We lost a literary legend last month. Cormac McCarthy died at his home in Santa Fe on June 13 at age 89. His was a long life, unmarred by the kind of searing violence and breaches of taboo that he so often took as his subject matter. Murder, genocide, necrophilia, incest—there’s hardly a provocative topic that he didn’t tackle head on. McCarthy could chronicle violence in singular, arresting, often pyrotechnic prose, and his work attests that reckoning with human nature means looking at the worst of what we’re capable of. But he was a poet of what is best about us.
Consider The Road, McCarthy’s most popular novel. A father and son track through a post-apocalyptic landscape, where all flora and fauna have been decimated and bands of murderous cannibals are a constant threat. Human community can be a source of comfort, but also traffic in horrific violence. What reasons are there to do right when government, law enforcement, organized religion, and all aspects of society have been obliterated? Can that which causes such suffering also offer solace, and if so, how do you acknowledge the former and still accomplish the latter?
The Road answers these questions a way that was deeply satisfying to many readers because it emphasized the love between a father and son and the importance of risking empathy. They remind us to “carry the fire,” even in the face of almost total darkness, to act with goodness and compassion even when it’s impractical to do so.
Blood Meridian, McCarthy’s masterpiece, is long and overwhelming rather than spare and haunting, and portrays a world where love, or even basic human decency, seems to figure little if at all. And yet the protagonist, a nameless sixteen-year-old kid drifting in a world of killers, thieves, and villains of all stripes, somehow exhibits small acts of mercy. Most significantly, he resists the exhortations of Judge Holden, an abomination of a person who is infinitely more educated, charismatic, and powerful than he is. Holden tells him to celebrate war and violence as the ultimate dance that a human can take part in. The kid concludes “that’s crazy.” He’s not articulate, but he is right.
Just like the father and son in The Road, the kid struggles against forces that are larger, often malevolent, and not entirely legible to him. The struggle is what matters, even if it happens amid what will likely prove to be an eradicating tide. “Evoke the forms,” McCarthy writes in The Road. “When you’ve nothing else construct ceremonies out of the air and breathe upon them.”
When McCarthy’s final novels, The Passenger and Stella Maris, appeared in fall 2022, many readers were struck by how different they were from his previous work. Siblings Bobby and Alicia Western don’t deal in daily acts of violence, don’t live in a world of scarcity, and have abstract intellectual interests like physics and mathematics. But McCarthy’s longtime emphases are still there if you look closely. The siblings’ father worked on the Manhattan Project, and they grapple with the legacy of that world-changing destructive power. They struggle with devastating loss and grief, as well as the realization that no method of understanding can fully encompass the world, even if you attempt that with both creativity and brilliance.
“You can’t get hold of the world,” Bobby explains. “You can only draw a picture. Whether it’s a bull on the wall of a cave or a partial differential equation it’s all the same thing.” Art, language, science, mathematics—they’re all ways of reaching out toward something that’s eternally out of your grasp. It doesn’t discount that act of striving, however.
McCarthy suggests that the only final truth that humans have actual access to lies in that striving, and in each other, though connection can be as dangerous as it is beautiful. At the end of All the Pretty Horses, McCarthy describes John Grady Cole riding off into the sunset—yet another figure defined by struggle, by love, grief, and loss, who “passed and paled into the darkening land, the world to come.” McCarthy has now passed on himself, but his stories will live bold lives of their own. We may not be able to get hold of the world, but what a picture he’s drawn for us.
Stacey Peebles is the president of the Cormac McCarthy Society, editor of the Cormac McCarthy Journal, and a professor of English and Film at Centre College.