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The Road: Cormac McCarthy and the Death of the American Road Narrative

Jesse Gipko, Ph.D. • Belmont College

The twentieth century American road narrative began as an idealistic enterprise that examined the possibility and hope in America. Yet as the century progressed, road narratives increasingly criticized problems in the country like rampant materialism and commercialization. They challenged the conformity that clashed with more optimistic impulses behind the journeys, such as discovering self and reveling in the freedom of the road. These increasingly critical visions of America occur when the reality of the country does not match any ideal visions of the country created by the travelers. representative narratives like Henry Miller’s The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, and William Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways all begin with idealistic visions about the country, but each document an America that, disconcertingly, gets worse. Even though each of these writers harshly critiques problems in the US, each also retains a measure of optimism in America’s potential to change. The American road narrative, then, occupies a liminal space between disappointment and cautious hope.

While Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel The Road (2006) would seem outside of this tradition (as dystopian fiction), it fits squarely within the framework of the American road narrative as cultural critique. In fact, the novel becomes perhaps the most damning condemnation of America that issues from a road narrative. By engaging in harsh critique, the novel subverts conventions of the road narrative and, by nature of its post-apocalyptic setting, questions whether the genre has died. The Road follows an unnamed man and his son as they walk (pushing an old grocery cart full of supplies) toward the coast through an America burnt and ravaged by an unknown event. The blackened landscape emerges as the fictional culmination of years of waste — a country that has been destroyed most likely, though never stated, by the excesses of its inhabitants and the disastrous decisions of its leaders. McCarthy takes the road narrative past its nonfiction and fictional roots into speculative fiction, though based on an idea of America’s projected decline in the last half of the twentieth century. In doing so, he challenges a genre rooted in self-discovery — finding self and country — with a hellish journey of survival and death. McCarthy takes aspects of the road narrative such as idealism, the idea of the road itself, the anxiety with materialism and consumerism, the engagement with the environment, and the development of a cautious optimism, and reexamines them in a post-apocalyptic world that appears to hold little hope for individuals and the country, resulting in an extreme critique and a reevaluation of hope.

Each of these road narratives begins with optimistic impulses to see the country, find self, or restart a stalled life, impulses fueled by ideals created from the writers’s pasts, literature, history, or myth. Disappointed at having to leave Europe because of the beginning of World War II and remembering his previous experiences in America, Miller begins The Air-Conditioned Nightmare with trying to make the best of a bad situation: “I wanted to have a last look at my country and leave it with a good taste in my mouth. I didn’t want to run away from it, as I had originally. I wanted to embrace it, to feel that the old wounds were really healed, and set out for the unknown with a blessing on my lips.” 1 Kerouac’s Sal Paradise hopefully, but naively, thinks “Somewhere along the line I knew there’d be girls, visions, everything; somewhere along the line the pearl would be handed to me” 2 — the dreams of many a college-aged young man. Steinbeck, older than the other two, hopes to reclaim his masculinity and knowledge of America by setting out across the country in his camper truck, Rocinante: “I determined to look again, to try to rediscover this monster land.” 3 And William Least Heat-Moon, having lost his wife and his job, heads out on his cross-country trip in the hope of finding a new purpose and direction in life and to reclaim his self-worth: “I got the idea instead. A man who couldn’t make things go right could at least go. He could quit trying to get out of the way of life. Chuck routine. Live the real jeopardy of circumstance. It was a question of dignity.” 4 During the course of each of these writer’s journeys, this optimism turns into a critique of some aspect of America that doesn’t live up to the idealistic impulse. Despite these tests, optimism survives to varying degrees.


