- The Changing Landscape of Violence in Cormac McCarthy's Early Novels and the Border Trilogy
Cormac McCarthy's appearance on the national literary radar with the successful publication of All the Pretty Horses, after years of largely "academic" interest in his work, also inaugurated on a substantive level a clearly defined second phase in his career as a writer. Chronology alone would mark McCarthy's first phase as a novelist as the two decades between 1965 and 1985 that saw the publication of The Orchard Keeper, Outer Dark, Child of God, Suttree, and Blood Meridian, while the Border Trilogy spans the 90s, including All the Pretty Horses (1992), The Crossing (1994), and his latest, Cities of the Plain (1998). A historicist approach to McCarthy's fiction, however, corroborates the chronological separation in that it reveals the correlations between the work of McCarthy's two major periods on the one hand and the cultural moments, popular and otherwise, with which their conception and composition coincided.
A clear and discernible correlation exists between the novels of McCarthy's first period and the era of American history defined by the military involvement in Vietnam, while the novels of the Border Trilogy exhibit a similar imaginative and thematic debt to the changing political and cultural landscape of America beginning in the 1980s, a landscape best evoked by the Reagan presidency and the Gulf War with Iraq [End Page 121] in 1991. The correspondences between McCarthy's work and his times are part of a larger cultural equation whereby contemporary historical events influenced prevailing cultural attitudes on the one hand, and cultural production on the other, a form of influence manifested in film and literature generally, but felt with equal force in the arena of national media culture, in the campaigns for president in 1980 and 1984, and in the political discourse of the 1980s. Perhaps all cultural artifacts are a product of their times, but the novels of McCarthy's first phase are recognizably so in ways worth exploring, as is the case with the Border Trilogy. To understand how the works display this influence, in some cases a covert influence, requires situating McCarthy's novels afresh in their historical contexts.
The two separate cases of correspondence between McCarthy's work and his cultural milieu are united primarily by the representation of violence and issues closely related to violence in the novels, a circumstance not surprising given that two wars have had a major impact on the cultural terrain of McCarthy's career. Between the novels of the early phase and the work of the Trilogy, a major shift occurs in McCarthy's storytelling and that shift is directly a product of a changing aesthetic of violence in his work. The transformation of McCarthy's aesthetic of violence takes shape as a movement from the serial event to the symbolic drama: the former representing conflicts always contingent and soon to be superseded by fresh eruptions of violence; in the latter, a central act of violence is the single event itself toward which the narrative proceeds and which regularly contains the work's larger thematic conflicts if not in every case their resolution. McCarthy's transition between the serial and the symbolic returns him to the tradition of southern literary violence that relies on violence as the site where divergent interests converge for dramatic effect.
While all literary violence can be viewed as formal in the sense that it has achieved literary form, normally we make a distinction between formal violence on the one hand—violence governed by rules, agreements, and cultural assumptions, typified by the formal duel—and informal violence on the other hand—violence that is fragmentary, unconsidered, "random," or "senseless," as public discourse of our time denotes it. Southern literature—from which Cormac McCarthy emerges in terms of our understanding of his work, especially in his early, Tennessee-centered vision—favors a narrative strategy in which violence represents a climax of tensions and stress with the literary text. For McCarthy, the conflict between an older order and the newer one replacing it persists [End Page 122] from The Orchard Keeper to Cities of the Plain, a novel in which the...