I’m a big Cormac McCarthy fan. He is my favorite writer. Living, dead, unborn – My favorite. I’ll go to the mat, or the concrete, in defense of his craft at the drop of a hat and I really enjoy talking about his writing in general. I’m a fan. So, it was with some surprise that I walked away from his latest interview, with the Wall Street Journal, disappointed and pissed off.
I learned a long time ago that artists whose work you like are not necessarily people to get to know. Sometimes there is something lacking. Not always, but often the real person simply fails to live up to their creations. On one hand, I could take or leave being disappointed with McCarthy as it’s his work I truly value and not his person or opinions. On the other, I can’t quite let slide something he said in the otherwise excellent interview.
In the interview, when asked why he came to the SouthWest McCarthy said this:
"I ended up in the Southwest because I knew that nobody had ever written about it. Besides Coca-Cola, the other thing that is universally known is cowboys and Indians. You can go to a mountain village in Mongolia and they'll know about cowboys. But nobody had taken it seriously, not in 200 years. I thought, here's a good subject. And it was."
This stuns me.
I realize McCarthy shuns literary connections, and enjoys spending time with scientists and more provable thinkers than many writers and artist are. I never imagined that to mean he doesn't read also. His statement is extremely ignorant of a rich field of writing. Or perhaps it is simply arrogant of it.
McCarthy sells short Western writers in general, but in particular writers of the Southwest by saying no one has written seriously about the Southwest for 200 years.
What of the work of writers such as S. Omar Barker, Eugene Manlove Rhodes, J. Frank Dobie, Larry McMurtry or even Edward Abbey? With those names alone there is a great deal of extremely significant writing on the Southwest before Cormac McCarthy. Even those writers not considered literary, who documented their lives or created fictions based on their experiences in the west and the border country, are fundamental Southwestern literature and biography. There are more, both widely known and extremely obscure who, along with the above, provide a deep literary history in the Southwest. Such voices were serious, and wrote seriously about the region.
McCarthy's comments also serve to diminish the value of Chicano and Hispanic literature in the Southwest as authentic Southwestern writing. Pushing authors like Rudolfo Anaya and others on both sides of the border aside as not writing seriously about the Southwest is as unforgivable as doing the same to any of the above.
McCarthy should, and I can only assume does, know better than what he said. For his novel Blood Meridian McCarthy relied on the autobiographical account of Samuel Chamberlain titled My Confession. Reading this document, and doing the research that I can only assume lead to finding it, and supported Blood Meridian and his later southwestern novels, implies that McCarthy is not poorly read on the west. Which leaves simple arrogance.
Further credit to this idea is that a part of McCarthy's WSJ response is extremely similar to one he gave in a 1992 interview with the New York Times. In the NYT piece, he is quoted as saying:
"I've always been interested in the Southwest. There isn't a place in the world you can go where they don't know about cowboys and Indians and the myth of the West."This synchronicity has the tone of one of those easy quotes a lot of artists in the public eye develop. It's a line, cultivated and practiced in the emotional mirror as one questions oneself. Which makes it all the more arrogant. It's just a line, it doesn't have to be right - He's Cormac McCarthy. He's the artist. The ends justifies everything.
To an extent, that may be right. McCarthy is one of our greatest voices, particularly among living voices. While he is not a native of the West, he is also a credit to the West and has become one of its fundamental voices. He is just goddamned good. So much has to be forgiven to read McCarthy, such as his lack of punctuation, and for most it is easy to do because of that. He's good.
But not that good. As a fourth generation Westerner and cowboy, long before I was a writer myself, I know there are voices other than McCarthy's who got it right. Many who did so before his father gleamed a wanton eye. He also shares his goddamn goodness with contemporaries, like McMurtry who knows the West as only a native could.
Good though he is, McCarthy is not our only great writer, and does not have the bona fides of some of our native sons and daughters. His contempt for writing in the Southwest after 1800 is horseshit. Spread all over the work of greats like Dobie, McMurtry and countless Southwestern voices marginalized for not being literati. McCarthy needs to step down off his high horse.