Upon the publication of The Orchard Keeper, granted the William Faulkner Foundation Award for the best first novel by an American writer, McCarthy’s promising literary talents were recognized. The young writer was singled out as a force to be watched and to be reckoned with.
Like a number of McCarthy’s early novels, The Orchard Keeper is set in eastern Tennessee. Its topography is related intimately in stunning prose, creating a remarkable, richly textured linguistic surface to the novel. Setting, for McCarthy, is of paramount importance. In fact, geographic contours seem to precede and form the characters that act within their folds. This stands as a kind of philosophical principle for McCarthy, who places the human dimension of life in perspective, always vigilantly invoking the presence of larger, more powerful, mystical forces that drive and control people’s lives. The hilly region east of Knoxville is perfect for supporting the thematic thrust of the novel. During the time the novel is set, in the 1930’s and early 1940’s, the area was yet outside the jurisdiction of law and beyond the reach of modern civilization. The land itself, and the connection of its tenants to it, represents a cultural value akin to that espoused by southern Agrarian writers such as John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, and others.
Threatened is humankind’s ability to live independent of society’s conventions and inflexible legal dictates. The novel serves as an elegy to a heroic past in which people lived in harmony with nature and made, individually, their own moral determinations. As McCarthy writes in the last lines of the novel, its characters are among the last of their kind: “They are gone now. Fled, banished...
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