Cormac McCarthy

(4583 words)
  • Rick Wallach

Cormac McCarthy is an American novelist, playwright and screenwriter. He is the author of two published short stories, ten novels, two plays and one produced screenplay. Several works, including the unproduced screenplay Whales and Men, and one long novel, The Passenger, remain unpublished. He is best known for his dark, violent novels, which are set either in his childhood region of Appalachia or in the border lands of the southwestern United States and Mexico, and most recently for his Pulitzer Prize-winning apocalyptic novel The Road (2006). His vision of human nature and destiny is relentlessly pessimistic. Even so, his characters occasionally redeem themselves, or are redeemed to some extent, by gestures of simple kindness or love. Cormac McCarthy’s writing career can be divided into three periods. Three of his first four novels, The Orchard Keeper, Child of God and Suttree, were set in identifiable east Tennessee locales and the other, Outer Dark, seems to take place in an unnamed Appalachian region. His next five books, Blood Meridian, the Border Trilogy novels All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing and Cities of the Plain, and his novel of drug warfare No Country for Old Men, are set along the Texas-Mexico border. He then returned to eastern Tennessee with The Road.

Cormac McCarthy does not attend literary events or book signings, adamantly refuses to discuss his own work and jealously guards his privacy. He rarely grants interviews with journalists, although he has made a few exceptions to that long-standing rule over the past few years. A fellow in the Santa Fe Institute in northern New Mexico, McCarthy actively participates in the day-to-day activities of this organization. The Institute describes itself as an “independent research and education center… for multidisciplinary collaborations in the physical, biological, computational, and social sciences… in attempts to uncover the mechanisms that underlie the deep simplicity present in our complex world.” McCarthy has been known to critique and offer advice to the other fellows of the Institute about their own writing.

McCarthy was born in Providence, Rhode Island on July 20, 1933. He is the third of six children born to Charles Joseph and Gladys Christina McGrail McCarthy. He had two brothers and three sisters; his brother Bill, a professor of folklore at the University of Pennsylvania, died in 1968. Named Charles J. McCarthy Jr., he renamed himself Cormac, which also means “son of Charles”, after the ancient Irish King. In 1937, his family moved to Knoxville, Tennessee where his father became a lawyer for the Tennessee Valley Authority, rising to the rank of chief counsel in 1958. This made him one of the most powerful men in the TVA region, and he served in that capacity until 1967 when, well after the young author had already left home, the McCarthys moved from Knoxville to Washington, D.C. where his father joined a private law firm. Cormac McCarthy currently lives near Tesuque, New Mexico.

Cormac was raised Roman Catholic, attending Knoxville Catholic High School from 1948-51. He then briefly attended the University of Tennessee from 1951-52 as a liberal arts major. However, he was uncomfortable in the structured university environment and joined the U.S. Air Force in 1953. He served four years, spending two of them stationed in Alaska, where he hosted a country music radio show. McCarthy has said that the main value of his military service in Alaska was that it allowed him so much time to read.

In 1957 McCarthy returned to the University of Tennessee where he published two short stories, “A Drowning Incident” and “Wake for Susan” in the student literary magazine, The Phoenix, under the names, respectively, of Charles J. McCarthy Jr. and C. J. McCarthy, Jr. Whereas the first story, the tale of a teenager’s reveries in an overgrown forest cemetery, is redolent of sentimentalism and feigned nostalgia, the intervening few months witnessed a remarkable evolution of his craftsmanship. The second story vividly anticipates McCarthy’s mature thematic concerns, characterizations and narrative style. “A Drowning Incident”, loosely based on an episode from McCarthy’s childhood (Dennis McCarthy, personal communication), details a young boy’s revenge on his father and newborn sibling when the father’s drowns the puppies of the boy’s beloved dog. He fishes one of the decomposed pups out of a pond and leaves it alongside the baby in its crib, then sits calmly in the family room and waits for his parents to come home. For these stories, the young author won an Ingram-Merrill Award for creative writing in 1959 and 1960.

