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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.

McCarthy was single-minded in his work. His first wife walked out on him when he demanded that she get a job to support him. His second wife only sighed, recalling, decades after their divorce (in all, McCarthy would be divorced three times), that he ignored all else while he sat at his desk. “Someone would call up and offer him two thousand dollars to come speak at a university about his books,” she said. “And he would tell them that everything he had to say was there on the page. So we would eat beans for another week.” McCarthy preferred it this way; his early novels, The Orchard Keeper, Outer Dark, Child of God, and Suttree, never sold more than a few thousand copies—and he lived strangely when he wrote them, on the road, in motels, in an uninsulated barn.

In 1985, McCarthy completed what is generally regarded as his masterpiece, Blood Meridian, or The Evening Redness in the West, a book of shocking and often hilarious violence. Harold Bloom called it “the major aesthetic achievement of any living American writer,” and compared the novel to Moby-Dick (McCarthy’s favorite). Blood Meridian was followed by a trilogy of westerns that won McCarthy a massive audience in the 1990s. His sudden propulsion from obscurity to fame was in part due to a film adaptation of the first in the series, All the Pretty Horses, but also to changes in the industry that prompted McCarthy’s publisher to heavily promote his work. Around the same time, McCarthy gave his most substantial interview, in which he stated that he looks down on anyone whose work doesn’t palpably “deal with issues of life and death.” He was free in his criticism. “I don’t understand them,” he remarked of Proust and Henry James. “To me, that’s not literature.” In his mind, there were four great novels against which everything else should be measured: Ulysses, The Brothers Karamazov, The Sound and the Fury, and Moby-Dick.

In the last decades of his life, McCarthy continued to write, but increasingly he became perplexed by the scientific questions he had probed during his youth. He took up a residency at the Santa Fe Institute, where he wrote a scholarly essay on the nature of consciousness. Two of his most popular novels, No Country for Old Men and The Road, were published in the 2000s. Both were adapted for film. His final novels, The Passenger and Stella Maris, which were sold as companion pieces, were published eight months before his death. It was rumored that McCarthy had struggled with them for decades.

Robert Wyllie

Blood Meridian and The Road establish Cormac McCarthy’s legacy as a powerful storyteller of violent escapades. An epigraph to the former describes death as the “life of darkness” that swallows all sorrow. A line in the latter describes “salitter drying from the earth.” Both are nods to Jacob Boehme, the early seventeenth-century German shoemaker whom Hegel called the first German philosopher. Sal nitre is the heavenly gunpowder that produces lightning according to Paracelsus’s conjectures, from which Victor Frankenstein learns to zap life into dead matter. Salitter—the spelling makes McCarthy’s nod unmistakable—is Boehme’s analogy for divine powers deep in the Father, some of which, he writes, were spoiled by Lucifer. The necessity of the Fall in Boehme’s mystical writings allows philosophers like Hegel and Schelling to consider the possibility of a deficiency in God that is progressively revealed through human experience. For this reason, Boehme interests scholars who note affinities between modern philosophy and Gnosticism. Traces of Boehme suggest how deeply McCarthy read about all hell breaking loose in our minds on earth.

Dark, but learnedly so. Yet this overlooks the good-humored McCarthy. On the subject of gunpowder, who can forget the Judge exhorting the Glanton Gang to micturate “for their very souls” to concoct explosives to blow up their Apache pursuers? (The saltpeter in that case is derived from bat guano, not the heavens or urine.) Gene Harrogate’s escapades with watermelons, pigeons, bats, and payphones, often wearing pants as a shirt, with his head poking out from a hole in the crotch, ensure that parts of Suttree rank among the funniest moments in the great comic novels of the 1970s, when writers still dared to make their readers laugh aloud, and could. McCarthy trotted out “thieves, derelicts, miscreants, pariahs, poltroons, spalpeens, curmudgeons, clotpolls, murderers, gamblers, bawds, whores, trulls, brigands, topers, tosspots, sots and archsots, lobcocks, smell-socks, runagates, rakes, and other assorted and felonious debauchees” for grand comic effect. He could also laugh at himself. In The Sunset Limited, we find Black, an ex-convict, listening patiently to (Professor) White’s lament that all Western values “went up in smoke” at Dachau, only to respond: “You a culture junky.”

The unlikely philosophical dialogue between the ivory tower and the everyman’s tenement is the clearest example of McCarthy’s search for hope despite the hopelessness of high culture. Hegel foresaw the fullness of revelation in human consciousness; in hindsight, McCarthy sees “Auschwitz and Hiroshima, the sister events that sealed forever the fate of the West.” Black’s humble Pentecostalism tries to hold out against White’s academic nihilism and the soul-crushing disappointment of Boehme’s Gnostic heirs (he can, I think). And the graying McCarthy tried to as well. He was a culture junky in recovery, a visionary writer of the agnostic apocalypse, one you don’t need to decode any abstruse tomes to see coming.

Oddly for a wordsmith, McCarthy insists there is something more to knowledge than words can convey. He was fascinated by the origin of language. What was the mind like for a million years before words were spoken? McCarthy never wrote this question off as unthinkable, or simply accepted that humanity is coeval with language. His only published essay invites us to reflect upon the “Kekulé Problem.” In the spring of 1862, the story goes, August Kekulé dreamed of the ouroboros, the mythical snake that eats its tail, and awoke with the insight that the benzene molecules which he was studying had a ring structure. Why does the dreaming mind continue to think in images and symbols, McCarthy wonders, rather than language?

