Cormac McCarthy

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Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Biography
Length: 2,143 words

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About this Person
Born: July 20, 1933 in Providence, Rhode Island, United States
Died: June 13, 2023 in Santa Fe, New Mexico, United States
Nationality: American
Occupation: Novelist
Other Names: McCarthy, Charles (American novelist)


Although he remained in obscurity until late in his career, McCarthy is considered a key figure in modern American fiction. His novels are known for their grotesque vision of the South, mythical interpretation of the West, and cryptic rendering of such themes as violence, death, and redemption. McCarthy's protagonists often find themselves on a skewed version of the prototypical hero's quest as they navigate through bleak, nightmarish landscapes. While some critics have faulted his fiction for demonstrating a simplistic fascination with morbidity and romanticism, most have echoed J. Douglas Canfield's assertion that McCarthy is "one of the greatest American novelists of the late twentieth century."

Biographical Information

McCarthy was born in Providence, Rhode Island, to Charles Joseph McCarthy Sr., an attorney, and Gladys McGrail McCarthy. 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. Despite his intense dislike of educational institutions, McCarthy 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 service, McCarthy returned to the University of Tennessee. Having become a voracious reader of literature while stationed in Alaska, he began focusing on the subject in college, writing several stories for a school literary magazine. After a total of four years at the university, McCarthy dropped out again in 1960 without receiving a degree. His creative efforts were aided by winning an Ingram-Merrill Foundation grant for creative writing that same year. The following year, McCarthy married his first wife, Lee Holleman, with whom he had a son named Cullen. The couple's marriage was short-lived and they soon divorced. Having begun what would become his first novel, The Orchard Keeper (1965), in college, he strove to complete it while moving throughout the South to such cities as Asheville, North Carolina, and New Orleans, Louisiana. He finished the novel while working at an auto parts warehouse in Chicago and sent the manuscript to Random House, where it reached the hands of respected editor Albert Erskine. Recognizing McCarthy's talent, Erskine became the author's longtime editor and helped get the novel in print. The Orchard Keeper won the William Faulkner Foundation Award in 1965. McCarthy 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, bathing in a nearby lake. Despite his minimal income from awards and grants, McCarthy would turn down offers of thousands of dollars to speak at universities. McCarthy and DeLisle eventually divorced. McCarthy moved to the Southwest in 1974 and began making his primary residence El Paso, Texas, in 1976. He regularly returned to Tennessee and was temporarily living in a Knoxville motel room when he learned he won a prestigious MacArthur Foundation grant in 1981. The following year he bought a small stone cottage in El Paso, which remained his home for some time. In 1992 he published the first part of his Border Trilogy, All the Pretty Horses. The novel won several literary prizes, including the National Book Award, and was a best-seller. The following two entries in the trilogy, The Crossing (1994) and Cities of the Plain (1998), proved equally successful, allowing him to purchase a new home in the El Paso area and marry his third wife, Jennifer Winkley, in 1998. They soon moved to Santa Fe, where McCarthy began working at a scientific think tank called the Santa Fe Institute. He was the only fiction writer among scientists who regularly met to analyze interdisciplinary problems from a variety of scientific perspectives. In 2006 the New York Times named Blood Meridian one of the greatest novels of the past twenty-five years, and in 2007 McCarthy won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his novel The Road (2006). At this late stage in his career, McCarthy was thrust into the spotlight when Oprah Winfrey featured The Road on national television, and his novel No Country for Old Men (2005) was made into an Academy Award-winning film by Joel and Ethan Coen. In 2009 McCarthy garnered the biennial PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction.