In 1959 McCarthy left the university again and soon moved to Chicago, where he worked as an auto mechanic. This became an interest he maintained for most of his adult life, collecting, repairing and refurbishing old pickup trucks as a hobby. During this time he began to work in earnest on his first novel, The Orchard Keeper (1965). This tale is of the complex relationships between a trio of east Tennessee characters during the 1940s: a young boy whose criminal father has been killed in self-defense by a local bootlegger, the bootlegger himself, and an aged woodsman. This latter character is based upon the historical figure Lem Ownby, who was a violent opponent of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s attempts to displace landowners to make room for its dams. A fourth “character” is the corpse of the boy’s father, discovered in an abandoned spray pit by the old woodsman who thereafter tends to it like some precious artifact. This macabre touch was to characterize much of McCarthy’s subsequent work, which would always incorporate substantial elements of violence and horror. The Orchard Keeper won a Faulkner Award for best first novel. Also during this period, McCarthy in 1960 married fellow University of Tennessee student Lee Holleman. The couple settled in Sevier County, just outside Knoxville. They had one son, Cullen. This marriage ended in divorce a few years later.

Shortly thereafter, McCarthy received a traveling fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1965, using this money, he left America on the liner Sylvania, intending to visit the home of his Irish ancestors, but onboard the ship he met Anne DeLisle, a young English entertainer. They were married in England in 1966, at about which time McCarthy won a Rockefeller Foundation Grant (1966-68). He and Anne toured Europe and then settled on the island of Ibiza where McCarthy completed his disturbing, eerie second novel, Outer Dark (1968). It is a bleakly funny tale, often terrifying as well, of the search of a young backwoods mother for the incestuous child that has been left to die of exposure by her brother, its father, but found and spirited off by a wandering tinker while the brother and sister search for it and each other. However, their efforts are thwarted repeatedly by a mysterious trio of murderous wanderers. At some time during this period, too, McCarthy returned to work on a novel that he had begun and put down some years earlier, one which was to be a fictionalized chronicle of his youth in Knoxville. This book was ultimately to become his fourth novel, Suttree. However, McCarthy was not to complete it for another nine years.

Meanwhile, in 1967, Cormac and Anne moved to Rockford, Tennessee, a town near Knoxville. According to Anne, they lived in a rented house on a pig farm, often in near poverty which McCarthy stubbornly refused to alleviate by teaching or lecturing, despite numerous offers to do so. Outer Dark was published by Random House in 1968 to generally good, if occasionally bewildered, reviews. In 1969, McCarthy received a Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Writing on the strength of the recommendation of Nobel laureate Saul Bellow, who became a lifelong admirer of his work. Cormac and his wife then moved into a dilapidated barn near Louisville, Tennessee, which McCarthy renovated. Anne related that he added a stone room and chimney, gathering the stones himself while cutting and kiln drying all the wood (Brosi 13). During this time McCarthy avidly studied freestone masonry, and aside from the actual work he did on his home, he would harness his knowledge of the craft years later for his play, The Stonemason. For his new fireplace, McCarthy salvaged bricks from the boyhood home of James Agee, the Knoxville-born author of the classic novel A Death in the Family, which was being leveled for an urban renewal project. Agee’s novel would later become the focus of both tribute and parody in McCarthy’s in-progress novel, Suttree.

Cormac McCarthy’s third novel, the brilliantly bizarre Child of God, was published in 1973. Inspired by the story of the murderer Edward Gein of Sevier County (see Luce 138-145), it garnered mixed reviews. Some critics praised its stylistic audacity while others found its story of a young, feral woodsman, a necrophiliac serial killer named Lester Ballard who collects the bodies of his female victims into an eldritch family, obscene and its black comic approach to such taboo subjects despicable. This novel became a cult favorite among McCarthy’s small but growing readership, many of whom were writers themselves, including the acclaimed American novelist Madison Smartt Bell who considers Child of God among the most important influences on his own stylistic development.

