Cormac McCarthy

The PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction goes to a distinguished living American author of fiction whose body of work in English possesses qualities of excellence, ambition, and scale of achievement over a sustained career which place him or her in the highest rank of American literature. The award carries a stipend of $25,000. The judges for this year’s award were Claudia Roth Pierpont, Philip Roth, and Benjamin Taylor.

2009 Judges

Claudia Roth Pierpont, Philip Roth, and Benjamin Taylor

From the Judges’ Citation

“It is extraordinarily moving to find the inmost track of a man’s life and to decipher the signs he has left us,” wrote Saul Bellow, who reserved his highest praise for the self-transformers—artists whose careers are driven at the inmost by a will to change. In the jumps and in the switches, in self-enlargement and metamorphosis, Bellow found what he cherished most. The phenomenal career of Cormac McCarthy embodies just such a self-transformation. Between Suttree, his Knoxville novel of 1979, and Blood Meridian, his 1985 novel of mid-19th-century Texas and Mexico, the Southern writer has become a Western writer. Why and how this occurred is really not our business; what we can say is that with the phantasmagorical and bloody-minded magnificence of Blood Meridian something new enters our native literature. Never before has the breathtaking versatility of human wickedness been so profoundly explored. The border universe of Blood Meridian is a state of nature in which depravity is the breath of life, and where only in animals and landscapes, never in ourselves, can any justice be found.

McCarthy is nothing if not a seeker. All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and Cities of the Plain—visionary Westerns comprising his Border Trilogy—stake other claims farther on, as do No Country for Old Men and The Road. Call this lighting out for the territory ahead of the rest. “The novel,” Bellow said, “can’t be compared to the epic, or to the monuments of poetic drama. But it is the best we can do just now. It is a sort of latter-day lean-to, a hovel in which the spirit takes shelter.” From the fearsome imaginative territory McCarthy makes his own, he has dispatched book after book showing how hot a fire can be built in that lean-to, how good and various is the best we can do now, how singular is the voice that is great within us.”

Cormac McCarthy was born in Rhode Island in 1933 and spent most of his childhood near Knoxville, Tennessee. He served in the U.S. Air Force and later studied at the University of Tennessee. In 1976 he moved to El Paso, Texas, and now resides in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

McCarthy’s fiction parallels his movement from the Southeast to the West—the first four novels being set in Tennessee, the last three in the Southwest and Mexico. The Orchard Keeper (1965) won the Faulkner Award for a first novel; it was followed by Outer Dark (1968), Child of God (1973), Suttree (1979), and Blood Meridian (1985). All the Pretty Horses, which won the National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction in 1992, is the first volume in McCarthy’s acclaimed Border Trilogy, and was followed by The Crossing (1994) and Cities of the Plain (1998). 

He received the Pulitzer Prize in 2007 for The Road, and his 2005 novel No Country for Old Men was adapted as a 2007 film of the same name, which won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture. He is also the author of The Stone Mason: A Play in Five Acts. McCarthy is also the recipient of a fellowship from the MacArthur Foundation, among other grants.