Autobiographical Echoes in The Road

This topic contains 30 replies, has 7 voices, and was last updated by  BobbyKnoxville 5 years, 7 months ago.

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  • 13 May 2012 at 4:26 pm #1212

    A few weeks ago I announced on the old Forum that I was gonna do a piece on The Road for my website, and a few of you expressed interest in it. Finally got around to doing it.

    You can access it on Check the Fresh & Ripe section of the home page and click on my real name under the full title, AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL ECHOES IN CORMAC McCARTHY’S THE ROAD. This is a risky essay and so is life so what the hell.

    As always, I welcome any comments pro or con, yea or nay, sweet or sour, alpha or omega, sturm or drang zzzzzzz

    14 May 2012 at 8:03 pm #1245


    Going to read this again later in the week. The first time through was a great ride. I hope others will find this thread, head over to writecorner and read your article.

    26 May 2012 at 4:08 pm #1351


    Nice piece, BK, particularly the bit about the old McCarthy homeplace.

    And, not to go all grammarian, I do have to take issue with your reading of the book’s last line. In spite of evidence to the contrary in the Cretin post over there (and in the Blood Meridian epilogue itself), McCarthy usually has tight control of his sentences. The only possible antecedent for the word “they” here is “brook trout.” There were brook trout: “they” smelled like this, “they” looked like this, “they” lived here.

    The only person present in the passage is “you.” Both a general person and, more powerfully, you the reader. They didn’t just smell of moss, BK, they smelled of moss in your hand. And we’ve lost them in the book, and we stand to lose them outside the book. In doing so, will we also lose the hum of mystery? That past tense “hummed” mustn’t be lost on us.

    For your essay, BK, given that it’s primary interest is autobiography, you ought to be more interested in the tradition of the authorial second-person. Often the second person “you” is an obvious stand-in for “I.” But that opens up questions about the narrator, which are hard to answer.

    And that leads to me to what interests me about this last section of the book. I want to liberate it from being purely allegorical, message-y, moral-of-a-fable. I’m not sure if I can. But I’m interested in how this passage relates to stories about the old lost world that the man told the boy, and the man’s request that the boy “carry the fire,” and his promise that the boy can always talk to him–“like talk that you imagine.” In this way, “you” isn’t just a stand-in for the author, nor is it simply the reader, nor a general person before the unnamed cataclysm, but the narrator becomes the boy and “you” is the man. It takes a leap to get to that reading, though, and perhaps too far a leap.

    27 May 2012 at 11:33 pm #1353

    BobbyK: I enjoyed your essay very much, and you draw interesting parallels between the wife in The Road and McCarthy’s first wife. The emotional content between the two situations/partings certainly might resonate in an author’s mind. And I particularly like your final phrase, “the goodness of mystery.” While I admire the hopefulness of your reading of the last paragraph, I myself can’t read it to mean there are still deep glens where the family now lives, nor that the voice is the boy’s, if I understand Willey’s idea.

    “Where once he watched trout swaying in the current, tracking their perfect shadows…” (p. 25 Knopf)

    “He’d stood at such a river once and watched the flash of trout deep in a pool…” (p. 35 Knopf)

    “Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains.”

    That repetition, that dwelling on a simple miracle, once there were trout, seems very much the father’s. It is possible that the boy is reciting, like a prayer, something the father told him, that he is keeping the story alive by telling it back to his dead father. But I don’t think so. The boy himself never knew trout or deep mossy glens or beauty like that. It’s hard to miss and hold on to something you never knew. Those stories would have been abstractions, without “referents” for him, you might say. And the voice in that passage is so elegiac, the memories so sensory, the tone so full of loss, I can only hear it as the father’s voice, maybe his final thoughts, disembodied now, the last fragment of a sacred thing “slowly fading from memory.” I’m not sure what’s “message-y” about it, such that you would look for an alternate explanation. It seems to me pretty much the premise of the book – the world is beautiful: imagine losing it.

