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Cormac McCarthy 1933-2023

James Sherman, Librarian, Literature & Fiction Department,
Cormac McCarthy and a collage of his books
Cormac McCarthy 1933-2023

Critic Harold Bloom referred to Cormac McCarthy’s violent masterwork Blood Meridian as the greatest novel by a living American author, and it's unlikely the author's recent death would beg a reevaluation. For dead or no, Bloom placed McCarthy firmly in a small pantheon of America's epic prose writers, stating:

"Blood Meridian‘s magnificence—its language, landscape, persons, conceptions—at last transcends the violence, and converts goriness into terrifying art, an art comparable to Melville’s and to Faulkner’s."

McCarthy’s work has often elicited comparisons with Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor. The works of these authors feature gothic violence, vague plotting, and intense characters who are misfits. These authors address larger questions of morality and mortality, guilt and retribution, with a powerful prose style that often has a religious feel and expression, despite a lack of attachment to any obvious creed or answers about the questions they entertain. And, as with the works of O’Connor, McCarthy’s main characters are nearly always men.

McCarthy’s writing style uses simple declarative sentences and—to the annoyance of many readers—minimal punctuation. Another notable aspect of his style is his use of casual bilingualism: much of his work set in the West features untranslated Spanish, especially in the Border Trilogy, whose bilingual characters switch between languages with ease. Despite his interest in cutting-edge science and physics, McCarthy continued to use a typewriter when composing his novels.

Cormac was born Charles McCarthy in Providence, Rhode Island, July 20, 1933, third of six children, and somewhere along the way someone in his family, maybe he himself, changed his name to Cormac after the great Irish hero Cormac McCarthy who built Blarney Castle–ironic considering how the author was famously private and avoided interviews. It’s possible the name change was elicited by the rise of Edgar Bergen’s much more loquacious ventriloquist dummy, Charlie McCarthy.

When McCarthy was four, his family moved to Tennessee, where his father was an attorney for the Tennessee Valley Authority. McCarthy studied at University of Tennessee and began his writing career soon after. Most of his early novels were set in eastern Tennessee, where they were written in self-imposed poverty. His first novel is The Orchard Keeper (1965), and other novels from this time and setting are Outer Dark (1968), Child of God (1974), and Suttree (1979).

McCarthy moved to El Paso, Texas in the mid-seventies, and the Western supplanted the South as the setting of many of his next group of books, most significantly his masterpiece, Blood Meridian, or, the Evening Redness in the West (1985), which Bloom dubbed "The Ultimate Western." Unlike many Westerns, there’s no romance or redemption in Blood Meridian. It’s a fictionalization of early nineteenth-century accounts of a notorious gang of American criminals who rampaged across northern Mexico, scalping for money. The novel has continued to amaze and appall readers with its lyrical description of the Western landscape and the violence that has plagued it. It also features one of the most memorable villains in American literature– the erudite monster Judge Holden, who just might be the devil.

McCarthy’s next novel All the Pretty Horses (1992) won a National Book Award and a broader audience thanks to its accessibility. It became the first in his Border Trilogy, which also includes The Crossing (1994) and Cities of the Plain (1998). No Country for Old Men (2005) received mixed reviews on its publication but with the success of its award-winning adaption by the Coen Brothers, it gained a wider audience. Its villain Anton Chigurh became a pop cultural icon, in no small part because of the skill of actor Javier Bardem.

In 2006, in addition to the one-act play Sunset Limited, McCarthy published The Road, a novel which follows the odyssey of a father and son through a post-Apocalyptic America where they try to avoid other survivors in a violent and starving land. The Road was a critical and commercial hit, and despite its dark subject, ended on a more positive note than much of his earlier work. Such was its success that it was followed by a rare interview with Oprah.

In 2022, McCarthy published two companion novels that he had been working on for decades: The Passenger and, one month later, Stella Maris, which follow two siblings who are haunted by their physicist father’s involvement in the creation of the atomic bomb.

All of McCarthy’s books are featured at the Los Angeles Public Library, and our database Literature Resource Center offers many works of criticism that discuss McCarthy’s style, themes and works further.

"His feet are light and nimble. He never sleeps. He says that he will never die. He dances in light and in shadow and he is a great favorite. He never sleeps, the judge. He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die."―Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian, or, the Evening Redness in the West