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Cormac McCarthy has been hailed as one of the finest writers of the twentieth century, with his work compared to that of Herman Melville, William Faulkner, Mark Twain, and even William Shakespeare. McCarthy’s writing has been universally recognized for his prose style, which often rises to the level of poetry, but his brutal and exacting depictions of violence and the seamier side of life in the South and in the West, have drawn both praise and revulsion from readers and critics.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Military Service, College, and Marriage
McCarthy was born in Providence, Rhode Island, on July 20, 1933, the eldest of three brothers in a family of six children. In 1937, the family moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, where his father, Charles, began a long tenure as a lawyer for the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). The McCarthys raised their children in the Roman Catholic tradition. Cormac attended Catholic High School in Knoxville.
McCarthy entered the University of Tennessee in 1951, majoring in liberal arts, but he left a year later. In 1953, towards the end of the Korean War, McCarthy entered the U.S. Air Force for four years of service. He was not sent to Korea but rather served two of his four years in Alaska, where he also hosted a radio show. After leaving the Air Force, McCarthy resumed his studies at the University of Tennessee and published two stories, ”Wake For Susan” and ”A Drowning Incident,” in the student literary magazine, The Phoenix. He won the Ingram-Merrill Award for creative writing for two consecutive years, in 1959 and 1960, while still an undergraduate at Tennessee. McCarthy left the university in 1960 without earning a degree, and in 1961, he married Lee Holleman, who had also been a student at the University of Tennessee. They had a son, Cullen, but the marriage was brief, ending in divorce in the early 1960s.
Before the publication of McCarthy’s first novel, The Orchard Keeper (1965), he received a travel fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The fellowship enabled McCarthy to visit Ireland, the home of his ancestors. On the trip he met Anne DeLisle, and the two wed in England in 1966. The same year that he married Anne, McCarthy received a two-year grant from The Rockefeller Foundation. He and Anne toured southern England, France, Switzerland, Italy, and Spain, ending up on the island of Ibiza. Home to so many creative people at that time in the 1960s, Ibiza resembled an artists’ colony. During McCarthy’s travels in Europe, The Orchard Keeper had been published to critical acclaim in the United States and won the author the William Faulkner Award for first-novel achievement. While living on Ibiza, McCarthy completed revisions for his second book, Outer Dark (1968).
Awards, Grants, and Writing
McCarthy and his wife returned to the United States in 1967, shortly before the publication of Outer Dark, which received favorable reviews. In 1969 the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation awarded McCarthy a fellowship for creative writing. At this time, McCarthy and his wife moved near Louisville, Tennessee, where they lived in a barn that McCarthy had renovated completely on his own. His next book for Random House, Child of God (1974), was inspired by actual events in Sevier County. Unlike McCarthy’s previous two novels, Child of God garnered mixed reviews.
In 1974 McCarthy took a respite from novel writing and spent a year working on a screenplay for a Public Broadcast Service television movie, The Gardener’s Son, which had its premiere in 1976. Screened at film festivals in Berlin and Edinburgh, The Gardener’s Son was nominated for two Emmy Awards in the United States. McCarthy’s personal life, however, was suffering. In 1976 DeLisle and McCarthy separated before eventually getting divorced. Soon after the separation, McCarthy moved to El Paso, Texas, where he lived until the late 1990s.
In 1979 McCarthy published his fourth novel, Suttree, and two years later, he received a MacArthur Fellowship, also known as a ”genius grant.” McCarthy used his fellowship funds to support himself while writing his fifth novel, an apocalyptic Western set in Texas and Mexico during the 1840s. McCarthy researched thoroughly and extensively for the novel, attaining a feel for the setting of the book by visiting all the locales mentioned in it and even going so far as to learn Spanish. Although Blood Meridian drew little critical attention at the time of its appearance, McCarthy’s reputation among critics began to improve following the publication of this novel.
Increasing Critical Attention
Attention to McCarthy’s works increased markedly in 1992 and 1993, following publication of All the Pretty Horses (1992), which won both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. As critical response to McCarthy’s work grew steadily, McCarthy remained committed to his writing, completing the second and third books of the Border trilogy during the mid-1990s. In the spring of 1998, McCarthy was married for the third time to Jennifer Winkley, a graduate of the University of Texas at El Paso, who majored in English and American literature. They moved to Sante Fe, New Mexico, where they now live with their son, who was the inspiration for McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Road (2006).
Works in Literary Context
Although McCarthy received awards and grants for his writing, and despite the fact that he had developed a cult like following, McCarthy was practically unknown until his sixth novel, All the Pretty Horses, captured the imagination of the world of letters. Since then, McCarthy’s work has been moving toward a higher position in American literature, and he is now regarded as one of the greatest American authors of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. McCarthy is considered a master of tone and language (one reviewer has said that the English language is the real hero of all McCarthy’s books), and his novels are symphonic orchestrations of the tragic, grotesque, lyrical, and comic.