Major Works

Filled with literary allusions, biblical references, and abstruse symbolism, McCarthy's fiction focuses on male outcasts in search of redemption. Imbuing familiar aspects of historical America with mythic overtones, he presents--through a violent, pessimistic lens--a society reduced to primal conflict. Set in Tennessee, his early works are considered Southern Gothic in the tradition of William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor, with Appalachian settings and dark, brutal plots. His interest in the grotesque is accentuated in Outer Dark (1968). Set in an especially moribund version of the South, the novel concerns the incestuous relationship between Culla Holme and his sister Rinthy, the birth and abandonment of their child, and the horrifying consequences that ensue. Culla and Rinthy both travel across a harsh and dangerous landscape searching for their child, witnessing unspeakable acts of cruelty along the way. Child of God (1974) penetrates further into the darkness of McCarthy's South. The plot focuses on the exploits of serial killer and necrophiliac Lester Ballard, a depraved soul who lives in the same underground caves in which he imprisons his victims. A daring character study, Child of God makes no attempt to explain Ballard's psychosis and even injects elements of sympathy and humor into his character. The last of McCarthy's novels of the South, Suttree (1979), is set in the slums of Knoxville, Tennessee, and features a well-educated protagonist who abandons a life of wealth and privilege to live among the poor and disenfranchised. In his quasi-religious quest to face the violent and strange mysteries of life, the eponymous hero learns that life is as inscrutable and fluctuating as the Tennessee River, a central symbol in the text.

During the next two decades, McCarthy switched his focus from the South to the sordid history of the American West. Purportedly based on actual events, Blood Meridian follows a young protagonist, known only as "the kid," as he witnesses the slaughter of a group of U.S. troops at the hands of Comanche Indians in East Texas and subsequently joins a group of mercenaries bent on the retrieval of Indian scalps. The kid becomes drawn into a world of bloodshed that includes the defilement of corpses and random acts of murder. The novel is set against an apocalyptic landscape personified by the dominant, towering figure of Judge Holden. Moving to the Southwest and eschewing the surreal gore and relative lack of plot that mark his previous work, McCarthy's next three novels comprise the Border Trilogy. The first part of the trilogy, All the Pretty Horses, revolves around John Grady Cole, a sixteen-year-old who in 1949 finds himself the last of a generation of Texas ranchers. After the death of his grandfather, Cole leaves the ranch with his friend Lacey Rawlins and rides to Mexico. There he and Rawlins encounter Jimmy Blevins, a comic and loveable figure who introduces them to horse-thieving, an enterprise that leads to prison and the eventual death of Blevins. At the same time, Cole becomes entangled in a romance with a high-born, passionate young Mexican girl named Alejandra, daughter of Don Hector and niece of a formidable aunt, Dueña Alfonsa. Cole and Rawlins are eventually released from prison on the condition that Cole never sees Alejandra again. A darker work that combines the lyricism of All the Pretty Horses with the brutality of Blood Meridian, The Crossing is the second volume of the Border Trilogy but has no overt connection with the previous novel aside from its central theme of border crossing. In the years before World War II, young Billy Parham sets out to trap a murderous wolf in the New Mexico wilderness. Although he lacks the wisdom and sense of tradition that trappers embodied in the past, Parham eventually captures the she-wolf, one of the last of her kind, and goes to release it in the mountains of Mexico. He returns home to discover that his parents have been murdered and sets out with his brother Boyd to reclaim the family's stolen horses. Their personal odyssey carries them again through Mexico, where they experience a vast range of encounters and conflicts with bandits, pilgrims, revolutionaries, and a young girl alone on the road. Along the way they become separated, and Boyd is murdered. Billy crosses into Mexico a third time to recover his brother's remains. The trilogy was completed with the publication of Cities of the Plain, which brings together the two protagonists of the earlier books. In 1952 John Grady Cole and Billy Parham are cowboys on a New Mexico ranch near El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico. When Cole tries to rescue a Mexican prostitute from her sadistic pimp, he ends up dying at Parham's side. The violence of McCarthy's early novels recurs in No Country for Old Men, the story of a Vietnam veteran, Llewelyn Moss, who happens upon the bloody aftermath of a botched drug deal. When Moss makes off with a large stash of money that he discovered at the scene, he is pursued by Anton Chigurh, an unstoppable contract killer who embodies the unfathomable nature of pure evil. Following both Moss and Chigurh is Ed Tom Bell, a world-weary sheriff grappling with the cruelty of mankind. In The Road, an unnamed father and son wander across a landscape that has been devastated by an unspecified--but most likely nuclear--apocalypse. The minimalistic plot focuses on the basic survival of the two characters as they search for food and shelter while enduring the harsh winter climate and avoiding roving groups of bandits and cannibals.

