Cormac McCarthy: Biography, Novels & Quotes

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  • 0:02 Cormac McCarthy
  • 0:33 Biography
  • 3:40 Major Books
  • 7:50 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jason Lineberger

Jason has 20 years of education experience including 14 years of teaching college literature.

Cormac McCarthy has been called one of the greatest living American writers. In this lesson, you'll learn about his life and three of his most celebrated novels.

Cormac McCarthy

If you're like most of America, you probably only recently discovered one of the country's great writers, Cormac McCarthy. While critics and literature professors have been following him for years, mainstream America didn't catch on to his greatness until his novel All the Pretty Horses. More recent books, No Country for Old Men and The Road, have been turned into major movies, and McCarthy has gone from a dude living in a barn to the winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.


McCarthy grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee in the 1930s. He attended the University of Tennessee, and while he never managed to graduate, he did write a few stories that would earn him some recognition. Not long after that, he got married and settled down in the first of a series of strange houses, a little place described as '... a shack with no heat and running water in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains outside of Knoxville.'

This part of his life is like a sitcom, only not funny. You've got the crazy living situation, young family in a little shack, and the wacky cast of characters, including the eccentric writer who needs time to work on his craft. The family falls apart, but McCarthy keeps writing, and when he's done with his first book, he sends it off to a major publisher, Random House.

Why try to sell a first book to one of the biggest, most exclusive names in the business? It was the only publisher he could think of. Amazingly, they picked up his book The Orchard Keeper and McCarthy scored an editor, Albert Erskine, the man who had been the editor for southern literary giant William Faulkner.

Over the next ten years McCarthy wrote several books, got married again, got divorced again, lived in a barn in Tennessee, and moved to Texas. In 1979, he finally published the book he had been working on for 20 years, Suttree. Some critics still point to it as McCarthy's best book, but it's never going to make Oprah's Book Club. McCarthy was starting to come into his own.

In 1985, he turned out Blood Meridian and even though it wasn't successful at the time, people are rediscovering this book after his more recent success. He finally hit it big in 1992 when he wrote All the Pretty Horses, his first book in a trilogy of westerns. It won the National Book Award and propelled McCarthy into the spotlight. In 2005, he published No Country for Old Men, a modern western. The movie version won four Academy Awards.

You know how zombies are all the rage now? Well, McCarthy didn't write about zombies, but he came pretty close when he published The Road in 2006 - a post-apocalyptic father and son road trip novel that's about as cheerful as a teddy bear full of razor blades. This one garnered him a Pulitzer Prize. Pulitzers and National Book Awards aside, you really know you've made it as a writer when Oprah likes your book. She really likes The Road.

Now Cormac McCarthy lives in New Mexico, has a new wife and a young son, and generally keeps away from any publicity. Interesting fact: McCarthy wrote all these books on an old manual typewriter that he bought for $50 at a pawn shop. He recently auctioned it away for charity and it seems to have increased in value - it sold for $254,500. What does he use to write now? Another typewriter exactly like the one he had. A friend bought it for him for $11.

Major Books

McCarthy's first smash hit was All the Pretty Horses, a western set in the 1940s starring a 16-year-old cowboy who leaves home for adventures in Mexico. He gets more than he bargained for. The book has horse-thieving, young love, and Mexican prisons, in that order.

The story's great, and it's not your typical western. For one thing, it's set several decades after the 'Wild West' has been tamed. For another, the main character is just a kid - a talented, passionate, innocent kid. The other thing that really sets this book apart is McCarthy's writing style. His prose reads like poetry, with long sentences packed with details and meaning. Here's an example from the part in the book where the main character and his friend set out for Mexico:

'They heard somewhere in that tenantless night a bell that tolled and ceased where no bell was and they rode out on the round dais of the earth, which alone was dark and no light to it and which carried their figures and bore them up into the swarming stars so that they rode not under but among them and they rode at once jaunty and circumspect, like thieves newly loosed in that dark electric, like young thieves in a glowing orchard, loosely jacketed against the cold and ten thousand worlds for the choosing.' It's the sort of book that you can read more than once because every time you're going to pick up something new in McCarthy's descriptions.

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