In 1994, the puckish American literary critic Harold Bloom published his “The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages.” Included in the sprawling, bombastic tome was a controversial list of what Bloom considered to be the great works of the Western tradition, including those published in the 20th century. Bloom’s list drew both praise and ire for which authors he chose as once and future classics.
One of the 20th-century authors whom Bloom included was Cormac McCarthy, the author of brutal and haunting meditations on the violence and wildness endemic in American history — Bloom has heralded McCarthy’s 1985 Herman Melvillian Western “Blood Meridian” (soon to be a feature film) as perhaps the greatest American novel.
Throughout the rest of his career, in a variety of writings, including the posthumous “The American Canon: Literary Genius from Emerson to Pynchon” (2019), Bloom would heap praise on McCarthy as being one of the greatest living American writers. Bloom, although clearly choosing personal favorites, was noted for his lack of political correctness or bias in his judgments, being one of the last great American readers of literature for literature’s sake.
A lot of time has passed since the Clinton-era “Western Canon,” and McCarthy has become known as a much more versatile writer than simply the author of “Blood Meridian.” Today, McCarthy is essentially known for four major works.
There is still Bloom’s favorite, “Blood Meridian,” a story of the struggle among Americans, Mexicans, and native peoples for control of the Southwest. However, during the 1990s, he became a “popular” author with his “Border Trilogy” — “All the Pretty Horses” (1992), “The Crossing” (1994), and “Cities of Plain” (1998) — which was made famous by the 2000 film version of “All the Pretty Horses,” starring Matt Damon and Penelope Cruz.
In the 21st century, McCarthy was able to emerge as a global “star” when his 2005 novel “No Country for Old Men” was made into an Academy Award-winning film directed by the Coen Brothers and starring Javier Bardem as the terrifying Anton Chigurh. Finally, McCarthy gained further fame for his deeply moving 2006 book “The Road,” which was made into a 2009 film that seemingly perfectly coincided with the rise of prepping, libertarianism, and doomsday culture after the 2008 economic downturn.
However, after “The Road,” which was chosen for Oprah Winfrey’s book club and won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, McCarthy largely remained silent during the Obama and Trump eras, spending his days at the Sante Fe Institute, a scientific research center. It was not until the fall of 2022 that McCarthy released two novels, “The Passenger” and “Stella Maris,” which appear to be McCarthy’s last will and testament of his life and beliefs and feel like a moratorium on the 20th century.
“The Passenger” tells the story of Bobby Western, a mathematics prodigy turned race car driver turned salvage diver eventually turned recluse. Bobby and his sister Alicia are the progeny of one of the members of the Manhattan Project and thus carry with them the haunting memories and guilt and fear of the great 20th-century atrocities of the Second World War.
Bobby and Alicia have Jewish ancestry, but one of their grandmothers is a devout Tennessee Christian. In this sense, “The Passenger” is about the complexity of American identity, especially in the 20th century, when Catholic and Jewish immigrants were assimilated into the wider (formerly) Protestant-Anglo culture.
Despite his own Irish-Catholic background, in his novels, McCarthy seems most at home in the Protestant South or the wild and seemingly irredeemable American West. The Tennessee grandmother’s home, although populated by Bobby and Alicia’s crazy uncles, is a sanctuary for Bobby. Like the Christian characters in McCarthy’s “The Road,” devoutly religious people provide a sense of stability, kindness, and comfort — albeit temporary — to McCarthy’s tormented heroes.
If “The Road” is about the death of 20th-century America, then “The Passenger” is more about the memory of that America. In that sense, “The Passenger” is a very postmodern work, as it deals with trying to represent the lost past. The world of “The Passenger” is the lost world of industrial and “electronic age” America that is rapidly being replaced in our own time by the “digital age.”
Bobby is good at wielding industrial machines and navigating the depths of the Gulf of Mexico; however, it is his own soul that remains a mystery to him. Like most of McCarthy’s characters, Bobby Western is Hamlet. He lacks the conviction of devout Christianity, but he also is humble and honest enough not to take the arrogant and blind road of atheism. In the end, Bobby, pursued by the Internal Revenue Service and other government entities (the 20th century, of course, saw the ballooning of the American state apparatus), attempts to find solace in the American West — Idaho to be exact — but remains tormented by his past and his demons, grasping for God amid the cold of America’s mountains and prairies.
“Stella Maris,” the weaker of the two novels, is essentially conversations between Alicia Western and her psychiatrist, Dr. Cohen, a sympathetic figure who divorced and remarried the same woman. Lacking any Ernest Hemingway-style action or scene and landscape description, “Stella Maris” is the most un-McCarthy-esque of McCarthy’s works.
Although replete with deeply moving reflections on human existence, the book is basically a philosophical-theological meditation on how Western science lost and then found God again in the 20th century. At the same time, with McCarthy’s William Faulkner-like fixations on perversion and sin, “Stella Maris” is about the brokenness and torment of the human condition — reader beware: There are a couple of grotesque and graphic depictions of sexual fantasy (“The Passenger” contains some risqué dialogue as well).
“Stella Maris,” like “The Passenger,” is about the loneliness of the intellectual life and the profound sense of alienation that intelligent people often feel. If we can commit one of the cardinal sins of literary criticism and read “Stella Maris” as a manifesto or apologia of McCarthy’s life, then we can see Alicia’s muses as a representation of how McCarthy pursued the development of Western science and philosophy as well as the “gnostic-Calvinist” tradition of American literature and came out a nihilistic mystic, chastened by life but still open to signs of God’s grace.
“The Passenger” begins with a suicide, and “Stella Maris” ends with handholding between Dr. Cohen and Alicia, thus giving the books, like “The Road,” a strangely happy ending. The books are, on one level, a last will and testament of McCarthy and a moratorium on the 20th century in which McCarthy lived most of his life. Those of us who bare the burden of the 21st century must look to the hard and sober realism of the past, but we must labor to create a vibrant and hopeful future and a renewed 21st-century America.