The Passenger and Stella Maris.
By Cormac McCarthy.
Hardcover, 608 pages, $56.
Cormac McCarthy was arguably America’s greatest living novelist. Last week, that ceased to be the case. McCarthy died in his home on Tuesday.
In late 2022, McCarthy published two volumes, The Passenger and Stella Maris, the final contribution of this elder statesman of American literature to American letters. Upon their publication, the Bookman solicited essays on the significance of McCarthy in light of these new books. The following symposium is a deep reflection upon the work of this remarkable figure.
McCarthy began publishing novels in the 1960s, receiving critical and eventually popular acclaim. Books such as All the Pretty Horses, Blood Meridian, No Country for Old Men, and The Road are candidates for canonization in American literature; several were made into award winning movies. For these, McCarthy received prestigious literary prizes including the National Book Award (All the Pretty Horses) and the Pulitzer Prize (The Road) among others. Yet he remained an enigmatic and infamously taciturn figure who preferred the company of physicists to publicists.
Often criticized as a nihilist, McCarthy’s work betrays more than hints of beauty, Brent Cline argues. While McCarthy’s literary world is bleak, beauty and goodness continue to break through. McCarthy’s own literary attention to craftsmanship throughout his novels betrays a keen insight into how one might craft goodness in a world of darkness.
Michael Federici explores the moral underpinnings of these new novels in light of McCarthy’s oeuvre. McCarthy’s work, especially The Road, contains an unusual moral sophistication, portraying a keen understanding of the distinction between the law for man and the law for thing. The former is noticeably absent in the protagonists of these new novels and knowledge of the latter does little to alter their fate.
Finally, Philip Bunn examines the vaunted role of science in McCarthy’s literature, especially what we might think of as the McCarthy Uncertainty Principle, based upon Werner Heisenberg’s famous principle in physics that what one observes changes the fundamental relationship between things. Given McCarthy’s relationship with the Santa Fe Institute where he hung with scientists rather than writers (a habit he apparently took to all his venues), it is no surprise that he brought a love for physical science into his work. One protagonist is a brilliant mathematician and discussions of physics and the study of physical science litter the literary landscape of The Passenger and Stella Maris.
Few literary figures in the last half century have been as important in “diagnosing the modern age” as Cormac McCarthy. Appreciation of literary depth and beauty, as well as its role in shaping the moral imagination is central to the role of The University Bookman.
Enjoy these timely and timeless meditations on a literary giant at his passing.
Luke C. Sheahan
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