This portrait of Cormac McCarthy, by artist Andrew Tift, is now on view at the National Portrait Gallery, in the “New Acquisitions” gallery, on the museum’s first floor. McCarthy is not only in demand in Hollywood at the moment, but also he has attained, over the last decade or so, that rare status among living writers—that of the living legend.
Recently, the National Portrait Gallery's Warren Perry spoke with Marty Priola, the Cormac McCarthy Society’s assistant secretary. Priola wrote the Dictionary of Literary Biography (2002) entry for McCarthy, and he also maintains the website for the society, a group of scholars and nonprofessionals dedicated to the study of McCarthy’s work.
WP: McCarthy seems to be hitting his stride at the moment with a Pulitzer for The Road and an Oscar for No Country for Old Men. What is on the event horizon for him?
MP: Despite a few recent appearances and interviews—Oprah Winfrey, the Oscars—Cormac McCarthy remains a private, if not reclusive (as is often assumed), person. McCarthy continues his association with the Sante Fe Institute, and rumors claim as many as four completed novels awaiting publication. One is assumed to be his long-awaited “New Orleans Novel,” although this cannot be verified. Several tantalizing projects related to his work are, or appear to be, on the horizon, from the film adaptation of The Road to another often-discussed project, the movie of Blood Meridian.
WP: Where does he stand in our canon—that is, who can we compare him to stylistically, thematically—or, to extend, will McCarthy be spoken of in one hundred years like we speak of Melville today?
MP: Harold Bloom has said that Cormac McCarthy is the best living American writer. As that’s a category that includes Philip Roth and Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison, among many others of renown and considerable skill, it seems fair to say that McCarthy is one of the most important and influential Americans writing today. Charles Frazier and others have frankly acknowledged the influence, and given McCarthy's early reputation as a “writer’s writer,” it's likely that he'll be considered crucial to an understanding of American literature into the present century.
McCarthy has been compared to any number of writers, among them Melville, Faulkner, Hemingway, and even Shakespeare. Some considerable portion of this repute concerns style; McCarthy's rhetoric is often similar in tone to those earlier writers, or adopts classical or even Biblical cadences. Through his first four novels, ending with Suttree, McCarthy cursorily appeared to be working as a regionalist, a kind of student of Faulkner’s, even where he diverged from him in terms of theme and sometimes style.
Blood Meridian leaves the South in dramatic (some might say epic) fashion, and is a harbinger of McCarthy’s wider concerns. With it and his more recent works, McCarthy more obviously writes in the mode of various genres—the western, the thriller, and even a kind of science fiction or post-apocalyptic thriller with The Road. McCarthy adopts some of the conventions of these genre pieces, both to comment on and subvert them. These more recent works reveal a writer who has always been concerned not with just “the South” or “the West,” but with larger epistemological and metaphysical questions. Engagement with these issues of universal concern suggests McCarthy’s continued relevance in—and importance to—the ongoing discussion that is literature in the United States.
Visit the Cormac McCarthy Society website or more information on McCarthy, his works, and upcoming conferences.
Cormac McCarthy / Andrew Tift, 2004 / Acrylic on canvas / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution