Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A work of bloody vengeance - Ruxton's Blood Meridian

When I described George Frederick Ruxton’s 1848 fictionalized account of the lives of Rocky Mountain fur trappers, Life in the Far West,  as “postmodern” and “my favorite Victorian novel” and so on, I was joking, up to a point, although it in fact does use several techniques associated with postmodern fiction, and is in fact a Victorian novel, however unusual its subject matter.  I could also have described it, more credibly, as an application of the methods of Walter Scott, or, for all I know, of Bulwer Lytton, to the place and time that Ruxton knew well and had witnessed for himself.

As much as I enjoyed Life in the Far West, the novel left no doubt why it is well-known among historians of the American West and entirely ignored by scholars of English literature.  Ruxton’s novel is competent but not complex; memorable for its material but not a strong candidate for re-reading.  Layers of meaning will fail to unfold, mostly.

But that material, that surface meaning!  About two-thirds of the way through the book, the fur trapper protagonists decide, for no clear reason, to become horse thieves, joining a party that plans to raid the herds of the California missions.  No, I am wrong, two reasons are clear:  the love of pure risk, and an undirected vengeance on Native Americans.  The raiders begin in Colorado.  It is a long way to California.  There are a lot of Indians in between.

Threats of vengeance on every Redskin they met were loud and deep; and the wild war-songs round their nightly camp-fires, and grotesque scalp-dances, borrowed from the Indians, proved to the initiated that they were, one and all, “half-froze for hair.”  Soon after Killbuck and La Bonté joined them, they one day suddenly surprised a band of twenty Sioux, scattered on a small prairie and butchering some buffalo they had just killed.  Before they could escape, the whites were upon them with loud shouts, and in three minutes the scalps of eleven were dangling from their saddle-horns. (140)

The most interesting aspect of Life in the Far West is Ruxton’s adoption of the moral perspective of the mountain men, who have themselves adapted the mores of the Rocky Mountain Native Americans.  Ruxton’s book is violent, but until this point the trappers and Indians existed in some sort of parity.  They squabbled and traded, fought and cooperated.  With this episode, though, the book turns into a prefiguration of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian; the violence becomes concentrated, in purpose if not scale beginning to resemble genocide.

Actually, I doubt McCarthy ever wrote a sentence like this:

We will not follow them in their work of bloody vengeance, save by saying that they followed the savages to their villages, into which they charged headlong, recovered their stolen horses, and returned to camp at sundown with thirteen scalps dangling from their rifles, in payment for the loss of their unfortunate companion. (144)

McCarthy would have followed the mountain men, no matter how horrible the results, and would have intended the irony of horse thieves exacting righteous vengeance on other horse thieves, and savored the horrifying misapplication of the word “savages.”


  1. The University of Oklahoma Press blurb about "the heroic age of the Mountain Men" seems somewhat inadequate in the face of these excerpts. Do you think Scott would have exploited the ironies you point out here, about the term "savages," for instance? I'm not sure, but it's hard to imagine him being as completely lacking in self-awareness as Ruxton seems to be. But maybe I give him too much credit.

  2. I believe you are right about Scott, and I have indirect evidence from one of his disciples. Francis Parkman, who had the insight that Scott could be imported into and improve actual history writing, does just what you suggest.

    He uses the word "savage" all the time, too often, but also applies it to the worst acts of white settlers, and explicitly points to the similarity, or even worse (for the "civilized" people), the differences, the true barbarism of smallpox-infected blankets and so on.