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...
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