One of the key features of Cormac McCarthy’s fiction is his vivid and precise description of specific geographic locales. How do particular places affect the action in the story and shape the fictional characters involved in the action?
McCarthy’s work is often described as “naturalistic.” What, if any, philosophical views can be extracted from his work, particularly with respect to free will and destiny, the nature of evil, and the forces responsible for creation, destruction, and the course of events?
Journeys are an important component, and even an organizing principle, in McCarthy’s fiction. What specific journeys take place, and how do those journeys affect those who take them?
At the heart of much of McCarthy’s fiction is a transgressive act, or some kind of border crossing. What function do these crossings serve? How do readers respond to those crossings and transgressions?
“Each man is the bard of his own existence,” a character pronounces in Cities of the Plain. McCarthy’s fiction displays a keen interest in the act of storytelling, the role of the witness, and the process by which tellers and listeners construct meaning from stories. How does this work in specific novels?
Other literary forms
Cormac McCarthy is known almost exclusively as a writer of novels. Short excerpts from his novels in progress have sometimes appeared in such literary magazines as Yale Review, Sewanee Review, and TriQuarterly. He has also written a few scripts, including one for The Gardener’s Son, a film that first aired on the Public Broadcasting Service’s Visions series in December, 1976. The drama is based on an actual murder that took place in Graniteville, South Carolina, in 1876. In a story full of dark implications, the crippled Rob McEvoy, son of a poor working family, kills the son of the local textile mill owner. The screenplay was published in 1996.
Few writers have received as much critical acclaim as Cormac McCarthy while waiting so long to gain popularity, which finally did come some twenty to thirty years into his career. From his earliest novels, McCarthy has been consistently praised for his carefully crafted work, his unflinching, dark vision, his immense range of vocabulary, and his powers of observation and description. These qualities have also won him rich recognition in the form of prizes and grants. The Orchard Keeper won the 1965 William Faulkner Foundation Award as the best first novel by an American writer and helped win McCarthy an American Academy of Arts and Letters traveling fellowship to Europe in 1965-1966. The following years brought him grants from the Rockefeller, Guggenheim, Lyndhurst, and MacArthur foundations. McCarthy has been compared to William Faulkner, Edgar Allan Poe, and Mark Twain.
The same qualities in McCarthy that have been praised have also been the cause of negative criticism and help to explain why it took him so long to achieve popularity. A slow writer, he worked at least twenty years to produce his first five books and twenty more years to produce the next five; thus, McCarthy might have faded from the public eye between earlier books, though their cumulative effect eventually began to pay off. His subjects—killings, incest, necrophilia, Knoxville lowlife, scalp-hunting Western marauders, hit men, and apocalypse—may repel some readers, and others may find his dark vision too unrelenting and morbid. Finally, his tendencies to ransack the dictionary for unusual words and to describe his dripping horrors in overwritten prose make him sound occasionally like gothic writer H. P. Lovecraft.
McCarthy’s popular reputation began to improve when he and his settings moved from Appalachia to the border region of the American Southwest and northern Mexico. In the wider world, literature set in Appalachia tends to be unfairly classed as regional and to arouse stereotypical expectations of demented, banjo-playing hillbillies (expectations that McCarthy’s earlier novels to some extent satisfied). Conversely, his depictions of Appalachia were unlikely to win many regional adherents, despite a regional literary movement that coincided with McCarthy’s career. With his trilogy set in the Southwest and northern Mexico, however, McCarthy gained popularity at the same time critical acclaim continued.
In 1992, All the Pretty Horses won the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, and in 2007, McCarthy was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for The Road. A motion-picture adaptation of All the Pretty Horses was released in 2000, and a film version of No Country for Old Men was released in 2007; the latter film’s success (it received four Academy Awards) helped to increase McCarthy’s popular appeal.
Arnold, Edwin T., and Dianne C. Luce, eds. A Cormac McCarthy Companion: “The Border Trilogy.” Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001. A collection of essays providing a critical overview of McCarthy’s trilogy.
Arnold, Edwin T., and Dianne C. Luce, eds. Perspectives on Cormac McCarthy. Oxford: University Press of Mississippi, 1993. This collection of ten essays examining the works of McCarthy serves as an excellent introduction to his novels. A thorough bibliography is included.
Bell, Vereen M. The Achievement of Cormac McCarthy. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988. The first thorough critical study of McCarthy, in which Bell explains McCarthy’s unconventional methods and his emphasis on language as responses to the fact that the real world is tainted by evil. Contains a good bibliography and a full index.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Cormac McCarthy. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2002. A collection of the best critical work on McCarthy intended as an introduction for students.
Bowers, James. Reading Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian.” Boise, Idaho: Boise State University Press, 1999. Examines the historical context of McCarthy’s macabre brand of western expansion.
Jarrett, Robert L. Cormac McCarthy. New York: Twayne, 1997. Contains the most information on McCarthy. Includes bibliography and index.
Lilley, James D., ed. Cormac McCarthy: New Directions. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2002. A collection of essays focusing on the mythic aspects of McCarthy’s writing.
Rebein, Robert. Hicks, Tribes, and Dirty Realists: American Fiction After Postmodernism. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001. An assertion that gritty realism has gained ascendency over metafiction in American writing. Examines the works of McCarthy, Dorothy Allison, Annie Proulx, Thomas McGuane, Larry McMurtry, and Louise Erdrich.
Woodward, Richard B. “Cormac McCarthy’s Venomous Fiction.” The New York Times Magazine, April 19, 1992, 28-31. In one of his rare interviews, McCarthy discusses his views on the nature of evil and the allure of violence. His belief is that an independent life and a life of harmony are incompatible.