-esque sentence, and then encapsulated and serialized in the repetition of the phrase “He strikes fire in the hole and draws out his steel.” And then, of course, they all move on.
But this moving on is also a violent making room for what follows historically. The bones have been found, now they ontologically are and are being gathered by some but not by all. This uneven relation implies the Marxist category of primitive accumulation—a process characterized by the gathering of resources, here bones, until the sheer accumulation in the hands of a single set of individuals inaugurates the constitution of the exploiting class as can be seen in the number of bones (i.e. quantity) dialectically shape the formation of a new class (i.e. quality). In the passage at the very limit of the book this process is cast and recast as what was only just now described as quality – a new class – becomes quantity once more – serialization.
The Epilogue stands in as the centre piece for a reading of Blood Meridian interested in the implicit process of primitive and capitalist accumulation within an imaginary of the frontier, and its history, which is not to say Blood Meridian is history, but rather it is committed to thinking about how historical change takes place on two registers: a history of the frontier and a history of the present. In his opus on science fiction and theories of genre, Darko Suvin writes, “the spatial dominions of even the largest feudal landowner are finite: capital, the new historical form of property...has in principle no limits in extrapolated time” (73)—as an aside, financialization and debt both stand in as definite temporal limits, but that’s for another paper. For Blood Meridian, the “spatial dominions” of the frontier are finite as well, even as Turner noted in his famous frontier thesis. What Blood Meridian neatly, quickly accomplishes here is a crystallization of the development of the American west as a moment of primitive accumulation in the history of capitalist development.
Where Brin’s novel imagines a future history, McCarthy’s novel operates both as a sort of history leading to the present and an expose of the violence that lead up to western development, that is why the closing of the novel, which is also the fencing off of the frontier, remains so crucial for both novels. The answer to the question these novels generate, that is how do these novels write back to and about the 19th century American frontier, sounds rather straight-forward in retrospect: the frontier remains so persistent in 1984 because the ideological oppositions remained unsolved, because the driving force of capitalist expansion is recasting itself anew in the neoliberalization of the state and the market. The frontier persists as a key category for American imaginaries because it still captures the motor of capitalist expansion, whose movement always seeks new zones to make productive of capital (that is the valorization of capital in the Volume 1 sense through the exploitation of labour power in production and social reproduction that then generates surplus capital).
The American west, north-west and Mexican border region, stand as both zones in which capital can be allegorically represented and where it sought out new means and forces of production—from space to perform its operations and build its infrastructure to resources that fueled that expansion. These spaces were never empty zones from which to pull free resources or settle lands. In the fictional space of the American west within these novels, as well as the contemporary historical moment from which they emerged, there is no “outside” space. These spaces have already been worked over, torn up, and reconstituted. Capital as a total system with varying degrees of development requires and makes possible the graphically harsh violent relations of the frontier, and the insidious systemic violence of the system that made and remade the American west and that made and remade the seemingly free and open global south during the 1980s. Both The Postman and Blood Meridian, as much as they engage in the history of the frontier, can be read as attempts to think the present historically. Both attempt to think beyond closure either by representing a form of future history like The Postman or by formally intervening at limit point of the novel like Blood Meridian. Fredric Jameson, writing in 1982, argues that “closure or the narrative ending is the mark of that boundary or limit beyond which thought cannot go” (283). This is the contradiction I would like to end with, that in recognizing a real limit we can identify “where thought cannot go” and thus generate a sort of utopian moment: a utopian moment that is a negative version of the frontier where empty space is not so much what is clearly stretching out ahead, but that future form of relations so impossible it cannot be imagined, which is not to say that in trying to imagine it will we fail . . .
* – Originally presented in Waterloo, Ontario at the Congress of the Social Sciences and Humanities in a joint session of the Association of Canadian College and University Teachers of English/ Canadian Association for American Studies panel American Literature’s New Frontiers (28 May 2012).
Abbott, Carl. “Bigger Than Texas!” Frontiers Past and Future: Science Fiction and the American West. Lawrence, UP of Kansas, 2006. 176-187.
Brin, David . The Postman. (New York: Bantam Spectra, 1985).
Harvey, David. Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1996.
Higgins, David M. “Science Fiction and American Wests.” Science Fiction Studies. 35.1 (2008): 105-109.
Jameson, Fredric. “Progress Versus Utopia.” Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. (New York: Verso, 2005). 281-295.
McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian, or, The Evening Redness in the West. New York: Vintage, 1985.
Suvin, Darko. Metamorphoses of Science Fiction. New Haven: Yale UP, 1979.
Stratton, Billy J. “‘el brujo es un coyote’: Taxonomies of Trauma in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.” Arizona Quarterly 67.3 (Autumn 2011): 151-172.
Turner, Fredrick Jackson. The Significance of the Frontier in American History. (Ann Arbor: University Microfilms, 1966).
Walsh, Margaret. The American Frontier Reconsidered. London: MacMillan, 1981.
Labels: Blood Meridian, post-apocalypse, primitive accumulation, science fiction, the 80s, The Postman