Cormac McCarthy, novelist, SFI Trustee and Life Fellow, colleague, friend, and inspiration
“. . . the true heir to Melville and Faulkner." —Harold Bloom, literary critic.
Cormac McCarthy, a Trustee of the Santa Fe Institute and one of the greatest American novelists, passed away on Tuesday, June 13, at his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He was 89 years old. Known for his award-winning books The Orchard Keeper, All the Pretty Horses, Blood Meridian, and The Road, McCarthy had a voracious mind and near-infinite interests. He befriended SFI through Murray Gell-Mann, a Nobel laureate in physics and co-founder of the Santa Fe Institute. He made SFI his second home, exchanging ideas with scientists and scholars and writing on his Olivetti manual typewriter. He wrote SFI’s Operating Principles, and also became its Lifetime Trustee and Senior Fellow of the Institute. His last novels, The Passenger and Stella Maris, delved into the ideas of mathematics, physics, and analytical themes he explored with his colleagues at SFI.
"Today feels to me like a terrible disaster where many of us lost a good friend, the Santa Fe Institute lost one of its finest minds, and the world has lost one of its greatest authors," says SFI President David Krakauer. "Cormac refuted through his life and work the pettifogging myth that one cannot be both broad and deep. He read everything, he could sing and play a folk song after a single listen, he loved a well-tailored suit, he designed houses for his friends, he tortured himself with the philosophy of mathematics, and he schooled me in the geometry of the ideal bookshelf. Not sure what to make of the world without him in it."
To find the media kit, please click here.
Tributes from SFI friends and colleagues:
‘Tis a fearful thing to love what death can touch.
This is the opening line from a thousand-year-old poem written by Yehuda Halevi. While walking with Cormac I once mentioned this line. He responded by noting the pure truth of such a statement. Given the recurrent themes in his writing, his response has always stayed with me.
The physicist Hans Bethe noted that:
There are two types of genius. Ordinary geniuses do great things, but they leave you room to believe that you could do the same if only you worked hard enough. Then there are magicians, and you have no idea how they do it.
Cormac was a magician. While one could comprehend and fully appreciate the wonders of his writing, trying to emulate his mystical balance of archaic references, lyrical forms, and stark themes was impossible. When I first saw Cormac after reading The Road, I told him that it was the sweetest story of a father's love for his son that was ever written in a post-apocalyptic hell, to which he replied "Oh, you got it!" When I later told him that the book made my mother cry, he responded by sending her a gift and a kind note.
The characters in Cormac's novels had little to do with the character of Cormac. He was kind, caring, and affable, his friendships many and wide-ranging. For many years, as Murray Gell-Mann's health declined, we had periodic lunches at Murray's house where Cormac would carefully prepare and serve the meal during hours of conversation. When Cormac's typewriter was failing, I told him I would find him a replacement and suggested that he could auction off the old one to benefit the Santa Fe Institute, to which he immediately agreed and started to make arrangements for the auction. His old Olivetti sold for $254,500. (The replacement, found on eBay, cost $9.99 plus $18.10 for shipping.)
Time with Cormac was a joyful adventure. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of the world and a memory to match. Topics ranged from salvage diving — something we discussed a few days ago — to far more academic fare often focused on mathematics and physics. He rarely talked about writing, though on occasion he let his disdain for semicolons be known. Whether we were playing pool, as we did just before his 89th birthday (I lost), or at Santa Fe’s La Fonda Hotel discussing the Manhattan Project (Cormac detailing the many great scientists who had passed through that hotel during the war), he was just good company. One time while talking about falconry equipment, he spontaneously quoted Othello:
Though that her jesses were my dear heartstrings,
I’d whistle her off and let her down the wind
To prey at fortune.
A fitting passage given this day.
The Santa Fe Institute has always been a safe harbor for creative and smart people wanting to understand the most difficult themes facing humanity. Whether such a pursuit requires mathematics or literature matters little, and thus the mutual alliance between Cormac and the Institute was a natural one.
Cormac will be missed at so many levels by so many people. Such a loss is hard to fathom, now or a thousand years ago, as Halevi concludes:
your laugh once lifted me,
your word was gift to me.
To remember this brings painful joy.