McCarthy’s final, interlinked novels, The Passenger and Stella Maris, explore whether there is hope in the enduring mysteries of the universe that are sometimes given to mathematicians and scientists in dreams. In the latter, Alicia Western speaks to her psychiatrist about their beauty and monstrosity. One character who attempts to tell the whole story is a “roué” and a “bounder” from Knoxville, John Sheddan, an old friend of Alicia’s brother, Bobby. While his antics and misanthropic rants approach Suttree-level hilarity, he is not an idiot savant like Harrogate. Instead, Sheddan’s archaisms and elaborate style (he invites Bobby to “dismember a brace of crustaceans” with him) indicate that to some extent he is a characterization of vintage McCarthy. He studies Bobby: the Caltech physics Ph.D. dropout, race-car crash-out, bathophobic deep-sea diver. Sheddan wants to tell the story of Bobby and Alicia, the children of parents who worked on the atomic bomb, as a last classical Greek tragedy of incest and suicide in a doomed world. But he cannot tell the whole story.

McCarthy was a wannabe believer. Some part of him is like Bobby, who lacks both Sheddan’s garrulous flair and his ability to “travel light” in the world. Bobby remains too infatuated with his mathematician sister. What is the allure of mathematics, McCarthy wonders also, that it drives so many brilliant minds insane? This theme is beyond Sheddan’s classical tragedy. Bobby, the “last pagan on earth,” is different from his forebears. At the end, with a bodega barkeep in the Balearic Islands (were McCarthy lived in the late 1960s), Bobby envies those who died in the Spanish Civil War “for a cause that was just for a people that he loved and the fathers of those people and their poetry and their pain and their God.” These beliefs are ghosts for Bobby and the barman. After atom bombs and death camps, no credible beliefs can zap life and hope into the masses. McCarthy’s pessimism seems duty-bound, as if the consolations of faith would prevent his witness to the victims of the stupid, vicious, utterly unremarked post-apocalyptic barbarisms, after humanity screws up the destruction of the world. McCarthy’s “withershins allegor[ies] of despair” (Suttree again) make him like the last of the modernists who felt responsible for the world, and for whom the “death of God” was a fresh loss. Yet he asks with honest introspection, what is the value of literature, then? McCarthy dove with trepidation for hope deeper than words.

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

Steve Knepper

Cormac McCarthy had little trouble imagining a future in which his books were unread flotsam: some poorly understood catastrophic event leaves a library on the outskirts of Knoxville ransacked, the windows shattered and books unshelved and strewn, copies of The Road and Blood Meridian spilled alongside the Bible, Shakespeare, and abstruse mathematical treatises, but also tumbled together with chipper self-help books, dieting manuals, and Nicholas Sparks novels. Sparks once complained to an interviewer that he was a better writer than the “horrible” and “pulpy” McCarthy and that he, writing in the ancient tradition of Sophocles, deserved to be treated just as seriously. Therefore, let The Notebook sit alongside, even on top of, Suttree in the kindling pile that the illiterate marauders heap in our hemorrhaged library when they camp there for the night. Let us watch the pages of these two timeless classics fade into gray and then curl into indistinguishable ash together. McCarthy could be a hilarious writer. He deserves a mordant wake.

McCarthy’s novels almost always claim or suggest that the end is nigh, that “the slaughter to come is probably beyond our imagining,” as Malkina says in the closing lines of The Counselor. Yet McCarthy wrote books to last. His novels read as if they were hewn “out of solid rock,” like the water trough on which Sheriff Ed Tom Bell meditates in No Country for Old Men:

Just chiseled out of the rock. And I got to thinkin about the man that done that. That country had not had a time of peace much of any length at all that I knew of. . . . But this man had set down with a hammer and chisel and carved out a stone water trough to last ten thousand years. Why was that? What was it that he had faith in?

Good questions. McCarthy’s protagonists frequently happen upon ruins, especially wind-whining churches full of forlorn statuary and long-unrung bells and shards of stained glass. Usually, these ruins strike readers with a sense of God-forsaken ephemerality, of the uncanny fragility of human hopes and dreams. We are shadows that can build things out of the more substantive stuff of the world. But to what purpose? McCarthy’s plays and novels often question whether we have any credible purpose at all. They often suggest that our striving amounts to a perennial fool’s errand in which we try to shore up the levee against death. We confuse material solidity—good, solid rock—for existential solidity.

But in this passage of No Country for Old Men, Sheriff Bell sees something more hopeful in our rock-chiseling ways. He doesn’t think his trough carver was under any illusions that humans would suddenly change for the better. He does not think that his carver was a gullible and naïve innocent. How could any farmer be that? Why then did he carve?

And I have to say that the only thing I can think is that there was some sort of promise in his heart. And I dont have no intentions of carvin a stone water trough. But I would like to be able to make that kind of promise. I think that’s what I would like most of all.

I suspect McCarthy chiseled his novels because, at least some of the time, he had that kind of “promise in his heart.” Perhaps, given his Catholic upbringing, he wouldn’t even squirm too much if we said he was graced with such promise, with such hope. I doubt he thought people would heed his warnings for the future, even as they heaped praise and accolades on his novels. (But never the Nobel. Alas.) I doubt he thought that society even could heed the warnings in some kind of large-scale way, not with all of its built-up momentum. One should not downplay the consistent bleakness of his vision. But it was not unremittingly bleak. Perhaps he could also imagine humanity picking up the pieces after the cataclysm, attempting to build once more, perhaps for a while chastened by the hubris and waste and callousness that led to so much destruction: a society of ascetics, perhaps, who collect a library from the earlier world, who urge their initiates, when they are ready, to read the grim prophecies that Cormac McCarthy carved on the page. “But this man had set down with a hammer and chisel and carved out a stone water trough to last ten thousand years.”

Steve Knepper is an associate professor in the Department of English, Rhetoric, and Humanistic Studies at Virginia Military Institute.

