- Cormac McCarthy’s Literary Evolution: Editors, Agents, and the Crafting of a Prolific American Author by Daniel Robert King
Daniel King’s work with Cormac McCarthy’s papers at the Witliff Collections in Texas and Albert Erskine’s papers at the University of Virginia has resulted in an excellent book that describes the symbiotic relationship McCarthy has had with his editors and how these relationships have driven the development of his novels. McCarthy entered the publishing world in the early 1960s just as the old-time publishers were becoming corporate giants. McCarthy was lucky to land under the tutelage of veteran editor Albert Erskine at Random House. Erskine was well connected in literary circles—Louisiana State University Press, Southern Review, married to Katherine Anne Porter—and his relationship with his authors resembled Maxwell Perkins’s relationships with his writers. In addition to guiding and editing McCarthy’s writing, Erskine would secure foreign publication rights immediately upon American publication. He nominated McCarthy for numerous grants, including the PEN/Faulkner Award, a Rockefeller grant, and eventually a Guggenheim fellowship. He promoted McCarthy’s work by sending copies of The Orchard Keeper (1966) to writers like Truman Capote, Ralph Ellison, James Michener, Robert Penn Warren, and Eudora Welty for their review and backing. He wrote Saul Bellow requesting support, which paid off in later years when Bellow was on the MacArthur Foundation selection committee, McCarthy attaining a MacArthur Grant in 1981. All of these activities were aimed at getting McCarthy enough money to continue writing without interruption. McCarthy didn’t have a large commercial success until twenty-six years later with All the Pretty Horses.
Rapport between Erskine and McCarthy was friendly and strong. They negotiated large issues, such as including or removing [End Page 127] passages, possible endings to novels, and title selections—Toilers at the Kiln, for example, was the title right up until publication when Erskine and McCarthy settled on The Orchard Keeper. Their discussions even involved word choices. In a letter to Erskine, for instance, one small issue concerned a color description. McCarthy contended that “compound colors need to be hyphenated because ‘there is no way of knowing whether the color is blue-green or green-blue’ because ‘one word complements but does not act as an adjective’” (50). Ultimately, a mutual level of trust for each other’s judgment evolved. McCarthy even trusted Bertha Krantz, a line editor at Random House, to do the right things with his writing.
The publishing world changed again in the 1990s when many of the tasks that had been done by editors became the jobs of literary agents. When Erskine retired, McCarthy was transferred to Gary Fisketjon, a senior editor with Alfred A. Knopf, which was wholly owned by Random House. He was a different kind of editor. Since Fisketjon recognized McCarthy’s abilities as a reader and self-editor of his work, he concluded that McCarthy didn’t need considerable or focused guidance. Things Erskine had done to support McCarthy financially were taken over by his newly acquired agent, Amanda “Binky” Urban. She got him better pay for his books, his films, and his magazine work. With his shift to the Southwest, McCarthy also started working at the Santa Fe Institute as a writer in residence. While writing there he even edited books scientists at the Institute were publishing.
For a writer who told Oprah Winfrey that a writer should be writing books, not talking about writing them, King’s book clarifies who was influencing the development of McCarthy’s books (though not his scripts) and how and when. For a writer who has always had four or more books in progress at once, King sorts out when McCarthy’s books were started, which were being drafted next to each other, what bits and pieces of a draft of one book showed up in another, and when they were finally finished. King also documents McCarthy’s meticulous research and describes his trips to gather background information, such as his...