Quintessentially American novelist Cormac McCarthy died on Tuesday, June 13, 2023. Since his death, tributes have poured in from virtually every major media outlet around the world.
In one sense, praise for McCarthy, who, in the aftermath of his death, is being called the greatest “stylist” of American literature as well as the greatest Western novelist (his Southern novels being overshadowed by those of William Faulkner), is fitting. At the same time, praise for the late novelist seems out of place in the contemporary press.
Our “post-Trump” era is one of extreme pressure upon artists to conform to the ideology of the millennial left. McCarthy, who is rumored to have had conservative political leanings, certainly does not fit the mold of contemporary artists feted by the establishment. Throughout his oeuvre, McCarthy was concerned with deep existential and theological issues as opposed to the celebration of a largely manufactured and artificial ethic or gender identity.
His early work Child of God (1973), clearly in the vein of Faulkner is a profound, but deeply disturbing and perhaps, for some religious readers, unreadable meditation on the evil in present the human heart. Set in Tennessee, the work’s title is clearly a play on the popular Christian notion of the baptized as adopted children of God. The book’s main character, Lester Ballard, is a deeply disturbed individual who collects the corpses of his murder victims.
The novel is thus a meditation on the violence that remained in America after it was settled and baptized — indeed, this tension, or perhaps compliment, between civilization and violence as well as the heavy weight of animality, as well as sin, with which humans are burdened, was a constant theme throughout McCarthy’s works.
Thus, like fellow American novelists Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner, McCarthy, although culturally Catholic, was affected by the long shadow of Puritanism that has affected so much of American culture. In this vision, humans are mired in evil, and the vast landscape of America, even after being barely Christianized and overly modernized, remains a violent wilderness.
Nowhere is this violent landscape more pronounced than in McCarthy’s 1985 masterpiece Blood Meridian. Although later marketed as an “Indian-killer” novel, the novel is more about the violence stitched into the fabric of the American West than it is an “anti-colonial” meditation on violence toward the indigenous peoples of North America. However, as his work progressed, there was a seeming increase in good and noble characters in McCarthy’s novels. The desperate and violent War on Terror era No Country for Old Men, although most famous for the sociopathic villain Anton Chigurh (played by Javier Bardem in the 2007 film version), also contains the plainspoken and noble sheriff Ed Tom Bell (played, of course, by Tommy Lee Jones in the film).
McCarthy’s 1979 Novel Suttree, although set in the 1950s at the ascending height of the “American Century” is a book very much about the decline of America. Set among the “down and out” in Knoxville, Tennessee, as opposed to the booming Sunbelt suburbs of the Eisenhower era, Suttree is about how lives, families, cities, and even nations, decline and rot. This meditation on decline reaches a crescendo in McCarthy’s 2006 post-apocalyptic The Road. Even more than No Country for Old Men, The Road contains various shades of good characters — including a family of Christians who appear near the end.
McCarthy’s final two novels, The Passenger and Stella Maris, released in the fall of 2022, contain a hodgepodge of McCartheseque oddball characters caught in the physical as well as mental detritus of the twentieth century. One of the main characters, Alicia Western, has hallucinations of character that parodies the banal but snappy chatter of twentieth-century American comedies and late shows. Her brother Bobby undergoes various typically McCarthyian pilgrimages to the West and to the South in search of God and meaning. In light of McCarthy’s subsequent death, these two novels (which have not been as admired as McCarthy’s earlier works), seem a sober and mournful, but nonetheless hopeful goodbye.
With McCarthy’s death, there is one name scratched off the list of contenders for “greatest living American novelist.” Yet, it is not simply in the field of American belles lettres that there is a concern that the best artists are in the process of crossing from this world into the next. Even with the “great American art form,” film, there is some concern that the best that American directors have produced is in the past — Martin Scorsese, perhaps the greatest living American director still producing work of high quality, is eighty years old. Nonetheless, while artists may pass away, their work is left with us, leaving intellectual treasures still to be unlocked.
Cormac McCarthy should not be viewed as a “conservative” author, for political labels are usually inadequate for an artist’s work. However, he was bold enough to stare into the bleakness of how much suffering and violence can be present in the human condition. At the same time, McCarthy was humble enough and attentive enough to human goodness and the mysterious manner in which God works though the world, to leave space in his novels for the advent of hope and even redemption.