Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 16, 2008

Herman Melville and Cormac McCarthy: an A-B comparison

Filed under: literature — louisproyect @ 2:59 pm

Gold versus Bullshit

Herman Melville

Cormac McCarthy

A Lexis-Nexis search containing both “Herman Melville” and “Cormac McCarthy” returns 116 articles. As you can probably guess, most of them are in effusive praise of McCarthy, hailing him as the second coming of my favorite author. This is typical from John Banville, a steadfast member of the McCarthy cult:

The Crossing is not an easy book. The prose is stark and densely muscled, the punctuation eccentric. Much of the dialogue is in Spanish (though it is surprisingly easy to follow). There are long philosophical digressions which frequently topple over into pathos. Despite all this, the book is an astonishing achievement, admirable for its nerve as much as for its persuasiveness. McCarthy has his precursors – Melville, Hemingway, Jack London – yet he is unique in contemporary writing.

(The Irish Times, August 27, 1994)

Keeping this comparison in the back of your mind, let’s take a look at a sample of Melville side-by-side with McCarthy:

From chapter 36 of “Moby Dick“:

All this while Tashtego, Daggoo, and Queequeg had looked on with even more intense interest and surprise than the rest, and at the mention of the wrinkled brow and crooked jaw they had started as if each was separately touched by some specific recollection.

“Captain Ahab,” said Tashtego, “that white whale must be the same that some call Moby Dick.”

“Moby Dick?” shouted Ahab. “Do ye know the white whale then, Tash?”

“Does he fan-tail a little curious, sir, before he goes down?” said the Gay-Header deliberately.

“And has he a curious spout, too,” said Daggoo, “very bushy, even for a parmacetty, and mighty quick, Captain Ahab?”

“And he have one, two, tree – oh! good many iron in him hide, too, Captain,” cried Queequeg disjointedly, “all twiske-tee betwisk, like him – him – ” faltering hard for a word, and screwing his hand round and round as though uncorking a bottle – “like him – him – “

“Corkscrew!” cried Ahab, “aye, Queequeg, the harpoons lie all twisted and wrenched in him; aye, Daggoo, his spout is a big one, like a whole shock of wheat, and white as a pile of our Nantucket wool after the great annual sheep-shearing; aye, Tashtego, and he fan-tails like a split jib in a squall. Death and devils! men, it is Moby Dick ye have seen – Moby Dick – Moby Dick!”

“Captain Ahab,” said Starbuck, who, with Stubb and Flask, had thus far been eyeing his superior with increasing surprise, but at last seemed struck with a thought which somewhat explained all the wonder. “Captain Ahab, I have heard of Moby Dick – but it was not Moby Dick that took off thy leg?”

“Who told thee that?” cried Ahab; then pausing, “Aye, Starbuck; aye, my hearties all round; it was Moby Dick that dismasted me; Moby Dick that brought me to this dead stump I stand on now. Aye, aye,” he shouted with a terrific, loud, animal sob, like that of a heart-stricken moose; “Aye, aye! it was that accursed white whale that razeed me; made a poor pegging lubber of me for ever and a day!” Then tossing both arms, with measureless imprecations he shouted out: “Aye, aye! and I’ll chase him round Good Hope, and round the horn, and round the norway maelstrom, and round perdition’s flames before I give him up. And this is what ye have shipped for, men! to chase that white whale on both sides of land, and over all sides of earth, till he spouts black blood and rolls fin out. What say ye, men, will ye splice hands on it, now? I think ye do look brave.”

“Aye, aye!” shouted the harpooneers and seamen, running closer to the excited old man: “A sharp eye for the White Whale; a sharp lance for Moby Dick!”

“God bless ye,” he seemed to half sob and half shout. “God bless ye, men. Steward! go draw the great measure of grog. But what’s this long face about, Mr. Starbuck; wilt thou not chase the white whale? art not game for Moby Dick?”


