Cormac McCarthy, the celebrated novelist known for his stunning, apocalyptic visions of the American West, died Tuesday, June 13. He was 89.

McCarthy’s publisher, Penguin Random House, confirmed his death in a statement, according to The Washington Post. A cause of death was not given.

McCarthy’s work was often bleak and brutal, his style of writing blunt and ceaseless with little use for punctuation. He published 12 novels through his nearly six-decade career, and is best known for Blood Meridian and The Border Trilogy (released over the course of the Nineties), as well as his 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Road. The Coen Brothers also famously adapted McCarthy’s 2005 novel, No Country for Old Men, into a 2007 film, which won the Oscar for Best Picture. 

While McCarthy remained quiet in the 16 years after The Road, he returned in full force last year, publishing what would be his final two novels, The Passenger and Stella Maris

McCarthy was born July 20, 1933 in Providence, Rhode Island, the third of six children. When he was four, the family moved south to Knoxville, Tennessee, where his father worked as a lawyer for the Tennessee Valley Authority. McCarthy later spent two years at the University of Tennessee where he studied physics and engineering.

As McCarthy told Rolling Stone in 2007, he was “good at” science, but he “wasn’t that good.” He continued: “I didn’t want to do anything unless I could be the best at it. That’s my own personal extravagant ego.”

He found his way to writing after a professor asked him to re-punctuate a collection of 18th century essays for inclusion in a textbook. After dropping out of college, joining the Air Force, and finding himself stationed in Alaska for two years, he became a voracious reader.

Following his departure from the Air Force, he returned to UT and began to write, publishing two short stories in the student literary magazine. But in 1959, he dropped out again before graduating and moved to Chicago, where he worked at an auto-parts warehouse while writing his novel. It took several years for McCarthy to finish and publish the book, The Orchard Keeper, which arrived in 1965. During that period, McCarthy also married, had a child, and got divorced. 

While The Orchard Keeper wasn’t a smash, it did win a William Faulkner Foundation Award and put McCarthy in the running for grants and fellowships that allowed him to travel and keep writing (during a trip to Europe in 1965, he met his second wife, Anne DeLisle). His next two books, 1968’s Outer Dark and 1973’s Child of God, found him sharpening his talent for telling grisly, violent stories (the former contains one of his most infamous scenes, in which a baby — already the product of incest — is left to die in the woods). Suttree, published in 1979, was equally bleak, though also darkly funny, with one passage involving a kid who gets arrested after copulating with every watermelon in a farmer’s patch.

McCarthy’s first few novels were largely set in southern Appalachia, where he grew up, but he soon headed west. He’d moved to El Paso, Texas in 1976, after separating from DeLisle, and in 1981 he was awarded the illustrious (and lucrative) MacArthur Fellowship, which allowed him to spend several years researching and writing his next book, 1985’s Blood Meridian.

Of his interest in the American West, McCarthy said, “It’s a story that everyone in the world knows. You can go to Mongolia and they know about cowboys and Indians — but no one had taken it seriously and as a subject for literary effort.” 

Blood Meridian took it not only seriously, but gruesomely so. Set in the mid-19th century, the book chronicles the vicious exploits of the Glanton gang, a real group of so-called “scalp-hunters” who massacred scores of Indigenous people in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. Though the book wasn’t initially a success, it later came to be regarded as one of the greatest novels of the 20th century.

Of his predilection for writing such violence, McCarthy told The New York Times in 1992, “There’s no such thing as life without bloodshed. I think the notion that the species can be improved in some way, that everyone could live in harmony, is a really dangerous idea. Those who are afflicted with this notion are the first ones to give up their souls, their freedom. Your desire that it be that way will enslave you and make your life vacuous.”

And while his books may have been set a century before, McCarthy suggested to Rolling Stone that the violence in his novels was just as much a reflection of America’s present (and future): “If I wrote about violence in an exaggerated way, it was looking at a future that I imagined would be a lot more violent. And it is. Can you remember 2 years ago having beheadings on TV? I can’t.”

McCarthy’s next novel, All the Pretty Horses, arrived seven years later in 1992. After decades of fairly consistent critical acclaim, but little commercial success — none of his books had sold more than 5,000 hardcover copies — McCarthy finally had a blockbuster bestseller (it won the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award, too). All the Pretty Horses kicked off McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, which he continued in 1994 with The Crossing and brought to a close in 1998 with Cities of the Plain

If The Border Trilogy finally brought McCarthy mainstream success, his next two books — 2005’s No Country for Old Men and 2006’s The Road — turned him into a literary legend. The Road, especially, was a major achievement, with McCarthy moving beyond the violent hell of contemporary/historical America, and looking forward to life after the actual apocalypse. The book follows a father and son as they navigate a desolate United States after an extinction-level event; McCarthy dedicated the book to his own young son, John.

“When you’re young and single, you hang out in bars and don’t think about what’s going to happen,” McCarthy told Rolling Stone. “But in the next 50 years when you have kids, you start thinking of their life and the world they have to live in. And that’s a sobering thought these days. I’m not one of those conspiracy guys, but the world is in a very unstable situation. If you were to take thoughtful people on, say, Jan. 1, 1900, and tell them what the 20th century was going to look like, they’d say, ‘Are you shitting me?’”


While McCarthy wouldn’t publish any more novels until 2022, he remained busy with writing and other projects. He maintained close ties to the Santa Fe Institute, a nonprofit theoretical research institute, indulging his love of science, which appeared to greatly inspire his final two novels. After seeing several of his own books turned into movies, McCarthy finally saw one of his own screenplays produced — 2013’s The Counselor, directed by Ridley Scott. 

In 2007, in the thick of The Road’s apocalyptic aura, McCarthy spoke soberly and serenely about aging and what he’d come to appreciate most in life. “There is for a man two things in life that are very important, head and shoulders above everything else,” he said. “Find work you like, and find someone to live with you like. Very few people get both.”