The Pastoral Vision of Cormac McCarthy

The Pastoral Vision of Cormac McCarthy

The Pastoral Vision of Cormac McCarthy

The Pastoral Vision of Cormac McCarthy


Georg Guillemin's visionary approach to the work of Western novelist Cormac McCarthy combines an overall survey of McCarthy's eight novels in print with a comprehensive analysis of the author's evolving ecopastoralism. Using in-depth textual interpretations, Guillemin argues that even McCarthy's early work is characterized less by traditional nostalgia for a lost pastoral order than by a radically egalitarian land ethic that prefigures today's ecopastoral tendencies in Western American writing.

The study shows that more than any of the other landscapes evoked by McCarthy, the Southwestern desert becomes the stage for his dramatizations of a wild sense of the pastoral. McCarthy's fourth novel, Suttree , which is the only one set inside an urban environment, is used in the introductory chapter to discuss the relevant compositional aspects of his fiction and the methodology of the chapters to come.

The main part of the study devotes chapters to McCarthy's Southern novels, his keystone work Blood Meridian, and the Western novels known as the Border Trilogy. The concluding chapter discusses the broader context of American pastoralism and suggests that McCarthy's ecopastoralism is animistic rather than environmentalist in character.

Guillemin shows that the very popular Border Trilogy takes McCarthy's ecopastoralism to its culmination, although this is often overlooked precisely because of the simplicity of the plots-picaresque quests. As the trilogy arranges its plots as a search for a life of pastoral harmony (All the Pretty Horses), envisions a nomadic version of pastoral (The Crossing), and experiences the foreclosure of the pastoral vision anywhere (Cities of the Plain), the trilogy as a whole tacitly acknowledges the obsolescence of utopian pastoralism. Increasingly, man ceases to be the dominant focus of narration, so that the shift from an egocentric to an ecocentric sense of self marks both the heroes and narrators of McCarthy's novels.


The more we learn about nature, the more its reiterative meaning
lessness will appall us. Ultimate horror lies not in the heart of darkness
but in the heart of enlightened understanding of nature.

Karl Kroeber, Ecological Literary Criticism

The most intriguing literary aspect of McCarthy’s fiction is that his narrative voice is increasingly at odds with his narrative vision. McCarthy pitches a highly stylized, wholly man-made literary practice against his evolving ecopastoral universe, until a stalemate between humanist discourse and posthumanist idea invests his fiction with a narrative melancholia that is actually very common in pastoral fiction. Out of the dialectic tension between narrative voice and narrative vision, however, evolves a version of pastoral without equal in the American literature of the latter half of the twentieth century The subject of this comprehensive study will be the evolution of McCarthy’s work: the shift from traditional pastoralism in The Orchard Keeper (1965) to the wilderness turn in Child of God (1973), and from the anti-pastoralism of Outer Dark (1968) to the negative biocentrism of Blood Meridian (1985) and finally to the ecopastoralism of the Border Trilogy.

The study is based on the assumption that a compositional triangle is at play throughout McCarthy’s work. One side of the triangle is formed by a pervasive spirit of melancholia, used—in keeping with a tradition going back to baroque times (or even biblical times)—as a literary device for creating narrative distance. In a way, melancholia itself seems to narrate the novels. Another side of the triangle is allegoresis, the encryption of narrative contents in parabolic images and story lines in the manner of fables. On the third side of the triangle we find the pastoral theme, understood as the principal quest for harmony in a better world. All the novels mentioned above are defined by the interaction of melancholy mood, allegorical style, and pastoral theme.

The one novel not mentioned, Suttree (1979), does not invite inclusion into a pastoral review of McCarthy’s work. It stands out because of its urban setting, and therefore contains few nature . . .

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