‘Tis a human thing, love,
a holy thing,
to love what death has touched.
From John Miller, SFI External Faculty
If “you never know what worse luck your bad luck has saved you from” perhaps you likewise never know what better luck your good luck has spared you. Though I'm neither scientist, beautiful woman, nor raconteur (the three types of humans to whom Cormac was most drawn), he made me feel welcome to his time across our hundreds of hours together. If I could speak to him now, I’d confess that what I admired most about him wasn’t whether he was the heir to Melville or Faulkner (or anyone else), wasn’t the tenacity of his prose or the legacy of his works, wasn’t his loyalty or his generosity or the anecdotes of his purposeful life, wasn’t the scope of his interests or the prowess of his memory or the vigor of his pursuits, but that amid those qualities his natural mode was confident humility without nonsense and that within the limitations of what it is to be conscious he was willing to talk unflinchingly and without judgment about any topic I raised (even, when I mustered the courage, literature) while remaining honest as to what he knew and what he didn’t know (what he believed could be known and what he suspected couldn’t). By confident I mean at ease with inevitable death and by humility I mean assured that death comes when it must (even if unwanted). I don't believe in resting in peace. I'll chat with him again, I tell myself (I don't imagine any heaven, just unknowable continuance). And his words that resonate most with me form the final question from his anomalous essay "The Kekule Problem": Are you sure?
From Tim Taylor, former SFI staff
It seems impossible to put into words how much Cormac meant to the SFI community and to me personally. The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Guardian, and others have described his contribution to the world as a great American novelist. But as I read these tributes, I can’t help but feel they’re missing so much of the essence of Cormac McCarthy.
Cormac had an indescribable brilliance and an extraordinary spirit. In trying to capture his essence, a line from Casablanca comes to mind: “he’s just like any other man, only more so.” Cormac was definitely “more.” More brilliant, more perceptive, more mischievous, more alive. Just more. Look at almost any picture of him ever taken — the depth, the intensity, and the sparkle in his eyes are unmistakable. Yet he related easily with the rest of us mere mortals. He engaged deeply with people from different disciplines, political ideologies, socioeconomic backgrounds, and levels of sanity. That’s not to say that he was indiscriminate. Far from it. If I ever saw Cormac enthralled in deep conversation with someone, I knew that person must have some special spark. Cormac had a gift for identifying exceptional individuals from all corners of the world.
I’m tremendously privileged to have called Cormac a close friend. I’m thankful that I had the chance to have dinner with him this past April when I was last in Santa Fe. He seemed to be on the road to recovery from an extended illness. He was physically much weakened but his indomitable spirit still came through. We reminisced about old times and shared a long goodbye hug.
I have so many wonderful memories of Cormac. He once offered to help me get drugs from Mexico. Well, it was actually just medication for my horse Winston. I ended up getting the meds from another source, but we had fun putting together our “Mexican drug plan.” Fun fact: Cormac named a horse in No Country for Old Men after Winston. Another fond memory is a high-speed car chase along twisty country roads on the day after my wedding. Due to a breakdown in our original plan, Cormac ended up driving my husband and me from the hotel to the post-wedding brunch. We removed our stuff from the trunk of his car, but forgot my wedding dress, which was in the back seat. Cormac was one of the last guests to leave the brunch and we drove out right after him. A minute later, when we were still driving behind him, we realized that he was driving off with my wedding dress. After honking didn’t get his attention, we tried to find an opportunity to pull up alongside him. But Cormac drove fast. And he had a souped-up rental Cadillac. After many many miles of following Cormac at a speed that was well outside my husband’s comfort zone, Cormac was finally stopped by a light and we were able to get his attention, get the dress back, and share a hearty laugh over the car chase.
Cormac and I engaged on a wide range of topics. Some recurring themes included social mobility, machine intelligence, the intersection of genius and madness, and cars and trucks. It seemed like we were the only people at SFI who had any interest in horsepower and tow capacity. Since his passing, I’ve had the urge to go out and buy a Cadillac Escalade just to feel close to him. He told me several times that it would be the perfect vehicle for me that could tow my horse trailer. Or maybe I’ll go all in and get myself a red one-ton dually flatbed pickup. That would be quintessential Cormac.
