Cormac McCarthy Biography

Start Your Free Trial


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Download Cormac McCarthy Study Guide

Subscribe Now

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 Hamble, England, whom he had met on his travels, settled on a small farm in Rockford, Tennessee. Yet another grant, a Guggenheim Fellowship for writing fiction, came his way in 1969.

During his career, McCarthy has, on the average, produced a novel every five or six years. Child of God came out in 1973, followed by Suttree in 1979, a novel on which he had worked throughout the late 1960’s and the 1970’s. Between the publication of those two novels, McCarthy, collaborating with film director Richard Pearce, wrote the script for The Gardener’s Son, included in the Public Broadcasting Service’s series Visions. The drama, based on an actual 1876 murder in Graniteville, South Carolina, embodies themes to which McCarthy has typically been drawn. Rob McEvoy, a crippled son of a laboring family, kills the son of a mill-owning family. The event, as portrayed by McCarthy, is fraught with moral ambiguity. Of McEvoy, the murderer, McCarthy has said, “The kid was a natural rebel, probably just a troublemaker in real life. But in our film he has a certain nobility. He stands up and says, ’No, this is intolerable and I want to do something about it.’”

McCarthy’s move to West Texas in the early 1980’s marked a significant shift for the writer. Supported by grants from the Lyndhurst Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, he worked on his fifth novel, Blood Meridian, deemed by many critics his most masterful novel to date. The narrative movement in Blood Meridian and in his subsequent works called The Border Trilogy—consisting of All the Pretty Horses (1992), The Crossing (1994), and Cities of the Plain (1998)—occurs against a precisely drawn backdrop of the border regions of Texas, New Mexico, and Mexico. These four novels offer a stunning, vivid sense of the Southwest and northern Mexico, just as his first four novels capture and inscribe areas of Appalachia.

McCarthy’s five-act play The Stonemason was published in 1994, though it had been written some years before. The play, set in Kentucky, features a young black man, Ben Telfairs, who, like...

(The entire section is 2,267 words.)