Surprisingly, for a novel about the aftermath of a cataclysm, the journey taken by the man and the boy in The Road begins with an optimistic impulse, though the optimism remains tempered by the harsh exigencies of a post-apocalyptic world and the man’s knowledge of the precarious reality of their situation. Initially, the man and boy embark on the journey out of necessity: “They were moving south. There’d be no surviving another winter here.” 5 The man’s sole reason for existence remains to protect his son, and he infuses that inherently hopeful mission with biblical seriousness: “He knew only that the child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke.” 6 The man’s hope, though, cannot help but be clouded by the precariousness of his and the boy’s situation. From the beginning of the book, the man realizes he is dying, consumed by an unknown respiratory illness. He also realizes that the odds are against them: “He said that everything depended on reaching the coast, yet waking in the night he knew that all of this was empty and no substance to it. There was a good chance they would die in the mountains and that would be that.” 7 Most importantly, though, the man readies himself to kill the boy and save him from torture or worse. But he questions if he can do so: “You will not face the truth. You will not.” 8 As happens in road narratives, the optimistic impulse diminishes as it clashes with the realities of American consumerism or homogeneity. In McCarthy’s conception, however, the travelers don’t have the option to return to a safe home and resume their previous lives. Instead, those lives have been obliterated; failure can only end with death. McCarthy seems to erase any hope of the pair learning about self from their journey or holding onto hope for a better existence. For the man at least knows what he has lost, what he calls “that long ago somewhere,” 9 and what cannot be regained. The boy remains perplexing since he was born after the cataclysm and so has no knowledge of the previous world. He looks upon the blackened landscape with fresh eyes, suggesting that hope can be retained in the face of utter devastation.

Another aspect of the road narrative that features prominently in various writers’ accounts along with The Road, and which becomes both a blessing and a curse, is the road itself, the highways winding across the country. Road writers confront the road both in their imaginations and in physical reality. For most road writers, the highway offers a chance for escape and represents the possibility inherent in the country itself. Sal Paradise dreams of “all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going,” 10 and Least Heat-Moon purposefully stays on the backroads, the idealized blue highways, because he wants to find an authentic America: “I was going to stay on the three million miles of bent and narrow rural American two-lane, the roads to Podunk and Toonerville. Into the sticks, the boondocks, the burgs, backwaters, jerkwaters, the wide-spots-in-the-road, the don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it towns.” 11 Despite these rhapsodic imaginings of the road, the interstate highways prove problematic for road writers as they offer the comforts of roadside stops, speed of travel, and relative safety—all of this, however, at the expense of authentic experience. When traveling Interstate 90 west Steinbeck bemoans, “These great roads are wonderful for moving goods but not for inspection of a countryside… . When we get these thruways across the whole country, as we will and must, it will be possible to drive from New York to California without seeing a single thing.” 12 Least Heat-Moon directly attacks the “tyranny of the freeway,” 13 which indicates another reason why he mostly avoids the interstates during his journey. Still each of these writers has the option of traveling safe and maintained roads, of having relatively trouble-free ways to get where they want to go.

In contrast, McCarthy corrupts the highway in The Road, both physically and in the imagination. No longer a place for safe travel and experience, the highway becomes instead a path through a destroyed land leading into an uncertain future. Due to the unnamed catastrophic event, the road is covered in ash and broken in places. The man views “The soft ash blowing in loose swirls over the blacktop” and watches “The segments of road down there among the dead trees.” 14 As the man and boy travel along “the long black road,” 15 the devastation worsens. Crossing through a landscape decimated by firestorms, the man struggles through “A cake of ash in the roadway inches deep and hard going with the cart. The blacktop underneath had buckled in the heat and then set back again.” 16 Gone are the automobiles and the speed and ease associated with highway travel. The road becomes a dark and ashen wasteland endured by the characters rather than traveled upon. Towards the end of the journey, the man and boy have to move even slower than they have been walking and abandon the road in places as it “was littered with debris and it was work to get the cart through” 17 and later they trudge through more of “the wreckage strewn along the road.” 18 The most telling image of McCarthy’s rewriting of the road as refuge comes when the man and boy see the highway choked with the charred remains of vehicles, a macabre representation of a traffic jam: “Along the interstate in the distance long lines of charred and rusting cars. The raw rims of the wheels sitting in a stiff gray sludge of melted rubber, in blackened rings of wire.” 19

Along with complaining about the highways, another major critique found in Miller, Kerouac, Steinbeck, and Least Heat-Moon and one that McCarthy reworks is the rampant materialism and resulting consumerism that writers find throughout the country. Whether on the highways or the backroads, writers discover an abundance of goods and services and become entangled in the very practice of buying and consuming goods they critique in other Americans. In a hotel room in Pittsburgh, Miller complains, “I am in a small, supposedly comfortable room of a modern hotel equipped with all the latest conveniences. The bed is clean and soft, the shower functions perfectly, the toilet seat has been sterilized since the last occupancy … soap, towels, lights, stationery, everything is provided in abundance.” 20 To Miller and other writers, Americans have become complacent, drowned in the abundance of goods. Steinbeck, himself a beneficiary of the consumerist culture that made possible the selling and buying of his books, is implicated in the very culture he critiques. He packs his camper truck with every conceivable gadget and convenience he may need:

Tools for emergency, tow lines, a small block and tackle, a trenching tool and crowbar, tools for making and fixing and improvising. Then there were emergency foods… . I prepared for at least a week of emergency. Water was easy; Rocinante carried a thirty-gallon tank.

