Questions about Suttree and how your readings change with time


This topic contains 6 replies, has 5 voices, and was last updated by  efscerbo 3 years, 3 months ago.

Viewing 7 posts - 1 through 7 (of 7 total)
  • Author
    Posts Mark Topic Read  | 
  • 19 Sep 2014 at 5:36 pm #5883


    Just finished Suttree. I really liked it and managed to get through the whole book in the course of a (slow) week so that it was this rich, concentrated, wholly immersive experience — it was amazing. I know that Ulysses is an influence; I’ve heard of the book compared to Ulysses in the way that Blood Meridian is compared to Moby-Dick, and I can see the theme of paternity being played out in the sort of Leopold/Stephen relationship between Sut and Harrogate, but aside from that I’m not quite sure of how to read Suttree or reflect on it from a critical perspective.

    I noticed the recurrence of doubles, such as Suttree feeling that there’s some second Suttree who’s just vacated every setting he enters, and things of the like. But, as with Blood Meridian and The Crossing, there are so many episodes that encompass such a range of tones and emotions that I’m overwhelmed as soon as I try to think of any overarching themes. Can anybody point some out to me? I’m particularly interested in Suttree’s affairs with women. This seems like a subject seldom explored in McCarthy’s work (although I haven’t read the first three novels), so I’m interested to hear some other thoughts on it.

    Also, of course, the autobiographical component that I hear so much about. Is it exaggerated?


    I figure that the book’s thematic enormity is part of what makes it great. Something you can revisit endlessly, something that’ll change along with you. Can those of you who’ve been reading and re-reading McCarthy over a long period of time talk about how some of the books have come to mean different things as you’ve aged? One thing I’m particularly curious about is whether Judge Holden comes (as the reader ages) to seem like a genuine sage or just a charismatic sociopath.

    Also — and this might be an unpopular opinion — although the prose is as beautiful as ever there were several passages where it seemed far more indulgent than Blood Meridian or the Border Trilogy. There were pages where I had to look up seven or eight words, the definitions of which almost invariably said in parentheses “(archaic)”. Does anybody have any thoughts on what Suttree marks in McCarthy’s maturation?

    • This topic was modified 3 years, 4 months ago by  asoron0424.
    20 Sep 2014 at 2:28 pm #5888

    Richard L.

    It seems to me that you greatly underestimate SUTTREE, something that will most likely change with additional reading and consideration.

    The novel is many things–historical and autobiographical, yes–but also like a sequence of interconnected parables that get at the heart of human existence. The overarching theme is the secular eastern idea (Buddhist by way of Emerson) of the oversoul, that all souls are one, that there is no time but rather a perpetual unfolding movement, that both rich and poor live in the same dumbshow in the shadow of death, while denying death through addictions to material things, to escapist sex, to alcohol and other drugs.

    We have learned that the novel was once larger than the one we have now before us. I refer you to YOU WOULD NOT BELIEVE WHAT WATCHES: SUTTREE AND CORMAC MCCARTHY’S KNOXVILLE, a stellar collection of essays edited by Rick Wallach. In Daniel King’s PRIMROSE’S PATH: SUTTREE’s DELETED SCENES, King discusses the scene where Suttree attends a cockfight. There is a cat in the barn and Primrose pours some of the moonshine into the cat. The cat then catches fire and burns the place down.

    According to letters in the archives, McCarthy’s editor thought that this and other scenes were boring and counterproductive. But McCarthy had his reasons for including them.

    As I have often said in this forum, the cat is McCarthy’s symbol for human naturalism, the animal side of man, dangerously combustible when given alcohol. McCarthy carries on this symbolism from Joseph Conrad, Walter Van Tilburg Clark, and a host of other classic authors. McCarthy may have really owned a Jaguar, but whether he did or not, Suttree’s Jaguar serves in the novel as the cat symbol of man’s natural addiction to material things, to all such status symbols invoking power and speed.

    I am not alone in thinking that SUTTREE is McCarthy’s greatest novel–a funny and profound work of genius.

    20 Sep 2014 at 3:02 pm #5889


    Hiya Richard,

    I feel like you and I read McCarthy in similar ways. I’ve spent so much time tracking down various uses of recurring symbols in his books, such as fire, bones, cats, stone, the sun, etc. (It would be great if there were a concordance for these things… would I had the time.) Sometimes I come away feeling like I have a decent impression of the motif, other times not at all. Cats have always eluded me. Your take on it is very interesting. And while I certainly wouldn’t disagree strongly with it, cats appear in other works where I can’t really see what you’re saying. For instance, the cat (Kenneth’s ghost? soul?) in The Orchard Keeper. There’s also a description of Sylder’s car “with its rear end high in the air like a cat in heat” (165) after he and Tiny unload the whiskey from the trunk. And when Sylder sneaks into Gifford’s house, he does so “[o]n downpointed cat’s feet” (167). And there’re the cats in the junkyard in Child of God, and the cats in Uncle Ellis’s home in NCFOM. (There’s also a brief mention of a cat that Llewellyn sees looking out the window of one of the motels he stays in). There’s very little to tie those together for me. And somehow they feel different than cats in Suttree and The Counselor, where I would probably mostly agree with you. (Although, there seems to be a “female” element linked with cats in McCarthy… not sure how that may tie in with what you’re saying.)

