On June 13, 2023, iconic American author Cormac McCarthy passed away at the age of 89. His most recent novel, Stellas Maris, had been published just seven months earlier, in November 2022.
While McCarthy had long been revered for his sparse prose and vivid, often violent depictions of the American Southwest, his readers were rarely privy to his private life or thoughts. Despite his reclusiveness, his work became extremely popular: All the Pretty Horses won a National Book Award in 1992; The Road won a Pulitzer Prize in 2007; No Country for Old Men was adapted into a film by the Coen brothers in 2007, and won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2008.
However, those who wanted to know more about McCarthy's life and influences did not have much to go off of—or they didn't, until the Wittliff Collection at Texas State University acquired McCarthy’s literary archive in 2007. Through exploring the archive of drafts, marginalia, notes, and correspondence, author Michael Lynn Crews put together a thorough guide to references found in McCarthy's work.
Titled Books Are Made Out of Books, after a quote from a rare interview McCarthy gave in 1992, the study of the iconic author's influences is “comprehensive and enlightening” (Times Literary Supplement).
Below, read an excerpt from the introduction to Books Are Made out of Books—and begin your own exploration into McCarthy's literary influences.
In 1992, Cormac McCarthy granted his first lengthy interview in a career spanning three decades. Asked to comment on his literary influences, he told the interviewer, Richard B. Woodward, that “the ugly fact is books are made out of books. . . . The novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written.” In the same interview, Woodward informs us that “McCarthy would rather talk about rattlesnakes, molecular computers, country music, Wittgenstein—anything—than himself or his books.” Critics interested in the question—one inevitably asked about a writer whose work one admires—of McCarthy’s literary interests and influences have had to sustain themselves on scraps. We know that Moby-Dick is his favorite book, and that he admires Joyce, Faulkner, and Dostoyevsky. These names make up the litany that he can be counted on to volunteer. Digging through the nooks and crannies of his meager offerings to literary journalists, we could add Tolstoy, Flannery O’Connor, and Shakespeare. These are nutritious enough hors d’oeuvres, but hardly satisfy the appetites of those who are fascinated by the ways in which, to borrow McCarthy’s formulation, books are made out of books. To call this an ugly fact suggests that something like Harold Bloom’s anxiety of influence haunts McCarthy’s creative efforts. But, for the critic, this fact is a tantalizing invitation to research.
However reticent McCarthy may be in interviews about discussing his books—or the influence of other books on them—by making his literary papers available to scholars, he has made it possible to begin research into his influences in earnest. In December 2007, the Southwestern Writers Collection (SWC), which is part of the Wittliff Collection of the Alkek Library at Texas State University, in San Marcos, Texas, purchased a sizable collection of McCarthy’s papers, which became available to scholars in the spring of 2009. The collection includes notes, correspondence, and drafts. The acquisition of correspondence between McCarthy and J. Howard Woolmer, a rare book dealer and publisher, added another source of information about McCarthy’s reading habits. It is now possible to offer a tentative answer to the following question: What books, what writers, were on McCarthy’s mind during the composition of his novels? In his notes, in letters to Woolmer and others, and often in holograph marginalia found in early drafts of the novels, McCarthy tells us himself. And by examining the way in which these books went into the making of his own, we can learn something about the way influences shape McCarthy’s own imaginative endeavors. What follows will be an extended study of Cormac McCarthy’s reading interests and influences, but only those that can be identified through direct references in the archives. Writers that McCarthy has mentioned in interviews, or who can be identified through clear literary allusions in his published works, are outside my province.
For instance, McCarthy’s interest in Emily Dickinson is signaled by the following allusion in Child of God. Lester Ballard, upon waking up in the hospital to discover that his arm has been amputated, is described as noting the ghastly absence “apparently with no surprise” (175). The poem to which this alludes begins with the following lines: “Apparently with no surprise / To any happy Flower / The Frost beheads it at its play” (Poem 1668). Any reader acquainted with the poetry of Dickinson could identify the source of the allusion. The focus of my research is on references to other writers that do not appear in any publication, references that can only be found in the Wittliff archives. Since no reference to Dickinson appears in the archives, I do not include an entry for her. The following project is the fruit of exclusively archival research, and my purpose is to provide readers with information that was not available until McCarthy’s papers became available.
The main body of this work is comprised of alphabetized entries corresponding to the names of writers or thinkers to whom McCarthy clearly refers in his papers. These entries consist of a description of the location of the reference within the archives, and some context, such as biographical information about the author, or the location in the source text of a quotation that McCarthy has copied into his notes or margins. I then establish a connection between these references to other writers and McCarthy’s own work. In some cases, I draw out some interpretive conclusions on the basis of that connection. The entries explore McCarthy’s influences and interests as revealed by the books he was reading during the composition of his novels.
This introduction will provide an account of McCarthy’s career and of how five decades’ worth of a writer’s accumulated papers ended up at Texas State University. I will then describe the contents of the ninety-eight boxes housed in the Wittliff Collection as well as the process—a kind of scholarly hunting and pecking, magnifying glass in hand—by which I located and then explicated McCarthy’s references to other writers. Finally, I will discuss the way McCarthy “borrows” from other writers (or is it stealing—the preferred approach, according to T. S. Eliot, of the masters?), and from that discussion, draw some conclusions about his approach to composition.
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Books Are Made Out of Books
This groundbreaking exploration of McCarthy’s literary influences—impossible to undertake before the opening of the archive—vastly expands our understanding of how one of America’s foremost authors has engaged with the ideas, images, metaphors, and language of other thinkers and made them his own.