I thought I might do some writing along the way… . I took paper, carbon, typewriter, pencils, notebooks, and not only those but dictionaries, a compact encyclopedia, and a dozen other reference books, heavy ones… . Also I laid in a hundred and fifty pounds of those books one hasn’t got around to reading—and of course those are the books one isn’t ever going to get around to reading. Canned goods, shotgun shells, rifle cartridges, tool boxes, and far too many clothes, blankets and pillows, and many too many shoes and boots, padded nylon sub-zero underwear, plastic dishes and cups and a plastic dishpan, a spare tank of bottled gas. The overloaded springs sighed and settled lower and lower. 21

Consumerism leads to homogeny, to people who work so that in Sal Paradise’s opinion “they could be buried in those awful cemetery cities beyond Long Island City.” 22 This is an image that McCarthy takes and turns into actual cities of death, abandoned, and with “The mummied dead everywhere.” 23

McCarthy takes this theme of materialism and consumerism to the extreme through his post-apocalyptic imagining, describing an America populated with survivors who desperately need food and clothes and blankets to survive, but who have to scavenge and struggle for even a meager existence. This determined form of consumerism focuses on the basic fact of survival and mocks previous Americans’ embrace of Thorstein Veblen’s concept of conspicuous consumption. Advertisements glower over an empty landscape; there is nobody left to buy or sell any goods nor are there any goods or services remaining: “Farther along were billboards advertising motels. Everything as it once had been save faded and weathered.” 24 Later the man and boy come upon “A log barn in a field with an advertisement in faded ten-foot letters across the roofslope. See Rock City,” 25 a haunting reminder of a more prosperous era. Other reminders of the previous world have been re-appropriated for darker times: “They passed through towns that warned people away with messages scrawled on the billboards. The billboards had been whited out with thin coats of paint in order to write on them and through the paint could be seen a pale palimpsest of advertisements for goods which no longer existed.” 26 The man and boy see other perversions of a dead consumerist and materialist lifestyle. Supermarkets lie empty and useless goods and luxuries fill vacant houses: “China in a breakfront, cups hanging from their hooks… . There was an antique pumporgan in the corner. A television set. Cheap stuffed furniture together with an old handmade cherrywood chifforobe.” 27 Haunting reminders of a country once rampant with a materialism that could not sustain itself and which very likely may have led to that country turning on itself.

In this landscape, the man and boy also become determined consumers who scavenge out of necessity rather than convenience. The man spends most of his waking hours either walking or searching for food he and the boy can eat or objects they can use. Interestingly, even though they have to work tirelessly to find meager rations, the man and the boy have become somewhat self-sufficient. The man and boy take only what they can carry or push in their repurposed grocery cart (another symbol of the land of plenty that has vanished) and so have to get by with very few material things — a sharp contrast to Americans criticized by Miller, Kerouac, Steinbeck, and Least Heat-Moon. The one time the man and boy do come across a plethora of goods hidden in an underground bunker, it serves only as a reminder of “The richness of a vanished world.” 28 They find “Crate upon crate of canned goods. Tomatoes, peaches, beans, apricots. Canned hams. Corned beef. Hundreds of gallons of water in ten gallon plastic jerry jugs. Paper towels, toiletpaper, paper plates. Plastic trashbags stuffed with blankets.” 29 After enjoying this bounty for a few days, they “set out what they could take” and pack the cart “with all that it could hold.” 30 Thus McCarthy attacks the previous world that consumed for luxury. Even though they load the cart full, the man and boy remain practical and collect the goods they can. Doing so demonstrates they have to remain vigilant about survival rather than comfort.

