B orn Charles Joseph McCarthy, Jr., July 20, 1933, in Providence, RI; son of Charles Joseph, Sr. (an attorney) and Gladys (McGrail) McCarthy; married Lee Holleman, 1961 (divorced); married Anne DeLisle (a pop singer and restaurateur), 1967 (divorced); married Jennifer Winkley, 1998; children: Cullen (from first marriage), John Francis (from third marriage). Education: Attended the University of Tennessee.
S erved in United States Air Force, 1953-57; began writing novels, 1959; worked in an auto-parts warehouse, Chicago, IL, c. early 1960s; published first novel, The Orchard Garden, 1965; wrote teleplay, The Gardener’s Son, PBS, 1977; joined the Santa Fe Institute, Santa Fe, New Mexico, c. 2001; The Road chosen for the Oprah Winfrey Book Club, made appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show, 2007.
Awards: Ingram-Merrill Foundation grant for creative writing, 1960; American Academy of Arts and Letters traveling fellowship to Europe, 1965-66; William Faulkner Foundation Award for The Orchard Keeper, 1965; Rockefeller Foundation grant, 1966; Guggenheim Fellowship, 1976; MacArthur Foundation grant, 1981; Jean Stein Award, American Academy and Institution of Arts and Letters, 1991; National Book Award for fiction, for All the Pretty Horses. 1992; National Book Critics Award for fiction, for All the Pretty Horses, 1992; Pulitzer Prize for fiction, for The Road, 2007; Institute of Arts and Letters Award; Lyndhurst Foundation grant.
T hough intensely private author Cormac McCarthy generally eschews publicity, interviews, and the expected literary lifestyle, he is widely recognized as a significant American author, producing classic works of fiction written in amazingly effective language. His novels nearly always avoid domestic issues to focus on characters, primarily male and often illiterate, who are usually outcasts and whose lives are explored through what the New York Times’ Richard B. Woodward described as an “intense natural observation, a kind of morbid realism.” Despite low sales for much of his career until the novels that made up the “Border Trilogy” were published in the 1990s, McCarthy was a writer’s writer whose books were highly regarded by other writers and academics.
Born Charles Joseph McCarthy, Jr. on July 20, 1933, in Providence, Rhode Island, he was the son of Charles Joseph, Sr., an attorney, and his wife, Gladys. Of Celtic Irish decent, Cormac was a family nickname first given to his father by Irish aunts. McCarthy and his five brothers and sisters were raised in relative wealth outside of Knoxville, Tennessee, while their father worked for the Tennessee Valley Authority. Around the large family house were woods and people living in small shacks. Mc- Carthy was intrigued by the lives being lived in the impoverished homes as well as Knoxville’s underworld, and such interests later informed his novels.
McCarthy received his education at parochial schools, though he hated school and enjoyed a number of hobbies. Despite his intense dislike of educational institutions, he attended the University of Tennessee for a few years studying engineering, business, and liberal arts. He left college to join the U.S. Air Force in 1953. After four years in the Air Force, McCarthy returned to the University of Tennessee. Having become a voracious reader of literature while stationed in Alaska, he began focusing on the subject at college, writing several stories for a school literary magazine, and began writing novels himself in 1959. After a total of four years at the University of Tennessee, McCarthy dropped out again without receiving a degree in 1960.
McCarthy’s creative efforts were aided by winning an Ingram-Merrill Foundation grant for creative writing in 1960. As he focused his energies on writing, McCarthy married his first wife, Lee Holleman, in 1961, with whom he had a son named Cullen the following year. The couple’s marriage was short-lived, and they soon divorced. McCarthy was already working on what would become his first novel, The Orchard Keeper, as he had been since college, living in cities such as Asheville, North Carolina, and New Orleans, Louisiana. He finished it while working at an auto parts warehouse part-time in Chicago.
McCarthy then sent the manuscript for The Orchard Keeper to Random House, where it reached the hands of respected editor Albert Erskine. Understanding McCarthy’s talent, Erskine became the author’s long-time editor and helped get the novel in print. Published in 1965, The Orchard Keeper is set in the hills of Tennessee where a way of life in the woods is vanishing. The story focuses on the life of a young boy, two older men who come in and out of it, and their shared love for coon hounds. The novel won the William Faulkner Foundation Award in 1965. Comparing McCarthy to such storied authors as Faulkner and explaining his appeal as a writer, Woodward explained in the New York Times, “McCarthy’s prose restores the terror and grandeur of the physical world with a biblical gravity that can shatter a reader. Apage from any of his books— minimally punctuated, without quotation marks, avoiding apostrophes, colons or semicolons—has a stylized spareness that magnifies the force and precision of his words. Unimaginable cruelty and the simplest things, the sound of a tap on a door, exist side by side .”