John Wilson

I first read Cormac McCarthy because Guy Davenport reviewed Suttree (with his customary élan) in National Review. In those days of yore, if you read about a new book and wanted to read it, you went to a bookstore to acquire it. In Pasadena, we had the long-established Vroman’s (still going today, astonishingly). I came home with the novel and read it, keeping my two-volume compact edition of the O.E.D. (with magnifying glass) close at hand. There were parts I found opaque and parts I didn’t like, but I was exhilarated by the novel, and I hunted down McCarthy’s previous books. Results were mixed. I read only a little of Child of God before abandoning it, for instance, but Outer Dark was extraordinary; it remains one of my favorites (perhaps my first choice) among McCarthy’s novels, along with Suttree and The Road.

Misgivings began to set in with Blood Meridian, which included many extraordinary passages but which also seemed to be deformed by portentousness. Then came the Border Trilogy. In a lifetime of reading, I can recall very few experiences as dispiriting and baffling. Before I was even halfway through the first book in the trilogy, I felt as if I were reading a parody. What had happened to McCarthy? I’m not sure why I kept going; I had such respect for his gifts, I felt I must be missing something, coming at this new project from the wrong angle.

I didn’t read McCarthy again until The Road came out, and then not at first. Sometime after its initial reception, I read a longish review of it that prompted me to reconsider. Shamefully, I can’t recall who wrote the piece or where it appeared, but I bought the book, read it, and read it again. Despite a few bits that veer into self-consciously portentous mannerisms, it is (so I think) a great achievement.

Then came a long time in which no new books appeared, but after a while, now and then, there were distressing bulletins about McCarthy’s connection with the Santa Fe Institute, his musings on quantum mechanics (an infallible sign, alas, of intellectual quackery and presumption), and so on. Given that lamentable trajectory, I had no stomach for the paired novels that appeared after his long hiatus, nor do I have any intention of reading them now.

McCarthy’s death has prompted an outpouring of praise beyond anything I would have expected, even given the rapturous reception of his last books. Some of this strikes me as absurdly hyperbolic (he was, you see, beyond doubt, America’s “greatest writer”). But I will leave it to others to theorize what this signifies.

John Wilson is a contributing editor at the Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at the Marginalia Review of Books.

Gregory Wolfe

As a long-time resident of the Southwest, Cormac McCarthy was undoubtedly familiar with the figure out of Native American mythology known as Kokopelli—the god of fertility, but also a trickster, a humpbacked god who played the flute to entice the springtime to return. I was put in mind of Kokopelli—who shows up on T-shirts and bumper stickers throughout the region (and, incidentally, above Walter White’s swimming pool in Breaking Bad)—with the news of McCarthy’s death. That’s because of all the things readers tend to think when it comes to his fiction—the violence, darkness, cruelty, and cosmic pessimism—they tend to miss the humor, playfulness, and above all the art of deception and concealment.

Fiction presents us with the challenge of discerning what literature teachers in my youth used to call the difference between “appearance and reality.” The problem with most judgements of McCarthy’s achievement is that they tend to be superficial, to focus on the surface rather than the artfully hidden depths. In an interview with the Paris Review, Joy Williams says: “What a story is, is devious. It pretends transparency, forthrightness. It engages with ordinary people, ordinary matters, recognizable stuff. But this is all a masquerade. What good stories deal with is the horror and incomprehensibility of time, the dark encroachment of old catastrophes.”

Admittedly, few of McCarthy’s books deal with “ordinary matters,” but deviousness is fundamental to his fictive method. McCarthy, no less than Jane Austen, presents a world where our pride tempts us to give in to prejudice. Like all great writers he positively encourages us to misread him, leaving only the faintest of trails off the beaten path—just enough cognitive dissonance and counter-evidence to encourage us to backtrack and revise our opinions.

Take, for example, the cowboys featured in his Border Trilogy. John Grady Cole and Billy Parham represent in many ways the crowning virtues of the American hero: closeness to nature and her ways, self-reliance, an innate desire for justice, and a willingness to take action to right the wrongs they encounter. But the moment they cross the border into Mexico, they find themselves enduring various forms of brutality and injustice. As readers we naturally feel for John Grady and Billy—and whether we admit it or not, we’re tempted to think of Mexico as a place of sloth and lawlessness.

Having been lulled into the very worst and most clichéd prejudices against this alien culture, the reader may or may not cotton on to another aspect of Mexican life revealed by McCarthy’s narrative—its hospitality, its emphasis on the communal “we” (nosotros) rather than the “I,” its capacity to endure suffering and hardship, and its deep appreciation for life as something given rather than earned.

Both cowboys experience misfortune because of a tragic flaw: blindness to the differences between these two cultures (and to the relative merits of each), which steers them toward disaster. They are under the impression that injustice can be “fixed” by direct action—the redistribution of property rights, you might say—only to run into insuperable obstacles beyond their control. As the Dueña Alfonsa tells John Grady: “In the end we all come to be cured of our sentiments. Those whom life does not cure death will. The world is quite ruthless in selecting between the dream and reality, even where we will not. Between the wish and the thing the world lies waiting.”

In the Border Trilogy and elsewhere, McCarthy makes the atomic bomb the ultimate metaphor of hubris, of trying to harness the power of nature by forcefully splitting what has been given apart—the ultimate version of “you break it, you buy it.” The detonation at the inaptly named Trinity site becomes the unholy sacrament at the heart of the Black Mass celebrated by modern technology.

The fact that McCarthy spent his later years hanging out with the physicists at the Santa Fe Institute might seem odd in the light of his obsession with the atom bomb. But there’s no contradiction here. One clue to why this might be so comes from one of the rare interviews McCarthy granted soon after he received a Macarthur “Genius Grant.” Asked about the gala event he attended, he said: “The artsy crowd was all dressed and drugged and ready to party. . . . I just started hanging out with scientists because they were more interesting.” Another, more blunt way of putting it is that McCarthy was thumbing his nose at the solipsism and facile talk about the “constructedness” of reality among the “artsy crowd” in favor of people who actually worked with the stuff of reality (individuals acutely aware of the elusiveness and mystery at the heart of nature).