Perhaps the most insistent topic raised by road writers, and appropriately by McCarthy, is praise of the American landscape along with the concomitant attack on its destruction. Miller rhapsodizes about the beauty of the South and especially the Southwest, which he describes as “hypnagogic, chthonian and super-celestial. Here Nature has gone gaga and dada.” 31 And Steinbeck raves of the Rocky Mountains, their “great splash of grandeur,” 32 and declares, “I am in love with Montana.” 33 Yet both also attack the destruction of the environment, especially due to steel and coal industries in Miller’s narrative and to the appropriation of the natural world as tourist space (national parks) in Steinbeck’s. Least Heat-Moon’s attacks on environmental degradation are perhaps most vociferous because, in contrast to the other examples given, he most deliberately appreciates the American landscape. His lyrical descriptions of nature show his engagement with the natural world as a place of purpose and promise. In Mississippi, he meditates on life in a swamp: “It was spring here, and juices were getting up in the stalks; leaves, terribly folded in husks, had begun to let loose and open to the light; stuff was stirring in the rot, water bubbled with the froth of sperm and ova, and the whole bog lay rank and eggy, vaporous and thick with the scent of procreation” 34 and in Montana he speaks of “the language of the plains.” 35 Both of these descriptions show how Least Heat-Moon comprehends the organic processes of nature as opposed to merely appreciating vistas. Yet these descriptions contrast with his caustic remarks concerning what threatens to ruin the environment, particularly dams. The dams along the Missouri River have severed man’s bonds with nature: “Rapids and falls where Indians once speared fish lay under sedimented muck; sandbars and chutes, whirlpools, eddies, and sucks were gone, and the turmoil of waters—current against stone—that ancient voice of the river, silenced.” 36 Least Heat-Moon attacks dams because they represent man’s shortsightedness: deal with problems now and worry about the future later, which is essentially what the man and the boy in The Road encounter every day because they must.

These previous tributes to and critiques of the natural world pale in the face of McCarthy’s cataclysmic environmental vision where man’s shortsightedness results in global catastrophe. Instead of attacking man’s treatment of the environment, McCarthy instead has man almost completely destroy that environment. The landscape lies covered in ash: “On the far side of the river valley the road passed through a stark black burn. Charred and limbless trunks of trees stretching away on every side. Ash moving over the road and the sagging hands of blind wire strung from the blackened lightpoles whining thinly in the wind,” 37 and “The soft black talc blew through the streets like squid ink uncoiling along a sea floor.” 38 The man and boy walk through “cauterized terrain,” 39 “ashen scabland,” 40 and past “dead fields,” 41 with “no movement of life.” 42 This blackened landscape offers no beauty and little hope for the man and boy as they trudge through it to the coast. The man thinks that “if he lived long enough the world at last would all be lost.” 43 When they do finally arrive at the coast, their fortunes do not change. The ocean and the beach, once the hub of summer tourism and the endpoint of many a family journey, lie under the same pallid sky as the rest of the country: “Out there was the gray beach with the slow combers rolling dull and leaden and the distant sound of it… . Beyond that the ocean vast and cold and shifting heavily like a slowly heaving vat of slag and then the gray squall line of ash.” 44 McCarthy demonstrates that the journey of the man and boy may have been for naught, since they discover nothing that they haven’t already seen. So the end of the journey for them offers more of the same wasteland rather that John Winthrop’s “city upon a hill” or many a settler’s Promised Land. By setting his road narrative in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, McCarthy critiques the ultimate outcome of, not just Americans’, but man’s shortsightedness, vanity, and ego.

In addition, McCarthy’s reimagining of the role of optimism in road narratives is his final overhauling of the genre into extreme critique. Some of his characters, especially the boy, retain a measure of optimism in the face of utter devastation, yet that optimism remains realistic rather than idealistic. Road writers hold onto optimism to varying degrees. Miller eventually finds solace by settling in Big Sur, California, and Least Heat-Moon arrives home with the possibility of starting life anew. Other road writers retain lesser levels of optimism because their ideals have been severely tested during their journeys, but they hold on to it nonetheless. Sal Paradise gives up life on the road and chooses a less complex and more comfortable life in New York City—one he clearly prefers. But his rejection of his traveling companion Dean Moriarty causes him to end the novel with a Gastby-esque meditation on loss and guilt. Steinbeck returns from his journey with the suggestion that he has not learned anything he did not already know about America, yet he is clearly relieved to be among the comforts of home.