In 1965, McCarthy also won the American Academy of Arts and Letters traveling fellowship to Europe, which he held through 1966 and resulted in travel in 1967. Writing was McCarthy’s primary life focus, and he never held a steady job, including the teaching of writing, at any time, which led to problematic personal relationships. He married his second wife, Anne DeLisle, whom he met in Europe, in 1967. For most of their eight-year relationship, they lived in a converted barn on a dairy farm in poverty, bathng in a nearby lake. Despite limited to nonexistent income save from awards, McCarthy would turn down offers of thousands of dollars to speak at universities about books. McCarthy and DeLisle eventually divorced.
Early in the couple’s marriage, they lived on the Mediterranean island of Ibiza where McCarthy wrote his second novel Outer Dark. Published in 1968, the book was set in the South and focused on a young girl’s wandering search for her baby who had been created by an incestuous relationship with her brother. The brother also travels throughout the South, witnessing horrific acts of violence including the murder of a child by three men. McCarthy followed Outer Dark with 1974’s Child of God, which focused unflinchingly on the Lester Ballard, a necro-philiac and mass murderer who resides with his many victims in underground caves. In the book, McCarthy does not explore why Ballard is the way he is, but depicts him with some sympathy and humor.
Occasionally, McCarthy worked in a different genre. In 1974, director Richard Pearce contacted McCarthy to asked him to write the teleplay for The Gardener’s Son. McCarthy agreed to the assignment and the production aired on PBS in 1977. The drama was set in the 1870s in South Carolina and focused on the murder of a mill owner by an unstable boy who had a wooden leg. The boy is hung for his crime. A young male child is also at the heart of his 1979 novel, Suttree, which was one of his only books to deal directly with family and autobiographical issues. A difficult conflict between a father and a son sits at the novel’s heart, as the adult son defies his successful father by living on a houseboat and fishing on a polluted river. The son seemed to be based on McCarthy, who based many of the drunks and fighters on friends and acquaintances he knew long ago from Knoxville’s bar scene.
By this time, McCarthy was living in the Southwest. He did not write about areas he had not visited and had been making scouting trips there by the mid1970s. McCarthy moved to the Southwest in 1974, and began making his primary residence El Paso, Texas, in 1976. He still regularly returned to Tennessee, and was temporarily living in a Knoxville motel room when he learned he won one of the so-called “genius grants” from the MacArthur Foundation in 1981. The following year, McCarthy bought a small stone cottage in El Paso, which remained his home for some time.
McCarthy’s next novel, 1985’s Blood Meridian; or, The Evening Redness in the West, was the result of his research in the Southwest. Full of violence and nihilism, it was based on historical events there in 1849 to 1850 to explore evil on the American frontier. McCarthy accomplishes this through the eyes of a character called “the kid” who falls in with a scalp-hunting gang.
While more recognition was coming McCarthy’s way because of the literary prowess of his novels, he still lived a relatively simple lifestyle through the 1990s. He renovated his cottage until funds dried up, and saved money by cutting his own hair and doing his laundry at a nearby Laundromat. He also ate meals cooked on a hot plate or at a cafeteria. His collection of 7,000 books was primarily housed in storage facilities. By this time, he began what became his most ambitious literary work, a trio of novels known as the “Border Trilogy.”
In 1992, McCarthy published the first of the three, All the Pretty Horses, Unlike previous novels, the novel was more accessible to the average reader and less dark as it focuses on a teenager from Texas, John Grady Cole, in 1950, and his adventures in Mexico. Cole convinces a friend, Lacey Rawlins, to ride off on horseback there after the death of Cole’s grandfather and amidst his parents’ divorce. In Mexico, Cole discovers a gift for breaking horses on a ranch where he and Rawlins work as vaqueros. At the ranch, he also has an affair with the owner’s daughter which ends badly and with arrests on trumped-up charges for the Americans. While description remained important in All the Pretty Horses, dialogue, often comical but austere, takes precedence sometimes. The novel won several awards, including the National Book Award, and was a best seller.