Cormac McCarthy dancing with Michelle Girvan at her wedding. (images: Jack Hartzman)
Michelle Girvan, SFI External Professor
The first time I met Cormac, he was visiting SFI for lunch. He was being grilled on his favorite writers and looked uncomfortable, so I turned the question around to ask who people’s favorite physicists were. Although Cormac was relieved by the change of focus to physicists, it’s not entirely true that Cormac always hated talking about writing. He sometimes loved to talk about other people’s writing. He just didn’t like discussing his own work because I think he was embarrassed by how great he was and couldn’t explain the process of his greatness. And rarely, he did quote his own passages that he was particularly proud of.
Cormac and I moved to Santa Fe and SFI around the same time, and we bonded partly because we both grew up in Tennessee and shared cultural references including southernisms that served as inside jokes. When Cormac told me stories from Knoxville—involving drug dealers, gamblers, and much more—he often said the “craziest” people he ever knew were from Knoxville and that very few of them were still alive. That “craziest” adjective was laudatory to those friends in a way that was deeply formative for Cormac.
When he found out my dad died when I was 19, he’d sometimes ask how it affected me and hint at his fears about dying while his son John was still young. In The Road the father says he’d want to die if his son died. But beyond that, Cormac also feared dying before John grew up to be a man, as the dad did in The Road. Luckily, those fears never came true, and Cormac witnessed John grow into a wonderful, talented young man.
Cormac also often remarked that a lively conversation with friends is about as good as sex. He’d talk for hours about physics, math, novels, philosophy, human nature, bawdy humor, corny humor, architecture (including detailed advice on my own house), gambling, history, and any question that lacked a quick and obvious answer. Cormac is the only person I’ve ever known whose blue eyes truly twinkled while he was telling a clever or mischievous story. That twinkle went well with his explosive, hearty laugh.
I also counted on Cormac for relationship advice, which several people told me was a questionable practice given his history. He’d listen patiently, contemplate seriously, offer his unvarnished opinion, and freely admit when his advice differed from his own past. I even asked him to give a reading at my wedding. He showed up wearing a Penrose-tile Tuxedo top along with some jeans, and he chose The River Merchant’s Wife inspired by a 1200-year-old poem by Li Bai. Among other reasons, I think he chose this poem because it captures how human nature and relationships have changed very little over countless centuries and across regions. Yet, it also describes how our individual nature and relationships can in fact change dramatically along the trajectory of our own life. These seeming tensions were core questions that occupied Cormac. The poem is also a reminder of the love that can be conjured simply by being companions and sharing a history together.
I’m incredibly lucky to have shared 23 years with Cormac as my friend. I miss him already and will miss him even more as time passes. I can imagine what he might say, and read the classics he gave us, but it will never be as delightful or as unexpected—in content or delivery—as the real thing. Nevertheless: "Sie müssen schlafen, aber ich muss tanzen”
(L-R) Cormac McCarthy wearing Penrose-tile tuxedo with jeans at Van Savage’s wedding. Geoffrey West and Cormac McCarthy at Van Savage’s wedding. (images: Yoshiko June Nagao)
Van Savage, SFI External Professor
Looking south from Muley Point at your stomping grounds, where "all preference is made whimsical and a man and a rock become endowed with unguessed kinships."
Blood Meridian, 25th Anniversary Edition, page 259.
Map in Blood Meridian, 25th Anniversary Edition.
"Then about the meridian of the day we come upon the judge on his rock there in that wilderness by his single self. "
One of Blood Meridian's origin stories. 25th Anniversary Edition, page 131.
"Whatever his antecedents he was something wholly other than their sum, nor was there a system by which to divide him back into his origins for he would not go."
The kid dreams of emergence + decomposability. p. 322.
Cormac +@sfiscience's Murray Gell-Mann became friends in 1981. Cormac's SFI tenure began soon after.
On my drive I listened to Blood Meridian for the 1st time. I heard in the narration (very good, by Richard Poe) strong echoes of Melville. When I read myself, I feel the antecedents but the voice is clearly Cormac's. Cormac's everyday speech is very apparent in this passage.
In Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy echoing darkly in Judge Holden Borges' Book-Man. p. 297.
"Only nature can enslave man and only when the existence of each last entity is routed out and made to stand naked before him will he be properly suzerain of the earth."
