A Gift to Read: A Prophecy of Cormac McCarthy (1933-2023)

American letters lost a preeminent talent last week. Cormac McCarthy (1933–2023) died in Santa Fe, New Mexico of natural causes at 89. McCarthy’s literary legacy hardly needs introduction. The late critic Harold Bloom declared McCarthy’s violent and harrowing western saga, Blood Meridian (1985), “the authentic American apocalyptic novel,” and has ranked it among the top literary outputs of the nation.[1] McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic story, The Road (2006), won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Several of McCarthy’s novels have been adapted for film, including All the Pretty Horses (1992, 2000), No Country for Old Men (2005, 2007), and The Road (2006, 2009). A biennial peer-reviewed journal, The Cormac McCarthy Journal, has been publishing academic articles on the author’s work and influence since 2001, making him one of only three American authors—with poet James Dickey and novelist Philip Roth—to have a dedicated scholarly periodical during his lifetime.[2]

McCarthy has been celebrated as being among the great stylists of recent generations. His writing continues the legacy of Melville and Faulkner in forging an idiomatic prose purpose-fit for the American landscape. His sentences are sonic sketches of places like West Texas, where he moved in 1976, or New Mexico where he retired in the late 1990s. His habit of polysyndeton, the swift piling up of conjunctions, and spare punctuation give his prose a sense of belonging to an almost oral tradition. Beyond his more immediate American forebears, critics are wont to see the stylistic influences of the Authorized Version and the Shakespearean canon.

A McCarthy character isn’t just drunk, “he lies in drink.”[3] A McCarthy character doesn’t just watch a loud train pass by, “it came boring out of the east like some ribald satellite of the coming sun howling and bellowing in the distance and the long light of the headlamp running through the tangled mesquite brakes and creating out of the night the endless fenceline down the dead straight right of way and sucking it back again wire and post mile on mile into the darkness after where the boilersmoke disbanded slowly along the faint new horizon and the sound came lagging and he stood still holding his hat in his hands in the passing ground-shudder watching it till it was gone.”[4] Such meandering sentences exist surrounded by dry, staccato action: “He could feel it under his feet.” “Then he turned and went back to the house.”

For the enduring character in any McCarthy work is the land itself. But his landscapes are not bucolic or pastoral. They are brutal and unforgiving terrors. Windstorms impale birds on thistles. A mule falls soundlessly off a rim, “turning in that lonely void… into a sink of cold blue space.” It is often the unflinching and severe portraits of the natural world where McCarthy ascends to his most sublime. Adventurers and pioneers venture to tame a wild and cruel beauty, personified well by the 16-year-old protagonist of All The Pretty Horses, John Grady Cole, who moves to a Mexican ranch as an equestrian trainer. These are worlds of beauty without sentimentality, a majesty indifferent if not hostile to man’s ambition.

There’s a scene in McCarthy’s final novel, The Passenger (2022), that will resonate with readers of Ad Fontes.[5] The protagonist, Bobby Western, navigates a post-apocalyptic American South in the 1980s. But unlike the decimated world of The Road (2006), this dystopia is psychologized. The only cataclysm in McCarthy’s constructed world is that one shared with our own. Western and his sister must reckon with the generational sin of their father, a leading physicist of the Manhattan project who witnessed the carnage of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Their own inherited brilliance has severed them from society. Western is running from enigmatic investigators searching, perhaps, for something related to his father.

He walked down the street and crossed the railroad tracks. The redness of the evening in the glass of the buildings. Very high a small and trembling flight of geese. Fording the last of the day in the thin air. Following the shape of the river below. He stood above the bank of riprap. Rock and broken paving. The slow coil of the passing water. In the coming night he thought that men would band together in the hills. Feeding their small fires with the deeds and the covenants and the poetry of their fathers. Documents they’d no gift to read in a cold to loot men of their souls.[6]

I have not found commentary on this passage in the legion reviews that attended The Passenger’s long-anticipated release. It was obvious to many that this was McCarthy’s self-conscious literary last will and testament, sixteen years after The Road and published in his eighty-ninth year. He describes “the redness of the evening”, recalling the subtitle of the book that earned his literary reputation, Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West. The protagonist, appositely named Western to bludgeon our attention, has a prophetic vision. The trembling geese signal a kind of ornithomancy, that the following should be read as a prophetic omen. A night is coming. Or, given the story’s chronology, perhaps McCarthy thinks it has already come. This “cold to loot men of their souls” would be marked by an inability to read the documents of our fathers. Possessing no skill, no “gift to read” the deeds, covenants, and poetry of the antediluvian generation, these hill people can only use the paper to feed their “small fires.”

Would readers of a journal devoted to retrieval heed Western’s augury? Are the “documents of our fathers” worth more than the fuel? What investment is required to recover the gift to read? With characteristic bleakness, McCarthy may not have thought post-apocalyptic retrieval possible. Certainly his hope was placed elsewhere. His final decades were spent living amongst the scientists and the mathematicians of the Santa Fe Institute, where he devoted energies toward helping physicists be better writers. The famously reclusive author gave more interviews in recent years, waxing on the unattainable intellect of the pre-atomic age. The Nephilim were on the earth in those days. I’m not sure McCarthy had much hope that the sons of these giants could retain the gift to read the deeds of their fathers, much less their poetry. But as one who devoted his life to shaping a literary style that could retrieve the beauty of language at once severe and sublime, Cormac McCarthy has left us an inheritance to improve or to squander.

Ryan Shelton is an academic researcher in London studying seventeenth century religion and literature.

  1. Bloom, “Introduction” to Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian, Or the Evening Redness in the West, 25th Anniversary Edition (New York: Modern Library, 2001), vii.

  2. My analysis from a survey of the MLA Directory of Periodicals

  3. Blood Meridian, 3.

  4. All The Pretty Horses in Cormac McCarthy, The Border Trilogy (London: Everyman’s Library, 1999), 3.

  5. The Passenger (October 2022) was followed by a companion volume Stella Maris (December 2022), which supplements the same story with additional material from a different perspective, so the two combined function as McCarthy’s final published novel.

  6. Cormac McCarthy, The Passenger (London: Picador, 2022), 289.

*Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons


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