Cormac McCarthy was 32 when he published his first novel, The Orchard Keeper, in 1965. He has since won a Guggenheim Fellowship, a MacArthur Fellowship, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the National Book Award, and a Pulitzer Prize, among other fellowships, awards, and recognitions, and has garnered a cortege of devotees, from the lay reader to the fellow prize-winning author, that could be defined as a veritable phenomenon.
In 1993, close to a year after the publication of McCarthy's sixth novel, All the Pretty Horses, which became a New York Times best-seller seemingly overnight, a faction of those disciples gathered at Bellarmine University in Kentucky to discourse about this author who had irreversibly bewitched readers across the globe. That assembly resulted in an (almost) annual international conference as well as the Cormac McCarthy Society, which co-hosts other mini-conferences, fields papers, and assists with the publication of journals on all things McCarthy, mostly through their website cormacmccarthy.com.
For the 50th anniversary of McCarthy's first novel, the society decided to host the 2015 conference in Memphis. This Thursday, October 8th, through Saturday, October 10th, hundreds of fans from all over the world will convene on the campus of the University of Memphis to celebrate one of the world's greatest living authors.
"It seems like an eyeblink that we've gone from pulling our teeth to find a place for our first conference. It was just by a stroke of luck that we were able to go to Bellarmine. Now we field calls from universities all over the world asking would we like to hold the conference there," Society Secretary and co-founder Rick Wallach says.
They settled on Memphis by way of Knoxville, where McCarthy grew up most of his life and lived many years and where the society has hosted numerous previous conferences. The Orchard Keeper as well as his other early novels take place in and around Knoxville.
"This is a rare opportunity where scholars from all over the world will come to Memphis, and it is a chance for our students and faculty to hear some of the most interesting and current ideas going on in literature," Dr. Jeffrey Scraba, associate professor and director of graduate studies at the U of M, says.
Conference planners designate a theme each year, and while this year's conference centers around The Orchard Keeper, panel topics will cover a variety of works and motifs, such as ecotheology, the aesthetics of violence, and teaching McCarthy in high school.
McCarthy has published 10 novels, two plays, and three screenplays. All the Pretty Horses, No Country for Old Men, and The Road have been adapted for the screen, with No Country taking home four Academy Awards, and his screenplay The Counselor was released in 2013 and was directed by Ridley Scott.
Trying to synopsize McCarthy's prose is as absurd an idea as the fetus trees and necrophiliacs he chronicles in his "venomous fiction" (as described in his interview with The New York Times in 1992, one of only two interviews ever granted by McCarthy in his 50 years of publishing, the other given to, of course, Oprah Winfrey).
"Cormac McCarthy is an enormous vacuum cleaner. He's the most synoptic, eclectic, synthetic representation of American fiction there has ever been," Wallach says. "Blood Meridian is a parody of the literary style that was popular in the mid-19th century, the penny dreadful, mostly cowboy gunslinger stories. He takes all of that and then moves through traditional Southern writing like Flannery O'Connor and William Faulkner and Walker Percy, and it all goes into a blender and comes out as distinctly Cormac McCarthy."
Just as his his style and subjects are vast and varied (yet distinct), so are the presenters for and attendees to the conference, who come from across the globe and range from professors and students to doctors and lawyers to carpenters and stockbrokers.
"McCarthy conferences are very nurturing. They're also supporting the next generation of scholars. A lot of academic organizations are very hermetic, but ours is an attitude of inclusiveness. We don't think a writer like McCarthy with such enormous stature should be the private property of the ivory tower. We invite all to attend," Wallach says.
The public is invited to Friday night's 7:45 dinner in the Fogelman Executive Conference Center featuring author Brian Evenson or to drop in on a panel for free. Donations are encouraged. Otherwise fees apply to attend the entire conference.
Registration for the conference will be held Thursday from 1 to 4:30 p.m. at the University Center, where the panels will also be held, and the conference concludes Saturday evening at 6:30.
For more information, visit the society's website at cormacmccarthy.com.