"They passed through a highland meadow carpeted with wild-flowers, acres of golden groundsel and zinnia and deep purple gentian and wild vines of blue morninglory and a vast plain of varied small blooms reaching onward like gingham print to the farthest serried rimlands blue with haze and the adamantine ranges rising out of nothing like the backs of seacoasts in a devonian dawn."
Blood Meridian, p. 195.
I once suggested at a dinner that Blood Meridian + Tropic of Cancer were siblings, w ToC presaging BM in its 2nd to final paragraph. Cormac laughed + said "I don't know about that, honey, but it is one of the greatest paragraphs in literature" and recited it word for word.
Cormac was aesthetically precise in everything he did. He loved fashion + for years we exchanged marked up copies of WWD. Descriptions of haberdashery abound in his books. Below, from Blood Meridian, p. 175.
The shoes he found at an antique store in Arizona. And, one of my copies of Blood Meridian—a gift from Cormac on my 43rd birthday.
Jessica Flack, SFI Professor, from a Twitter thread.
“He was a man of the mind who relished ideas, their creation, and their communication.” - Lisa Randall
I have trouble writing this in that it acknowledges Cormac is really gone. He was a bright light in so many lives including, to my good fortune, mine. The irony of that is not lost on many of us, given the dark scenarios he presented in his writing. But this junction is where humor and humanity and deep understanding lies — the enormity of the challenges the world and its inhabitants both create and face, and the noble task of living which is to rise to it and make the most of what is there. Cormac was a man who could do many things, including working with his hands and physical labor. But he really was a man of the mind who relished ideas, their creation, and their communication (so long as it didn’t involve semicolons). Through his writing and through his life, he shared this passion with so many.
Cormac wanted to understand, and he wanted ideas and writing to be their best. I was very lucky that he took an interest in my writing and my work (and thank Dan Schrag for this rare and special connection) so that he could help me achieve that goal. Our introduction (which consisted of several requests to pass on my writing to Cormac, which I finally believed — and found the courage to ascent to — the third time) led to incredible conversations and an extraordinarily special friendship and, of course, better writing on my part. Cormac was very generous with his editing. And in sharing ideas that interested him as well (and even his writing on occasion). He was always great company (and a delight to listen to) when I had the opportunity to meet with him.
I’ll very much miss our conversations and encounters. I’ll also miss the humor, the understanding, the words, and the sardonic wit. That word is wrong and I’m sure Cormac would have a better one to describe the uplifting, generous, funny way in which he could observe, relish and rise above the failings of the world. This world, at the very least, succeeded admirably when it created Cormac.
Lisa Randall, Professor of Science, Harvard University
Cormac was a very good friend and colleague and I shall miss him dearly. A great writer, a scholar, and a man of deep intellect who had been an integral part of the SFI fabric for many years. Celebrate his fantastic life and the extraordinary legacy he leaves behind.
I had almost forgotten those occasional monthly lunches that John (Miller), Cormac and I had at Murray’s house once Murray had effectively become house-bound and mildly dysfunctional. As John remarked, "Cormac would carefully prepare and serve the meal during hours of conversation”; predictably the conversation was eclectic, far-ranging, always fascinating, fun and stimulating but occasionally gossipy, and occasionally a bit of a pissing contest. In contrast, however, the food left something (actually, quite a lot!) to be desired; generously brought by Cormac, but not take out from SantaCafé or Geronimo, but from good old Albertson’s cafeteria style delicatessen! Which always made me laugh…
So when Cormac himself became house-bound and a little dysfunctional, I started going to his house on an irregular regular basis, often once a week, sometimes not for a couple of months. Just one-on-one, bull-shitting in the best sense of that word, ranging from the mundane to the profound: from Wittgenstein, Melville and Hardy to Somerset Maugham ("the greatest of the second-rate writers”) and Faulkner, from Pauli and Schrödinger to Kekulé, to fantasies about our past prowess at billiards and snooker, from his relationship to his Mum, Dad and Grandfather, and to his son John and to Jennifer, his ever-caring ex-wife, to the bars in Knoxville, from lamenting the greats of the past to the future of SFI, (Cormac on why there haven’t been any great writers since 1636 or thereabouts…); and, of course, seriously butting heads on those bloody semi-colons and much, much more now long forgotten. Too bad some of this wasn’t recorded!
