All the Pretty Horses | Study Guide

Cormac McCarthy

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Cormac McCarthy | Biography


Cormac McCarthy was born on July 20, 1933, in Providence, Rhode Island, and grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee. He attended the University of Tennessee throughout the 1950s but never graduated. While there he published two stories in the university's literary arts magazine, The Phoenix, "A Drowning Incident" and "Wake for Susan," and was awarded the Ingram Merrill Award for creative writing in 1959 and 1960. His first novel, The Orchard Keeper, was published by Random House in 1965.

During the 1960s McCarthy traveled throughout southern Europe and lived in Ibiza, Spain, while he wrote Outer Dark (1968), his second novel. In 1969 McCarthy moved back to the United States, first to Louisville, Tennessee, and then to El Paso, Texas, where he spent many years. Claiming he only writes about places he's visited, McCarthy says, "I've always been interested in the Southwest. There isn't a place in the world you can go where they don't know about cowboys and Indians and the myth of the West."

In 1992 McCarthy published All the Pretty Horses, a story set in the West and dominated by his characteristically sparse dialogue and violence: "There's no such thing as life without bloodshed," McCarthy suggests. One interviewer notes that the novel's dialogue echoes of "a bleak music, as though [the] words had been whittled down by the wind off the desert." All the Pretty Horses was recognized by the 1992 National Book Award for Fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Before the book's publication, McCarthy's novels did not enjoy widespread recognition, and he did not have a literary agent.

Prior to All the Pretty Horses, McCarthy's novels were respected by the literary establishment (Saul Bellow, Robert Penn Warren, and Ralph Ellison were all fans), but they did not enjoy widespread recognition. This may be because of McCarthy's distinctive writing style, which eschews punctuation and omits quotation marks in dialogue, making it occasionally difficult to determine which character is speaking. Yet, the familiar and urgent form of the Western served well to indoctrinate readers into McCarthy's world and keep the pages turning.

McCarthy's reputation as America's best unknown novelist stems from an itinerant and anti-materialistic lifestyle. He frequently inhabits motels and keeps his few possessions in storage. McCarthy's second ex-wife Annie DeLisle says of McCarthy, "Someone would call up and offer him $2,000 to come speak at a university about his books. And he would tell them that everything he had to say was there on the page. So we would eat beans for another week." The New York Times biographer Richard B. Woodward asserts that McCarthy lives as he writes, in "the lore, people and language of a pre-modern age" that "is passing from memory."

In 2000 a movie version of All the Pretty Horses starring Matt Damon and Penelope Cruz was released, and in 2007 his novel No Country for Old Men was adapted by the Coen Brothers into an Academy Award-winning film. His work The Road won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize, was an Oprah's Book Club selection, and was also released as a film in 2009 starring Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee.

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