Cormac McCarthy, whose inimitable literary style and uniquely unsparing outlook on human nature combined to ensure his status as a behemoth of contemporary American letters, died of natural causes at his home in Santa Fe, N.M., on June 13, his son, John McCarthy, confirmed to his publisher, Alfred A. Knopf. He was 89.
Considered one of the preeminent prose stylists of his generation, McCarthy's blood-drenched tales of society's margins, mostly set in Appalachia or the American Southwest, catapulted his work, and arguably the western genre, into American literature's empyrean. His work was often compared to that of William Faulkner, Herman Melville, and Mark Twain, as well as to the King James Bible. His sentences, excepting the pitch-perfect gruffness of much of his dialogue, were often long and labyrinthine, eschewing punctuation including, famously, the comma. His word choice was often archaic, and his diction carried his characters through stories marked by a dispassionate universe filled with brutality and populated with extraordinary moments of human horror set against backdrops of severe but wondrous natural beauty.
"The truth about the world, he said, is that anything is possible," says the borderline-satanic Judge Holden in McCarthy's 1985 novel Blood Meridian. "Had you not seen it all from birth and thereby bled it of its strangeness it would appear to you for what it is, a hat trick in a medicine show, a fevered dream, a trance bepopulate with chimeras having neither analogue nor precedent, an itinerant carnival, a migratory tentshow whose ultimate destination after many a pitch in many a mudded field is unspeakable and calamitous beyond reckoning."
McCarthy's first novel, The Orchard Keeper, was published in 1965 by Random House, where McCarthy worked with editor Albert Erskine over the next 20 years. His second novel, Outer Dark, was published in 1968, followed by Child of God in 1973 and Suttree in 1979.
Blood Meridian, which is often cited as McCarthy's crowning achievement, was praised in PW for its "lurid, ornate, gothicized language" and called a "total repudiation of romantic versions of the Old West and a projection in their place of nightmare." The book was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction—which he would win for The Road—in 1986, but lost to another monumental and unorthodox western, Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove. The late literary critic Harold Bloom considered Blood Meridian to be one of the greatest novels of the 20th century.
"I vividly remember getting hold, though I don’t remember how, of Blood Meridian when it first came out, and being bowled over by it," fellow novelist John Banville told Sacred Trespasses in 2015. "I think I must have reviewed it, perhaps in the Irish Times, as I sometimes see a rather over-excited quote from me on the paperback. It was, of course, utterly unlike anything anyone else was writing at the time, harking back as it did all the way from Melville to Homer and the Bible."
In spite of the many literary accolades he had already acquired over his then 25-year career, McCarthy first became a bestselling author in the 1990s with the publication of the Border Trilogy, which comprises the novels All the Pretty Horses (1992), The Crossing (1994), and Cities of the Plain (1998). In its review, PW called All the Pretty Horses a "singular achievement" that is "so exuberant in its prose, so offbeat in its setting and so mordant and profound in its deliberations that one search in vain for comparisons in American literature."
His 2005 novel No Country for Old Men and 2006 novel The Road both received starred reviews in PW, and were both adapted into films. The former of which, adapted by Joel and Ethan Coen, won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2008. The latter received the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and was selected as an Oprah's Book Club pick (its 61st), resulting in McCarthy's only televised interview. He had, until his 2007 sit-down with Oprah, done only one major interview, with the New York Times in 1992.
“Some writers have said in print that they hated writing, it was just a chore and a burden; I certainly don’t feel that way about it," he told the talk-show host. "Sometimes it’s difficult but you always have this image of the perfect thing which you can never achieve but which you never stop trying to achieve."
Over his career, McCarthy won just about every major American award for literature, including the aforementioned Pulitzer, the National Book Award, and National Book Critics Circle Award, known colloquially as American literature's Triple Crown. He also received both MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships. He set several of his 12 novels in the American Southwest, where he lived since the late 1990s, and wrote all of them on an Olivetti Underwood Lettera 32 typewriter.
“Cormac McCarthy changed the course of literature," Nihar Malaviya, CEO of Penguin Random House, said in a statement. "For 60 years, he demonstrated an unwavering dedication to his craft, and to exploring the infinite possibilities and power of the written word."
McCarthy was born on July 20, 1933, in Providence, R.I., and was raised in Knoxville, Tenn. He briefly attended the University of Tennessee, where he studied physics and engineering, before dropping out to join the Air Force in 1953. He returned to college four years later and began writing short fiction.
Most recently, McCarthy published the two interlaced novels The Passenger and Stella Maris in 2022. He was also at work on the screenplay for the movie adaptation of Blood Meridian. He had previously written screenplays for The Gardner's Son (1977) and The Counselor (2013), as well as the 1994 play The Stonemason.
He rarely spoke about his creative process. In its review of The Road, PW called McCarthy "the closest thing in American literature to an Old Testament prophet"—and indeed he did see himself in some respects as a channel. "It is not a conscious process," he said of his writing in an interview with the Kingsport Times-News in 1973. He continued: "I can't explain how one creates a novel.... [M]aybe only those who can do it can understand it."