Hillbilly Creation Myth: Part I

by Matthew Brent Jackson

Prologue: a short, unqualified examination on the nature of literary reputation.

Rhetorical disclaimer.

One of the many blessings of being a product of Evangelical Protestantism is that you know you are wrong from the start; that you were born depraved, a wretch that amazing grace must save, with sin that can only be washed away by the blood of Jesus. You don’t have to worry about any of that “I’m a good person” nonsense; you know you are bad genetically since the book of Genesis apple-poisoning that never went away. Consequently, this theology allows for certain freedoms, and in terms of the writing that follows, it allows me to continue despite the possibility of great disagreement. There is a good chance that I am absolutely incorrect in my opinions, but as has been previously stated, such error is in the DNA itself. I have also learned that sometimes when you want to make a claim, it takes a long time to say something quite simple, and in the process, you learn how much you simply don’t know.

As far as I understand it, there is New York, and then there is everything else. But essentially, it is almost all New York. They are New Yorkers, either born or self-created. They all seem to know each other, and they write on the back of their comrades’ books phrases of commendation. Brooklyn, apparently, is a large rabbit warren, and it is filled with English majors who figured out how to do the right thing.

It is also a boy’s game. That does not mean it is fair, or that women cannot write, but usually the ones regarded as “serious” are male which can be another way of saying that they do not write books that sell as well, for just as women are statistically better shots with rifles, they statistically write books that more people want to purchase.

Yet the boys thrive in their own ways because they know they are serious. The publishers and agents are nearby in Manhattan, and all is right with the world, but then there is an exception. There is King Kong. A giant ape that could destroy the city, if he so choose. But he doesn’t because he lives in New Mexico and is named Cormac McCarthy. And he doesn’t have to because he already has: he does not have to lift a gigantic ape finger, for it is believed that if there ever will be a native-born American male to win the Nobel Prize for literature again it will be him. He’s the one. It is known to be so. He is the most serious of them all. Biblical. Apocalyptic. Bloody.

American literature’s dominant moment was in the first half of the twentieth century. The literary form that won was the novel. There were only two real champs in the ring: Faulkner and Hemingway. Each was good in his own way, and each was bad in his own way, but both were capital serious. Both won Nobel prizes. Both at his best had no rival, and the writing of both has wrecked many another writer who have tried to climb their heights and consequently have fallen. Though they explored similar subjects and topics, their prose styles are fundamentally divergent, and this is why Cormac McCarthy wins. He wins because he does what is impossible: he combines Faulkner and Hemingway.

I first heard of this strange, amphibious approach as an undergrad. I had a professor who told me: “There’s a writer named Cormac McCarthy who has written a book called All The Pretty Horses. He writes like Hemingway and Faulkner at the same time.” This comment may not sound like much, but at that point I had not heard a professor offer praise of any kind for a living writer. Many scholars do not need for anyone to write anything else: there is enough to study already, so calling out a living writer as significant was significant. I read the book. It was true. This man had done it. He was doing Faulkner and Hemingway at the same time, as if he was ambidextrously writing in two different languages.

I knew this man had done the impossible, but I didn’t really like the book. I understood the seriousness. I understood the significance. I just didn’t enjoy it because I didn’t really believe it. I didn’t believe his Texans. They weren’t like Texans I have known. When I read Larry McMurtry, I believe his Texans. They seem like Texans to me. Last Picture Show. Horseman Pass By. Lonesome Dove. These characters seem like real Texans. I didn’t believe the Texans in All The Pretty Horses because it is so serious, and I think that most Texans, even the ones who want to or could kill you, usually have some kind of sense of humor. Most Texans I have known are relatively funny even in regard to serious things. Nobody seemed funny in All The Pretty Horses.

I read it almost twenty years ago. I should read it again. I should read all that he has written, but I don’t have the strength. I keep trying to read Cormac McCarthy. I know I should read him in the same way that I should eat green, leafy, vegetables, but I struggle because he is a writer who loves his sentences. His sentences are notations, where apparently the godless integers of the universe communicate with him alone, and he marks their stone tablets for the rest of us as our collective carbon decays.   Sometimes he seems to love his sentences more than he loves his story. He also hates punctuation marks. Punctuation is helpful. It is designed to help readers, but he is a writer, in the same way that Frank Lloyd Wright was an architect- that is an architect who made houses with roofs that leak. Who cares if you get wet? It’s his vision: you have to live in it. So it can be with Cormac McCarthy. Little shelter. But he has already been paid to be a genius, and he has the grant to prove it. Oprah came to see him. Oprah, the Otto von Bismarck of our time, had to travel to Santa Fe, to see him. He is Cormac. The Irish king of the desert border. Oprah will come to his lair at the Santa Fe Institute.

Yet Oprah’s visit may have been the beginning of his end: Oprah may have lost him his Nobel. Her presence is not enough to turn world literature against you, but his willingness to become visible and in such a visible way, may have killed his otherwise perfect literary pedigree and his fairly good position as a recluse. In his decades of publishing, it was only his second interview. The first with the New York Times in 1990s was the one that made him famous, that made him known, but he had been anointed beforehand. He had already been chosen.

Blood Meridian

Read the first page of the 25th anniversary edition of Blood Meridian. Praise for Cormac McCarthy. Two voices stand out: Ralph Ellison and Robert Penn Warren. How do you get praise from the writer of Invisible Man and then also get praise from the first Poet Laureate of the United States? For other literary types, this is like the disciples seeing Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration where Moses and Elijah come to converse: this comparison is intended to be hyperbolic, but the point is that Ellison and Warren are no lightweights to blurb your work. If they approve of you, then how can you be denied?

How did this occur? Perhaps writing is pure, but publishing isn’t. It is the selling of a product for money though a product that some embrace with religious enthusiasm. But McCarthy’s reputation was begun by a man named Albert Erskine, a Random House editor with writers like Ralph Ellison, Robert Penn Warren, Eudora Welty and one William Faulkner in his stable. Cormac McCarthy innocently sent his first manuscript to Random House, the only publisher he claimed to have heard of, and miraculously Erskine saved his first novel from the trash and for some, saved American literature.

Imagine you are Faulkner’s editor and then the great man dies in 1962. You are a southerner transplanted to New York with serious literary convictions and connections. In 1965, you receive a manuscript by an unknown Tennessean named Cormac McCarthy. Faulkner has been dead for three years, and no one seems to want to put on the mantle, but this one does.

McCarthy becomes a southern writer, and he quickly becomes one of significance. Though born a Rhode Island Yankee, he is in Tennessee early enough in life for it not to count, in the same way Robert Frost is not claimed as a Californian. He writes. We learn from the New York Times that he shuns the academy, works with his hands, is destitute, and receives regular phone calls from God who happens both to be dead and speak with a drawl. He has ex-wives and drinking problems. He is broke and peripatetic. He is pure. No Ivy League. No MFA. Teaching we learn is a racket, but awards apparently are not; he’ll take them, and he gets big ones. He writes what many considers his greatest work in Suttree, and then he heads west with Blood Meridian. By 1993, Erskine is dead, and he is on his own with new editor Gary Fisketjon.

The Cormac McCarthy Society suggests that his later works in the west lack something, that the southern novels are better. If this is true, then the last half of his career has been a decline. Yet if his reputation has suffered his wallet has not. He is not destitute now. Hollywood comes calling, for once his writing goes west, he has a big picture that is immediately transferable to the cinematic. He also has found a canvas on which to hurl blows on his fathers, Faulkner and Hemingway. Though Faulkner would hunt wild pigs with Nathanael West in California, and Hemingway would shoot pheasant in Idaho with Gary Cooper, neither of the big boys really took on the frontier. McCarthy did, and by taking the west as his landscape, he brought a seriousness to the western that had never been attempted. McCarthy drew a map, and though some may contest his compass points, it is a new territory that American fiction has to contend with. The maligned genre of the western becomes big again through McCarthy’s efforts.

Blood Meridian does something major, and I say this as a reader who has rarely distrusted a writer more than I have McCarthy. He had to do a great deal to convince me, but the book does what Hemingway or Faulkner never attempted fully. It brings James Fenimore Cooper back. Fenimore Cooper never went away: the genre of the western is Fenimore Cooper; even Hemingway or Faulkner characters hunting together is Fenimore Cooper writ small. The only problem is that Fenimore Cooper is basically awful to read. You may have seen Last of the Mohicans with musket-running Daniel Day Lewis, but the book doesn’t read the way the movie looks. Fenimore Cooper who was thrilling in the 19th century is primarily a slog now. This is not to suggest that Blood Meridian is a fast or fun book to read. It is more like sitting up with a sick friend who has a terminal condition. But when Yale professor Harold Bloom suggests that Blood Meridian is a landlocked Moby Dick, he isn’t that far off. It can read like Melville in the desert, yet the violence is so excessive that a certain numbness can set in while reading. It also has moments unlike any other that I have encountered in American fiction. There is the section of Blood Meridian where the scalp-hunting Glanton gang are at the top of a mesa, and they engage in a “gunpowder communion” creating blackpowder from guano, native minerals and their own urine while Apaches come to attack from below. Though cinematic, it is hard to imagine John Wayne in such a scene.

It took a long while for me even to get that far in Blood Meridian, for I quit and started the book multiple times. For me finally to complete Blood Meridian, I had to read another of McCarthy’s books, and it is one that better readers are not supposed to like. I think that No Country For Old Men is excellent, and for me, it actually validates Blood Meridian. Harold Bloom, equates Blood Meridian with As I Lay Dying in greatness, but this is hard to support. As I Lay Dying is a Faulkner masterpiece in all its Dixie modernism, and somehow the master ends it with a punchline. As I Lay Dying is perfectly in its own class, and though Blood Meridian is great, it is not perfect. Again, the beloved sentences can get in the way. I can accept: “The captain head-less in a wallow half eaten by hogs” but no perfect western has a line like “He looked like some loutish knight beriddled by a troll” within it. Bloom also believes that No Country For Old Men is a falling off from McCarthy’s work, and that Blood Meridian will stand and No Country For Old Men will fall. He is wrong here. I believe that No Country For Old Men is a McCarthy work that will remain, and from what I have read, it is his most enjoyable work. And I would argue that without No Country For Old Men, Blood Meridian is lacking. No Country For Old Men, is the fulfillment of Blood Meridian’s prophecy, the new testament, to Blood Meridian’s old. When the sheriff of Eagle Pass, Texas remarks to Sheriff Bell that “These days I’m in favor of giving the whole damn place back to them” the place being apparently Texas and them being Mexicans, it is sobering, especially if one has encountered Blood Meridian. If one has seen what it took to take Texas in in Blood Meridian, the fact that an Anglo sheriff would be willing to return the state after witnessing the carnage of the Mexican drug trade raises powerful questions. I also think that in No Country For Old Men, McCarthy has finally gotten his Texans right. Here is Sheriff Bell from one of his many monologue:

Here a year or two back me and Loretta went to a conference in Corpus Christi and I got set next to this woman, she was the wife of somebody or other. And she kept talking about the right wing this and the right wing that. I aint even sure what she meant by it. The people I know are mostly just common people. Common as dirt as the saying goes. I told her that and she looked at me funny. She thought I was sayin somethin bad about em, but of course that’s a high compliment in my part of the world. She kept on, kept on. Finally told me, said: I don’t like the way this country is headed. I want my granddaughter to be able to have an abortion. And I said well mam I don’t think you got any worries about the way the country is headed. The way I see it goin I don’t have much doubt but what she’ll be able to have an abortion. I’m goin to say that not only will she be able to have an abortion, she’ll be able to have you put to sleep. Which pretty much ended the conversation.

Whatever one thinks of Bell’s sentiments, the character’s voice rings true throughout the novel, and one can actually care about characters in No Country For Old Men. It is hard to care about anyone in Blood Meridian. The people within the book are either predator or prey, sometimes switching roles, but in No Country For Old Men, it is hard not to care about everyone within it. Even the malevolent spirit Anton Chigurh, a literary descendant of Blood Meridian’s Judge, compels just because of his ruthless killing efficiency. It’s a great book and without it, I could never have finished and admired Blood Meridian. Without No Country For Old Men, I could not accept that McCarthy is worth the effort, but he is.

Part of my initial resistance to McCarthy is that he is not unlike other writers who want to be major, but his press clippings, or more accurately his early lack of them, created an aura that is still not fully punctured despite Oprah’s arrival. He is still seen by some as pure though his deep adherents seem to dismiss the post-Blood Meridian work. Yet the McCarthy mythology is, not surprisingly, mythical. He apparently had no agent in the early days hence he was pure. The truth is that he did have and agent, and his agent, the late Candida Donadio, was also the agent of Thomas Pynchon and Philip Roth, other American authors who also get mentioned when Nobel time rolls around. Does this matter? No, but to pretend that McCarthy is somehow different than these men just because he spent some quality time in cheap motels, does not make his biography more valid or his right to literary greatness any more justifiable. To read the Cormac McCarthy Society’s reports of him is essentially just shy of secular hagiography — at one point he bought a pickup truck with his literary profits hence he is homespun genius, but then Arkansas billionaire Sam Walton drove a pickup too.

None of it may matter, but writers’ biographies can genuinely get in the way of understanding and appreciating work, as much as they may enlighten. Edgar Allan Poe did not die drunk in a gutter in Baltimore after being bitten by a rabid vampire bat, but he might as well have been since everyone in America “knows” Poe. Read Charles Baudelaire and see what the 19th-century French thought of Poe, and it is an entirely different story. With McCarthy, the problem is similar: we know McCarthy apparently because for so long we did not know him- his lack of visibility and his tastefully limited biography, allowed readers to create their own writer. By the time he was willing to speak publicly, he was already understood as a man of myth and mystery, and perceptions of writerly intentions do seem to affect the evaluation of a writer’s work. Bret Easton Ellis apparently wrote a piece of trash called American Psycho, and though I as a reader am not rushing back to read it again, I had an experience with that book that I have never had with any other.

