Naturalism and the Geography of Hope in Cormac McCarthy
The values of literary naturalism at play in one of America’s most visionary novelists
It took six novels and nearly thirty years for Cormac McCarthy to find commercial success with the National Book Award–winning All the Pretty Horses, followed by major prizes, more best sellers, and Hollywood adaptations of his work. Those successes, though, have obscured McCarthy’s commitment to an older form of literary expression: naturalism.
It is hardly a secret that McCarthy’s work tends to darker themes: violence, brutality, the cruel indifference of nature, themes which would not be out of place in the writing of Jack London or Stephen Crane. But literary naturalism is more than the oversimplified Darwinism that many think of. Nature may be red in tooth and claw, and humans are part of nature, but the humanity depicted in naturalist literature is capable of love, selflessness, and spirituality, as well.
In Unguessed Kinships, Steven Frye illuminates all these dimensions of McCarthy’s work. In his novels and plays, McCarthy engages both explicitly and obliquely with the project of manifest destiny, in the western drama Blood Meridian, the Tennessee Valley Authority-era Tennessee novels, and the atomic frontier of Alamogordo in Cities of the Plain. McCarthy’s concerns are deeply religious and philosophical, drawing on ancient Greek philosophy, Gnosticism, and Nietzsche, among other sources. Frye argues for McCarthy not merely as a naturalist writer but as a naturalist in the most expansive sense. Unguessed Kinships includes biographical and historical context in each chapter, widening the appeal of the text to not just naturalists or McCarthy scholars but anyone studying the literature of the South or the West.
“Thoughtful, incisive, and beautifully written, Frye’s Unguessed Kinships is a brilliant and dynamic work, not only adding significantly to the scholarship on literary naturalism, but also making a major statement on the life, career, and work of Cormac McCarthy. Frye’s work is bold and innovative, and it will shape our thinking on McCarthy for generations to come.”
—Eric Carl Link, author of The Vast and Terrible Drama: American Literary Naturalism in the Late Nineteenth Century