In any case, while McCarthy’s flawed protagonists often struggle with despair at the apparent meaninglessness of a cruel world, it is often his minor characters who offer alternative interpretations. True to his trickster ways, he presents these characters in forms that are disconcerting or unappealing: they are often ragged prophetic figures, like the “starved and threadbare buddha” Ely in The Road. Or consider the delightfully named Debussy Fields from The Passenger, a transgender friend of the protagonist, Bobby Western. Fields has certainly experienced vulnerability, rejection, and self-doubt—and has plenty of reasons to despair. But then, after getting sober and reading Pascal, Fields comes to a conclusion—and responds to it: “If something did not love you you would not be here,” Fields says. “And I said okay.” After Bobby leaves, he thinks to himself “that God’s goodness appeared in strange places. Dont close your eyes.”

No doubt Cormac McCarthy was speaking through the Dueña Alfonsa when he dismissed the dreams and wishes we cling to because he believed that we ought to face reality in all its complexity and mystery and sorrow. After all, it is fiction’s job to help cure us of our sentiments. But that did not prevent the trickster in him from leaving hints of God’s goodness in the strangest of places. Don’t close your eyes.

Gregory Wolfe is the publisher and editor of Slant Books. He also founded the literary quarterly Image, as well as the M.F.A. in Creative Writing at Seattle Pacific University. His own books include Beauty Will Save the World, Intruding Upon the Timeless, and The Operation of Grace.

Jessica Hooten Wilson

There’s only one writer still worth studying: Cormac McCarthy.” So explained one of my graduate school advisors after I had notified him of my interest in writing on Fyodor Dostoevsky and Flannery O’Connor. The depths of these two literary greats had been mined, apparently, but in McCarthy there was still a treasure trove. I wrote my first book on Dostoevsky and O’Connor anyway. Then I turned to McCarthy for pleasure reading.

I was late to the party. The first book of his I read was The Road. By the time I picked up that novel, both All the Pretty Horses and No Country for Old Men had been adapted for the screen; the latter won dozens of awards, including an Oscar for Best Picture. The Road was chosen for the Oprah Book Club. McCarthy had even agreed to be interviewed by Oprah.

The public appearances and bestselling status were a flash in the pan. McCarthy disappeared again, as he had in previous years, even as his celebrity increased. The social media world clamored for his presence—for a profile that would share tweets—but every “verified” account proved a fake. McCarthy continued to type quietly on his Olivetti Lettera 32, spurning the computer, the internet, and all speaking engagements. The sixteen-year silence was broken by his long-awaited duology, The Passenger and Stella Maris, published only a month apart in 2022. Less than a year later, he died. He was the author of twelve novels, and the winner of a National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and a MacArthur Fellowship—all the marks of a great American novelist. He never fizzled out, and some have suggested (and this author agrees) that his last two books were his greatest.

When we try to mull over what made McCarthy so great, we can point to his life, his style, his themes. We will not be able to put together a formula to follow, but we might see some gestures worth imitating. His first book was sent unsolicited to Random House because it was the only publisher that he knew. The Orchard Keeper was discovered in a bin by Albert Erskine, the editor for William Faulkner and Robert Penn Warren, and it did not sell well, but Erskine continued publishing McCarthy’s novels anyway. It would be decades without strong sales before McCarthy would be recognized for his talent.

But his obscurity was a blessing: instead of getting caught up in fame or being pushed to create a platform, McCarthy could dedicate his time and energy to his work. He lived in a motel for part of that time, eating beans, ignoring requests for interviews or media performances. Is it even possible anymore to produce an author of McCarthy’s caliber? The best authors must follow suit, heeding Flannery O’Connor’s advice not to read reviews because the praise and censure are both bad for the writer. No great American novelist can waste time regularly checking Amazon to see if her latest work gets three or five stars.

McCarthy would never cater to a contemporary audience, but he did lap up the wisdom of the past without succumbing to the anxiety of influence. In his first national interview with Richard B. Woodward for the New York Times, McCarthy admits, “The ugly fact is books are made out of books. The novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written.” To me, the way McCarthy takes freely from the tradition is what makes his novels rich. I’ve noted elsewhere that The Road can be best understood when read in conversation with Virgil and Ray Bradbury. Stella Maris is a dialogue between a psychiatrist and his suicidal patient, reminiscent of Walker Percy’s Lancelot. The questions about existence and meaning echo Camus’s The Stranger and dialogues from Dostoevsky’s novels.

In the aforementioned interview, McCarthy claims that Moby-Dick is his favorite novel and credits Dostoevsky and Faulkner for their influence on his writing. One can see all three in his style. He abhorred the semicolon and rarely employed any punctuation that he found unnecessary, including quotation marks and even apostrophes. His dialogue looks taken from the pages of a screenplay, lacking normative speaker tags. Robert Alter, in his study of the King James Bible’s influence on the prose of Melville and Faulkner (Pen of Iron), concludes with the example of McCarthy’s The Road. The simple declarative sentences, polysyndetons, and parataxis make McCarthy’s prose sound biblical. The stark simplicity of his style carries the weight of revelation.

Rather than stories with the moral “Go and do likewise,” McCarthy’s novels are cautionary tales with brief glimmers of hope. When readers find the violence in his fiction overwhelming, I paraphrase O’Connor’s observation: “you have hold of the wrong horror.” For McCarthy, violence is not an end in and of itself. Ironically, it is the grim potential of every living thing that never considers its own penchant for violence. McCarthy pushes all of his characters to the extreme, to see their lives in light of their death. You do not read a McCarthy novel to be patted on the back; you read McCarthy to remind yourself of the fragility of existence, the mystery behind the ordinary, the sensible world that matters as much as any abstract thought.