At one point the narrator Patrick Bateman mentions the Elvis Costello album My Aim Is True except that Bateman says the title is My Aim Is You. As a reader I remember thinking that Bateman got it wrong, but when I considered it, I recognized that Ellis was playing with the title for a purpose, and any reader who got caught by Bateman’s error was caught by Ellis as well. Noting this trivia about the album, a product after all, was no different than Bateman’s own obsession with products and their descriptions. With My Aim Is You, I felt for the first time in my life as a reader that a writer was actually looking me in the eye. If I was in on the joke, it was still an eerie experience. American Psycho depicts human behavior at its worst, yet Cormac McCarthy can write about a cave-dwelling necrophiliac, and it is high art. If the Commanches come and scalp you and cut off your genitals as they do in Blood Meridian it is an epic event, but if a New York preppy something similar then it is just shy of pornography. Why then is Ellis depraved and McCarthy a genius? Much of it is perception: if Ellis was a card-carrying member of the International Workers of the World, American Psycho would be considered profound satire and a stinging indictment of the capitalist system, yet because Ellis was seen as being connected or perhaps complicit with the demimonde he describes, his work then is “evil,” as a professor of mine called it when I was in grad school. The fact that Ellis shares the same literary agent Amanda “Binky” Urban and the editor Gary Fisketjon with Cormac McCarthy muddies this issue further. Does it matter that Fisketjon edited both American Psycho and All the Pretty Horses and that Amanda Urban would have brokered the film rights to both? It could all irrelevant, but the way we see writers affects how we see their work. With McCarthy, our seeing may be accurate or it may not be. He is a unique voice in American fiction, but an initial reputation based on a need for a “new” Faulkner, and an early tendency towards reclusiveness created a literary identity that can obscure his work either positively or negatively. Though some debate his work’s merit due to an apparent ambition that might overreach the actual achievement, at his best moments, he offers something original despite the heaviness of influence upon him.

Always another gunslinger

Whenever a writer aims at being big in a literary sense, then that writer and their territory becomes a target. Quietly another writer seemed to start edging into McCarthy’s space though with little initial attention -just tiny mammals munching on dinosaur eggs. Some man down in the Missouri Ozarks named Daniel Woodrell seemed to be playing with that Hemingway/Faulkner combination. He was doing that McCarthy approach, but some were suggesting that he might be doing it better.

I personally didn’t believe any part of it, nor did I care. I didn’t want to read his novel Winter’s Bone that was adapted and nominated for an Academy Award. I tried to get into his Bayou Trilogy, but its vague geography bothered me. I wanted to read his Kansas/Missouri Border War book, Woe To Live On, but it was out of print when I first approached his work.

He was coming to Kansas City. I was trying to write about the Civil War on the Kansas/Missouri border. I wanted to hear what he had to say. He had a new book called The Outlaw Album. I bought it, so I could get it signed. He had mentioned in his presentation an Ozark writer I liked named Vance Randolph, so when he signed my book I asked him an additional question. He was friendly but quiet. I was one of many in line.

I don’t know when I started to read the book, but I know I was by myself, and I think it was in the afternoon. My family and I were at a low point where we had taken Christian charity and were living in a guest house in the large backyard of generous people we at that time barely knew. It was a converted garage called a cottage with a main floor and a sleeping loft.  I started to read Daniel Woodrell, alone in the loft, and I had an experience I never had before. I read and began to think: “This guy has done it. He has done that Cormac McCarthy thing, that Hemingway/ Faulkner thing. He’s doing it, but I think he is doing it better. His may be better.” Some guy down in southern Missouri. He was doing it — the Heavyweight Champion victory shuffle. He had won, even if few people knew. As I kept reading, I stopped. For the first time in recent memory, I didn’t want to write anymore. I was poleaxed by this little book. Faulkner never stopped me. Shakespeare or Tolstoy never stopped me. But they aren’t real. Even Cormac MacCarthy isn’t real. He like the others has already become mythical- someone with super powers. But I saw him, this guy Daniel Woodrell. He existed, and he was writing this stuff just few hours away. What disturbed me most of all was that I knew he wasn’t lying. He was telling the truth. I have met some of his characters. I may be related to some of them. For you see, I have been to the Ozarks.

Next month: Part II: A biographical digression into northern Arkansas