From 1974-75, McCarthy worked on the screenplay for a PBS television drama, The Gardener’s Son. It was directed by Richard Pearce and premiered in January 1977 as part of the public television network’s Visions series. The film starred Brad Dourif, Kevin Conway and Ned Beatty. This screenplay was also based on historical events – in this case, the murder of mill owner James Gregg by a former employee in Graniteville, South Carolina in 1875, and the trial and execution of Robert McEvoy, his killer. A revised version of the screenplay was published by Ecco Press in 1966. At approximately the same time McCarthy worked on a play called The Stonemason, the story of three generations of a Black Kentucky family, the Telfairs, whose patriarch is the 90-year-old stonemason Papaw. Papaw’s adoring grandson Ben leaves his legal studies to learn the craft of stonemasonry from his grandfather, but his change of lifestyle is complicated by his own father’s legal problems and his younger brother’s drug involvement. The play was not to be published until 1994. An attempt to produce it in 1992 by a the Arena Stage theater company in Washington, DC several years earlier was derailed by performers who objected to playing roles written by a white author. The play did receive a staged dramatic reading in Houston, Texas at the Clear Lake Center for the Performing Arts in 2001.

Anne DeLisle and Cormac McCarthy separated in 1976 when McCarthy moved to El Paso, Texas, where he lived for many years, with a two-year hiatus when he returned to Knoxville due to financial problems between 1979-81. They were divorced a few years later.

In 1979, McCarthy finally published the masterpiece of his early Appalachian period, Suttree. Some critics still believe that it is his finest novel. Suttree is a semi-autobiographical novel noted for its remarkably accurate portrayal of the city of Knoxville in the late 1940s-early 1950s, much as James Joyce’s Ulysses, to which it is often compared, is a treasury of early 20th-century Dublin. It relates the misadventures of Cornelius “Buddy” Suttree, scion of a wealthy and influential Tennessee family who falls away from his relatives, especially his father, and destroys his marriage through alcoholism and friendships with a host of impoverished derelicts and miscreants. When the story opens he is living in a leaky houseboat moored in a rundown section of the Knoxville riverfront, eking out a living catching catfish and carp for the local fish markets and restaurants. Haunted by nightmares about his stillborn twin brother, guilt-ridden about his failure to live up to his family’s expectations and his disastrous marriage, plagued by the admiration of a scheming backwoods teenager named Gene Harrogate he had met while serving a term in a minimum security workhouse for his marginal involvement in a robbery, Suttree attempts to survive in a world the meaningful engagement with which he has given up. Full of probing spiritual questions leavened with uproarious comedy, high at times but often darkly low, in 1981 the novel won him a MacArthur Fellowship, one of their so-called “genius grants”. This grant enabled him to return to El Paso where he wrote his next novel, a shockingly violent western set in Texas and Mexico during the 1840s. He told the Wall Street Journal, “I ended up in the Southwest because I knew that nobody had ever written about it….You can go to a mountain village in Mongolia, and they’ll know about cowboys. But nobody had taken it seriously, not in 200 years. I thought, here’s a good subject. And it was.”