Recently I tried to explain to a friend why McCarthy would still be read a century from now: “His novels do not placate you, but they challenge you and stick with you.” I think McCarthy was like the best of poets. He named things for us—not only the nightmares that we try to brush under the bed but also the light, even when it is so faint and distant and ephemeral that we’re not sure it’s light at all. McCarthy can at once make you shudder and break your heart. But then, you cannot stop meditating on the way he did it.

When McCarthy died, readers did not merely share his book covers and titles online. They shared their favorite lines. For it was the sentences that he left us with, words threaded along like music, and truths so poignant and succinct that we finally knew what questions to ask. I may have been late to stumble upon McCarthy, but I still have a lifetime to spend reading what he gave us.

Jessica Hooten Wilson is the inaugural Seaver College Scholar of Liberal Arts at Pepperdine University and a senior fellow at The Trinity Forum. She is the author of several books, most recently Reading for the Love of God: How to Read as a Spiritual Practice.

Sam Sacks

A line from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian that still makes me laugh appears at the demise of Captain Glanton, head of a gang of scalp-hunters that had been robbing and murdering Americans, Mexicans, and Yuma tribesmen at a ferry crossing on the Colorado River. The Yuma chieftain Caballo en Pelo catches the bandit unawares in his bedroom, at which point “the old man raised the axe and split the head of John Joel Glanton to the thrapple.”

“Thrapple” is an old Scottish word meaning windpipe, usually used in connection with animals. Its etymology is uncertain: It may derive from “thropple,” which comes from a Middle English contraction of “throat-boll,” but it also sounds like a mixture of throat and Adam’s apple. In either case, it’s a great word, fun to say and funny to the ear, and it lends an outrageous flourish—much more than if McCarthy had written “windpipe” or “gullet”—to the Looney Tunes image of a man having his skull cleaved in two.

Though it loosened up a little in his later years, McCarthy’s reputation has always been forbidding, that of an Old Testament prophet of violence with dogmatic views on punctuation, author interviews, and the worthlessness of Henry James. I should acknowledge that this is the side of him—the glowering purist, the doomy visionary—that makes me the most doubtful ,and whenever I sense that his novels are trying to impress some lesson upon me about human nature and the lawlessness of the universe I tend to grow impatient. The McCarthy I like is the fox rather than the hedgehog: the magpie collector of words and literary styles (to mix my metaphors, as McCarthy was prone to doing). The novels I enjoy best are Suttree and The Passenger because they’re the most ranging and gregarious, but in all the books there are variegated riches to be mined on the level of the paragraph, or the sentence.

A rare academic study that can be recommended to all readers is Books Are Made Out of Books, by Michael Lynn Crews, who pored over McCarthy’s archives in the Whittliff Collection at Texas State University and took note of every title or author he referenced in drafts or correspondence. The result testifies to a magnificently diverse cornucopia of influences, from Saint Augustine to Emily Dickinson, but the fascination lies in the specificity of these borrowings. Crews finds McCarthy citing a line from Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam War classic Going After Cacciato in his notes for Blood Meridian. The line, from a description of mountains, is “pink coral and ferric reds,” and as Crews points out, the note tells us nothing of McCarthy’s thoughts about O’Brien’s treatment of combat. All it indicates is that he really wanted to use the word “ferric”—which makes sense, given his own novel’s repeated evocation of redness. This is what he came up with:

They crossed the blackened wood of a burn and they rode through a region of cloven rock where great boulders lay halved with smooth uncentered faces and on the slopes of those ferric grounds old paths of fire and the blackened bones of trees assassinated in the mountain storms.

When you pick “ferric” out of all that you see that it has been cannily used to modify “ground,” creating a near-homophone of “fairground”—a neat little double meaning for a novel in which, according to the wicked Judge Holden, “war is the ultimate game.” So saith the Judge, but to McCarthy, the ultimate game is language.

But there’s deep pleasure, too, in ideas, or maybe more simply in the knowledge of things, from quantum mechanics to the proper way to prepare turtle soup. When you start to think of McCarthy as a kind of dilettante polymath, if such a person is possible, you can relax a little amid all the baroque exordiums about sin and fate. His interests seemed to be inexhaustible. In The Passenger there’s a peculiar chapter in which a side character explains, apropos of very little, what actually happened in the assassination of John F. Kennedy. (As in Don DeLillo’s Libra, it was the C.I. A.) If you strain you can find themes that connect this interlude to the rest of the novel—something to do with secret levels of reality—but its true justification is pretty obviously that McCarthy finds it fascinating to contemplate. J.F.K. assassination conspiracies make up an entire esoteric branch of study with numerous competing theories and a rich, bespoke lexicon. Like, for instance, the history of the American Southwest, it’s an autodidact’s dream subject.

This roving curiosity is what gives McCarthy’s fixation with the apocalypse its emotional heft. The end of the world can only be tragic if you were in love with it to begin with. But in a strange way, Armageddon is in itself fascinating, yet another thing it’s fun to put one’s mind to. In a rare interview from 2009, McCarthy said that it was a favorite topic for small talk: “I have these conversations with my brother Dennis, and quite often we get around to some hideous end-of-the-world scenario and we always wind up just laughing.” Laughter at conception and enjoyment in craft seem to lie at the source of his novels, and can be felt radiating through their darkness. I have no doubt that doomsday was a sincere preoccupation for McCarthy, but I bet he also loved its vocabulary.

Sam Sacks writes the Fiction Chronicle for the Wall Street Journal and is an editor at Open Letters Review.

