The Frontier Ethic behind Cormac McCarthy’s Southern Fiction
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The Frontier Ethic behind Cormac McCarthy’s Southern Fiction

With the Publication of ‘All the Pretty Horses’ in 1992, Cormac McCarthy finally earned national critical attention as a formidable contemporary writer, though by this time he had already been writing for three decades, producing five novels that were reviewed without enthusiasm and that were largely ignored by the reading public. Critics have struggled to penetrate the difficult prose and obscure plotlines of McCarthy’s early fiction, and he has often been accused of producing incoherent novels that exhibit stylistic innovation without any meaning. Reviewers of the southern novels have complained that McCarthy’s words “darken rather than illuminate time sequences, character relationships, and indeed even what is happening at any given moment” and “seem to exist for their own sake only” (Murray 866); that “there is no real point” to the “trail of very literary epithets which look impressive unless you are unkind enough to ask what they really mean” (Cruttwell 18); and that McCarthy’s elegant prose “explores nothing at all” in terms of theme or content (Prescott 67).1

The perceived lack of meaning and coherence in McCarthy’s southern fiction has prompted some critics to label the early work as nihilistic. Vereen M. Bell, in “The Ambiguous Nihilism of Cormac McCarthy,” contends that “McCarthy’s novels are as innocent of theme and of ethical reference as they are of plot” (31), and Mark Royden Winchell argues that the main difference between McCarthy and Faulkner is that “Faulkner was at heart a moralist who believed in an irreducible core of human dignity. His works possess a moral center, either explicit or [End Page 155] implicit, that judges the evil and depravity of the world. In McCarthy’s universe that center either doesn’t exist or cannot hold” (294). For the most part, critics seem unable to locate any meaning or value system within the early fiction that would make it purposeful, nor do they see much of a coherent connection among the early novels. Superficially, Cormac McCarthy’s southern works differ markedly in tone as well as content: The Orchard Keeper (1965) is serious and elegiac; Outer Dark (1968) is heavily gothic; Child of God (1973) is grotesque, revolting and comic in its absurdity; and Suttree (1979), a “Joycean epic” (Brewton 126), is humorous at points and profoundly tragic at others. Gebhard Hoffman suggests that the texts only cohere through their “strangeness,” noting that the behavior of McCarthy’s characters “is irrational, immoral, even unnatural; it denies standards of common sense” (217).

The novels are certainly strange, and their significance is not immediately apparent. I argue, however, that the southern works do cohere in their celebration of “frontier” values—freedom, individualism, and self-sufficiency—that anticipate the western values underpinning McCarthy’s more popular border fiction. The Orchard Keeper, Outer Dark, Child of God, and Suttree feature protagonists who try to forge remote and independent lifestyles against the ineluctable pressures of civilization and modernity. While these characters receive strikingly different treatment in each novel, they all represent a nostalgia for a lost frontier ethic that is neither appreciated nor viable in a modern world ruled by the invasive forces of industry, bureaucracy, and big government.

The Orchard Keeper (1965)

The Orchard Keeper largely perplexed its early reviewers, but critics have recently begun to uncover the novel’s agrarian angle. K. Wesley Berry argues that it is “an elegy to yeoman farmers and their descendants” (64), citing its nostalgic closing lines: “They are gone now. Fled, banished in death or exile, lost, undone” (246). Georg Guillemin points out that the novel participates in a number of pastoral conventions, and Dianne Luce has called it McCarthy’s “Walden” (Reading 61). Arthur Ownby, who embodies the values of the “farmer-pioneer” (Berry 66), is uniformly identified as the novel’s hero. Living alone with his dog in a rural area of Tennessee, Ownby keeps watch over an orchard that has become fallow with disuse; he is the titular “orchard keeper.” While critics are right to highlight The Orchard Keeper ’s agrarian values, the [End Page 156] character of Arthur Ownby points to a larger frontier ethic that...


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