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Definition: McCarthy, Cormac from Chambers Biographical Dictionary


♦ US author

Born in Providence, Rhode Island, he studied at the University of Tennessee, but left without graduating, publishing his first novel, The Orchard Keeper, in 1965. Acclaimed as an exemplar of "Southern Gothic", this was followed by novels such as Outer Dark (1968) and Suttree (1979). His Western-inspired "Border Trilogy" comprised All the Pretty Horses (1992), The Crossing (1994) and Cities of the Plain (1998), and won him a wide international readership. Recent novels include No Country for Old Men (2005, filmed 2007) and The Road (2006, Pulitzer Prize).

  • Bloom, Harold (ed), Cormac McCarthy (2001).

Summary Article: McCarthy, Cormac (1933-)
from Encyclopedia of the Environment in American Literature

Born Charles McCarthy in 1933, the oldest son of a successful lawyer, McCarthy changed his name to Cormac, the Gaelic equivalent, in keeping with his Irish ancestry. His early years were comfortable, in a house staffed by maids and with ample land to play in. Yet throughout his adult life, McCarthy has lived frugally in the country, in a dilapidated farm that he has renovated himself. He currently lives in El Paso with his third wife, Jennifer Winkley, and his young son, John Francis.

McCarthy does not enjoy the celebrity his writing has brought him; in an interview with New York Times’ Richard B. Woodward, he said he would rather keep the company of scientists than other writers. He rarely gives interviews, and when he does, he does not encourage questions about writing or himself. In his only television interview, with Oprah Winfrey in 2008, he gave a little more detail, speaking about his dislike of semicolons and quotation marks for dialogue, preferring to write in “simple declarative sentences.”

McCarthy is now well known for his fiction. However, until All the Pretty Horses (1992), none of his previous works had sold more than 2,500 copies, despite critical praise. Alongside his ten novels, McCarthy has published two plays and has also written several screenplays, although only The Gardener's Son (1996)has been published.

Characteristically, his work is violent, austere, gloomy, and overwhelmingly masculine. The threat and wonder of the natural world is a recurrent theme throughout his work, but perhaps it is most obvious when situated at the heart of the novel, becoming something of a malevolent or benevolent character in itself. Many of his novels revolve around criminal or outcast protagonists and their encounters with wild and unforgiving landscapes; for example, The Orchard Keeper (1965), in which old Arthur Ownby attempts, in the face of a complex and rather grotesque mystery, to teach a local mountain boy his knowledge of mountain craft. Here, McCarthy's depiction of nature and its impact on the fortunes of the characters won the author great praise.

Reminiscent of the work of Jack London, the plots of McCarthy's acclaimed Border Trilogy revolve around animals: in All the Pretty Horses, two boys find trouble on account of a stolen horse; in The Crossing, the narrative follows Billy Parham's attempt to return a trapped wolf to the northern mountains of Mexico; and in the last, Cities of the Plain, John Grady tries to heal every sick and injured animal he finds. Throughout, McCarthy draws an evocative portrait of nature as a living, even wilful entity that can be both beautiful and incredibly dangerous; a thematic revisited in his most recent novel, The Road (2006).

McCarthy has often based his fiction on actual events; Child of God (1973), The Gardener's Son, and Blood Meridian (1985) being notable examples. And his novels often require extensive research; in particular, he always visits the settings of his works to collate information on the landscape and the people, paying special attention to local dialects.

Along with its striking natural imagery, McCarthy's work is also renowned for its violence; and this can sometimes divide critics, as in the case of Child of God, which was centred on a necrophilic murderer who lived in an underground cave with rotting corpses. Blood Meridian, however, was seen by most critics as an unflinching and veracious portrayal of a shameful period in American history, one mired in suffering and violence. Widely praised as the beginning of a new stage in his writing, with scenes largely set in the West rather than the Appalachia of his earlier novels, the work was nonetheless criticized by some for wandering too far from his imaginative roots.

Throughout McCarthy's career, critics have cited similarities in tone, theme and environmental sensibility with authors as diverse as Mark Twain, William Faulkner, Herman Melville, and Edgar ALLAN Poe. He has received the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, amongst others. Alongside Philip Roth, Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo, he is, according to Harold Bloom, one of the four major American novelists of our time.

Several of his novels have been adapted into films; most successfully, No Country for Old Men (2007), which won an Academy Award, and The Road (2009).

His papers are held by Texas State University at San Marcos.

  • Bloom, Harold. “Dumbing Down American Readers.” Boston Globe, September 24, 2003. Available online. URL: rican_readers/. Downloaded on January 19, 2011.
  • Frye, Steven. Understanding Cormac McCarthy. University of South Carolina Press Columbia, 2009.
  • No Country for Old Men (2007). Walt Disney Video, DVD, 2008.
  • The Oprah Winfrey Show. July 8, 2008. Available online. URL: Downloaded on November 20, 2010.
  • The Road (2009). Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, DVD, 2010.
  • Woodward, Richard B.Cormac McCarthy's Venomous Fiction.” New York Times April 19, 1992. Available online. URL: Downloaded on November 11, 2010.
  • Alex Hobbs
    © 2013 Geoff Hamilton and Brian Jones

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