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Cormac McCarthy’s deep Texas ties: ‘For him, it was a whole new world’

 Cormac McCarthy in the 1970s, as seen on the dust jacket of his novel "Child of God."
Public Domain photo, Pixabay / Illustration by Raul Alonzo, Texas Standard
Cormac McCarthy in the 1970s, as seen on the dust jacket of his novel "Child of God."

He was a man who rarely gave interviews but was nonetheless known for his words – prose that often detailed dark or violent settings and characters.

Cormac McCarthy, widely considered among the greatest novelists in American literature, died Tuesday at the age of 89.

He often set his stories in the American Southwest, with some of his most celebrated works taking place in Texas – “Blood Meridian,” “No Country for Old Men,” “All the Pretty Horses.” Even his postapocalyptic 2006 novel “The Road” was inspired by a trip he took with his son to El Paso, where he once lived.

Steve Davis, literary curator at the Wittliff Collections of Texas State University, which houses McCarthy’s archives, joined the Standard to discuss McCarthy’s legacy and his deep ties to Texas. Listen to the story above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: I think a lot of people don’t know a whole lot about McCarthy’s connections to Texas. And, you know, when you’re talking about someone with his kind of reputation, it’s a little hard to add to all that has been said over this past week. But what is it about his stories that seem to have given them such an impact on American literature and American literary life?

Steve Davis: You know, Cormac wrote in such a way with a voice that seemed like it was coming from a different time almost. It was biblical in some sense, but prophetic in other ways. And he used these antique words, but his stories just had this resonance that cut beyond personality and deep into people’s psyches – almost these archetypes that came out of his stories of good and evil and these really very basic, very existential questions.

And, you know, his stories are really difficult for a lot of people to read because he’s known for his violence. You know, the literary critic Harold Bloom, who called Cormac’s masterpiece, “Blood Meridian,” one of the greatest American novels ever, admitted that it took him a few tries. He started a few times before he could really get into it because that violence is unsparing.

With Cormac, his writing is gorgeous. It sings to people. But at the same time, it’s devastating in its judgments. It often seems to be aimed at humanity itself.

Let’s talk a little bit more about “Blood Meridian,” because a work like that has been described as “anti-Western” in the sense that it sort of subverts some of the traditional Southwestern tropes. What was it about the American West that seemed to appeal to McCarthy? And can you comment on his approach and how it’s sort of stuck in the popular imagination today?

I will do my best for you here today. And I can tell you that, you know, McCarthy grew up in the South. He was in Appalachia and from Tennessee, and his early books were set there. These books were spooky, and they were really immersed in this culture that Cormac knew very well.

But at the same time, he made a trip out to Texas in the 1970s and went out to El Paso and just, you know, floated the Rio Grande canyons and just fell in love with this landscape. Really, for him, it was a whole new world. And he saw stories that had not yet been told about this place.

And, of course, he mined our history for so many of his books. You know, “Blood Meridian,” he actually based on the real-life stories of this group of marauding scalp hunters that came through Texas and went into Mexico. You know, he also mined our great folklorist J. Frank Dobie. McCarthy mined Dobie so much he actually used the same names in his novel from Dobie’s real-life reports and even some of the same dialogue.

And it should be pointed out, too, that in a sense, McCarthy kind of came on his fame rather later in life – I believe he was in his late 50s, early 60s.

Exactly. Yeah. And it’s so interesting because, as I mentioned, he had done these really highly respected novels from the South that did not sell well at all. And then in 1992, he is ready to publish “All the Pretty Horses” and his agent and his publisher and his editor, they all begged him to “please, please do an interview,” because Cormac, you know, would never speak to the press. He felt everything he had to say was already on the page.

But he finally consented, and this really cool journalist named Richard Woodward flew out to El Paso and got Cormac to talk to him, and he recorded that conversation. It was 4 hours long, and he used that for this profile in the New York Times called “Cormac McCarthy’s Venomous Fiction.” And that piece really kind of gave him a big boost as “All the Pretty Horses” came out.

I’m curious about why it is that Cormac McCarthy’s archives wound up at the Wittliff. Did you or any of your colleagues ever get to meet the man?

We did. And I want to mention that we actually just recently got that four-hour recorded interview from El Paso in 1992 here, too, at the Wittliff. And we have Cormac’s papers that really began when our founding donor, Bill Wittliff, was at the Sundance Film Institute reading scripts for a contest. He saw an entry that Cormac McCarthy made in the early 1980s, and Bill fell in love with his writing, even though he said the script was unusable because it was all exposition. And he got to know Cormac.

Cormac was inducted into the Texas Institute of Letters since he was a writer working here. And Wittliff talked to Cormac a lot of times over the years about saving his papers and the possibility they might come here to the Wittliff Collections. So that happened, and I did get to go with a couple of our other staff people up to Cormac’s adobe mansion in Santa Fe and pick up the papers and meet him. So that was quite a treat for all of us.

You know, you think about some of the raw passages in some of his works. Was he sort of a rugged person, or was he sort of a gentle person? How would you describe him? 

You know, he would speak in a very courtly southern Tennessee accent, and he had very good manners. He served us coffee. He was very gentlemanly. At the same time, you could see the undercurrent of somebody who had really grappled with very deep questions about life and death.

And, you know, there was a real seriousness to him behind his very pleasant facade. And he did tell Bill Wittliff one time, and Bill told me this, because Bill asked him “why are you writing this stuff? Where does it come from?” And Cormac told him, “I write to get the nightmares out of my head and into yours.”

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