Cormac McCarthy was almost 60 when he became famous for All The Pretty Horses. It won him the National Book Award in 1992 after some 30 years of publishing novels. He died almost an ancient man, at 89, this week, having recently published a pair of novels, The Passenger and Stella Maris, his first in 16 years. Everyone thinks he spent all those silent years being Cormac, somewhere in the Southwestern desert, but none of us know what that means because he was a private man. He knew that people may like to read his prose, enjoy the heartbreak, even terror, and the beautiful sentences, but that no one would want to live like him or consider things the way he did. The age of the novelist is long past. There are no great public funerals or occasions of state. It's an important quality in a writer, an absence of sentimentality.
McCarthy was born in 1933, grew up during the Depression, in Tennessee, spent his 20s more or less hoboing around America, with stints in college, the Air Force, any number of jobs, always poor, but apparently never in jail. Eventually, he became a writer whose novels received good reviews, but only a few thousand people bought them, and he made do with the occasional grant or scholarship. Misery, the South, and the secretly Southern heart that beats in the Western American man became his themes.
Fame may have been good for McCarthy: He wrote 7 of his 12 novels in the last third of his life, as well as some screenplays and plays. Eventually, he achieved everything a novelist now can achieve: His post-apocalyptic father and son horror-picaresque The Road (2006) won him the Pulitzer Prize and some others—Oprah selected it for her book club and sold about 1.5 million paperbacks; it was already a bestseller before that, having sold about a tenth of those numbers in hardcover, and then it was adapted to the screen in 2009. On the other hand, No Country for Old Men (2005), less of a success, was filmed by the Coen Bros. in 2007 and won Best Picture, becoming part of the pop culture.
McCarthy spent his life trying to accommodate the novel to the two most famous kinds of artistic statements known to us—biblical prophecy and Greek tragedy. Beauty and terror mingle in his prose; his audience longs to be terrified, then to be brought to relief. His great success is a sign of American decadence, an irregular but irrepressible flirting with nihilism. His apparent seriousness might be a kind of cure for the "spiritual, but not religious" generation. Then again, he might make things worse by discrediting nobility of character. But his late success certainly absolves him of any fault in the great national drama; he observed and tried to understand how and why America began to collapse morally in the '60s, at a time of such high hopes and amazing achievements.
I was reminded of McCarthy's overarching theme reading his first interview, from 1992. In the context of Blood Meridian (1985), his best novel, "the myth of the West," and American world dominance, he says: "There's no such thing as life without bloodshed. I think the notion that the species can be improved in some way, that everyone could live in harmony, is a really dangerous idea. Those who are afflicted with this notion are the first ones to give up their souls, their freedom. Your desire that it be that way will enslave you and make your life vacuous."
Violence is the ancestral condition of man, which we have forgotten, dazzled by Progress. But Progress has no room for artists, who are above all interested in how it is possible for men to go mad. What do they see? Is terror more personally satisfying because a narrative of endless improvement means none of us matter, and we're all replaceable? The mad characters in his novels often seem to desire a cosmic dignity that McCarthy doesn't seem to think is anything but an illusion.
Perhaps the noblest service McCarthy performed in American letters was to conjure up this forgotten, terrifying past and to show, including by his success, how attractive it is now, how shallow our belief in Progress is, how deep our fears. We're vulnerable to madness—a shocking image of it might bolster our sanity. This is what his critics call his manly prose. I'll leave you with a quote from All the Pretty Horses, the McCarthy novel I recommend to all readers: "His own father said that no man who has not gone to war horseback can ever truly understand the horse and he said that he supposed he wished that this were not so but that it was so."
Titus Techera is the executive director of the American Cinema Foundation and a film critic for Law & Liberty, the Acton Institute's Religion & Liberty, and the Free Press.