Once considered the most obscure major writer in the contemporary United States, Cormac McCarthy gained national attention through the phenomenal success of his 1992 novel All the Pretty Horses. He was at first named Charles Joseph McCarthy, Jr., but later renamed Cormac after an ancient Irish king–one who was, incidentally, renowned for his literary scholarship. McCarthy’s parents, Charles Joseph and Gladys McGrail McCarthy, were middle-class Catholics, but when McCarthy was four the family moved to the Protestant stronghold of Knoxville, Tennessee. His father was chief legal counsel to the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), which permanently flooded many valleys, removing traditional mountain families who had been living on the land for generations. Some local people have still not forgiven the government for the trauma of their “relocation,” which included even the gruesome contents of cemeteries. Whatever McCarthy learned about these operations probably fueled his later work, which features similar gruesome scenes and identification with the local people and land.
McCarthy experienced a rather conventional upbringing, attending parochial school and then Knoxville’s Catholic High School. A recurrent restlessness set in at the University of Tennessee, where he dropped out after a year. After another year’s hiatus, he joined the U.S. Air Force for four years, then he returned to the University of Tennessee for three more years. While at the university, he received encouragement for his writing and began work on at least one novel. He left the university again in 1959 without taking a degree. Six years later McCarthy finally published his first novel, The Orchard Keeper. Centered on traditional mountain characters who clash with the forces of modernity, represented by government and the law, the novel reveals McCarthy’s sympathy with outcasts and renegades, a theme that recurs throughout his work. The Orchard Keeper won for McCarthy immediate critical acclaim and prizes but few readers. Recalling William Faulkner’s narrative techniques, the novel earned for McCarthy the 1965 William Faulkner Foundation Award, which honors the best first novel by an American author. An American Academy of Arts and Letters Fellowship enabled McCarthy to travel in Europe during the period from 1965 to 1966. He remained in Europe for two more years, spending time in London, in Paris, and on the Spanish island of Ibiza. He married Anne de Lisle, a singer from Hamble, England, before returning to the United States and settling on a small farm in Rockford, Tennessee, near Knoxville.
McCarthy’s next two novels, Outer Dark and Child of God, dealing with incest and necrophilia respectively, depict characters even further beyond the pale. Both novels exhibit McCarthy’s growing powers of description, particularly Outer Dark, which takes place in an unspecified southern gothic setting. His fourth novel, Suttree, returns to characters who are slightly less lost and to a recognizable down-home setting: Knoxville, Tennessee. Here Suttree, the outcast scion of a leading Knoxville family, lives on a houseboat like a river rat and associates with assorted McAnally Flats riffraff. Among other things, Suttree unveils McCarthy’s surprising sense of humor and raises the question of how much the novel might be based on autobiographical material.
McCarthy’s fifth novel, Blood Meridian, renews McCarthy’s dark vision with a vengeance. Set in the old Southwest and Mexican territory, Blood Meridian traces from one massacre to another the lives of scruffy adventurers and bounty hunters who represent the cutting edge of Manifest Destiny and who might embody a violence at the heart of civilization itself. While writing Blood Meridian, McCarthy got closer to the scene by moving to El Paso, Texas. His next two novels, All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing, are set in the dying embers of the old Southwest and reflect a McCarthy who seems to have abandoned the gothic excesses of his youth in favor of an aesthetic that is more nostalgic and lyrical. All the Pretty Horses was universally acclaimed and won both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. The second installment of the Border Trilogy, The Crossing, garnered mixed reviews, perhaps due to its lack of continuity with All the Pretty Horses and its philosophical density. Cities of the Plain finishes the trilogy by bringing together the protagonists of the first two books, John Cole Grady and Billy Pawson, as ranch hands working together in New Mexico in 1952. The novel was felt by many reviewers to be excessively and inexplicitly mystical. In The Stonemason, McCarthy returns to southern themes as he explores the decline of an African American family in Kentucky in the 1970’s.
McCarthy moves about, living and writing in motels and occasionally visiting his family and friends in Tennessee. Apparently he finds this itinerant lifestyle productive. As well as the awards already mentioned, McCarthy has received grants from the Rockefeller, Guggenheim, Lyndhurst, and MacArthur foundations. He has also received much critical praise, especially from other authors, who admire the care and skill with which he writes. Over the years McCarthy has developed steadily as a writer, polishing his style and increasing his range. Despite the success of his later novels, his early work remains relatively uncelebrated. Some readers might be repulsed by his frequently gruesome subjects or his seemingly nihilistic vision, but others respect him for facing the worst and not settling for easy triumphs. His moral vision is essentially questioning rather than conventional. The best evidence of this moral vision is his sense of humanity, which might seem to concentrate on the quirky fringes but by the same token is remarkably inclusive. For McCarthy, it is not hard to accept even his necrophilic Lester Ballard as “a child of God much like yourself perhaps.”