Paul Mariani

Of all of Cormac McCarthy’s novels, the one I kept coming back to for my class in God and the Imagination, which I taught at Boston College for a decade until my retirement, was The Road, that post-apocalyptic novel of a father and his young son as they make their way south to a dead Atlantic Ocean, hoping to find a way to survive in a landscape of hellish desolation, where gangs of deranged survivors roam the desolate highways in search of humans to eat piece by piece, arm by arm, leg by leg, stored in abandoned antebellum cellars as if they were prosciutto di Parma. It’s a gray-black world, where ash covers everything, the land, the rivers, the wandering pilgrims themselves. And there’s the Interstate, lined now with the charred remains of cars, their passengers mere shriveled corpses. Snow is falling and winter is coming on and the father (nameless, about forty years old) and the son (also nameless, about ten, brought into the world just after the nuclear catastrophe that turned everything to ash) are heading south, sleeping wherever they can, building fires where they won’t be seen, to a nameless destination, hoping to find a way to go on living.

The boy’s mother gave up years ago, committing suicide to avoid facing rape and cannibalization, and scorning her husband for not doing the same. When the boy is nearly caught by a cannibal, the father blows the man’s brains out, explaining to the boy that God wanted him to protect his son. And when he washes the man’s brains out of his boy’s hair, he thinks of it as “some ancient anointing” and his son as a golden grail. When there’s nothing else, the father has come to see, it is better to “construct ceremonies out of the air and breathe upon them” than to give in to despair. Which I have found is one of McCarthy’s signature moves, and which makes a great deal of sense to me. Recall that Cormac McCarthy was raised in a Roman Catholic family, served as an altar boy at Mass, and attended a Catholic high school in Knoxville. Those were his Catholic roots, and they keep appearing throughout his work. Fascinated as he is with the darkness of the human species, signs of hope keep cropping up, and nowhere more than in The Road, which he dedicated to his own young son.

In the novel, the father has the task of reassuring his boy that, in spite of the bleak evil everywhere now, somehow things are going to be O.K. It’s a mantra he keeps repeating, like some minor prophet, and he constantly affirms what the boy keeps asking:

We would never eat anyone, would we?

No, we wouldn’t.

Because we’re the good guys, right?

Yes, we’re the good guys.

And we’re carrying the fire, right?


The style is tight, lucid, dramatic, unlike the prose of his earlier novels, especially Blood Meridian. And this leaner style works. Less Faulkner this time around, and more Hemingway. In The Road McCarthy brings us back to the central questions once again. What, finally, matters now in a post-apocalyptic world, where everything has turned to ash: money, power, education, civilization, a sense of home, even a place in the sun. And we meet the prophet Elijah—Ely—a destitute man wandering the same road, who tells them there is no God and we are His prophets and there is only death and annihilation to look forward to.

And yet, and yet. And so the father and son travel on, as the father, exhausted and coughing up blood, finally dies. But, as he promised his boy, there is goodness out there somewhere, and in the end (or the beginning?) the boy is taken in by another family. And from time to time, the mother explains that, if the boy finds it hard to talk to God, he can still talk to his father, through whom God lives on.

It’s something. A ray of hope, the recalling of the father’s spirit—the one who took care of his boy as best he could. In McCarthy’s cold, bleak world that continually faces evil and the effects of that evil, a glimmer of light shines through. Which is why I have read and re-read The Road, and taught it year after year as time itself unraveled as it will.

Paul Mariani is the University Professor of English emeritus at Boston College. He is the author of twenty books, including biographies of William Carlos Williams, John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Hart Crane, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Wallace Stevens, as well as nine volumes of poetry.

Joseph Bottum

By the end of his long career, Cormac McCarthy was an icon—which is a vexation for those who have suffered their way through his work, since icons are more gestured at than quoted, more genuflected at than read.

But how else do we face up to the grim honesty of the man? His novels are awful, in both senses of that over-gnawed-on word. The more one reads, the more awe-inspiring his talent seems. And the more one reads, the more appalling his novels become. You can work your way through Dostoyevsky chronologically, setting down one book and taking up the next. You can consume Kafka seriatim, if you try. But no one ever read McCarthy that way. You’d break down in Chapter Four of his fifth novel, the 1985 Blood Meridian, with the description of the “legion of horribles” as they swarm in the desert. “Oh my god, said the sergeant,” as he watched. And oh my god, indeed.

The temptation—to which obituary writers and literary journalists, banging out the day’s take on the day that the eighty-nine-year-old McCarthy died, nearly all succumbed—is to call McCarthy a nihilist or a pessimist, those dismissals in the mode of praise from the self-congratulatory and self-satisfied. A better take is that McCarthy, the Catholic altar boy from Knoxville, was actually some kind of grim theologian. He knew just how fallen the world is. He just didn’t much believe in the redemption of that world. He was half an Saint Augustine, understanding and facing, as few have, the depravity of human beings—and thereby understanding, as few have, the horror to which Christ is the answer. The only part McCarthy didn’t accept, or at least fully accept, was the Redeemer part.The world is too broken for him to see how even God could fix it.

Such half-Augustinianism is something literature has seen before. It’s the world of King Lear, deliberately set in pre-Christian Britain: a cosmology in which there’s justice, perhaps, but no mercy, and affliction does not signal redemption—and so Lear, despite his sufferings, must walk back on stage with his dead daughter in his arms. Oh, he set the whole thing in motion with his foolish attempt to remain a king while giving up the responsibility of actual power, so maybe that’s justice, but it sure as hell ain’t mercy.

The 1940s had Rebecca West’s unbearably brilliant, unbearably grim 1941 travelog Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, about an irredeemable Balkans landscape, and E. M. Cioran’s bleak philosophical aphorisms in the 1949 Short History of Decay, both seeing clearly the vileness in our human bones. But it wouldn’t be as surely revisited in literature till Cormac McCarthy came along and decided not to flinch.

That’s what gave him his ability to describe violence as just that: violence. Even in All the Pretty Horses (1992), his most popular book—and The Road (2006), the most hopeful of his later books, if hope is allowed in the nightmare of a post-apocalyptic land—violence is not a symbol or a plot device. It’s just the way people are. “You can find meanness in the least of creatures, but when God made man the devil was at his elbow,” as an old hermit tells the unnamed kid, the central character, in Blood Meridian. There’s “an ill-contained horror beneath the surface of the world and there always had been,” as he wrote in his last book, Stella Maris.

