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Reviewed by:
  • Perspectives on Cormac McCarthy
  • Willard Greenwood
Edwin T. Arnold and Dianne C. Luce. Perspectives on Cormac McCarthy. Rev. Ed. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1999. vi + 256 pp.

The introduction, by editors Edwin T. Arnold and Dianne C. Luce, who also contributed two essays apiece, explains why one of America’s greatest living novelists went undiscovered for almost twenty-five years. Of the eleven essays in this collection, three are devoted to the novel that distinguished McCarthy as a rare and astounding novelist, Blood Meridian. These diverse and remarkable essays examine historical sources, Gnosticism, and nihilism as elements crucial to understanding the work itself. The criticism also analyzes McCarthy’s imaginative critique of Manifest Destiny in the Southwest and Mexico, which also seems, somehow, a history of the world. Joseph Sepich’s essay, already well-known to McCarthy scholars, impeccably traces the historical sources of Blood Meridian and is indispensable to an understanding of the novel as historical fiction. Steven Shaviro’s philosophical reading of the novel helps to explain the sublime forces that will continue to horrify and to attract readers. Leo Daugherty’s essay, “Gravers False and True: Blood Meridian as Gnostic Tragedy,” might cause those familiar with the rest of McCarthy’s work to consider Gnosticism as one way of understanding the theosophy that guides so much of it.

There was a more local yet still universal element to McCarthy’s fiction before the watershed event of Blood Meridian. His four southern novels are treated more thoroughly here simply because they are better known to scholars than the Border trilogy. They are written in a more dense, Faulknerian style than the Border trilogy. Luce’s essay on The Crossing, one of McCarthy’s most difficult works, offers the compelling analysis that the figurative and literal wandering undertaken by Billy Parham is “a matrix of intersecting stories, partial or complete, often competing, with varying relationships to the truth, cutting across and interwoven with the apparently simple linearity of the road narrative of Billy’s life.”

Some of McCarthy’s readers and critics were a bit disappointed by his works following The Crossing. Arnold’s essay, “The Last of the Trilogy: First Thoughts on Cities of the Plain,” seems to have this collective puzzlement in mind. He argues for a contextual reading of the novel, [End Page 1026] suggesting that we must read it in concert with the first two novels. Regarding the end of the trilogy, Arnold is right to assert that “we have come to the end of something magnificent.” Arnold’s call to scholarly patience is sound advice for measuring the full worth of this novel in relation to McCarthy’s body of work.

Readers may be most eager to get to the essays of the better-known works first, but the essays on the southern novels provide important insights into the novels that existed before McCarthy’s mass exposure. David Paul Ragan and Thomas D. Young, respectively, provide clear and astute interpretations of The Orchard Keeper and Suttree. Ragan’s essay clarifies the obscurity of the characters’ familial and symbolic relationships while also emphasizing the larger social context. He shows how the lives of the characters of rural Tennessee are subtly yet permanently altered by modern bureaucracy. Young’s essay on Suttree examines the familial and social fallout of a community’s cultural and economic shift from a collapsing agrarian mode to a depressed modern industrial mode. At the center of this change is the eponymous Suttree, who unconsciously resists and negotiates this massive social change by repeatedly drinking himself into oblivion. The essays on the southern novels may seem a bit dated since they themselves precede the entire Border trilogy. However, some of their value lies in their being uninfluenced by interpretations of McCarthy’s later work, a state of scholarly innocence that is irretrievable.

John Grammer’s and Edwin Arnold’s essays on pastoralism and morality, respectively, identify recurring themes throughout the southern novels. Such an approach is necessary in order to begin the massive task of thinking about the novels as a group. For all of the attention given to the connection between McCarthy and the South and Faulkner, Grammer’s...

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