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Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy

In 1969, McCarthy obtained the Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Writing and used the money to purchase a large, dilapidated dairy barn in rural Tennessee. Over the next few years, McCarthy singlehandedly restored the giant structure, learning stonework, and carpentry skills. Despite his early works' success and critical acclaim, McCarthy completely rejected any fame and fortune. He continually turned down lucrative speaking engagements and high-profile interviews, opting to live in conditions of extreme poverty. His wife at the time reported their financial situation was so dire that they would often bathe in the local lake.

This extreme poverty and isolation inspired his next novel, Child of God (1973). The story of Lester Ballard, a man cut off from society and community, this dark work follows Ballard's increasingly demented and depraved behavior, which eventually culminates in a series of gruesome murders. McCarthy claims to have based the story on actual historical events in Sevier County, Tennessee.

McCarthy's fourth novel, Suttree, was published in 1979. Written over 20 years, this semi-autobiographical novel explored McCarthy's own experiences of hard drinking and isolation through the character Cornelius "Bud" Suttree. A loosely connected series of passages follows Suttree's existence on the edge of society as he struggles to understand the world around him. Suttree is considered McCarthy's most comical work.

In 1981, at Saul Bellow's suggestion, the MacArthur Fellowship awarded McCarthy the genius grant.

Blood Meridian contains violent depictions of life in the American West, which shatters the notion of upstanding cowboys fighting for justice. McCarthy's exhaustive research into the period helped produce a historically accurate piece on the nature of violence and morality. Although it made little impact upon release, Blood Meridian is now considered by some to be the Great American Novel.

The Great American Novel is a hotly debated subject in the literary world. Writer and critic Carolyn Kellogg defines the Great American Novel as, "A book that most perfectly imagines the kaleidoscope of our nation, its social fabric and troubled conscience, its individual voices, and strivings, our loves, and losses." 1 There is no generally agreed-upon consensus on which novel deserves the title.

The Border Trilogy: All the Pretty Horses (1992), The Crossing (1994), Cities on the Plain (1998)

The Border Trilogy consists of three novels based on the Mexico–United States border from the 1930s to the 1950s. In All the Pretty Horses, John Grady sets off with a friend to seek the adventurous life of a cowboy. They find work on a Mexican ranch but are implicated in a crime and struggle to survive in a Mexican prison. The Crossing follows two young brothers, Billy and Boyd Purham, seeking revenge for their parent's murder and facing the harsh realities of nature in the border region. The final entry, Cities of the Plain, unites John Grady and Billy Purham as they develop a close fraternal bond and seek out a new, fulfilling life.

McCarthy used the Border Trilogy to present the coming of age stories of the two main protagonists as they struggle against fear, nature, and evil in the harsh terrain of the borderlands. The books saw McCarthy's first breakthrough to mainstream success.

The Road (2006)

The Road is a bleak, post-apocalyptic novel that earned McCarthy a Pulitzer Prize. The story follows a father and son as they walk across an ash-strewn American landscape. Most of the population has been wiped out by some unnamed disaster, and society has collapsed, with gangs of survivors roaming the barren landscape to enslave or eat other people.

As the father tries to teach his son how to survive despite the hopeless state of the world, they journey south towards the coast. McCarthy depicts brutal and nightmarish scenes of people forced to do anything they can to survive as the father grows sicker, he struggles with his own belief in God. This harrowing and tragic novel is one of McCarthy's darkest works.

Cormac McCarthy joined the prestigious Santa Fe Institute in 2014. Founded in 1984, the Institute sought to break the restricting bonds of academia, by bringing a mixture of intellectuals and artists together. McCarthy has always had an interest in physics and maths and has viewed the worlds of science and literature as being linked.

In 2017, after 50 years of writing novels, McCarthy published his first nonfiction piece "The Kekulé Problem." The essay explores the connection between the subconscious and language. The title is taken from a famous story about the nineteenth-century German scientist August Kekulé. Kekulé was struggling to explain the structure of the chemical compound benzene. Unable to reason how two such radically different elements could bond stability, Kekulé faced a dead end in his research.