McCarthy’s move in 1976 from Tennessee to El Paso gave him something he needed. To start with, it provided a break from the cradle of Southern Gothic that had held him. Reviewers often compared his early books to Faulkner’s—which didn’t seem to help his sales before All the Pretty Horses. But William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor were not exactly what he needed. If the South was god-haunted, as O’Connor said, he had to find the god-absent. McCarthy had to find the desert.

Partly that was so the theological elements that make unpredictable appearances throughout his fiction would be not revelations of the ground on which his characters walked but strange and unlikely flashes in the darkness. Even more, the South was too green, too rich, too moist for his fiction. He needed the dryness and the sparseness of the Southwest, even for The Crossing, the 1994 follow-up to All the Pretty Horses in his Border Trilogy.

And perhaps most of all, he needed the desert to strip away from his prose the presumption of redemption that gave a shape, an overarching design, to English literature. The notion of a time of good men building order in the Old West, and the expectation of the triumph of virtue—held by Sheriff Ed Tom Bell in No Country for Old Men (2005)—have to be exposed as delusions. Authority figures in McCarthy’s fiction, especially the police, are often corrupt, but even when they aren’t, they are incompetent, for a good social order is simply a tale the self-deceived tell themselves—a story we use to console ourselves when we flinch and refuse to see the violent reality of someone like Anton Chigurh, the relentless pursuer in the novel. The event that starts off No Country for Old Men, the spark that sets the plot rolling, is an act of mercy. Llewelyn Moss has found nearly two and half million dollars and gotten away clean in the opening pages, until a scruple about a dying man asking for water compels him to return to the scene—and get spotted, putting the hunters on his trail.

Cormac McCarthy gave us Christian fiction, shoving it down our throats. Oh, it’s grim, ugly, violent half-Augustinian stuff. But without a watchman turned to the darkness, showing us the world as it is, how could we see that Christ is needed as an answer?

Joseph Bottum is director of the Classics Institute at Dakota State University and poetry editor of the New York Sun. His most recent book is the poetry collection Spending the Winter.

William Giraldi

In 2018, after Harold Bloom read a piece on Cormac McCarthy in my collection of critical essays, he emailed me a note that contained these lines: “I hope Cormac, whom I find personally benign, reads you on not being influenced by him. He might enjoy it.” That he might enjoy it was enough to let me know that Harold, usually made happy by my work, was not at all happy now. The phone call that followed was another lecture for me by a man I called Teacher and Mentor. This lecture consisted of the ways in which my own novel, called Hold the Dark—a book that couldn’t be reviewed without the name “Cormac McCarthy” rearing its divine head every other paragraph—assimilated Melville, Faulkner, and Flannery O’Connor by way of McCarthy.

You see, I had forgotten the by way of part in my essay. Harold didn’t like to see any forgetting of this sloppy sort. He also didn’t approve of my contention that my novel owed more to Heart of Darkness directly than to any book by McCarthy indirectly. “Dear,” he said, “just whom do you think you’re reading when you read McCarthy? Conrad is there next to Melville.” And when I blundered into saying that the female character in my novel was another Medea, I had to find a chair and listen to all the ways I was wrong about Euripides.

Harold and I didn’t disagree about much; Updike and Nabokov were our chief points of dispute. (“Let’s not quarrel, dear,” he’d say, by which he meant: You aren’t going to win this one.) But whereas Harold saw McCarthy’s outsized abilities and bewitching talents in his masterwork, Blood Meridian, as sharing “more profoundly in Melville’s debt to Shakespeare” than in McCarthy’s own debt to Faulkner, I saw the crucial influence to be Melville’s debt to Milton. I’ve argued elsewhere that Moby-Dick’s actual agon, insofar as Ahab is concerned, is not with Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Hamlet, and Lear, but with Milton’s Satan of Paradise Lost, the pure embodiment of poetical insurgence. If that’s accurate, then McCarthy’s anxiety of influence with Judge Holden in Blood Meridian is with Melville by way of Milton. Judge Holden, in his powers of poetical reasoning and in his penchant for theatrical grandstanding, calls up Milton’s Satan more than Iago. Holden yearns to vanquish the living in an attempt to live forever himself, an ageless albino vampire for whom the meridian of cosmos and earth must remain bloodied. By blood he dances; by blood he fiddles; by blood his own blood pulses always. Holden, like Satan, is “self-begot, self-rais’d / By [his] own quick’ning power.”

Harold dubbed Judge Holden “the most frightening figure in all of American literature . . . the Will Incarnate.” Although Harold never had Gnosticism far from mind when thinking of Will, by his use of “Will” here I take him to mean a grotesquerie of Schopenhauer’s Will, the blood-level urging that underpins and animates all among the living. (Whitman: “Urge and urge and urge, / Always the procreant urge of the world.”)

Judge Holden, as with Lester Ballard in Child of God and the slaughterous, enigmatic, and nameless trio in Outer Dark, is a postlapsarian aberration whose evil is Augustinian in that it derives from complete estrangement from God. These characters scratch and stalk through their worlds in a willfulness of doctrinal despair, the soul-killing sin of refusing to acknowledge the grace of God, or even His spiritual existence. God? What God? In Child of God, a deputy asks an old man: “You think people was meaner then than they are now?” And the old man answers: “No . . . I don’t. I think people are the same from the day God first made one.” And on that day God first made one, He made him berserk. What else to expect from a deity Himself berserk?