From chapter 3 of “Blood Meridian”. McCarthy does not enclose his dialog in quotes, a breakthrough–I suppose–that ranks with Virginia Woolf’s stream of consciousness in the eyes of his cult followers.

How old are you, son?


The captain nodded his head. He was looking the kid over. What happened to you?


Say sir, said the recruiter Sir?

I said what happened to you

Robbers, said the captain

Not no more I aint.

Where was it you were robbed

I was comin from Naca, Naca Nacogdoches? Yeah.

Yessir. Yessir.

How many were there? The kid stared at him.

Robbers. How many robbers.

Seven or eight, I reckon. I busted in the head with a scantling.

The captain squinted one eye at him. Were they Mexicans?

Some. Mexicans and niggers. They was a white or two with em. They had a bunch of cattle they’d stole. Only thing they left me with was a old piece of knife I had in my boot.

The captain nodded. He folded his hands between his knees. What do you think of the treaty? he said.

The kid looked at the man on the settle next to him. He had his eyes shut. He looked down at his thumbs. I dont know nothin about it, he said.

I’m afraid that’s the case with a lot of Americans, said the captain. Where are you from, son?


You werent with the Volunteers at Monterrey were you?

No sir.

Bravest bunch of men under fire I believe I ever saw. I sup­pose more men from Tennessee bled and died on the field in northern Mexico than from any other state. Did you know that?

No sir.

They were sold out. Fought and died down there in that desert and then they were sold out by their own country.

The kid sat silent.


  1. What’s your point, Lou? You’re comparing apples and oranges.

    Comment by John B. — February 19, 2008 @ 1:13 am

  2. Well, I will get more into this when I am done with “Blood Meridian” and preparing my response but to compare Cormac McCarthy’s horrible, Hobbesian, poorly written mess to “Moby Dick” is sheer sacrilege. Plus, I will make the point that Melville was not shy about explaining his beliefs as opposed to the tight-lipped McCarthy who has never bothered to explain why he has written such a dreadful book. Reading it is roughly equivalent to reading a novel about the exploits of a Nazi battalion in Russia in 1941 laying waste to peasant villages and murdering Jews–THAT TAKES NO POSITION ON THE EVENTS TAKING PLACE.

    Comment by louisproyect — February 19, 2008 @ 1:20 am

  3. I see absolutely no correlation between these passages – other than they are both in the category of fiction. The “Gold versus bullshit” line at the top is juvenile to say the least and you make no structured argument whatsoever – especially considering you haven’t actually finished the McCarthy book before posting a webpage filled with righteous indignation. It seems to me the problem with the Internet is it’s full of Uninformed Strong Opinions that require nothing to back them up other than their own heartfelt measly existence and a laptop but I guess that’s the price of freedom of speech. You know the old adage – Opinions are like *ssholes, everybody’s got one. (Parentheses excluded – McCarthy style)

    Comment by James — March 31, 2008 @ 11:35 am

  4. This is a blanket comment for the several posts on McCarthy No Country for Old Men and McCarthy and Melville (see what I did there).

