Cormac McCarthy was born in Rhode Island in 1933 to parents Charles Joseph and Gladys Christina McGrail McCarthy. Originally named Charles, he moved with his parents and five siblings to Knoxville, Tennessee in 1937. His father worked as a lawyer for the Tennessee Valley Authority, and he attended St. Mary’s Parochial School and Knoxville Catholic High School. In high school, he published several pieces in the school newspaper, the Gold and Blue, including two poems, “Sportsman’s Wish” and “Autumn’s Magic.” He later attended the University of Tennessee from 1951-1953 and 1957-1959, serving in the Air Force in the interim. While at the university, he published two short stories in the campus literary magazine The Phoenix under the name C. J. McCarthy: “A Drowning Incident” and “Wake for Susan.” He majored in liberal arts, but left the university without a degree.
McCarthy married poet Lee Holleman in 1961, and they had a son, Cullen, in 1962. In 1963, the marriage was ending, and McCarthy was working first with editor Lawrence Bensky and then Albert Erskine at Random House on his novel The Orchard Keeper. By this time, he had renamed himself Cormac. The Orchard Keeper appeared in 1965. While sailing overseas that year, using funds from a fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, he met Anne DeLisle, a singer/dancer working on the ship, and they were married in England in 1966. He and Anne traveled widely in Europe, and lived for a time on Ibiza.
Photo by Beowulf Sheehan
Also in 1994, McCarthy published a play called The Stonemason, another foray into writing for performance. In the late 1990s, McCarthy married Jennifer Winkley and moved to New Mexico. They had a son, John Francis, in 1999, and divorced in 2006. In 2000, Billy Bob Thornton directed an adaptation of All the Pretty Horses starring Matt Damon and Penélope Cruz.
In 2005, McCarthy published No Country for Old Men, which Joel and Ethan Coen adapted into an Oscar-winning film in 2007. The following year saw the publication of The Road, a post-apocalyptic tale of a father and son that won the Pulitzer Prize. Oprah Winfrey chose the novel for her book club, and the author appeared on her television show in a rare interview. The Road was adapted for film by John Hillcoat in 2009.
In 1967, McCarthy returned to the States with Anne, and lived in Tennessee. His second novel, Outer Dark, was published in 1968. Reviews were good, and the next year McCarthy received the Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Writing. His third novel, Child of God, appeared in 1973. He and Anne separated in 1976, and McCarthy moved to El Paso. He had begun work on a screenplay with Richard Pearce called The Gardener’s Son, and in January 1977 the film appeared on television as part of the PBS series “Visions.”
Suttree, McCarthy’s sprawling, comic, and autobiographically influenced Knoxville novel, was published in 1979, winning the author more acclaim but still not a wide readership. In 1981, he received a MacArthur Fellowship, or “genius grant.” He used the money to help research and write what he first called his “Western” and was later titled Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West, published in 1985. Scholars would later see this turn from the South to the West as an important milestone in his career, although at the same time McCarthy was also working more with screenplays, writing three during the late 1970s and 1980s: “El Paso/Juarez,” which would later become “Cities of the Plain”; “No Country for Old Men”; and “Whales and Men.”
“Cities of the Plain” featured a character named John Grady Cole, and this was the origin of McCarthy’s Border Trilogy. The first novel, All the Pretty Horses, appeared in 1992—it was a bestseller and won the National Book Award, bringing McCarthy both popular and critical acclaim. After his longtime editor Albert Erskine retired, McCarthy had begun working with Gary Fisketjon. He followed Pretty Horses with The Crossing in 1994 and Cities of the Plain in 1998.
McCarthy published a second play, The Sunset Limited, in 2006, and it was premiered by Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre that same year. Since then, it has been performed by numerous theatrical companies around the world. A film version by Tommy Lee Jones premiered on HBO in 2011. Continuing in the performance vein, McCarty wrote a screenplay, The Counselor, and Ridley Scott directed the film, which appeared in 2013.
McCarthy published his first piece of nonfiction, “The Kekulé Problem,” in the science magazine Nautilus in 2017. The essay meditates on the nature of the unconscious mind and the origins of language, and evinces the influence of his work at the Santa Fe Institute, a multidisciplinary research center devoted to the study of complex systems. McCarthy had been said to have been working on a lengthy novel titled The Passenger since at least 1980. That one project became a pair of interconnected novels, The Passenger and Stella Maris, that were published on October 25 and December 6, 2022.
McCarthy passed away at his home in Santa Fe on June 13, 2023.
Copyright Stacey Peebles 2023