Judge Holden and the berserkers in Outer Dark are hell-bent on their own demonic apotheosis. But Lester Ballard is in some ways more terrifying than Judge Holden or the trio in Outer Dark. Holden is a demoniac theologian and raconteur, a malefic Übermensch with the sophistications of logic, and the trio in Outer Dark are male Eumenides dispensing judgement in the American night, whereas Ballard is a smear of sinister impotence. Holden adheres to a code of blood, and the male Eumenides of Outer Dark are avengers for the sins of men, whereas Ballard is blind diabolism, terrifying precisely because all logic has been lost to him.

If Holden is more murderous, a walking calamity in search of ruin and woe, at least he speaks, and through speech as accomplished as his is the possibility of comprehension, if only a comprehension of our own destruction. (Holden himself, remember, is beyond destruction; when he again meets “the kid” at the end of the novel, twenty-eight years after their maniacal scalping raids, he has not aged a day.) The male Eumenides are nameless just as “Yahweh” unhelpfully means “I am” or “I will be,” and there is some comprehension to be grasped for there—all of Judeo-Christian belief is a veritable grasping after the unknowable (and Harold would wince at that hyphenated term, so separate were they to him). But with Ballard there is no possibility of grasping at all, and so no hope of comprehension. You must take his depravity for what it is: inexplicable, utterly unable to be reduced to psycho-spiritual assessment. McCarthy knows his pedigree; there is no psychology in Homer and Virgil; there are only the gut-born deeds of gods and men and their repercussions. After orgies of slaughter, men sit down to their wine and their meat and wake at dawn to do it all again.

Blood Meridian is a horrifying vision from John of Patmos, an apocalypse whose Manicheanism has lost its good, its light, its love, and nosedived into a fearsome, darksome red of their opposites. Judge Holden is one horseman made of four: War, Death, Conquest, Famine (or, alternately, in Ezekiel: Sword, Famine, Beast, and Plague). The story’s butchery is unequaled except in Homer—recall Achilles at the River Scamander, the undulating water supplanted by the bodies and blood of the Trojans he massacred. I once described Blood Meridian as “an unholy and antinomian masterwork engined by all those otherworldly sentences,” and I’ll stick by that. In 1992, a profiler of McCarthy for the New York Times labeled McCarthy’s work “morbid realism,” which misses the point somewhat on purpose. It is, rather, the realistic morbidity of myth.

So many of McCarthy’s people are dispossessed almost by choice and disembodied from what passes for civilization. Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men, referred to in the novel as “a psychopathic killer” and “a goddamn psychopath,” is more fittingly a sociopath denuded of conscience, an untethered persona of perfect malaise, and does not even pretend that the world contains or has ever contained a moral order (Judge Holden declares: “Moral law is an invention of mankind for the disenfranchisement of the powerful in favor of the weak”). Lester Ballard in Child of God is a deadened demiurge who communes with the wholly dead just as the rest of us commune with the partial living. Our civilization is such that living is not living, but earning, getting, having, and McCarthy’s fiction has no nexus to what you and I know to be society. His fiction proclaims society more than irrelevant; his fiction proclaims it nonexistent. In The Road—whose style might be described as Revelation written by Hemingway—society has been made literally nonexistent, replaced by disconnected, unseen isolatoes with no way home. What home? The apocalypse has vanquished all sense of it.

Here are extraordinary lines by McCarthy in the New York Times profile of 1992:

There’s no such thing as life without bloodshed. I think the notion that the species can be improved in some way, that everyone could live in harmony, is really a dangerous idea. Those who are afflicted with this notion are the first ones to give up their souls, their freedom. Your desire that it be that way will enslave you and make your life vacuous.

McCarthy means that every utopian effort ends at Auschwitz, in Mao’s Great Famine, in Stalin’s Dekulakization. But by the above lines you see why McCarthy’s work has too often been mistakenly tagged nihilistic. The tag is depthless, just as it’s always been depthless to tag Nietzsche nihilistic (and Nietzsche is more present in McCarthy than has been noticed). Neither Suttree nor the Border Trilogy—a real contender for the laurel of Great American Novel—moves or concludes in the nihilistic night. Brotherhood, loyalty, community, enchantment, Emersonian self-reliance, the possibility of deliverance: these are some of what we encounter in those novels.

McCarthy must have grown exhausted by the incessant Faulkner comparisons, especially with his first several books, and most especially with Suttree (which stands alone among McCarthy’s works for its humor and relative mildness). Orville Prescott, reviewing The Orchard Keeper, McCarthy’s first novel, in the New York Times, titled that piece “Still Another Disciple of William Faulkner.” It pays to remember what Walker Percy said of writers who attempt to co-opt Mississippi’s Shakespeare: “There is nothing more feckless than imitating an eccentric.” And McCarthy, I hope it goes without saying, was constitutionally incapable of fecklessness. He told the author of the Times profile that “books are made out of books. The novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written,” and that of course includes Faulkner’s novels. (And you see Harold’s liking for McCarthy’s method and aesthetic, which tap deeply into the anxiety of influence.) No one questions whether or not Faulkner had decisive effects on McCarthy’s storytelling sensibility or on the particular pitch of his syntax, but I want to point out that the books from which Faulkner made his own books were also on McCarthy’s shelf. Harold wouldn’t approve of this, but the anxiety of influence is a complex tapestry that resists unweaving. When McCarthy assimilated Faulkner he was also hard at work assimilating what Faulkner had assimilated: not only Homer and Virgil, but the Bible and Shakespeare, Dante and Milton and Melville especially.

Harold will never read McCarthy’s final two novels, The Passenger and Stella Maris—Harold died in 2019, aged eighty-nine, the same age as McCarthy at his death on June 13 of this year—but I think I know what he’d say about them: “If there is a pragmatic tradition of the American sublime, then Cormac McCarthy’s fictions are its culmination.” Not a bad epitaph, and all the more so because it’s true.

William Giraldi is author of the novels Busy Monsters, Hold the Dark (a Netflix feature film), and About Face, the memoir The Hero’s Body, and a collection of literary criticism, American Audacity.

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