    As far as the disrespect-and it is disrespect, not criticism-of McCarthy’s style, it seems that the major contention lies in his punctuation and run-on/stream-of-consciousness prose. To this, I say that McCarthy is one in a line of many that has experimented with this style; attacking him is analogous to attacking Joyce, Faulkner, Pynchon et al., which, if done, would completely discredit you as a literary critic. Not that these styles have to be favorites, but discounting the literature of the past century will make others immediately stop listening to anything you have to say, which is unwise when you’re trying to argue something. McCarthy also uses this style well and somewhat uniquely in my opinion, which ultimately is what all of these posts are. Another thing that bothered me is your comment that “and… and… and” sentences should be restricted for depicting “fast” scenes (referring to tortilla scene); this is something a secondary school english teacher will tell you, but these aren’t the rules authors play by, and twisting these rules is what makes authors interesting to read… but that was a digression. As far as the disrespect of McCarthy’s content, it seems that the major contention lies in his apathetic, nihilistic characters that witness the worst of human depravity and have no moral comment on it. I don’t see why this is a problem because it is more the character of the common person than they would like to think; depraved actions, and definitely depraved thoughts, occur around us daily but we take no heed of them. People can eat their supper watching the news of murders, frauds, molestations, adultery, etc; college students hear their roommates jack-off and still pretend to be asleep; children die everywhere around the world but no one cares unless it was theirs or a close friends; the Oedipus and Elektra complexes are drilled into our thought but we can still look our parents and/or children in the eye. You’ll find that McCarthy’s ‘protagonists’ (quotations to be explained when addressing No Country for Old Men) except for Lester Ballard rarely take part in any unusual depravity, but are simply silent to it. Also, small altruistic deeds pepper every McCarthy book (sharing drinks, ‘forgetting’ debts, free food and rides, sparing a life, life-saving advice) but these are always overlooked. I will admit that McCarthy highlights the darkness of his landscapes, but so did Melville (your favorite I believe) the Bronte sisters, Poe, Hawthorne, and Seneca to recall those that come to mind first; and though his characters exhibit a lack of pathos which you seem to hate he is not alone in this among respected authors (think Pynchon, Heller, and other post-modern writers). For these reasons I discount your argument against McCarthy; it would have been more acceptable if you didn’t try to discredit him as a respectable author but instead conceded that you simply didn’t enjoy any of the material he’s published (but, I have the knack that you’ve only read Blood Meridian and No Country for Old Men, if those).

    As far as the No Country… film, it seems lost on nearly every other poster that a film cannot capture in approximately two hours what a book does in several hundred pages. Obviously the film will not be as fleshed out as the novel; that being said it was an excellent film. It seems that the biggest contentions with posters were the ending, the killing of Llewellyn, and the depiction of Chigurgh. To the ending: I didn’t know what to think at first either, but the motif of carrying the flame recurs in The Road (book and film) and recalls to me both Prometheus and Anchises, Aeneas, and Ascanius (esp. the last trio; the former to a small extent); some message like “civilization (e.g. Troy) is crumbling but we will carry on.” If looked at in that light, McCarthy’s actually sending an uplifting message in several of his texts that we must rise above the depraved world around us; in fact, the blurb of Suttree notes that the character rises above the depravity of his river life, but readers still seem to focus on what he does wrong; and no one ever notes the kid’s aversion to violence in Blood Meridian. To the killing of Llewellyn: several of McCarthy’s ‘protagonists’ are not the main character (e.g. the kid in Blood Meridian) and Llewellyn is one of these; McCarthy’s world is a dynamic one which does not stop for the climatic feud between Chigurgh and Llewellyn; he is killed as he likely could have been; an aesthetic choice of the author. To Chigurgh: he is a superhuman monster, much like Chillingworth, Judge Jaffrey Pynchon, Heathcliff, Ahab, Judge Holden and many other great literary characters; I don’t see how other posters can trash McCarthy when he so obviously is born out of acknowledged American greats that they (at least this sites ‘owner’) appreciate.

    As far as the comparison of McCarthy and Melville, the two are very similar. McCarthy to me more Hawthorne and Faulkner, but I accept the Melville relation. Take away the punctuation and inner morality emplaced by Melville on his characters in the author’s addresses to the reader and you have something similar to McCarthy. Note that if Melville didn’t tell the reader explicitly the moral standing of his characters then their actions would seem as apathetic, nihilistic, and needlessly violent as McCarthy’s… in that case we might believe that Billy Budd deserved to be hanged! or that Bartleby was simply a crazy, lazy imp! McCarthy and Melville are two of my (at least top five) favorite authors, and I believe the content of their works to be similar in both subject and quality.

    Comment by keith — January 12, 2012 @ 9:28 pm

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