In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Cormac McCarthy

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Interviews
  • Collections

American Literature Cormac McCarthy
Steven Frye
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0122


Cormac McCarthy (b. 1933) was born Charles Joseph McCarthy Jr. in Providence, Rhode Island, and moved as young child to Knoxville, Tennessee, where he grew up attending private Catholic schools. He enrolled at the University of Tennessee but left to join the US Air Force. After being stationed in Alaska, he returned home to complete his college education, majoring in liberal arts, but he left before earning his degree to become a writer. His first novel, The Orchard Keeper (1965), was set in mountain regions around Knoxville and dealt with the traumatic effects of modernization on rural environments. The novel was edited by Albert Erskine, William Faulkner’s former editor, and received generally positive reviews. It was followed by Outer Dark (1968), a novel set in an unnamed southern dreamscape that follows the tortured journey of a poverty-stricken brother and sister as they seek redemption from transgression and guilt. Another novel, Child of God (1973), followed in the vein of the Southern gothic and Southern grotesque, as a degraded and arguably victimized young man succumbs to perverse depths of necrophilia and murder. A subsequent novel, Suttree (1979), is partly autobiographical and deals with the experience of a privileged but alienated young man who lives and works among the destitute in Knoxville. This long novel is notable for its engagement with the exterior city and rural environments and the interior mindscapes of its central protagonist. McCarthy then moved to the West and took the area as a setting for five later works. His most studied novel, Blood Meridian; or, The Evening Redness in the West (1985), is based on an actual historical account and contends with the violence that attended westward expansion. The three novels of the Border Trilogy are All the Pretty Horses (1992), The Crossing (1994), and Cities of the Plain (1998). These neo-Westerns explore the trauma of two young men as they deal with a West that is changing under the influence of modernity. The West remains the setting for No Country for Old Men (2005), which deals with the question of endemic violence in the context of the drug trade. McCarthy’s last published novel to date is the very personal and post-apocalyptic parable The Road (2006), which won the Pulitzer Prize. He is also known for plays and screenplays. In 2003 the literary critic Harold Bloom named McCarthy, along with Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, and Philip Roth, as one of the four major living American novelists.

General Overviews

McCarthy scholarship began in the 1980s but escalated in earnest in the 1990s with the foundation of the Cormac McCarthy Society at the first Cormac McCarthy Conference at Bellarmine College in 1993. Book-length studies, many of which began as dissertations, immediately became highly specialized and focused. But there are also several overviews that work to orient readers to McCarthy’s themes and aesthetic practices. Frye 2009 provides an introduction that addresses McCarthy’s works, considering genre, theme, and influence. Hage 2010 is a critical introduction that covers all McCarthy’s works. Jarrett 1997 offers a first and initial treatment of McCarthy’s corpus to date, with an emphasis on theme and historical context.

  • Frye, Steven. Understanding Cormac McCarthy. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2009.

    Comprehensive treatment of McCarthy’s works that deals with themes and issues of biography, historical context, influence, aesthetics, and critical reception. Designed for scholars, students, and the sophisticated general reader.

  • Hage, Eric. Cormac McCarthy: A Literary Companion. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2010.

    Another general analysis of McCarthy’s complete corpus that explores characters, themes, motifs, and allusions linked to contemporaneous events and contexts. Contains aids to study and selected bibliographic sources.

  • Jarrett, Robert L. Cormac McCarthy. New York: Twayne, 1997.

    First general treatment of McCarthy’s works. Designed for scholars and general readers as well as students. Deals with themes, genre, style, and historical context.

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