The success of All the Pretty Horses brought McCarthy a wider audience, which grew with the other two volumes of the trilogy, 1994’s The Crossing and 1998’s Cities of the Plain. Like Horses, The Crossing also focuses on Americans crossing over the Mexican border and was a best seller. Set in 1941, The Crossing draws on Mexican history to tell the story of the Parham brothers who go there looking for work, encounter such characters as a she-wolf and an Indian, and how one sibling loses his life. McCarthy ties the novels together in Cities on the Plain, where John Grady Cole and Billy Parham meet in 1951. They work on the same ranch in Orogrande, New Mexico, and must deal with the end of the ranch life as a military base will soon replace it and their way of life. Love also plays a role in the novel as Cole sells his horse to buy a 16year-old Mexican prostitute from nearby Juarez and marry her.
With the success of the “Border Trilogy,” McCarthy bought a new home in the El Paso area, married his third wife, Jennifer Winkley, in 1998, and had a son with her, John Francis. He continued his hobby of playing pool and was also a devoted golfer and working out enthusiast. The family soon moved to Santa Fe, where around 2001 McCarthy began working at a scientific think tank called the Santa Fe Institute. He was the only fiction writer among scientists meeting to offer analysis of interdisciplinary problems from a variety of scientific areas. He still remained reclusive and generally refused to grant media interviews or appear at literary events. He continued to write, however, though it took seven years for him to produce his next novel. When he did and No Country for Old Men was published in 2005, McCarthy’s media appearances increased to one in support of the novel.
In No Country for Old Men, McCarthy returned to the violent themes of his earlier novels as he focuses on the experiences of Llewellyn Moss. While hunting antelope in the desert, Moss steals money from a drug deal gone wrong and is chased across Texas by the dealers and others who want the money back. Unlike previous works, the plot moves quickly and was compared to a screenplay by some critic.Afilmed adaptation of the novel was expected in late 2007.
McCarthy continued on darker themes with 2006’s The Road, which won 2007’s Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Set after a nuclear explosion, the novel focuses on the journey of a father and son as they struggle to survive in a post-apocalyptic winter. Few people survived and they know their own survival will probably be short-lived. Unexpectedly, media icon Oprah Winfrey selected the novel for her book club and even convinced McCarthy to appear on her show in June of 2007 in an interview taped at the Santa Fe Institute.
In the interview, McCarthy admitted his young son was the inspiration for the novel and a new perspective in his life. The Plain Dealer’s Karen R. Long quoted McCarthy as saying on The Oprah Winfrey Show, “I just had this image of these fires up on a hill and I thought a lot about my little boy. You have a child when you are older, and it wrenches you up out of your nap and makes you look at things fresh. It forces the world on you, and I think it’s a good thing.”
The Orchard Keeper, Random House (New York, NY), 1965.
Outer Dark, Random House, 1968.
Child of God, Random House, 1974.
Suttree, Random House, 1979.
Blood Meridian; or, The Evening Redness in the West, Random House, 1985.
All the Pretty Horses, Random House, 1992.
The Crossing, Random House, 1994.
Cities of the Plain, Random House, 1998.
No Country for Old Men, Knopf (New York, NY), 2005.
The Road, Knopf, 2006.
The Gardener’s Son: A Screenplay, Ecco Press (Hopewell, NJ), 1996.
Buffalo News (Buffalo, NY), June 26, 1994, p. 7.
Houston Chronicle, June 27, 1999, p. 8.
Independent (London, England), June 13, 1998, p. 11.
Los Angeles Times, April 17, 2007, p. A19; June 4, 2007, p. E3.
New York Times, April 19, 1992, p. 28; May 17, 1992, p. 9; May 17, 1998, p. 16.
Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH), June 6, 2007, p. E7.
Texas Monthly, July 1998, p. 76.
Vanity Fair, August 2005, p. 98.
Contemporary Authors Online, Gale Group, 2007.
Nationality: American. Born: Charles McCarthy, Providence, Rhode Island, 20 July 1933. Education: University of Tennessee. Military Service: United States Air Force, 1953-56. Family: Married 1) Lee Holman in 1961 (divorced), one child; 2) Anne de Lisle, 1967 (divorced). Awards: Ingram-Merrill Foundation grant for creative writing, 1960; William Faulkner Foundation award, 1965, for The Orchard Keeper; Rockefeller Foundation grant, 1966; MacArthur Foundation grant, 1981; Jean Stein Award, American Academy and Institute for Arts and Letters, 1991; National Book award, 1992, for All the Pretty Horses; Lyndhurst Foundation grant; National Book Critics Circle award for Fiction, 1993; Institute of Arts and Letters award. American Academy of Arts and Letters traveling fellowship to Europe, 1965-66; Guggenheim fellowship, 1976. Agent: Amanda Urban, International Creative Management, 40 West 57th Street, New York, New York 10019, U.S.A.
