July 20th – Cormac McCarthy

If there is an occupational hazard to writing, it’s drinking

Cormac McCarthy

Author Cormac McCarthy was born on July 20th, 1933, in Providence, Rhode Island, and raised primarily in Knoxville, Tennessee. He was the eldest of six children, and his father’s job as a lawyer for the Tennessee Valley Authority positioned them solidly in the upper-middle class of the city. McCarthy attended Catholic schools, then enrolled at the University of Tennessee in 1951. He dropped out in 1953 to join the Air Force until 1957. During his stint in the Air Force, stationed in Alaska with time to kill, he developed a love of reading. When he returned to the University of Tennessee, he published his first stories, “A Drowning Incident” and “Wake for Susan,” in the student literary magazine, The Phoenix, writing under the name C. J. McCarthy, Jr.. He then dropped out of University again, moving to Chicago in 1959, where he began his first novel, The Orchard Keeper, while working part-time at an auto-parts store. That was the only outside job he held. 

After he finished the manuscript for The Orchard Keeper, he sent it blindly to Random House because that was the only publisher he knew. Albert Erskine, who had edited Faulkner’s later works, along with Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), picked up the novel. The Orchard Keeper was published in 1965 by Random House. Although it was not a huge commercial success, it led to literary awards that allowed McCarthy to continue to pursue writing.

McCarthy focused only on his writing, turning down opportunities (and money) to speak, teach, or write for newspapers or magazines. He often lived in poverty, eating beans and living in barely hospitable ‘hovels.’ His second wife, Annie DeLisle, described living for eight years in a dairy barn outside Knoxville, where they bathed in the lake.  

Outer Dark was published in 1968, Child of God in 1973, and Suttree, a semi-autobiographical novel he had worked on for twenty years, in 1979. 

His first books barely sold 5,000 copies. In 1981 at 48, he was awarded a ‘genius’ grant that gave him a little extra money to live and work. And with that money, he wrote Blood Meridian, the first of his ‘Western Novels.’ Then, All The Pretty Horses, published in 1992, won the National Book Award and National Book Critics Award and became a best-seller. McCarthy was 59. 

Lessons from McCarthy:

McCarthy pursued writing his entire adult life, regardless of reception and no matter the cost. He went through multiple marriages, lived in poverty, but simply focused on the work, and today is considered by many to be the greatest living American author.  

Looking at authors like Hemingway and Fitzgerald, many writers, especially the young, think drinking is a muse. McCarthy understood it was getting in his way. He quit drinking in 1976 while living in El Paso and finishing his novel Suttree and has enjoyed a long life and extreme success since.

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