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All the Pretty Horses | Study Guide

Cormac McCarthy

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All the Pretty Horses | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Cormac McCarthy's sixth novel, All the Pretty Horses, was published in 1992 and won the prestigious National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. The novel is set in Texas and Mexico and tells the story of John Grady Cole, a young man who journeys south to Mexico after his grandfather dies. With unconventional punctuation and grammar, its unique style brings the deserts and plains of the Southwest to life.

Reviews of the novel claimed McCarthy was "the finest action writer since Hemingway" and called the book "surely one of the great American novels." The novel's reinterpretations of the myths of the American West have made it a classic of American writing.

1. The title All the Pretty Horses comes from a lullaby.

The title of McCarthy's novel comes from an old lullaby, intended to soothe a child to sleep. It goes: "Hushabye, don't you cry, / Go to sleepy, little baby; / When you wake, you shall have cake, / And all the pretty little horses." The title creates situational irony: the main character, John Grady Cole, does not have the calm life of plenty promised in the lyrics but instead faces difficulty and pain in his journey through the American West.

2. McCarthy typed All the Pretty Horses on a manual typewriter.

McCarthy's typewriter, on which he wrote for 50 years, was purchased in 1963. Over those five decades, he typed around 5 million words on it. The typewriter, a Lettera 32 Olivetti, sold at auction for over $250,000 in 2009; the rare book dealer who handled the auction said about the machine, "It's as if Mount Rushmore was carved with a Swiss Army knife." McCarthy replaced the typewriter with another of the same model.

3. There are no quotation marks in All the Pretty Horses.

McCarthy is very particular when it comes to punctuation. He says, "There's no reason to blot the page up with weird little marks." As a result, there are no quotation marks in All the Pretty Horses. There are also no semicolons in his writing and only a very occasional colon, when a list follows. His rule: "I believe in periods, in capitals, in the occasional comma, and that's it."

4. All the Pretty Horses is the first in a trilogy.

All the Pretty Horses is the first in a group of three novels called the Border Trilogy. Volume two is titled The Crossing, and the third is Cities of the Plain. The trilogy focuses on two men's coming of age in the American West and Mexico. The main character of the second novel is Billy Parham, and in the third novel, both he and John Grady Cole appear and intersect.

5. Cormac McCarthy said he hadn't read a novel "in years."

McCarthy may not have curled up with a good book in the standard sense—but he did edit them. While the he claimed to have not read a novel in years, he did volunteer to edit books at the Santa Fe Institute, including a biography of scientist Richard Feynman. He also edited a physics book called Warped Passages. "He really smoothed the prose," the author said. McCarthy explained, "I'm here because I like science, and this is a fun place to spend time. I'm not here because I'm a novelist. I just managed to sneak in."

6. McCarthy sent his first novel to Random House because they were the only publisher he knew.

McCarthy wrote The Orchard Keeper over three years while living in New Orleans, Chicago, and Asheville, North Carolina. He sent it off to Random House because, as he said, "It was the only publisher I'd heard of." Editor Albert Erskine, who'd edited William Faulkner, read it and signed McCarthy, and the two worked together for the next 20 years.

7. The New York Times claimed McCarthy was equal to William Faulkner as a writer.

The New York Times review of All the Pretty Horses compares McCarthy's writing style to William Faulkner's, stating that McCarthy's prose "builds on Faulkner's work, yet, more than Faulkner ever did, Mr. McCarthy seems to be pulling the language apart at its roots." Later, while acknowledging that the substance of the two writers' works is very different, the reviewer claims, "Cormac McCarthy must be acknowledged as a talent equal to William Faulkner."

8. Matt Damon has said he is most proud of his work in the film version of All the Pretty Horses.

Though the 2000 film version of All the Pretty Horses did not get great reviews, actor Matt Damon, who plays John Grady Cole, felt great pride in his interpretation of the role. He said, "This is the thing I'm most proud of, the best thing I've ever done." Reviewer Roger Ebert agreed, calling the film "elegiac" and "special."

9. McCarthy doesn't care much for some of history's literary giants.

McCarthy has strong opinions about other writers. He doesn't mind at all being compared to William Faulkner; he considers him one of the "good writers." He also places Melville and Dostoevsky in that category. However, he is bemused by Henry James and Marcel Proust, in part because they don't address matters of life and death in their intensive studies of thought and perception. He admits, "I don't understand them. To me, that's not literature. A lot of writers who are considered good I consider strange."

10. Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons loved All the Pretty Horses.

Marcus Mumford published a review of All the Pretty Horses on his band's website, saying, "After John Steinbeck, Cormac McCarthy is my favourite American writer." He goes on to rave about the book's characterizations, plotting, and "uncompromising style." He ends by stating, "So I bloody loved it. And I hope some of you can too."

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