Academic journal article The Cormac McCarthy Journal

News Madder Yet: Sources and Significance of Cormac McCarthy's Portrayals of a State Psychiatric Hospital in Child of God and Suttree

Academic journal article The Cormac McCarthy Journal

News Madder Yet: Sources and Significance of Cormac McCarthy's Portrayals of a State Psychiatric Hospital in Child of God and Suttree

Article excerpt

The East Tennessee Asylum for the Insane-as it was initially known- opened in 1886 on a 300-acre expanse along the Tennessee River. Once a rural landscape, that site is now cradled by suburban Knoxville, though the asylum operated a large farm for nearly a century. Early photographs of the grounds reveal enormous castellated buildings of brick and marble. In 1927, the facility was renamed Eastern State Hospital, and its population peaked at nearly 3,000 in the 1960s. Deinstitutionalization followed, the hospital was relabeled Lakeshore Mental Health Institute in the 1970s, and many of the old buildings were demolished even as new buildings were constructed. Over the last few decades, the hospital's services and its patient population dwindled until, in 2012, the facility was closed.

Eastern State-as it is often still called around Knoxville-makes an appearance in Cormac McCarthy's first, third, and fourth novels. In The Orchard Keeper, both the descriptions and dialogue make it clear that it is to that particular asylum that the elderly Arthur Ownby is consigned after he and his rifle take issue with the installation of a federal tank near his peaceful patch of land. More infamously, the deviant outcast of Child of God, Lester Ballard, "was never indicted for any crime" but, instead, "was sent to the state hospital at Knoxville," which is also referred to as "the state hospital at Lyons View"-an unmistakable reference to Eastern State, which is on a road called Lyons View (193-94). Finally, in Suttree, the title character visits a relative in Knoxville's "madhouse" (431). Once again, in numerous ways, the passage points to Eastern State-"the dark brick buildings on the hill," for example, and the "old scarred marble floors" (431). Furthermore, in a scene that was not included in the published text of Suttree, J-Bone persuades Suttree to aid him in "the rescue of William C. Pathe from the state mental hospital at Lyons View."

By appearing in those novels, Eastern State achieves a literary distinction: That hospital and Knoxville's Henley Street Bridge are the only human structures to show up in at least three of McCarthy's Appalachian works.1 For that reason alone, this peculiar place might merit further critical attention. Yet, the significance of Eastern State has been largely overlooked by McCarthy scholars, perhaps because, at first glance, it appears to serve as little more than a background setting for more important action. However, as Dianne C. Luce has shown, when McCarthy's novels are "read with a knowledge of place, the works open out in unsuspected ways, and what may seem merely a realistic detail relegated to the hazy background of McCarthy's fiction . . . comes into focus as a newly perceived foreground, one that was always there to be recognized" (vii-viii). What Luce calls McCarthy's "essential vision," or his "reading of the world," involves his gift for bringing his keen observations and experiences to bear on his works (vii). In her detailed exploration of that "reading of the world," Luce discovers that McCarthy's writing often incorporates "literal reading, of newspapers, of national and local history," and of many other genres (vii).

This article contends that, for his portrayals of Eastern State Hospital in both Child of God and Suttree, McCarthy drew on at least one specific news story. That story, "Conditions at Eastern State Appalling," was written by Charles Appleton and appeared in the Knoxville Journal on January 25, 1971. Appleton's story-and others that soon followed it-contain numerous details that McCarthy very likely borrowed and redeployed in both novels and in an unpublished episode from Suttree. As I survey those details, I also advance a proposal as to the interpretive significance of this newly foregrounded place: In Child of God and Suttree, Eastern State Hospital serves as a further potent means of questioning-and perhaps even subverting-the distinction between a "civilized" society and its outcasts, such as persons it deems "mentally ill. …

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