Blood Meridian, his fifth and most celebrated novel, was finally published in 1985. It marked the beginning of his southwestern period, during which he penned four more novels set in the Texas-Mexico border region. Harold Bloom, arguably the leading American literary critic, called it one the greatest works of American fiction of the 20th Century and the major work by a living American novelist. Incredibly enough, the original manuscript was misplaced in his publisher’s office, and was rediscovered by accident by a secretary. Although it has not been determined just how long the manuscript sat unnoticed and unread in a drawer, a note found in the archives of McCarthy’s private papers at the Wittliff Collection at Texas State University in San Marcos reveals the story of the masterpiece that nearly got lost in the shuffle. In a note dated June 26, 1980, Alexandra Halsey, an assistant to Random House editor Jason Epstein, wrote to senior editor Albert Erskine: “This ancient ms. By Cormac McCarthy turned up in Jason’[s office, and I thought that perhaps it would be best if you decided what to do with it” (Cormac McCarthy archives, Wittliff Collection, Texas State University, San Marcos, Texas, Box 35, Folder 2). Given the date of the note, we must assume that the “ancient ms.” was the first complete draft of Blood Meridian, a copy of which, now held in the Wittliff Collection archives as Texas State University, was dated from 1979. Did this draft rest unnoticed in a drawer for nearly seven months? And how did it come to be “re-discovered”? We can assume, I think, that McCarthy had saved a copy and would have eventually become impatient if Erskine, who was an ardent supporter, hadn’t communicated with him eventually. Nevertheless it is a fascinating set of “what ifs” to ponder about this novel of the uncanny.

Blood Meridian is based on the story of the Glanton gang, historical figures who massacred Indians for their scalps under hire to a variety of American and Mexican local political leaders and ranch owners in the years just after the Mexican War. Many of its episodes are taken from newspaper reports of the period. Others were based upon stories contained in My Confession: the Recollections of a Rogue, the journals of Union Army general Samuel Chamberlain who served as a cadet in the Mexican war and rode with the Glantons afterwards. Although most of Chamberlain’s stories can be verified, some important scholars of the American southwest, notably the Pulitzer Prize winning historian William Goetzmann, believe that several of its key aspects were apocryphal. The most important of these questionable derivations is the character of Judge Holden, a nearly seven-foot tall, immensely powerful and agile man who dominated the life of the gang. McCarthy’s version of this monstrous figure, represented as a mysteriously ubiquitous, preternaturally powerful and glib Nietzschean philosopher of war, was called by Harold Bloom one of the greatest and most terrifying creations in all of our literature. Aside from his reliance on Chamberlain, however, McCarthy did extensive historical and geographical research for the novel. He visited all the locales of the book by pickup truck, on foot or on horseback, and even learned Spanish to further his research.

The nameless protagonist of the novel, a fourteen year old Tennessee woodsman who runs away from home and winds up riding with the Glanton gang, is loosely based upon the figure of the young Samuel Chamberlain himself. After riding with the gang for several months and barely escaping its massacre by Indians at a ferry crossing, the kid, as he is simply called, encounters and is murdered by the remarkably unchanged Judge Holden, thirty years later in Texas.

Some insight into how McCarthy brought the judge to fruition as a character may be gleaned by comparing a passage from the earliest manuscript of the novel, written during the late 1970s, with a similar passage from the final version. In the original, McCarthy has composed a fantasy-horror figure, perhaps the Devil himself: “The judge leaned down and fixed him with a smile. I am the man, he said. I am the man who knows how to make sleepers wake. The dead to dance. If you’d believe it.” In the final version, the strong inferences of demonic immortality have been rendered far more ambiguous: “You ain’t nothin [the kid said].” “You speak truer than you know [the judge replies]” (Blood Meridian, unpublished early draft, unpaginated. Wittliff Collection, Box 35, Folder 9). McCarthy leaves the judge’s true nature an open question – and the judge’s assent to the kid’s double-negative assessment of him reflects much classical Western theodicy that perceives evil as a paradoxically positive form of non-being. This ambiguity adds much to the novel’s philosophical challenges to the reader’s ideas about courage, war and national manifest destiny.

McCarthy continued to explore the life and culture of the border country, turning to a more contemporary setting in his breakthrough 1992 novel, All the Pretty Horses. This was the first volume of what was to become his Border Trilogy, whose companion works The Crossing and Cities of the Plain were to be issued individually over the next nine years. The Trilogy actually began as a screenplay for a film to be entitled Cities of the Plain as well, which McCarthy rewrote as the third and final novel. McCarthy went back five years or so in the two earlier novels to flesh out the backstory to his screenplay, in which two young El Paso area ranch hands, Billy Parham and John Grady Cole, must battle a vicious Juarez pimp to rescue a young prostitute with whom John Grady has fallen in love.