The Orchard Keeper. New York, Random House, 1965; London, Picador, 1994.
Outer Dark. New York, Random House, 1968; London, Picador, 1994.
Child of God. New York, Random House, 1974; London, Chatto and Windus, 1975.
Suttree. New York, Random House, 1979; London, Chatto and Windus, 1980.
Blood Meridian; or, The Evening Redness in the West. New York, Random House, 1985; London, Picador, 1989.
All the Pretty Horses. New York, Knopf, 1992; London, Picador, 1993.
The Crossing. New York, Knopf, and London, Picador, 1994.
Cities of the Plain. New York, Knopf, 1998.
The Border Trilogy. New York, Everyman's Library, 1999.
The Stonemason: A Play in Five Acts. Hopewell, New Jersey, Ecco Press, 1994.
The Gardener's Son, 1977; published as The Gardener's Son: A Screenplay, Hopewell, New Jersey, Ecco Press, 1996.*
All the Pretty Horses, 2000.
The Achievement of Cormac McCarthy by Vereen M. Bell, Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1988; Perspectives on Cormac McCarthy edited by Edwin T. Arnold and Dianne C. Luce, Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1993; Notes on 'Blood Meridian' by John Sepich, Louisville, Kentucky, Bellarmine College Press, 1993; Sacred Violence: A Reader's Companion to Cormac McCarthy: Selected Essays from the First McCarthy Conference, Bellarmine College, Louisville, Kentucky, October 15-17, 1993, edited by Wade Hall and Rick Wallach, El Paso, University of Texas at El Paso, 1995; Cormac McCarthy by Robert L. Jarrett, New York, Twayne Publishers, 1997; Perspectives on Cormac McCarthy, edited by Edwin T. Arnold and Dianne C. Luce, Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1999; Myth, Legend, Dust: Critical Responses to Cormac McCarthy, edited by Rick Wallach, New York, Manchester University Press, 2000.* * *
Many contemporary writers who enjoy an academic following are themselves academics, or are at least willing to address academic audiences through public readings or interviews. However, along with other notorious hermits like J.D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon, Cormac McCarthy is unusual in that he evades the spotlight. Unlike Salinger and Pynchon, McCarthy's reputation in the academic world and with a widespread general audience has come about only in the late 1980s, even though the first of his seven novels was published in 1965. The delay in recognition for McCarthy is perhaps due to the fact that he doesn't fit comfortably among his contemporaries; his writing seems to connect best with an older tradition, one which explores the often tragic implications of the rugged individual trying to survive the hostile North American frontier. While narrating the lives of his rough-hewn outsiders, McCarthy subtly reveals a profound awareness of literary tradition; he is frequently compared to William Faulkner and Herman Melville. Yet McCarthy's ability to tell stories, notably his command of descriptive language and his unfailing ear for dialogue, ultimately supersedes the allusive aspects of his work.
The critical connection to Faulkner is most apparent in McCarthy's first four novels which take place in and around his native Tennessee, and which are characterized by Faulknerian prose style and themes. From the opening page of his first novel The Orchard Keeper, which describes how a piece of barbed-wire fence has grown and tangled itself throughout an elm tree, we are conscious of being in a world where something human and malignant has tainted the landscape. The Orchard Keeper is less concerned with detailing the life of its protagonist, John Wesley Rattner, than with showing the deterioration of the social order of Rattner's community. The characters in this community struggle in vain for some sense of cultural value; the implication is that revenge and survival instincts will prevail over any sense of community, or even common respect for others. The novel's ending involves one character's feverish search for a platinum plate rumored to be in the head of the corpse of Kenneth Rattner, John Wesley's father. This profiteering disrespect for the traditional sanctity of human life and the rights of others is evident to a greater degree in Outer Dark, McCarthy's second novel, which examines the result of incest between a brother and sister. The child borne of their incest, initially abandoned, becomes the object of the individual searches of Culla and Rinthy Holme. On their journeys, they meet with characters who exploit, mistreat, or abuse them to various degrees. The social order that was deteriorating in McCarthy's first novel seems entirely dissolved in his second. His third novel, Child of God, puts no more faith in the future of humanity. Lester Ballard, the protagonist, metamorphoses from a potentially dangerous outsider to a necrophilic sociopath, hunted by his fellow townspeople in a labyrinth of caves under Sevier County, Tennessee. Taken together, these first three novels provide a bleak vision of the rural South and its tragic history; they are also the source of some of McCarthy's most experimental prose, revealing his masterful command of idiom and gift for description, the beauty of which provides a stark contrast to the subject matter.
