Harkness and Cormac McCarthy: A wonderful mess

A senior English class follows a winding path to understanding.

Patrick Garrity
February 13, 2018
Students in English class at Phillips Exeter Academy

Judge Holden is an evil one. The seniors in English 555 are slowly embracing this truth on a gloomy January morning.

Their discussion is sluggish to start. It’s Monday, A Block, which might explain their slow-dance around the table. But the conversation eventually takes hold around a character you can’t ignore: The Judge.

Cormac McCarthy’s roster of villains is long and disturbing after 10 novels, but the massive, monstrous Judge Holden in Blood Meridian has a special place in McCarthy’s horrible hall of fame. He’s 7 feet tall, hairless from head to toe, with a penchant for soliloquy and a lust for scalps. If not the devil himself, he is a close relation. McCarthy’s bad guys – the cannibals in The Road; Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men – often revel in their depravity, and Holden whistles while he works marauding his way across Old Mexico in the mid-19th century.

Characters like the judge, and novels like Blood Meridian, roused English Instructor Barbara Desmond to claim McCarthy as a subject in a senior seminar author immersion, even though she is relatively new to McCarthy's work. Literary critic Harold Bloom once called McCarthy “the worthy disciple of Faulkner and of Melville,” and declared that no other living American novelist “has given us a book as strong and memorable as Blood Meridian.”

The story is dark and terrifically violent. The book isn’t two pages old before the Kid – the protagonist, as it were, a runaway teenager – has taken to brawling in the streets of New Orleans and is shot twice by a Maltese boatswain. He lives, if for no other reason than there’s a lot of killing to see and do.

Soon after, McCarthy lays down the bass line for this tale in a hermit’s exchange with the Kid:

You can find meanness in the least of creatures, but when God made man, the devil was at his elbow. … You believe that?

I don’t know.

Believe that.

Desmond’s seniors are a hundred pages in as this sleepy Monday begins. They’ve been tasked with some discussion questions, and they also are trying to sort who’s who in the story and what their roles are meant to be. The conversation lurches. Who is the leader, Glanton or the Judge, someone asks? They try to dissect a particularly dense oration by the Judge that they sense is important. At one point, someone asks aloud: "What are we trying to figure out?"

Harkness is “messy,” History Instructor Meg Foley, Exeter’s Bates-Russell Distinguished Faculty Professor, has said. “If the students are controlling the directions of the discussion … then it’s likely that conversation will take a circuitous path.”

Desmond lets them take it, pointing to a passage that centers on a tarot card reading by a Spanish speaker.

"McCarthy deliberately doesn’t tell us what she’s saying," observes a girl. "Why does he leave it for the judge to interpret it?"

"The language barrier allows the judge to make up whatever he wants," adds a boy.

"He’s playing god," says another boy.

Most of the characters are battered by that hard place, but not the judge, the boy adds. He arrived in that wasteland the finished product, a happy purveyor of sin. "That’s why he is always riding around smiling," the boy says. "He’s not scared."

Desmond contains her excitement. She is careful not to express too much glee when her students nail it. Praise can waylay a Harkness discussion just as much as criticism. Says Foley about Harkness: “I believe the juicy stuff comes with wading through the mess, and sometimes a gem is found that I could never imagine.”