Cormac McCarthy Biography


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Cormac McCarthy, like many of the characters in his novels, has kept moving from place to place, responding keenly to the pulse of his new settings. McCarthy was born in Providence, Rhode Island, and at the age of four moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, with his parents, Charles Joseph and Gladys McGrail McCarthy. After graduating from a Catholic high school in Knoxville, McCarthy attended the University of Tennessee in 1951-1952. The next year he spent wandering around the United States, doing odd jobs. He finally returned to the university in 1957 after four years’ service in the Air Force. In 1960, the English department recognized his talent by granting him an Ingram-Merrill Award for creative writing. This may have encouraged him to leave school and devote his attention completely to his writing, which he did the same year, without receiving a degree. Since then McCarthy has eschewed academic patronage, though he has been the beneficiary of a number of generous institutional grants.

McCarthy’s first novel, The Orchard Keeper (1965), like his subsequent fiction up to Blood Meridian: Or, The Evening Redness in the West (1985), draws upon his intimate knowledge of eastern Tennessee, the area where he spent his childhood and early adulthood. The novel, written in Sevier County, Tennessee; Asheville, North Carolina; and Chicago, won the William Faulkner Foundation Award for best first novel by an American writer. By the time the novel was published, McCarthy had been granted a fellowship by the American Academy of Arts and Letters for travel abroad. His European travels, supported further by a Rockefeller Foundation grant (1966-1968), took him to London, Paris, and the Spanish island of Ibiza, while he worked on his second novel, Outer Dark (1968).

McCarthy returned to the United States in 1967, now married and with a completed novel. He and his wife, Anne de Lisle, a singer from...

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Any reckoning of those voices in contemporary American literature that have been most innovative and have spoken most powerfully about the human condition would surely grant a place to Cormac McCarthy, who has provided such vivid and poignant depictions of the cultural and geographic landscapes of Appalachia and the U.S.-Mexico border region. The issues arising so naturally from McCarthy’s fiction are those that have always been at the center of American literature—an uneasy truce with the land, the conflict between the individual and society, the relation between technology and nature, the struggle to come to terms with genealogical and historical precedents, and the eruption of violent potential. All of this is made the more remarkable by McCarthy’s distinctive literary style—his vibrant images, rugged language, and precise diction.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Cormac McCarthy was born Charles Joseph McCarthy, Jr., into a middle-class Catholic family—about as far as one can get from the backgrounds of most of his characters (with the notable exception of Suttree)—in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1933. When McCarthy was four years old, his family moved to the Knoxville, Tennessee, area, where his father was chief legal counsel to the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). There McCarthy grew up, attending a parochial elementary school, Knoxville Catholic High School, and the University of Tennessee. He dropped out of the university after one year, traveled for a year, and then joined the U.S. Air Force, in which he served for four years. Afterward, he attended the University of Tennessee for three more years but finally left without getting a degree. Around this time McCarthy also married another student, Lee Holleman, but they later divorced.

McCarthy discovered his writing vocation at the University of Tennessee, where he began work on a novel. After the publication of The Orchard Keeper, he traveled in Europe for three years, living in London, in Paris, and on the Spanish island of Ibiza. While in Europe, he married Anne de Lisle of Hamble, England. Later, they lived on a small farm in Rockford, Tennessee, just outside Knoxville, but this second married also ended in divorce. McCarthy moved to El Paso, Texas, during the time he was writing Blood Meridian.

As both his East Tennessee...

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(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Until the publication of All the Pretty Horses, which won national awards and recognition, Cormac McCarthy was something of a cult writer, kept alive by a devoted circle of critics and readers who appreciated his dark, brooding sensibility and poetic prose style. Although he is now a writer with a national reputation, McCarthy remains a mystery man. He eschews publicity and seldom grants interviews. Restless and elusive, he has divorced twice and has lived in Chicago, Las Vegas, New Orleans, London, Paris, and various border towns in Texas and Mexico.

McCarthy’s fiction explores violence and evil as a countermyth to the more official and optimistic premises of American society. McCarthy’s early novels are set in Tennessee, the state in which he grew up and in which he was largely educated. These novels are gothic and nihilistic, and they reflect in style and mood the influence of such Southern authors as William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor. When McCarthy moved to Texas, his novels engaged with the tradition of the American Western. These meditative Westerns are his signature pieces, and the first of them, Blood Meridian, is the touchstone of the McCarthy canon. A gruesome historical novel set in the 1840’s, Blood Meridian concerns the maraudings of a band of scalp hunters as they rape, murder, and plunder in the borderlands of the Southwest. His next two novels, All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing, are also stories of youthful initiation into evil and are the first two novels in a projected series. They are set in a postwar world of conflicting and competing cultures, economies, and systems of values, and significantly include the terrain and culture of Mexico as well as Texas. Although set in modern times, these novels follow Blood Meridian in seriously interpreting the genre of the American Western, adding a dark, mysterious dimension that sophisticates the form beyond its popular formulaic identity.