Biography of Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy's works revel in the shadows of human nature, but McCarthy himself had a remarkably conventional childhood. He was born Charles Joseph McCarthy in Providence, Rhode Island, on July 20, 1933. He later changed his name to Cormac, meaning "son of Charles," to honor his father.

His family moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1937. His father, a lawyer, took a job with the Tennessee Valley Authority legal staff, and remained with the TVA for the next thirty years. Even though his childhood biography might seem to lack any defining moment or climactic event that explicitly shaped his career, a number of key themes in Cormac's works--peregrination, the human affinity for bloodshed, and father-son relationships--are rooted in his formative experiences.

Cormac grew up in the Catholic church, attended Catholic high school, and enrolled at The University of Tennessee in 1951. He completed only one year, however, before deciding to enlist in the U.S. Air Force. He served four years in the military, two of them on duty in Alaska, before returning to the University of Tennessee in 1957, where he found himself slowly gravitating towards fiction writing. After publishing two stories in the campus literary magazine The Phoenix, he won Ingram-Merrill Foundation grants for creative writing in both 1959 and 1960. Convinced of his potential for success, he left the university in 1960 to pursue his writing career.

McCarthy moved to Chicago and became an auto mechanic to support himself while he worked on his first novel. He married Lee Holleman, with whom he had one son, Cullen McCarthy. Soon afterward, he returned to Tennessee with his wife, but the marriage dissolved.

Such personal troubles seem not to have distracted him from his work. McCarthy published his debut novel, The Orchard Keeper, in 1965, and was awarded the William Faulkner Award for it. The novel, published by Random House, was edited by William Faulkner's editor, Albert Erskine.

McCarthy has enjoyed sustained critical success and support. In 1965, he won an American Academy of Arts and Letters traveling fellowship to Europe, and subsequently boarded an ocean liner to Ireland. On the trip, he met Anne Dulsie , whom he married in England in 1966. That same year, he was awarded a Rockefeller Foundation grant, allowing him to tour Europe with his wife. After traveling through England, France, Switzerland, Italy, and Spain, the McCarthys settled in Ibiza, a Spanish island, so that Cormac could finish revising his second novel, Outer Dark.

In what seemed like a routine, McCarthy won another fellowship in 1969: the prestigious Guggenheim. He moved with his wife to Louisville, Tennessee, where he fully renovated a barn into a home while leisurely working on his third novel, Child of God. During the mid 1970s, he also wrote the screenplay for a PBS film, The Gardener's Son.

In 1976, McCarthy separated from DeLisle and moved to El Paso, Texas. Perhaps unsettled by the changes in his life, McCarthy returned to a manuscript with which he had been struggling for twenty years, Suttree. His perseverance was rewarded upon its publication in 1979 - critics hailed the book as his finest (some argue that he never surpassed it), and he was awarded the prestigious MacArthur Foundation Grant. Meanwhile, McCarthy and DeLisle divorced in 1981.

If critical accolades had been a mainstay of McCarthy's career, popular success had not been. But with the 1985 publication of Blood Meridian, his work began to gain mainstream attention. Declared one of the best novels of the twentieth century by critic Harold Bloom, Blood Meridian perhaps best captures the bleak cynicism at the core of McCarthy's body of work. In chronicling the escapades of a young runaway who joins a bloodthirsty gang in their Indian hunts, Blood Meridian reveals the darker shades of human character, the inevitability of suffering and violence, and the tainted legacy of America's frontier past.

McCarthy has no reason to apologize for these dark themes. In a rare interview with the New York Times, he seemingly rejects not only the possibility for harmonious living, but also the idea that human beings can seek to change their aggressive instincts: "There is no such thing as life without bloodshed. The notion that the species can be improved in some way, that everyone could live in harmony, is really a dangerous idea. Those who are afflicted with this notion are the first ones to give up their souls, their freedom. Your desire that it be that way will enslave you and make your life vacuous" (New York Times Magazine, 1992). In other words, by accepting that humans are imperfect, we are able to reject utopian ideals and become who we truly are.

One of McCarthy's better-known novels is the first novel of his so-called Border Trilogy, All the Pretty Horses. This novel also features characters who swirl in the maelstrom of unforeseen, inescapable evil. Despite its bleak themes, the book built upon the acclaim of Blood Meridian, meeting with both critical attention and commercial success in 1992. In addition to remaining a New York Times bestseller for six months, it won the National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award, further evidence that critics were practically unanimous in declaring it the best work of fiction that year.

McCarthy then published the two remaining books in The Border Trilogy: The Crossing (1994) and Cities on the Plain (1998), the latter of which unites the lead characters from the first two previous books. During the same year that The Crossing was published, McCarthy also edited and published a play entitled The Stonemason, which he had written during the 1970s.

Though the exact year is unclear, McCarthy entered his third marriage around the time of Cities on the Plain, with Jennifer Winkley. Since their marriage, the couple have had one son, John Francis McCarthy.

In recent years, McCarthy's acclaim has expanded to include Hollywood films. All the Pretty Horses had been adapted into a film in 2000, but it had met with generally negative reviews. However, his two most recent works - No Country for Old Men (2005) and The Road (2006) - have seen great success. No Country for Old Men, released as film by the Coen brothers in 2007, was widely acclaimed and received a multitude of awards, including Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay.

The Road was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction in 2006 and, in 2007, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Since then, the novel has been adapted to film, and was released in 2009. A Blood Meridian film adaptation has been rumored to be in the works for many years, connected to names like, Scott Rudin, James Franco, Todd Field and Ridley Scott, but the project has not yet come to fruition.

Rarely granting interviews, reliably silent about his work, McCarthy did concede to his first television interview with Oprah in June 2007, after she named The Road as her April 2007 Book Club selection. McCarthy currently lives north of Santa Fe with Jennifer and their son, and he satisfies his interest in science by spending time as a research fellow at the Santa Fe Institute.

In 2008, McCarthy received the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction. in 2009, the Guardian reported that McCarthy was currently writing three new novels, one of which takes place in New Orleans in the 1980s and will feature his first ever female protagonist.


Study Guides on Works by Cormac McCarthy

Before 1992, Cormac McCarthy had not sold more than 5,000 copies of any one of his books. By the end of 1993, All the Pretty Horses had sold 180,000 hardcover copies and more than 800,000 copies in paperback. What prompted such a dramatic reversal...

The Road (2006), Cormac McCarthy's most recent novel, describes the bleak journey of a father and son across a post-apocalyptic American landscape. He was visiting El Paso, Texas, with one of his sons, John Francis McCarthy, in 2003 when the...