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David Cowart

David Cowart, Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of South Carolina in the United States, left off classroom teaching after some 80 semesters (1977-2017) but saw his nineteenth PhD student take his degree earlier this year.  Professor Cowart continues active as a scholar, with recent articles on the work of Cormac McCarthy, subject of his larger work in progress, and Don DeLillo.  A consulting editor for numerous scholarly journals, Cowart has been an NEH fellow and held Fulbright chairs at the University of Helsinki and at the Syddansk Universitet in Odense, Denmark.  In 2005, he toured Japan as a Fulbright Distinguished Lecturer.  He is also the author of Thomas Pynchon: The Art of Allusion (1980), Arches and Light: The Fiction of John Gardner (1983), History and the Contemporary Novel (1989), Literary Symbiosis: The Reconfigured Text in Twentieth-Century Writing (1993, 2012), Don DeLillo: The Physics of Language (2002), Trailing Clouds: Immigrant Writing in Contemporary America (2006), Thomas Pynchon and the Dark Passages of History (2011), and The Tribe of Pyn: Literary Generations in the Postmodern Period (2015).

Keynote Lecture: Permutations of Paranoia: Late Cormac McCarthy

Focusing on the two latest fictions by Cormac McCarthy but with an orientation to his larger oeuvre, this presentation will be of interest, I hope, to readers new to this author's work as well as those who have already read his every word.  McCarthy's fictions tend to feature the reality principle at its most stark and painful.  If he manages little in the way of sanguine reassurance, he at least depicts the full spectrum of human evil and good.  His most memorable characters range from the necrophiliac Lester Ballard in Child of God or the wastrel title character in Suttree to psychopaths like Judge Holden in Blood Meridian or Chigurh in No Country for Old Men.  But he also presents figures of extraordinary heroism and virtù, notably the Border Trilogy's John Grady Cole and Billy Parham or the resourceful father in The Road.  The more attractive characters--they figure in middle and late McCarthy--seem to define the very limits of human striving.  But inevitably and perhaps tragically, they buckle before forces that beggar human agency and civilized institutions.  In the linked novels published in 2022,  The Passenger and Stella Maris, McCarthy varies the pattern, replacing heroic or vicious male characters--men of action--with a pair of highly cerebral protagonists, the siblings Bobby and Alicia Western.  In what may be his last major fictions (he turns 90 this year), these figures confront the reality ostensibly distilled in math and physics.  Here again virtù proves no match for life's cruelty, whether in the guise of an oppressive government or the mental instability that can cripple the highest intelligence.    

            McCarthy depicts late 1980, the eve of Ronald Reagan's inauguration, as what French anthropologist Jean-Pierre Warnier would call an année charnière--the historical "hinge" in which one era passes and another announces itself.  Set for the most part in that year, The Passenger also looks backward to the temporal setting--1972--in that novel's "sister" text, Stella Maris.   Dates are important here because they cue historical meaning, and with these dates in mind, I argue that in his two latest fictions McCarthy weaves together a kind of tapestry depicting scenes of late twentieth-century affect.  The 1972 and 1980 settings frame other moments in time as well, notably the year 1945, which saw the terrible birth of the atomic era, the once and future Age of Anxiety.  As he contemplates the disquiet of his two protagonists (troubled by their father's role in incinerating thousands of civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki), McCarthy reviews their tormented striving to come at the foundational truths of existence.  But these are only the obvious strands in the tapestry--or rather carpet, in which, as in the great Henry James story, a hidden figure awaits recognition.