Suttree, McCarthy's fourth novel, stands apart from his first three novels in more than one way. Though it is also about an outsider drifting through eastern Tennessee, the tone is somewhat more affirmative. Suttree is considerably longer than its predecessors, and McCarthy uses the space to make the protagonist, Cornelius Suttree, human in a way that his other characters are not. Suttree, a fisherman, seems to have some regard for the future; his objective is not merely to survive the circumstances of his social condition, but also to embody some version of grace, in contrast to the band of misfits who surround him. His life continues even after incarceration, a period of mental illness, repeated nights of drunken brawling, and two failed attempts at love. Suttree is more humorous than McCarthy's other work, and notably less violent, especially when placed next to Blood Meridian, his fifth novel, which may be one of the most violent novels in recent literary history. It focuses on a group of mid-nineteenth century bounty hunters who roam the Texas-Mexico border murdering Indians for their scalps. Moving away from the type of a unified single character he created in Suttree, McCarthy depicts his band of marauders as archetypes—three are known as the judge, the ex-priest, and the kid. Amidst all the bloodshed—the same disregard for the sanctity of human life evident in McCarthy's first three novels—one can sense something intensely philosophical in Blood Meridian; these killers, so alien to the reader's world, represent a more fundamental element of human nature than we would care to admit.
McCarthy updates the landscape from Blood Meridian to the twentieth century in order to confront some element of human experience again in his most recent novels, All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and Cities of The Plain, which constitute the three volumes of "The Border Trilogy." All the Pretty Horses contains McCarthy's familiar convention of characters bent on surviving unfavorable circumstances. John Grady Cole, without hope for a future in his hometown, sets forth on horseback with his friend Lacey Rawlins into Mexico, where they attempt to make a living breaking horses on a farm. The romance of this journey vanishes abruptly when they find themselves in a Mexican prison, where their survival is threatened by hostile prisoners. Billy Parham faces similar hostility in The Crossing. His journeys into Mexico, sometimes accompanied by his brother, Boyd, are necessitated by revenge and a sense of duty to family and to nature. The necessity that the youthful protagonist grow up quickly in the face of harsh external circumstances gives his journeys into Mexico mythical import. Cities of the Plain finds the protagonists of the first two volumes of the trilogy united. John Grady Cole and Billy Parham are friends and work together on a ranch in New Mexico. John Grady falls in love with a young, epileptic Mexican whore early in the novel, and the novel focuses on his attempts to unite with her. John Grady is reminiscent of the nameless archetypes of Blood Meridian in that he seems to represent "the cowboy." The novel is a tale of the destruction of the cowboy way of life. The ranch is about to be taken over by the military, and the ranch hands spend much of their time reminiscing about the past. Additionally, the action is in this novel is subdued. Sparks of excitement are displayed, but for the most part, the painful death is being detailed. Seen in this light, even John Grady's love for the whore becomes a metaphor for this extinction and thus is doomed to end badly.
All three of these novels are concerned with borders; crossing the line between Mexico and the U.S. signals a change. This physical border is more than symbolic as the disparity of the two countries is often responsible for changes, but subtler borders are at play. McCarthy relies more on his ear for dialogue in these novels than on his gift for description; consequently, his recent prose reads more like Hemingway than Faulkner. Getting the story out also seems more important to McCarthy in the Border Trilogy, and consequently may be less obscure to a general readership than his earlier novels. But whether one chooses to read the denser, earlier novels, or the more accessible Border Trilogy, McCarthy is indisputably worth reading as heir-apparent to various American literary traditions and as a storyteller with a gift for both description and dialogue.
—D. Quentin Miller,
updated by Josh Dwelle
MCCARTHY, Cormac. American, b. 1933. Genres: Novels, Plays/ Screenplays. Publications: NOVELS: The Orchard Keeper, 1965; Outer Dark, 1968; Child of God, 1974; Suttree, 1979; Blood Meridian, or, The Evening Redness in the West, 1985; All the Pretty Horses, 1992; The Crossing, 1994; Cities of the Plain, 1998. PLAYS: The Gardener's Son (teleplay), 1977; The Stonemason: A Play in Five Acts, 1994. Address: c/o Amanda Urban, International Creative Management, 40 West 57th Street, New York, NY 10019, U.S.A.