Stark Depictions of Nature
McCarthy’s narratives have been lauded for their stark depiction of nature as well as for their sheer stylistic beauty, which entwines the lushness and fecundity of Faulkner’s prose with the trenchant austerity of Ernest Hemingway’s. The metaphysical themes of McCarthy’s books emerge out of his loving attention to the natural world and the world of human tools, crafts, and action. Thomas D. Young, Jr., observes that ”in all Cormac McCarthy’s work, nature is itself the principal presence.” Several commentators have noticed that in McCarthy’s world, animal forms—and even the landscape itself—seem to watch people, witnesses to their folly and brutality or to their rare heroism.
McCarthy’s novels have grown out of his experiences in, and reading about, Tennessee, Texas, and Mexico. His plots center on spiritual nomads—male characters who are, with varying degrees of consciousness, engaged in quests or anti-quests. This nomadic quality of his protagonists is sometimes magnified—as in Blood Meridian and The Road—by the author’s refusal to even name the characters, referring to them simply as ”the kid” or ”the man.” Many of his novels focus on themes of loss, alienation, and the vanishing of cultures, making McCarthy’s novels both demanding and difficult, particularly because his prose style, which is wholly original, is as dark and uncompromising as his view of humanity.
Works in Critical Context
McCarthy has generally been praised by critics, particularly since the mid-1980s. Some critics fault McCarthy for excessively florid prose and a relentlessly pessimistic worldview, but others contend that his depiction of the fallen condition of humanity has universal implications. As Robert Coles observes: ”[McCarthy] is a novelist of religious feeling who appears to subscribe to no creed but who cannot stop wondering in the most passionate and honest way what gives life meaning.” Critics generally praise McCarthy for his probing investigations of the darker side of the human condition. As Irving Malin wrote, McCarthy ”is primarily interested in the origins of evil; the search for redemption; the meaning of our brutal existence.”
McCarthy has always been noted for the darkness of his narratives and his ability to explore questions of evil and violence. In Blood Meridian (1985), McCarthy parodies values espoused in popular Western films by exaggerating the notion of rugged individuality to the point of demented lawlessness. Critical opinion about Blood Meridian has been sharply divided. Vereen M. Bell and other critics see it as a postmodernist masterpiece, a celebration of brutality and violence. Edwin T. Arnold, on the other hand, refuses to accept such a bleak and nihilistic reading of the novel. He maintains that the kid’s quest in Blood Meridian is, in fact, a moral one. Although some critics found this novel unreasonably grotesque, Andrew Hislop remarks that Blood Meridian ”is much more than a counterblast of bloody imagery against more cozy perceptions of the West. It is an exploration, at times explicitly philosophical, of the relationship between culture and violence.”
All the Pretty Horses
Though McCarthy had often been praised by critics in the past, it was not until the publication of All the Pretty Horses, the first installment of his Border Trilogy, that he achieved the wider recognition that was long expected for this author. As Gene Lyons wrote, ”For years critics have been promising us a masterpiece from novelist Cormac McCarthy. Now with All the Pretty Horses, he seems to have produced one.” Praise for All the Pretty Horses was nearly universal. A reviewer for Publisher’s Weekly writes, ”This is a novel so exuberant in its prose, so offbeat in its setting and so mordant and profound in its deliberations that one searches in vain for comparisons in American literature.” The differences between this novel and McCarthy’s previous works was particularly noted. Joseph Poindexter points out that this is the first time that ”McCarthy gives us, instead of his usual outcasts, a protagonist we can root for.”
- Arnold, Edwin T. and Dianne C. Luce, eds. A Cormac McCarthy Companion: The Border Trilogy. Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, 2001.
- –. Perspectives on Cormac McCarthy, revised edition. Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, 1999.
- Bell, Vereen M. The Achievement of Cormac McCarthy. Baton Rouge, La.: Louisiana State University Press, 1988.
- Hall, Wade and Rick Wallach, eds. Sacred Violence: A Reader’s Companion to Cormac McCarthy. El Paso, Tex.: Texas Western Press of the University of Texas at El Paso, 1995.
- Jarrett, Robert L. Cormac McCarthy. New York: Twayne, 1997.
- Wallach, Rick. ed. Myth, Legend, Dust: Critical Responses to Cormac McCarthy. New York: Manchester University Press, 2000.
- Lyons, Gene. ”McCarthy, Cormac. All the Pretty Horses.” Entertainment Weekly (May 1, 1992): 46.
- Malin, Irving. ”McCarthy, Cormac. All the Pretty Horses.” Commonweal (September 25, 1992): 29.
- ”McCarthy, Cormac. All the Pretty Horses. Publishers Weekly (March 16, 1992): 64.
- Poindexter, Joseph. ”McCarthy, Cormac. All the Pretty Horses.” People Weekly (July 13, 1992): 27.
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