    Granted, as we discussed when we were talking about fire a few months ago, a given symbol doesn’t have to mean just one thing. But I’m definitely of the opinion that McCarthy uses his symbols consciously and with, if not an explicit “meaning” (or “meanings”) in mind, at least an intended association. I wonder how you view those uses of cats that I mentioned.

    Very interesting as always.


    (Btw, the page references for TOK are to the new Vintage reprint, the one with the red cover. If your edition has a different pagination, both citations are found in the last 3-4 pages of Part III.)

    • This reply was modified 3 years, 4 months ago by  efscerbo.
    • This reply was modified 3 years, 4 months ago by  efscerbo.
    22 Sep 2014 at 8:57 am #5899


    No surprise, but I have to agree with Richard about SUTTREE being McCarthy’s magnum opus. While material deleted from early drafts of the novel may be of valid interest to scholars, I would suggest that there is much work yet to be done on the novel as published and perhaps attention would be most productively focused in that direction.

    Considering the deleted “Cockfight” episode involving “Primrose” (“William C Pathe”) and not following my own advice, I think that the core of this episode has not gone to waste. I believe it was resurrected in the conversation between John Grady Cole and Mr Johnson on page 125 of CITIES OF THE PLAIN. The episode described by Mr Johnson seems similar in concept to the cockfight episode deleted from SUTTREE. It includes a cat set afire and the ensuing panic and destruction–but in a herd of cattle rather than a crowd of people. “Waste not, want not.”

    22 Sep 2014 at 11:52 am #5900


    Hi Wes

    “I would suggest that there is much work yet to be done on
    the novel as published and perhaps attention would be most
    productively focused in that direction.”

    I think that’s a good point. I have obsessed over Blood Meridian
    for the past few years and read a lot of interesting posts here
    on the forum and elsewhere. It’s intriguing to read about various
    things that didn’t make the finished novel etc. But then again…

    I’ve notised that in the end it can become somewhat harmful for
    my reading experience. Usually I don’t like to pry into unfinished
    drafts of novels (if available), because it kind of ruins the finished
    work for me. I like to think the published book is the gospel on that
    score and the accomplished vision the author wishes to present to
    his/her readers.

    So going through various “making ofs”, “works in progress” and whatnot
    feels like…I don’t know…sacrilege? Somehow offensive to the author.

    Sounds rather dramatic, I know, but maybe you get what I mean?
    It’s like not wanting to know how the magic trick is done.

    Needless to say this is by no means an attack against anyone who
    enjoys studying various drafts and such, no, I’m only talking about
    my personal experience as a reader.

    And it is strange, as I mentioned above, BM has made me seriously
    want to go shake some sargophagi.

    I’d love to read about McCarthy’s thoughts on Moby-Dick especially;
    what it means to him and his notes on it while writing BM, since it
    looms very large through out the book.

    – Toni

    • This reply was modified 3 years, 4 months ago by  Toni.
    • This reply was modified 3 years, 4 months ago by  Toni.
    • This reply was modified 3 years, 4 months ago by  Toni.
    27 Sep 2014 at 10:50 pm #5924

    Richard L.

    Re: “. . .And while I certainly wouldn’t disagree strongly with it, cats appear in other works where I can’t really see what you’re saying. For instance, the cat (Kenneth’s ghost? soul?) in The Orchard Keeper. . .”

    Well, yes, what I say about the cat being a symbol of naturalism holds true but McCarthy’s use of cats is also more complicated than this. He sometimes uses a trinity of cats to parallel his trinity of humans. Body-dominated, mind-dominated, and spirit-dominated. Or think id-dominated, ego-dominated, and superego-dominated. Roughly, now–used with some poetic license, but there. This trinity was pointed out by Ralph Waldo Emerson but it has been used by so many classic authors–such as Joseph Conrad, Herman Melville, and James Joyce–of such far-reaching influence that it seems now to be a classic universal.

    If you’re particularly interested in the animals in Cormac McCarthy’s fiction, you might want to read Wallis R. Sanborn’s book-length study on the subject.

    By all means you should read CORMAC MCCARTHY AND THE GHOST OF HUCK FINN by Leslie Harper Worthington. The author prefaces this valuable work with a scholarly essay on “influence” and “intertexuality.” Brilliant and not to be missed. On the cats in THE ORCHARD KEEPER, Worthington says:

    “Ownby through his stories is aligned with the wampus cat and the strength of nature and the old ways of residing within it; Slyder is the wandering, ferocious but feeble stray representing nature’s current place in man’s world; John Wesley is a blind kitten, a boy who would live the old way but staggers defeated through a new world.”

    “The cats and the characters correspond to McCarthy’s presentation of the struggle between the old and the new order.”

    01 Oct 2014 at 2:25 pm #5950


    Hi Richard,

    Thanks for the reply.

    This is not the first time in talking with me that you’ve mentioned “id, ego, superego” regarding McCarthy. And while I’m familiar with those, I’m unsure how exactly you intend it. Would you mind elaborating a bit when you get a chance? And where does Emerson talk about this? (Am I incorrect in believing Freud coined those? Or were you getting at “body, mind, spirit” with Emerson?)

    I already have a copy of Sanborn’s book, but thanks anyway. I’ve only cherrypicked my way around, but it’s really interesting. Need to make a point to sit down and read it through one of these days.

    I don’t know the Worthington book, but that’s an excellent passage. I’ll have to check it out.

    Thanks again,

Viewing 7 posts - 1 through 7 (of 7 total)

You must be logged in to reply to this topic.

Comments are closed, but trackbacks and pingbacks are open.