Biography of Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy's work explores the darkest 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.

The McCarthys moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1937. The elder Charles, a lawyer, took a job with the Tennessee Valley Authority and remained there for the next thirty years. A number of key themes in McCarthy's works - like peregrination, the human affinity for bloodshed, and strained father-son relationships - are indirectly rooted in his formative experiences.

McCarthy grew up Catholic. He went to church regularly and attended a Catholic high school. Then, in 1951, he enrolled at The University of Tennessee. He had only completed only one year of school, however, when he decided 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, Cormac McCarthy left university in 1960 to pursue his writing career full time.

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 has one son, Cullen McCarthy. Soon after Cullen's birth, the McCarthys returned to Tennessee, and their marriage soon crumbled. 

However, his personal troubles seem not to have distracted McCarthy from his work. Random House published his debut novel, The Orchard Keeper, in 1965, which won the William Faulkner Award. In fact, William Faulkner's editor, Albert Erskine, edited The Orchard Keeper as well.

McCarthy has enjoyed critical support since the beginning of his career. In 1965, he won an American Academy of Arts and Letters traveling fellowship to go to Europe, and subsequently boarded an ocean liner to Ireland. On the trip, he met Annie DeLisle, whom he married in England in 1966. That same year, he was awarded a Rockefeller Foundation grant, which allowed him to tour Europe with his wife. After traveling through England, France, Switzerland, Italy, and Spain, McCarthy and DeLisle settled in Ibiza, off the coast of Spain, so that McCarthy could finish revising his second novel, Outer Dark.

McCarthy won the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship in 1969. He moved with his wife to Louisville, Tennessee, where he fully renovated a barn to serve as their home. There, he leisurely worked his third novel, Child of God. During the mid 1970s, McCarthy also wrote the screenplay for a PBS film called 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's divorce became official in 1981.

If critical accolades had been a mainstay of McCarthy's career, popular success eluded him. However, 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 literary 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 hunt for Indian scalps, Blood Meridian reveals the darker side of human nature, the inevitability of suffering and violence, and the tainted legacy of America's frontier past.

In a rare interview with the New York Times, McCarthy seemingly rejects the possibility that human beings can ever change our aggressive instincts. "There is no such thing as life without bloodshed," he says, "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). 

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

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

In the late 1990s, McCarthy entered his third marriage (to Jennifer Winkley) while he was writing Cities on the Plain. The couple has one son, John Francis McCarthy.

In recent years, Hollywood has taken an interest in McCarthy's work. A film version of All the Pretty Horses came out in 2000, but the reviews were mixed. However, his luck changed when the Coen brothers decided to adapt McCarthy's 2005 novel, No Country for Old Men, for the big screen. The film came out in 2007 and received a multitude of awards, including the Academy Award for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay.

The RoadMcCarthy's 2006 novel, was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction in 2006 and, in 2007, it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. After that, The Road was also adapted into a film that opened in 2009 to mostly favorable reviews. A Blood Meridian film adaptation has been rumored to be in the works for many years, having attracted talent like Scott Rudin, James Franco, Todd Field, and Ridley Scott, but the project has not yet come to fruition.

McCarthy rarely grants interviews and remains reliably silent about his work. However, he 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 his wife 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...