Similar feelings affect The Road as the man and boy cling to optimism, but it is an optimism rooted in their circumstances, each other, and some other people. The man and the boy need optimism, it literally keeps them alive, unlike the optimism of other road writers which is more abstract and can be adopted or tossed aside without life-or-death consequences. Even though the man knows he will die, he fights to save his son because that is all he can do in their precarious situation, and the son sees the essential goodness in people. The boy wants reassurance about being “the good guys” 45 and making sure that the pair are “carrying the fire,” 46 and the man tells him, “This is what the good guys do. They keep trying. They don’t give up.” 47 Despite the miles logged through a hellish landscape, the father (sometimes) and the son (mainly) retain optimism for a better and safer life in their harsh environment. The father, realistically, knows he will die yet keeps moving to help his son, and the boy has never known any other world but the one in which he lives. So the man chooses to deal with what he has and tries to make the present better. When he responds to his son’s worries about a lost little boy, he says, “Goodness will find the little boy. It always has. It will again.” 48 The boy embodies this goodness for the man and becomes a transformative figure, one capable of recreating the world not as it was but as it can be given the circumstances. Though the boy has shown signs of it all along, before the man dies the boy becomes numinous: “There was light all about him.” 49 As a possible hallucination, the man has to think he sees this light as it affirms his hope that his son will survive. After the man dies, another man, another good guy, saves the boy and reconnects him with a family unit, which strongly suggests that life, though altered ineradicably, can continue in the rubble. Along with the extreme critique associated with McCarthy’s descriptions of a post-apocalyptic America, the man, the boy, and the man who saves the boy demonstrate, as Least Heat-Moon would have it, that even though times are tragic there remain good people who, through a reevaluated optimism, can persevere.

The end of the novel, however, tempers any hope for the future of America by meditating on what has been lost and what could have been. Combining optimistic images with post-apocalyptic thinking, the end attacks once more the cataclysm caused by man. The novel concludes with verdant images of brook trout: “Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains” 50 and “On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming.” 51 These images exist in the past, reminders of a world seemingly gone forever. They also contrast hope with the destroyed landscape described throughout the novel. The trout’s life and possibility have become “Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again.” 52 The final sentence returns to the past and signifies either the final vision of a lost ideal or the final dream of the man in death: “In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.” 53 As another mystical image, the mystery can refer to the possibility of transformation the man believes is inherent in the child, and thus for hope in the future. But it can also represent primordial forces, like an apocalyptic event, that elude man’s knowledge and are beyond his control.

By rewriting the preoccupations of the road narrative — its idealistic impulse, its concept of the road, its concern with materialism and consumerism, its analysis of the environment, and its negotiation with optimism — McCarthy creates a narrative that damns the notions writers have based their journeys on throughout the twentieth century, thereby killing key aspects of the genre. He reexamines the idealistic purposes behind road trips and subverts them to reflect a new and catastrophic reality. McCarthy shows how ideals have been destroyed but then offers slight hope in the actions of the characters that those ideals can be reclaimed or created in the future (because there is no guarantee they have existed before). McCarthy has already redefined one classic American genre: Harold Bloom argues that McCarthy’s Blood Meridian “is the ultimate Western, not to be surpassed.” 54 The Road comes dangerously close to being the ultimate road narrative. But it is not the ultimate road narrative; rather it pushes the genre to the limits, breaks down its fundamental aspects, while simultaneously redefining optimism and hope.


  • Henry Miller, The Air-Conditioned Nightmare (New York: New Directions, 1970), 10.
  • Jack Kerouac, On the Road (New York: Penguin, 1991), 11.
  • John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley in Search of America (New York: Penguin, 1997), 5.
  • William Least Heat-Moon, Blue Highways (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991), 3.
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  • McCarthy, 5.
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  • McCarthy, 68.
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  • Least Heat-Moon, Blue Highways, 6.
  • Steinbeck, Travels with Charley, 70.
  • Least Heat-Moon, Blue Highways, 43.
  • McCarthy, The Road, 4.
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  • Steinbeck, 121.
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  • McCarthy, The Road, 8.
  • McCarthy, 181.
  • McCarthy, 14.
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  • McCarthy, 77.
  • McCarthy, 83.
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  • McCarthy, 287.
  • Harold Bloom, introduction to Blood Meridian, or, The Evening Redness in the West, by Cormac McCarthy (New York: Modern Library, 2001), v.

Bloom, Harold. Introduction to Blood Meridian, or, The Evening Redness in the West, by Cormac McCarthy, v-xiii. New York: Modern Library, 2001.

Kerouac, Jack. On the Road. New York: Penguin, 1991.

Least Heat-Moon, William. Blue Highways. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991.

McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. New York: Vintage International, 2006.

Miller, Henry. The Air-Conditioned Nightmare. New York: New Directions, 1970.

Steinbeck, John. Travels with Charley in Search of America. New York: Penguin, 1997.