The exhausted scientist took a break from his work and fell asleep in a chair by the fire. While he slept, he dreamt of two snakes dancing in the flames of the fire. As the snakes danced around each other they suddenly intertwined and began eating their own tails forming rings that locked together. This served as an easy-to-understand illustration of the chemical compound Kekulé was trying to explain.McCarthy uses this story to show how the subconscious mind uses images rather than language to explain ideas. Scientists have debated the relationship between the subconscious and the development of language for many years, which has resulted in many conflicting theories about the root of language.

McCarthy argues that language is separate from the unconscious mind and a uniquely human construct. While the subconscious works as "a machine for operating an animal"2, language is a social, not biological, development.

Cormac McCarthy: Writing style

Cormac McCarthy's novels often defy simple genre definitions. He is often considered part of the Southern Gothic tradition, along with legendary American writers like Flannery O'Connor (1925-1964) and William Faulkner.

The Southern Gothic literary genre is defined by stories based in the American South that contain grotesque characters, dark humor, and themes of moral decay. Some famous examples of the genre include William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! (1936) and Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood (1952).

McCarthy's writing is often noted for his unique style and diction. He uses punctuation sparsely and never uses semicolons, arguing that quotation marks and commas are untidy and distracting for the reader. In the place of a comma, McCarthy uses the conjunction "and", resulting in long, repetitive sentences. Even though character dialogue is not marked out with quotation marks, he avoids signal phrases to indict which character is speaking.

While other authors use long, descriptive passages to create atmosphere or build scenes, McCarthy often uses direct and declarative statements. His diction often includes colloquialisms and historically accurate words and phrases that have fallen out of use. By using outdated words and forms, McCarthy can anchor his work in the desired time and place to create a sense of realism. Many of his works based in the borderlands contain large sections of untranslated Spanish dialogue.

McCarthy's works deal with dark elements of human nature and often contain a great deal of violence. As with many writers from the Southern Gothic tradition, McCarthy uses many biblical illusions throughout his works and uses his characters to consider religious concepts. Though McCarthy's work has a great deal of pessimism and even nihilism, there are moments of humor and even hope in his later novels.

Cormac McCarthy: Facts

Considered one of America's most important living writers, Cormac McCarthy is a notably private person who avoids fame and exposure. Little is known about many aspects of his life, but here are a few facts about the author.

He left the beer on the counter and went out and got the two packs of cigarettes and the binoculars and the pistol and slung the .270 over his shoulder and shut the truck door and came back in." No Country for Old Men (Ch. 2)

McCarthy believes that punctuation marks like commas and quotation marks are ugly and distracting. Instead, he opts to include conjunctions, resulting in long-winded but direct sentences. Rather than use inference and suggestion, McCarthy prefers straightforward narration that moves the action along.

"War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner." Blood Meridian (Ch. 23)

McCarthy's works are full of philosophical characters contemplating the deeper meaning of concepts like love, God, and war. In this example, the Judge embodies the drive for violence and views war as a key tenet of human nature. In all of McCarthy's works, violence plays a central role as the author explores the darker side of human nature.

Ninety percent of the time. It takes very little to govern good people. Very little. And bad people cant be governed at all. Or if they could I never heard of it." No Country for Old Men (Ch. 3)

Morality and the struggle between good and evil play a significant role in McCarthy's work. Characters in challenging situations face difficult choices and are forced to measure their moral standing. Though the protagonists are often conflicted, McCarthy is skilled at creating memorable and almost supernatural villains, like Anton Chigurh and the Judge.