    28 May 2012 at 8:40 pm #1364

    Many thanks, Willey and Laurie Stewart, for taking the time to read and respond to my piece. I’ve been sicker than a junkyard dog on arsenic but am feeling somewhat better though not with enough energy to revisit my piece and respond to your posts. I’ll get back to you, hopefully.

    29 May 2012 at 8:50 pm #1390


    I think your reading of “you” in the last paragraph is sound. I also think that something like your interpretation of “they” is one that I should first include in my web piece before settling on my “they” as perhaps the stronger interpretation for these reasons:

    * The father’s emphasis on the power of goodness, his telling the boy they can talk to each other after the man’s dead, the woman’s comment about the “breath of God” passing from man to man through all of time all move the story in a hopeful direction as it ends. If this novel is McCarthy’s love letter to John Francis, and I think it is, would he stress such hopefulness only to quickly conclude with a short passage of complete hopelessness, a world totally gone and dead to any further life? I think not.

    * The father’s advice to his son throughout is never give up, keep hoping, keep struggling as good guys who carry the fire no matter how grim things are. If the last passage means total loss, then it overwhelms any positives that the story has been reflecting. It’s like the narrator dongs in with big knell of death.

    * “She would talk to him sometimes about God.” To me a key word here is “sometimes.” It suggests a family settled in enough for the woman to be able to occasionally talk with the boy about spiritual matters, her focus being a God of all time.

    * Even if the “they” in the last passage refers only to trout, where did the veteran’s family go? I don’t think we can conclude that they just vanished or are dead. There has been just too much emphasis on them as the boy’s new family, a kind of saving grace. It seems narratively logical that they would settle somewhere, perhaps in a deep glen, a place between high hills or mountains that might not have felt the full effect of the apocalypse.

    * Your view of “they” holds McCarthy to too strict a grammatical standard . As Rick Wallach has pointed out in his essay “Theater, Ritual and Dream in the Border Trilogy”, McCarthy does remarkable things with perspective, sometimes blurring or recombining identities. This effect also occurs in THE ROAD when the man and boy try to return the thief’s belongings, and both blur in the pronoun “he.” (I don’t have my text with me to the cite page no. for this). Anyway I believe “they” means both trout and people like the boy’s new family.

    * Your reading of “they” as trout and a world lost excludes the possibility of evolutionary regeneration. Yes, those trout are gone and their world can’t be made right again. But what about the possibility of new species (if not of trout some other fish) developing where things were older than man? Remember, rain and snow still fall giving water, the life blood of life. A new world here seems to me dimly possible. But when all is said and done, life and family and apocalypse and God all amount to ultimate mystery, which may be the closest McCarthy has come to ultimate meaning. I really believe it’s the closest any of us can come.

    Laurie Stewart,

    As you aver, there is an elegaic tone to the last passage, a sense of great loss, but the last sentence undercuts that tone: “In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.” I see endurance here, a continuity of things in a busy rhythm of life (“hummed”). Even if “they” means only trout, other things “hummed” with the mystery of existence. McCarthy won’t leave us with just one conclusion of total loss. He gives us two possibilities: a world in bad shape that may die and one that may yet again live.

    30 May 2012 at 1:16 pm #1407



    You’re spot-on up there. No, the voice doesn’t sound like the boy’s, or what we’d imagine the boy’s voice being (for starters, from what books or what conversations did he learn all those words). That’s the strange thing about the third-person: the words can be the author’s while the experience is the character’s. I agree that the voice can’t be the boy’s. And I don’t see the boy there in the paragraph. I can do some work to bring him in, but that’s not on the page. Obviously that fact confounds and negates my speculative reading.

    But even in your analysis, you want to make a leap and possibly read that last passage as the man’s voice. But the man is dead. And, far as I can remember, the voice continued. Which means the voice is authorial. Nothing new there for McCarthy.

