Skip to Content
Search Icon
Issue 18 – Assumption 2023


Cormac McCarthy, 1933–2023

On the American novelist.


For decades, Cormac McCarthy was the generally agreed upon candidate for greatest living American novelist. Throughout his nearly sixty-year career, he consistently received the highest critical acclaim and collected nearly all the important book awards. Not that these mattered much to him. McCarthy lived an intensely private life. He rarely gave interviews, and, when he did, he usually dismissed writing as “way, way down at the bottom of the list” of his interests, although he clearly had a way with words. Nor did it seem to matter to McCarthy that in the second half of his life, he won a massive and devoted following for his westerns, which treated darker and more difficult subjects than his earlier, Southern work. His reticence only made fans more fervent. Upon his death, McCarthy’s novels, as well as his strange, scrupulously cultivated persona, deserve much discussion as he takes his place among the great eccentrics of American letters.

Charles McCarthy was born in Providence, Rhode Island, on July 20, 1933, the third of six children and the eldest son. When he was four, the family moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, where his father became a lawyer for the Tennessee Valley Authority. McCarthy attended Catholic schools and was an altar boy at his parish. Most of his childhood was spent taking on new hobbies—“there was no hobby I didn’t have, name anything, no matter how esoteric, I had found it and dabbled in it”—although, in his telling, he did not read much then. He studied physics and engineering at the University of Tennessee, but his interests shifted when an English professor asked him to re-punctuate a collection of essays initially published in the seventeenth century. He dropped out of college in 1953 to join the Air Force. While stationed in Alaska, isolated in the cold and dark, McCarthy read copiously. Upon his return, he changed his name from Charles to Cormac, a childhood nickname from his Irish aunts, and began writing.

You must or subscribe to read the rest of the article.

About the author

Robert Wyllie

Robert Wyllie is assistant professor of political science at Ashland University and a contributing editor at The Lamp