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  • The Intertextual Suttree:Walker Percy, Cummings, and Community
  • Scott D. Yarbrough (bio)

Cormac McCarthy's novel Suttree has perhaps more intertextual references than any other of his works. They serve as metaphorical hyperlinks that make use of literary shorthand to develop and signify themes, motifs, and meaning. At times these allusions are somewhat obscure; characters don't speak lines from "The Waste Land" and then attribute them to Eliot. We are instead introduced to a city "constructed on no known paradigm" (3) and shown the filthy river with its trash and suicides, and once even a dead baby. In addition to these allusions to Eliot's "Unreal City" and Madame Sosostris's admonition to "fear death by water" (55), we also have subtle references to the Fisher King legend (Shelton 74) and to the "rats' alley / Where the dead men lost their bones" (115-116). As Vereen Bell points out, the novel also contains references and quotations from Auden, Cummings, Frost, and Faulkner (106). To that list I believe we can add Longfellow (457), Shakespeare's King Lear (366), and Steinbeck's Cannery Row.

Perhaps the most significant of these intertextual riffs are Suttree's repeated references to Walker Percy's 1966 novel The Last Gentleman and E.E. Cummings's poem "in Just." As his use of "The Waste Land" makes clear, McCarthy employs these references and quotations as kinds of thematic signposts, meant to help steer the more astute readers in the right [End Page 103] direction, much as a jazz saxophonist will quote earlier interpretations of songs in order to demonstrate his own take on a particular standard. Similarly, McCarthy's "quoting" of The Last Gentleman throughout the novel constitutes a kind of shorthand that does not accomplish the introduction of complex themes so much as it furthers the complication of already present themes.

Given McCarthy's reluctance to discuss either his work or his life, it cannot be stated with certainty that McCarthy has read Percy. However, the assumption that McCarthy read The Last Gentleman during the twenty years he presumably spent working on Suttree is not a risky one. Even as a lapsed Catholic, he must have been aware of Percy after the famously Catholic Mississippi native won the National Book Award in 1962 for his first novel, The Moviegoer.

It would be wrong to suggest that McCarthy serves as any kind of ephebe to Percy in the way he might be considered an heir apparent to, say, Faulkner in his earlier works and Hemingway in his latter ones. Instead, McCarthy's repeated references to Percy's novel in turn suggest the seemingly contradictory philosophies of existentialism and Christianity and draws upon the Kierkegaardian reconciliation of those philosophies. Criticism by Bell, William Prather, and Frank Shelton has been dedicated to the existentialist dimensions of Suttree. At the same time, the novel makes persistent and effective use of Christian—particularly Catholic—symbolism. In contrast to the prevailing view, I believe that McCarthy is not espousing existentialism in Suttree any more than he is arguing in favor of Christianity. From McCarthy's point of view, walking too far down the slippery slope of existentialism can lead to suicide and death, as demonstrated by Sartre and Camus. Rather than retreat into the safe strictures of organized Catholic dogma or dally along the precipice of existentialism, Cornelius Suttree must find a balanced middle path between the two that leads to life rather than death.

The most overt references to Percy occur in the use of certain names in Suttree. Critics like Richard Marius have pointed out that Suttree's name may be derived from the "nineteenth century East Tennessee humorous Sut Lovingood" created by George Washington Harris (4). However, the name Suttree seems instead to be an anagram for Sutter, the elder Vaught son in The Last Gentleman, whom the protagonist Will Barrett chooses as a kind of mentor figure and who, in turn, is possibly saved by Will. Suttree's "black and ageless androgyne" gay friend, Trippin Through the Dew, tells Suttree in an encounter late in the novel about his visit with [End Page 104] the infamous Lexington transvestite "Sweet Evening Breeze." In The Last Gentleman, Will...