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All the Pretty Horses | Study Guide

Cormac McCarthy

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All the Pretty Horses | Context


Myth of the American West

As European colonists settled and developed the eastern shores of North America, the unsettled West came to be viewed as a land of opportunity where rugged individuals could reinvent themselves and carve out their own fates. With the development of the idea of Manifest Destiny in the 19th century, Americans came to believe that westward expansion to the Pacific Ocean was ordained by God. Acts of westward expansion, such as the Louisiana Purchase (1803), the Lewis and Clark expedition (1804), and the California Gold Rush (1849), supported this view of a developing country. Those who explored the wild and beautiful deserts, mountains, and prairies of the western regions were rugged individuals, most often white and male, capable of surviving in what was often a harsh, violent, lawless, and dangerous environment. These explorers captured the imaginations of a young citizenry intent on developing a new country and a new cultural identity.

The myth of the glorious Wild West where opportunity abounded that still permeates the American psyche contrasts sharply with the historical reality of the Native American experience in the same region. As the white descendants of Europe raced toward the western shore, they had little regard for the native peoples already living in North America. In 1830 President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, a law that forced the relocation of Native Americans to federal lands. Despite native efforts at military, political, and legal resistance, Native Americans lost their lives and lands in devastating percentages.

The Cowboy

Within the setting of the American West, the iconic cowboy stands as a symbol of freedom and adventure. The American cowboy of myth is a man, often a social misfit of sorts, who has left the confines of civilization to find on the frontier some missing element in his life. He is also a man who maintains a close relationship with nature—his horse and the American landscape. The cowboy comes to represent the conflict between nature and civilization as well as the conflict between individual freedom and social conformity. Yet, as Americans stretched their numbers westward, the frontier became tamed by the very presence of the cowboy and those who followed him, and the ideal of the frontier as a place where men (and women) determine their own destinies relocated to the American imagination.

If the cowboy is the protagonist of the story of the American West, the antagonists can be found in those who came to represent barriers to his self-centered quest of fulfillment: Native Americans, and in the American Southwest, Mexicans, who populated this land first and did not give it up easily as Europeans encroached from the East. Yet, even as the Mexicans engaged in conflicts with the cowboy, he adopted much of the dress and language of the Mexican vaqueros as his own: words such as mustang, lasso, lariat, chaps, and bronco are of Spanish origin; words such as hickory, pone, coyote, and Appaloosa are of Native American origin. In this way the American cowboy became both himself and the other he fought against, both nature and civilization, both freedom and conformity. In this way he came to symbolize the conflicted American character.

Western Literature and Film

The theme of the West and the narrative of the Western have captured the American imagination since newspaperman Horace Greeley offered his famous advice to young American men: "Go West, young man, and grow up with the country." This myth of the American West as a place where boys become men has been perpetuated through literature and film via the genre of the Western. Typically, the Western is set west of the Mississippi River between 1850 and 1899. The stories address conflicts between cowboys and Indians or Mexicans or cowboys who drive cattle over long distances to create ranches. The stories also typically feature the problems that come with establishing law and order in the Wild West, breeding familiar character types such as sheriffs, marshals, gunslingers, outlaws, and bandits. These types are inspired by real-life figures such as deputy town marshal Wyatt Earp, gunfighter Billy the Kid, and robber Jesse James.

The literary genre began with James Fenimore Cooper's The Prairie (1827), part of the Leatherstocking Tales series that features his famous frontier character Natty Bumppo. But the genre was popularized by the works of Zane Grey, such as Riders of the Purple Sage (1912), where protagonist Jane Withersteen tries to escape the persecution of a Mormon church. Louis L'Amour's Hondo (1953), Flint (1960), Catlow (1963), and Down the Long Hills (1968) continued the popularity of the genre. In 1985 Larry McMurtry won the Pulitzer Prize for his cowboy epic Lonesome Dove.

Because of the sweeping landscapes and violence found in the Western genre, these stories have been particularly suited to the visual nature of film, a genre that began with The Great Train Robbery (1903). Directors such as John Ford and actors such as John Wayne built their fame and reputations in this genre with films such as Stagecoach (1939) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). Actor and director Clint Eastwood took up the genre with The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), Pale Rider (1985), and Unforgiven (1992).

Given America's love affair with the Western, it is perhaps not surprising then that Cormac McCarthy's take on the Western, All the Pretty Horses, was the first of his novels to break through to mainstream acclaim. In All the Pretty Horses he conjures landscapes of raw beauty and vulnerable horsemen who pine for the past because it is all they know.

All the Pretty Horses, however, is hardly genre fiction. Many of the assumptions that go unquestioned in typical Western fare—any Zane Grey novel or John Wayne movie—are reexamined in painful detail in McCarthy's novels. His 1985 novel Blood Meridian, for example, shows how the West was really won: with brutal and unrelenting violence.

While not as gory as Blood Meridian, All the Pretty Horses, the so-called anti-Western, is no less skeptical about the glorious tales of the West that have been so deeply embedded in readers' minds since childhood. The novel, which takes place from 1949 to 1950, is quick to reveal the cowboy way of life is over and has been for some time. At the very beginning of the novel, the 16-year-old protagonist John Grady Cole's family ranch in Texas is being sold after the death of his grandfather. The ranch had not been making money for 20 years, and John Grady sees only an ordinary—and, even less appealing, modern—future in Texas, a place where the West is no longer so wild. John Grady journeys to Mexico with his best friend Lacey Rawlins in search of his dream of recreating an American West fantasy. Of course Mexico is an entirely different land where the rules of the American cowboy do not apply, as he will eventually discover.

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