Despite his illustrious reputation among a small cadre of readers, which included some of the most well-known novelists in the world but few among the lay public, McCarthy’s novels had never sold more than a few thousand copies each. In connection with the book’s publication and as a favor to his retiring editor Albert Erskine, in April 1992 he granted Richard B. Woodward of The New York Times Magazine the first interview to which he had ever submitted. Entitled “Cormac McCarthy’s Venomous Fiction”, it introduced many thousands of new readers to the reticent author of a half-dozen overlooked masterpieces. All the Pretty Horses, the first volume of The Border Trilogy preoccupied with John Grady Cole’s experiences as a teenaged ranch hand who journeys to Mexico when his mother sells the family ranch in San Angelo, Texas, was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1992 and rapidly became a best-seller. Unlike any of McCarthy’s previous works, it featured an idealistic and attractive young protagonist and presents a love story involving John Grady and the spoiled, willful daughter of the hacendado for whom he works, and an encounter with a tragicomic teenaged criminal named Jimmy Blevins whose follies ultimate engulf Grady, his romance, and his young companion Lacey Rawlins, another expatriate Texan. It is widely considered an American classic and has found its way into the literature curricula of universities and upper grade schools not only nationally but worldwide. It sold 190,000 copies in hardcover in its first six months and finally earned McCarthy a wide popular readership.

Knopf released the second volume of The Border Trilogy, The Crossing, in 1994. It began life with a first printing of 200,000 copies, a large printing for a work of literary fiction, but sales were brisk enough to justify the second printing of 25,000 more copies within a month. Interest in this second installment ran high in part because a large segment of its brilliant first chapter, entitled “The Wolf Trapper”, had been published in Esquire magazine as a stand-alone feature the year before. The book features the tale of another teenaged protagonist, Billy Parham, who attempts to return a trapped she-wolf to its home in the northern Mexican mountains, and the disastrous consequences of his idealistic adventure. In due time Billy’s parents are murdered and his younger brother Boyd runs away with a Mexican girl and dies in a cantina fight. The Crossing is the longest and darkest of the Trilogy novels, a return to the violent excesses of McCarthy’s earlier work, and perhaps the most overtly philosophical of all of his books as Billy encounters a series of strangers who force him to reflect upon his own life and destiny in highly portentous terms.

Knopf published the third volume of Trilogy in 1998: Cities of the Plain closely follows the narrative of the original nine-year-old screenplay (which may be found in the Cormac McCarthy papers at Texas State University’s Wittliff Collection). The story unites John Grady Cole with Billy Parham, and centers on the same doomed relationship between John Grady and a Mexican prostitute. Considered by some critics a comparatively “lightweight” conclusion for the Border Trilogy, Cities of the Plain is nonetheless notable for its shockingly brutal feral dog-roping scene, its coruscating, vivid depiction the lost world of small horse-ranch life in the American southwest, and also for its fabular epilogue, an extended meditation on the nature of narrative and the forms of human destiny.

Sometime after the publication of Cities of the Plain, McCarthy married for a third time and moved from the El Paso area to an exclusive private community in Tusuque, New Mexico near Santa Fe, in part to pursue his golfing hobby. He and his wife Jennifer Winkley have one child, John Francis, born 1999.