A few years earlier when I was writing my book and having intriguing discussions with Cormac (and Sam Shepard) about the craft of writing, especially about overcoming writer’s block, it somehow emerged that Cormac would be my editor. I don’t think I asked him and I don’t think he offered -- it just emerged organically, SFI-style. He was very kind and very helpful and I very much appreciated our dialogue and his astute advice; I’m not sure he quite realized that the manuscript would end up being nigh on 1000 pages long. Needless to say, however, the one continuous point of contention was those bloody semi-colons; a close second being the Oxford comma, and a more distant third, the infamous exclamation mark! He won on the last two, but lost miserably on the first. I had to show him some interminably long tedious boring paragraphs from Moby Dick with about 100 semi-colons to convince him that I was in good company. We had great fun and he was a terrific and generous companion: his deep intellect, strong opinions and eclectic knowledge, modulated with a lovely sense of humor, entertaining jokes and great story-telling. And a beautiful smile.
As Hamlet said of his father:
“He was a man, take him for all in all,
I shall not look upon his like again.”
And here’s a quote from Cormac himself taken from Blood Meridian, which I interpret as “explaining” why he loved SFI:
“The man who believes that the secrets of the world are forever hidden lives in mystery and fear. Superstition will drag him down. The rain will erode the deeds of his life. But that man who sets himself the task of singling out the thread of order from the tapestry will by the decision alone have taken charge of the world and it is only by such taking charge that he will effect a way to dictate the terms of his own fate.”
And here’s my ode to Cormac:
"The dusk settled upon the desolate landscape where the remnants of civilization lay in ruins and the wind whistled through the skeletal remains of buildings whispering secrets of a bygone era among the rubble where a solitary figure emerged weathered and resolute akin to the semi-colon in its ability to bridge two independent clauses and hold together what was once separate in the desolate wasteland punctuation had become scarce like a flickering ember in the vast darkness; yet the semi-colon with its unyielding spirit persisted standing as a sentinel a beacon of grammatical order amidst the chaos its presence demanded attention forcing the reader to pause to contemplate the weight of each word possessing a quiet strength a steadfastness that mirrored the unyielding determination of those who traversed the harsh landscapes depicted in McCarthy's extraordinary prose."
Geoffrey West, SFI Professor
What I remember most across the days with Cormac was the pleasure he took in anyone trying to do difficult work well. It didn't matter what kind of work it was. He had an aesthetic appreciation and a respect for any kind of human excellence and the reach toward it.
Cormac didn't just relish the whole sweep of human aspiration, he seemed determined to somehow take it all in. I thought that this was something he and Murray Gell-Mann must have recognized in each other from the start of their long friendship. The absurdity of it, the delight in a traveling companion so strong that, around him, it could seem not quite crazy.
In one of our many conversations about dreams, I was remarking on the kind where you are in a foreign country speaking its language badly, and a native speaker corrects you. Someone in the dream knows they are both you, and asks: Then why? I wondered to Cormac whether Murray (famous for devouring the world's languages) had that kind of dream. Quicker than I ever will be, Cormac answered Murray dreams of correcting the native speaker.
Our conversations were about everything at the same time as they were always about one thing: that a life not given over fully to trying to create meaning has been loved less than it deserved. I have wondered if that was what drew people to him. After friendship, affection, and camaraderie, was there a hope that in the right company you, too, would commit with nothing held back?
Several years ago, Cormac commented to me that when Murray died, SFI would lose something bigger than it could understand. As, in the story, fish have no word for water. Cormac's stories, his insights, individual words, are everywhere throughout my memory, waiting around every corner to meet me and turned up by any little breeze. I was lucky to be in a time and place where he could be my friend.
