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Intertextual and Interdisciplinary Approaches to Cormac McCarthy by Nicholas Monk (review)

From: Western American Literature
Volume 47, Number 4, Winter 2013
pp. 429-431 | 10.1353/wal.2013.0000

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This anthology consists of three parts. The first addresses McCarthy’s fiction in comparison to literary texts from before the twentieth century. The second discusses his writing in the context of painting, film, and theater. The third analyzes McCarthy’s output in relation to literary texts from the twentieth century.

The first selection, “Blood Meridian and Classical Greek Thought” by David Williams, is an erudite tour de force. He begins by showing the similarities between Blood Meridian (1985) and the Iliad. Then he discusses the Judge’s quotations from early Greek philosophers. Finally, he shows that the influence of the Iliad and pre-Socratic Greek philosophy makes Blood Meridian a traditional tragedy. Williams goes on to speculate that McCarthy’s work through the Border Trilogy constitutes an examination of the necessity of force.

The author of The Western Landscape in Cormac McCarthy and Wallace Stegner: Myths of the Frontier (2012), Megan Riley McGilchrist studies the traces of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” in All the Pretty Horses (1992). McGilchrist does not claim that McCarthy created these similarities consciously. Despite all of the differences between the medieval and the contemporary, it is apparently the underlying similarities between the two ages that lead to the paradigmatic and archetypal similarities between the two texts.

Scandinavia’s foremost critic of southern literature, Jan Nordby Gretlund, chronicles the process of his thinking about McCarthy’s oeuvre, particularly The Road (2006). He demonstrates how McCarthy fits simultaneously in national and southern traditions. In so doing, he makes arresting comparisons between McCarthy and James Fenimore Cooper, Herman Melville, Stephen Crane, and Ernest Hemingway.

The author of Reading the World: Cormac McCarthy’s Tennessee Period (2009), Dianne Luce combines literary and art historical criticism to analyze landscape painting’s influence on The Road. In particular, she compares McCarthy’s setting and narrative point of view with the iconography and perspectives of the Hudson River School and the Luminists. She shows that the protagonist’s vision is congruent with America’s dominant landscape tradition. Especially noteworthy is her discussion of such art historians as Barbara Novak and David C. Williams and her inclusion of landscapes by the German painter Caspar David Friedrich.

The author of Cormac McCarthy and the Myth of American Exceptionalism (2007), John Cant compares No Country for Old Men (2007) with its film adaptation. He focuses on the film’s inherent inability to capture the nuances of the novel’s narrative point of view. There is no technique in the film for adequately representing the contrasts between Sheriff Bell’s voice and the authorial voice. By the same token, the movie exceeds the novel’s ability to register sound.

In another comparison of literature and film, Michael Madsen explores the motif of evil in Blood Meridian and John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978). Hannah Arendt was right to indicate the banality of evil, but Madsen’s point may be even more important: that evil is ubiquitous, immortal, and inexplicable. Madsen argues that Blood Meridian’s representation of evil exemplifies the fact that McCarthy’s fiction is consonant with horror films. Like the other contributors, however, Madsen does not try to tease out the differences between horror, Gothic, and grotesque.

Ciarán Dowd reveals the ambiguity that arises when critics discuss McCarthy’s alleged nihilism. In The Sunset Limited (2011), he argues, White’s ostensible nihilism “is just as much founded on faith as are Black’s religious beliefs” (115). Because White has values and beliefs, he is not a nihilist. Rather, he is a cynic—a moralist who rejects the dominant culture’s morals. When White uses the term meaningless, he means trivial.

Euan Gallivan also inconveniences the notion of McCarthy as a purveyor of nihilism and meaninglessness. He builds on the recognition that McCarthy owes a lot to Samuel Beckett, especially in Suttree (1979). But he argues that it is not the Beckett of such famous works as Waiting for Godot (1948) to which McCarthy is indebted. Rather, it is Murphy (1938) that McCarthy’s work most resembles. Moreover, it is also Joyce, Faulkner, and Twain who inform Suttree.

Finally, Nicholas Monk argues that McCarthy and Leslie Marmon Silko write a sub-genre of the...

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