The last of McCarthy’s southwestern novels, No Country for Old Men, was published in 2005 and was adapted into an Academy award-winning film by Joel and Ethan Coen. This novel, like Cities of the Plain, had begun life about a decade earlier as an unpublished screenplay that McCarthy rewrote into a novel; however, rather than use McCarthy’s original, the Coen Brothers wrote a new screenplay for their 2007 film. It is the story of a Vietnam veteran named Llewellyn Moss working as a welder in southern Texas in the mid-1980s. While antelope hunting, Moss stumbles upon the human wreckage of a drug deal that had degenerated into a shootout. He steals the case of money he finds, and then is pursued by thugs from both of the involved drug gangs, with catastrophic consequences for him and for his young wife. Much of the novel is narrated by the aged, conservative sheriff of the county where these events take place, Ed Tom Bell, who feels unequal to the scale and viciousness of the violence that the drug trade has brought to the borderlands. However, the most memorable character in the novel is the psychotic hit man for one of the gangs, Anton Chigurh, a kind of stripped-down Judge Holden figure with an inflexible philosophy about destiny, mortality and doing his job properly and allowing for no variations in the way he goes about it. The Spanish actor Javier Bardem won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Chigurh in the Coen Brothers film.

In 2006, Alfred A. Knopf published his post-apocalyptic masterpiece, The Road, which won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Literature and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction. This story of a father and son trying desperately to escape southward from the “nuclear winter” which follows a thermonuclear war which has virtually destroyed all civilization drew critical praise for its uncompromising vision of the greatest of all human follies. Noteworthy for its terrifying vision of total environmental destruction, the tale postulates that all non-human life has been eradicated, including vegetation, except for a few morel mushrooms the father and son find growing in an ash heap. Most of the surviving humans must be avoided because they have been forced into cannibalism. Stylistically, this is the most terse of all of McCarthy’s writings, a prose that more than suits its vision of a denuded and devastated planet. Another best seller as a novel, it was also produced as a motion picture starring Viggo Mortensen and featuring Robert Duvall. McCarthy granted his first televised interview to Oprah Winfrey, who had chosen The Road for her Book Club.

McCarthy’s claustrophobic one-scene morality play, The Sunset Limited arrived in 2006. Commissioned by Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater, it premiered in May and was published the following year. The play takes place in a shabby New York apartment, where Black, an ex-convict who has become a born-again Christian, and White, a disillusioned and distraught university professor, argue about God, faith, life, and death after Black has kept White from jumping in front of an oncoming subway train. This play has been produced internationally with multiple casts. It continues to be popular as a stage work due to its challenging dialogue and simplicity of production. HBO subsequently adapted The Sunset Limited for a television drama starring Samuel L. Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones, who also directed.

Early 2012 brought the announcement that McCarthy had penned an original screenplay, The Counselor. Little is currently known about the screenplay, but one pirated version – some of which appears to be speculative, and not from the original manuscript – depicts a return to the territory of No Country for Old Men, wherein a small-town attorney tries to make a quick fortune on a single drug deal and then finds his life at risk as competing interests draw him more deeply into a universe of violent crime. Ridley Scott has agreed to direct and at the time of this writing the film was in pre-production and will star Michael Fassbinder and Cameron Diaz. It is scheduled to be released in 2013. Also scheduled for release in 2013 is actor/director James Franco’s independent production of Child of God, starring Scott Haze as Lester Ballard. At present, filming has been concluded and the movie is being prepared for the fall 2012 film festival circuit.

Works cited

Brosi, George. “Cormac McCarthy: a Rare Literary Life,” Appalachian Heritage 39:1, Winter 2011.
Luce, Dianne. Reading the World: Cormac McCarthy’s Tennessee Period. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 2009.
Woodward, Richard. “Cormac McCarthy’s Venomous Fiction.” The New York Times Magazine, April 19, 1992. http://www.nytimes.com/1992/04/19/magazine/cormac-mccarthy-s-venomous-fiction.html 


Citation:
Wallach, Rick. "Cormac McCarthy". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 15 June 2012
[http://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=3026, accessed 02 July 2015.]

Articles on McCarthy's works

  1. Blood Meridian, Or the Evening Redness in the West
  2. The Road

Related Groups

  1. Literature of the American South