“Cormac McCarthy: The Great Optimist of American Literature” by James Wade

Associate Editor Dawn Major has not had the pleasure of meeting author, James Wade, who wrote the following piece, “Cormac McCarthy: The Great Optimist of American Literature.” She met him through another fellow Southern author. If anything, the Southern writing world is a small one. Everyone knows everyone in the end, well…maybe not Cormac McCarthy who was reclusive and very private. But she feels that perhaps with Wade’s fresh approach to McCarthy’s writing, she knows a little bit more about this great author.

On June 13, 2023, Pulitzer-prize winning author, Charles Cormac McCarthy, Jr., passed away at the age of eighty-nine and the world sighed. It had been over a decade since McCarthy published The Road, and then in 2022 he released two novels. The Passenger, a hardboiled, noir thriller about a salvage diver wrestling with his sister’s suicide, and Stella Maris, featuring a genius paranoid and McCarthy’s first female protagonist. Though both novels are standalone, but interconnected; the main characters, Bobby and Alicia Western, two siblings grieve the loss of each other. With two new publications in the same year, we thought, “He’s back,” and we signed again, but this time, with relief.

Cormac McCarty was a writer’s writer. If you are a McCarthy fan, you are in for life to the extent that his most avid followers have been compared to a cult. He could write violent and horrific scenes depicting human savagery at its worse with a wicked sense of humor. McCarthy’s works meditated on good and evil, life and death. With his own death makes, we contemplate his oeuvre which is what Texas author, James Wade, has done in his essay, “Cormac McCarthy: The Great Optimist of American Literature.” The great optimist? “No,” you say. McCarthy’s writing is bleak. Humanity is doomed. If we have learned anything about McCarthy’s writing over the years, we know it is Manichaean. Wade’s construal of McCarthy as an optimist, that at the end of the tunnel there is the proverbial light, that human nature is dualistic proves that point. And in a time when we mourn the loss of one of our great writers, this piece gives us hope.

“Cormac McCarthy: The Great Optimist of American Literature” by James Wade

In a 2009 profile for The Guardian, Tim Adams labeled Cormac McCarthy “the great pessimist of American literature.” One can hardly blame Adams for such thinking. McCarthy’s catalog is full of violence, depravity, and existential pondering. That is to say, his novels are far from beach reads, unless perhaps the beach was in Normandy circa 1944.

Cormac McCarthy

Though the sheer volume of violence in Mr. McCarthy’s canon is Biblical in proportion, it is the lyrical, often sumptuous way in which he renders such acts that cause most analysis of Mr. McCarthy’s work to be rife with comparisons to the Book of Job, or Sodom and Gomorrah, along with many Hellenic and Stoic ideals.

As to the underlying themes of his work, there are a number of critical arguments that point in varying directions of spirituality. Nihilism, Gnosticism, Christian sacramental theology, among others. But if we move beyond the notion of a guiding light in Mr. McCarthy’s fiction, we are able to see the vision he has laid out across the scope of his novels: the world is indeed a dark, dangerous place. Rapists, racists, necrophiliacs. Murderers, cannibals, cartels. Corrupt cops, corrupt governments, and human traffickers. All populate the pages of Mr. McCarthy’s novels. As do extreme climate conditions, the trauma of war, of poverty, of addiction and loss. In Mr. Adams’s defense, these are often the defining elements of Mr. McCarthy’s literary legacy, but I believe it would be a grave mistake to attribute such elements to pessimism. At worst, Mr. McCarthy’s villainous characters and terra damnata landscapes are more in line with realism. And realism is not in vogue. Modern society seems to prefer escapist fare. But Mr. McCarthy’s work is there to remind us that even after Thor has saved the multiverse, our own world is still on fire.

And yes, it can be difficult for readers to see hard truths reflected in such poignant and powerful prose. It can be unsettling or off-putting. But the accuracy of the depiction is not lessened.

Take the current state of my state: Texas– where Mr. McCarthy set much of his famed Border Trilogy. The booms and busts of oil and natural gas control our economy. Earthquakes are increasing, stronger hurricanes on average, and wildfires are burning more acreage in Texas than ever before. The bulk of the Texas Hill Country in D4 (extreme) or D5 (exceptional) droughts. There are rises in violent crimes, mass shootings, and overall firearm fatalities. Public education is under attack via “school choice” vouchers. In the highest levels of government there is corruption, indictments, and impeachments. Just as in McCarthy’s fiction, the flaws of our own nature have been laid bare before us in a manner as obvious and urgent as any time in history.

And yet it is not pessimism Mr. McCarthy chooses for us or his characters, but resiliency.

The “smoking slag” and “purgatorial waste” of Blood Meridian. The “malevolent and tactile and dissociate” world of Suttree. These are the settings, the stages upon which Mr. McCarthy’s protagonists are made to act. But here, even amid such darkness, they continually seek morality in moments large and small– moments of grace despite the circumstances.

There is charity and goodwill, like strangers bringing water or other provisions to those in need in Suttree and No Country For Old Men. Travelers taken in and fed by families with little to give in All The Pretty Horses. Man’s bond with nature, such as Billy Parham’s long journey with a pregnant wolf in The Crossing, or John Grady Cole’s affinity for horses in Cities of the Plain. But perhaps nowhere is McCarthy’s optimism on greater display than in one of his darkest novels. For all the dire forecasts in his previous work, McCarthy’s The Road describes a desolation that has finally come to pass. The world McCarthy warned of is now here, and what does he insist that readers see? The love between a father and son. The strength of human will to push forward even under the darkest of clouds. McCarthy himself described the book as a story “about goodness.”

In these and many other examples we ought to find the truest legacy of Mr. McCarthy’s writing: resiliency of the human spirit despite our many failings. Lydia Cooper makes a similar argument in her No More Heroes: Narrative Perspective and Morality in Cormac McCarthy when she writes that “(McCarthy’s) novels consistently illuminate the valiant inner struggles of men trying against all odds to be good.” Franklin Roosevelt spoke to the nation in yet another dark period of our history, saying “courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear.” Yes, McCarthy paints fear and violence in every corner of his canon, but at its heart is the “something else” that’s more important.

In both No Country For Old Men and The Road, he writes of an inner fire. McCarthy scholar Petra Mundik says this fire symbolizes “hope, goodness, and the promise of spiritual illumination.” (Mundik, A Bloody and Barbarous God: The Metaphysics of Cormac McCarthy)

Consider this exchange between the father and son in The Road:

 You have to carry the fire.

I don’t know how to.

Yes, you do.

Is the fire real? The fire?

Yes it is.

Where is it? I don’t know where it is.

Yes you do. It’s inside you. It always was there. I can see it.

This moment comes at one of the novel’s most hopeless junctures, and yet it is imbued with courage.

In Blood Meridian, McCarthy writes “the mystery is that there is no mystery.” He reaffirms this notion in No Country For Old Men with “the point is there ain’t no point.” Such nihilistic suggestions may be seen as evidence of McCarthy’s pessimism, and yet his collection of young heroes never succumb to the notion of hopelessness. Rather, they keep moving forward, undeterred. They continue to “carry the fire” whether there is apparent cause to do so or not. And that is the ultimate affirmation of hope– to remove all reason for it but hold onto it regardless.

Mr. McCarthy has left us, but his wisdom and words are here for us to hold onto– to help us to carry the fire.


Leave a Reply