D. Eric Smith, SFI External Professor
He was a friend of mine. What does that mean? We met at the Santa Fe Institute in 2003 when I first became a member of the External Faculty. I saw him in an office playing the guitar and I introduced myself. I, then, looked him up on Google and thought he was Cormac McCarthy the folk singer (I hadn't heard of Cormac McCarthy the writer at that time!). Then I saw him in heated conversation with Murray Gell-Mann about physics and language and realized that he was not just a folk singer. We became friends and hung out together a lot when he was spending time at SFI. When my wife Cathy and I were living in Boston in 2011, he invited us to the gala opening of the film "The Sunset Limited" in New York. Cormac very much enjoyed the attention all the young women gave him during the reception, but when we went out to dinner after the event, and Cathy said "did you enjoy the attention of your women admirers", he said "what women?"
When we were in Santa Fe, I would go out with Cormac a few times a month for lunch alone or with members of his family or friends. He loved to tell stories and he could remember other people's conversations verbatim. He understood the various nuances of his friends' behavior and speech and what it was alluding to. I felt privileged to be in his company and thoroughly enjoyed all our conversations. During the last year of his life, he did not have his usual energy to entertain others with his charm and stories. I found myself digging into my past to tell all sorts of stories to entertain him...my early relationships with women and interesting experiences I had during my many trips abroad. I hope he enjoyed those stories.
His brother Dennis asked me to read an early version of The Passenger to check the statements related to the Manhattan project. I was amazed that a lot of the statements were verbatim dialogues that Cormac had had with Murray Gell-Mann when the three of us were together. His last two books affected me personally, as I was a member of the Particle Physics Group at Los Alamos and personally interacted with people involved in the Manhattan project. I also have a schizophrenic sister and had talked to Cormac quite a bit about what her inner life was like. We continued to talk about these things at length during our last few lunch meetings.
Cormac was very generous with his time, money and affection. I will miss him dearly.
Fred Cooper, SFI External Professor
I was slow in realizing that Cormac was not interested in dinosaurs. In the early 2000s, Cormac developed an intense interest in the details of the bolide impact associated with the end-Cretaceous mass extinction. How large was the impactor? What would it have looked like? How long would the dust cloud have remained suspended in the atmosphere?
Returning to SFI after the latest mass extinction meeting (there were many meetings then), Cormac interrogated me about the finest details, revealing what I viewed as an increasingly unhealthy interest in the event. Finally, in some frustration, I told him about a series of volumes collecting the latest modeling of dust clouds, the spread of impact debris, and the incineration of North American forests. I thought Cormac’s unaccountable interest was finally satiated. They were, as we saw in the beginning of The Road.
Details matter. Most of the conversations I had with Cormac were about details, details about which he often had firm opinions. Cormac had decided views on kitchen design (only open shelves above the countertops, never cabinets with doors) and the size of hoods (massive undersells the structure above his stove in Tesuque). At the new compound off Tano Road, Cormac obsessed over the width of the planks for the new floor in his brother’s house, before flying back east to pick out the boards himself. Later visits to the Tano Road house ended with us pacing out the dimensions of the library Cormac planned to reunite his various collections. To Cormac’s readers, the importance of details come through in his writing, his use of language and what he left out. To those of us at SFI who had the pleasure of knowing him, Cormac was affable, almost avuncular. A man of intense intellect and opinions with a soft, self-effacing chuckle. But a private man. I suspect that each of us knew a different Cormac, the part of himself that he chose to share and which now we remember with fondness.
Doug Erwin, SFI External Faculty
In 1995 the Harvard Business Review asked me to do a piece on increasing returns and the tech economy. I got a draft together and mailed it down to Cormac who was in El Paso at the time. I didn’t hear from him, so I called him up and said, “Did you like my increasing returns article? It’s for the Harvard Business Review.” There was a silence on the line. And then he said, “Would you be interested in some editing help on that? Of course not everyone would want that.” I said yes immediately and next time he came to Santa Fe we spent four mornings at La Fonda Hotel going over the piece. He took apart every single sentence, deleted every comma, discussed nuances of meaning, debated the economics. All with enjoyment and concern.
I'm sure I boasted about this at SFI because the word got back to my editor at HBR. She called me up in consternation and said, “I heard your article’s getting completely rewritten.” I said, “Yes!” She says, “By Cormac McCarthy? What did he do to it?” And I said, “Oh, well, you know, pretty much what you’d expect. It now starts out with two guys on horseback in Texas, and they go off and discover increasing returns.” And for just a delicious fraction of a second she was aghast.
Brian Arthur, SFI External Professor