    We seem to agree that the passage has a message. “Message-y” is perhaps overly pejorative. The passage is beautiful. But, if it’s purely authorial, as it seems to be, it’s only re-emphasizing what the author already showed us through the character in all those other beautiful passages you found (thanks for finding those, by the way).

    So it concludes with the author’s elegy to a lost or fading world. That scrapes against my Chekhovian disposition, up through Faulkner and O’Connor and Suttree, that the fiction writer’s job is to work through a character. Here, the characters are gone, only the author and you are left. Perhaps that’s classic Cormackian subversion. Perhaps that’s giving my disposition some necessary friction. Yes, yes it is.

    Still, it’s no Suttree.

    30 May 2012 at 1:27 pm #1408



    Thanks for the thoughtful response. Glad you’re feeling better.

    I don’t see how the last sentence undercuts the elegy. It enhances the elegy. Now, if the sentence read “live,” “are,” and “hum,” that would undercut the elegy. But it doesn’t. The tense never changes. We’re still talking about things as they “once” were.

    The boy and the veteran’s family go where all characters go at the end of books–nowhere–they just go there one paragraph early.

    30 May 2012 at 4:12 pm #1410


    Interestingly, you take me to task on only one and a half of my reasons for my position on that last paragraph. Perhaps you don’t see the novel as a love letter to John Francis that would appropriately end on a hopeful note. Nor do you give Cormac’s language and grammar in that passage any latitude beyond the literal. Certainly he would capable of giving us two situations in two different times using past tense, a past tense past and a past tense present.

    Anyway, you and Laurie have helped me to see that I need to be less emphatic about that last passage and qualify my positive idea of it. I can’t do that right now because I’m in WI and don’t have my web program operative, but I hope to make it so sometime this summer and will be slightly revising the last part of my essay. If this thread’s still alive, I’ll announce the revision here or in another thread.

    31 May 2012 at 1:39 am #1414


    All right, BK. I’m too tired to go point-by-point, so I’ll just try to cover what I see as the most important bits. Let’s see:

    Yes, the father emphasizes goodness, as likely would any father who’ll shortly have to convince himself, and his ten-year-old son, that he’s to be left alone in a world such as they’ve just passed through. And, yes, he tells the boy that the boy can speak to him after he’s dead, but remember that he says “you’ll have to make it like talk that you imagine.” Also, immediately following the breath of God passing from man to man, we have white space, and after the white space we have a passage about brook trout, and how, in the literal reading which you grant, in the “deep glens where they [the brook trout] lived all things were older than man.” We’re talking, then, about things older than man and thus older than any breath of God passing from man to man. You touched on this idea above when you spoke of ultimate mystery. Is ultimate mystery being the “closest any of us can come” a hopeless idea? If not, then why is the last paragraph absent your reading of the last sentence a hopeless paragraph?

    Yes, the father pushes the son to keep going, as he must, but the last paragraph does not mean total loss. And it does not mean total loss to the boy. We have left the boy in the hands of the man and woman. The word “sometimes” you decode quite astutely–it tells us they are developing a routine of some sort, settling as you say, and we, like the father, must pass him on to them and leave him.

    As Laurie said, the last paragraph is elegiac, but it is not a total loss nor is it a death knell. It speaks of loss, yes, and also of death–or extinction, more probably–but it also speaks of mystery which underlies life and therefore underlies loss and death also. And the last paragraph as a work of art and as a work of beauty is in itself inherently a thing of hope.

    Again, I never said the world was lost. We’d have to agree on a definition of world and surely any definition of that world would have to include the actual terrestrial planet on which stretches the road on which the boy and man walk. I’m saying the paragraph speaks of a loss of brook trout, though brook trout surely signify aspects of the world as we know it, the loss of which we have amply witnessed for ourselves through the book. My literal reading of “brook trout” as the antecedent to the plural pronoun does not exclude the possibility of evolutionary anything, though I don’t see what that has to do with the antecedent for “they.”

    • This reply was modified 5 years, 7 months ago by  willey.
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