Cormac McCarthy - Key takeaways

  • Cormac McCarthy is one of America's most famous and acclaimed living writers.
  • He is known for his direct and unique prose that often omits punctuation marks.
  • McCarthy's most acclaimed work is the violent Western Blood Meridian. It is considered by some to be the Great American novel.
  • McCarthy's work is usually classified as part of the Southern Gothic tradition and draws comparisons to William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor.
  • Despite being one of America's most well-known literary figures, McCarthy has avoided the spotlight for decades.

References

  1. Carolyn Kellog, "What is The Great American Novel?", LA Times, 2016.
  2. Cormac McCarthy, "The Kekulé Problem", 2017.
  3. Fig. 1 Cormac McCarthy (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cormac_McCarthy_(Child_of_God_author_portrait).jpg)
  4. Fig. 3 - Ouroboros (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ouroboros-Abake.svg)

Frequently Asked Questions about Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy is an American author who is famous for works like Blood Meridian and No Country for Old Men

Cormac McCarthy's writing style is defined by his direct, declarative statements. He avoids punctuation as much as possible and often uses archaic terms. 

Blood Meridian is considered Cormac McCarthy's best book.

Cormac McCarthy is considered to be important because of his unique style and ability to explore complex philosophical questions in his novels. 

As of 2022, yes, Cormac McCarthy is still alive. 

Final Cormac McCarthy Quiz

Question

Which genre best describes The Road?

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Answer

Post-apocalyptic fiction

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Which award did Cormac McCarthy win for The Road?

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Answer

Pulitzer Prize

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Question

What is the familial relationship of the novel's protagonists?

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Answer

Father and Son 

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Question

One of the key themes is in the book is love. 

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Answer

True

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Question

The apocalypse in The Road is caused by nuclear warfare. 

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Answer

False

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Question

The father tells his son that they are the good guys and must continue to __________.

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Answer

Carry the fire

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Question

The father's faith in God remains unshaken throughout The Road

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Answer

False

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Question

Cormac McCarthy uses which item to symbolize the consumerist society before the apocalypse. 

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Answer

A can of Coca-Cola

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Question

How many bullets does the father have at the beginning of The Road?

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Answer

Two

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Question

Towards the end of the novel, the father is injured by ___________.

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Answer

An arrow

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Question

Cormac McCarthy was originally named _______ McCarthy. 

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Answer

Charles

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Question

__________ is regarded as Cormac McCarthy's best work.

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Answer

Blood Meridian

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Question

Cormac McCarthy is known for his flowery prose. 

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Answer

False

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Question

Cormac McCarthy is often seen as part of which literary tradition?

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Answer

Southern Gothic

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Question

Cormac McCarthy is extremely private and has avoided the public eye for many decades. 

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Answer

True

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Question

What is the first entry in Cormac McCarthy's Border trilogy?

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Answer

All the Pretty Horses

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Question

Cormac McCarthy died in 2016.

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Answer

False

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Question

________ is often considered to be the most personal of Cormac McCarthy's novels. 

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Answer

Suttree

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Question

In 2014, Cormac McCarthy joined which institute? 

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Answer

Santa Fe Institute

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Question

In 1981, Cormac McCarthy received which prestigious grant?  

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Answer

MacArthur Genius Grant 

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Question

Blood Meridian is set during which historical period?

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Answer

The Old West

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The gang the kid joins is led by which real-life figure? 

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Answer

John Joel Glanton

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According to the Judge, _________ is an inescapable part of man's soul. 

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Violence

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The kid joins a gang that is contracted to collect ________ throughout Northern Mexico.

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Answer

Scalps 

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Question

Which American region is Blood Meridian set in?

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Answer

Southwest

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Question

Some literary critics consider Blood Meridian to be ______________.

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Answer

The Great American Novel

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Question

Each night, the Glanton gang gathers around the campfire to listen to lectures from which character? 

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Answer

The Judge

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Question

Blood Meridan is a good example of the traditional Western. 

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Answer

False

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Question

Blood Meridian supports the idea of Manifest Destiny. 

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Answer

False

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Question

Which character is known as "the ex-priest"?

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Answer

Tobin

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