Cormac McCarthy is arguably one of the most famous American writers who focused on the Southern Gothic. By writing about rural settings, McCarthy portrayed darkness and violence in the American South. If you’ve ever read anything by McCarthy, you’d probably understand how complex yet powerful his narrative style is. After a long and interesting life, Cormac McCarthy just recently passed away at the age of 89. If you haven’t read McCarthy’s work, we hope this article will inspire you to give it a shot.

McCarthy’s Early Life

While he was born in Rhode Island, McCarthy was raised mainly in Tennessee. He was one of six children, and his family was Irish Catholic, which influenced the religious themes in his writing. After enrolling at the University of Tennessee to study physics and engineering, McCarthy dropped out to serve in the U.S. Air Force. While stationed in Alaska, McCarthy had a lot of time to read. When he returned from serving in the Air Force, he re-enrolled to study English in college.

Cormac McCarthy in 1973
Cormac McCarthy in 1973

McCarthy’s Writing Career

His first novel, The Orchard Keeper, earned him some literary grants in the mid-1960s and allowed him to travel to Europe. McCarthy’s lonely travels and religious background inspired him to write his second novel, Outer Dark. Once he gained more grants and fellowships to travel and research, McCarthy continued to write what would later become known as one of the great American novels: Blood Meridian. After people had heard of Blood Meridian‘s success and positive reputation, McCarthy became recognized in 1992 for his All the Pretty Horses. Within its first six months of being published, hundreds of thousands of copies were sold. However, it was in the early 2000s that McCarthy became inspired to write The Road. The Road, his tenth novel, won McCarthy the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2006. Since then, he wrote frequently, both fiction and non-fiction, and was interviewed about his work.

What Makes McCarthy’s Writing Unique?

McCarthy used a few techniques in his writing style that stood out. Here are a few of them to look out for when you read his work:

  • Themes: lots of violence, apocalyptic settings, anarchy, pessimism, religion
  • Syntax: ‘and’ instead of commas, concise sentences, no quotation marks to signify dialogue, simple vocabulary

In-Depth Look at McCarthy’s Novels

After learning about McCarthy’s life and writing style, you probably want to learn more about McCarthy’s repertoire of novels and stories. Let’s dive deeper into some of his most famous works, starting at the beginning.

Book cover of Cormac McCarthy's "The Orchard Keeper"
“The Orchard Keeper” by Cormac McCarthy

The Orchard Keeper, as previously mentioned, was McCarthy’s first novel, published in 1965. Set in an isolated mountainous area in Tennessee, the novel focuses on only three characters. Marion, a bootlegger, picks up a violent hitchhiker; this violence forces Marion to kill the hitchhiker and bury him on Arthur’s land. Once Arthur finds the body, he goes along with it instead of calling the authorities. Mildred, the hitchhiker’s wife, assumes that her husband has been murdered and wants their son to avenge his death. John Wesley, ironically the hitchhiker’s son, later collides paths with Marion. The two develop a friendship — neither aware of who the other is… Without spoiling too much more, McCarthy’s first novel relies on themes of religion, death, and violence.

McCarthy’s second novel, Outer Dark, was published just three years later in 1968. Although the novel’s time and setting are unknown, people have assumed it occurs in the Appalachian region. With a disturbing start to the novel, a woman named Rinthy gives birth to her brother’s child. Rinthy’s brother, Culla, tells Rinthy that the infant died of natural causes, but Rinthy knows that is a lie. The main themes of this novel are nihilism and religion. Since this novel contains both incest and infanticide, it has received some controversial reviews. However, critics admire McCarthy’s ability to portray sin so vividly and genuinely.

Branching into the Western genre, Cormac McCarthy published Blood Meridian in 1985 with Random House. A teenager from Tennessee called ‘the kid’ eventually joins a group of Army men and goes off to fight — sound familiar? The novel follows ‘the kid’ and his journeys around Texas, Mexico, Arizona, and California. Fitting with McCarthy’s writing style and the novel’s title, Blood Meridian has a significant amount of violence. Some critics argue that it is so difficult to get through because of the graphic descriptions of violence. Others, as I mentioned earlier, consider it a great American novel. If you have a weak stomach, maybe this isn’t one for you!

Winner of the National Book Award, All the Pretty Horses is one of McCarthy’s most successful novels. The novel’s protagonist, John, is a teenager who grew up with his grandfather in Texas. He is bilingual due to Mexican workers being on the ranch frequently, so McCarthy writes in Spanish as needed. Once John’s grandfather dies in 1949, John has to figure out what his next steps are. He travels with his best friend Lacey to Mexico, where they both hope to become cowboys. There is definitely some violence, per typical McCarthy, but also a love interest to make things interesting. Though it was published in 1992, this novel became a movie in 2000, starring actors Matt Damon and Penélope Cruz.

Last but not least, McCarthy’s The Road is one of his most recognizable works. This was required for me to read in high school, and I remember the eerie feeling I had while analyzing it. Published in 2006, The Road is a post-apocalyptic novel that focuses on the journey of a father and son. After something unknown has destroyed civilization as we know it, the unnamed father and son try to find ways to survive and understand what has gone on. The father, ailed with some sort of cough, tries to teach his young son how to use a gun for protection. However, they aren’t protecting themselves from wild animals — they need protection from cannibals. As the two travel down an endless road across America, the themes of death and desperation become very clear.

A Small Overview of Cormac McCarthy

I know that was a lot of information, but hopefully you’ve discovered more about both Cormac McCarthy’s life and his work. If you decide to give one of his stories a try, expect intense violence and simple, to-the-point sentences. McCarthy was not one to over-complicate his writing, but he did want to provoke deeper thinking about the world and our places in it. If you’ve already read McCarthy’s work, try giving it a reread! Check out this blog to see the benefits of rereading some old favorites. And, as always, happy reading from Discover Books!

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