Cormac McCarthy Biography
Nationality: American. Born: Charles McCarthy, Providence, Rhode Island, 1933. Education: University of Tennessee. Military Service: United States Air Force, 1953-56. 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.
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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
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