Critical Reception

The critical success of All the Pretty Horses prompted scholars to reevaluate McCarthy's earlier, relatively overlooked novels. For example, some critics have interpreted Outer Dark as a distorted, modern version of John Bunyan's well-known work of medieval Christian mysticism, The Pilgrim's Progress. Others have focused on the postmodern aspect of faith in the novel. According to commentator Christopher Metress, McCarthy "is at once postmodern and moral. As a postmodernist, McCarthy dismantles our metanarratives, deconstructs our preconceptions, and throws us into epistemological uncertainty at every turn. As a moralist, however, he is drawn to the mysteries of faith." In addition, reviewers have studied the treatment of religion and class in Suttree according to theorist Mikhail Bakhtin's concept of the carnivalesque, or the interplay of grotesque manifestations of the unconscious. They have also viewed Suttree as an example of the author's prevailing interest in the motif of the quest. As John G. Cawelti observed, "It is often difficult to tell whether McCarthy's seekers are mainly driven by something they flee or drawn by something they seek. Is their quest best defined in terms of a journey through space or into the soul?" Furthermore, critics have analyzed the link between language and God in Suttree in light of the sermons of Christian mystic Meister Eckhart. They have also explored the power of language in Blood Meridian, with critics emphasizing the ability of words to create the known world in the novel. Moreover, commentators have asserted that Blood Meridian functions as a critique of the Western genre that inadvertently reinforces the Western mythos.

With regard to the novels published after All the Pretty Horses, reviewers have lauded The Crossing for subtly updating many of the motifs and themes in Zane Grey's seminal work of Western fiction, Riders of the Purple Sage. Moreover, they have heralded No Country for Old Men as a masterful modernization of traditional folktale structures, and they have likened McCarthy's use of light in The Road to the symbol of truth in Plato's "Allegory of the Cave." At the same time, some commentators have faulted McCarthy for utilizing overwrought language throughout his work. Scholar Mark Royden Winchell has argued that while his "rhetoric and vocabulary are meant to impose some sense of order and beauty on a world distinctly lacking in both," McCarthy is "... asking language to do more than it is capable of doing." Despite some negative commentary, most scholars have deemed McCarthy a powerful and original author of enduring value.



  • The Orchard Keeper (novel) 1965
  • Outer Dark (novel) 1968
  • Child of God (novel) 1974
  • Suttree (novel) 1979
  • Blood Meridian; or, The Evening Redness in the West (novel) 1985
  • All the Pretty Horses (novel) 1992
  • The Crossing (novel) 1994
  • The Stonemason: A Play in Five Acts (play) 1994
  • The Gardener's Son: A Screenplay (screenplay) 1996
  • Cities of the Plain (novel) 1998
  • *The Border Trilogy (novels) 1999
  • No Country for Old Men (novel) 2005
  • The Road (novel) 2006
  • The Sunset Limited: A Novel in Dramatic Form (play) 2006

Footnotes:*Contains All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and Cities of the Plain.




Brewton, Vince. "The Changing Landscape of Violence in Cormac McCarthy's Early Novels and the Border Trilogy." Southern Literary Journal 37, no. 1 (fall 2004): 121-43.

Notes the correspondence between American culture and the depiction of violence in McCarthy's work.

Gleeson-White, Sarah. "Playing Cowboys: Genre, Myth, and Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses." Southwestern American Literature 33, no. 1 (fall 2007): 23-38.

Treats the presentation of an ahistorical West in McCarthy's novel.

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Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1101140000