Skip to main content

Cormac McCarthy [revised 2009-2010]

All the Pretty Horses (1992) [2004]
Regionalism: American Southwest

The American Southwest has a very specific regional identity. This is partly a matter of physical geography — it is in the main a semi-arid region —, and partly a matter of a complex cultural history. I shall avoid giving you too much background, but if you are interested in Cormac McCarthy’s work, you should endeavour to find out more about the American Southwest, about its history and about its identity as a borderland with Mexico. Very briefly, the term, the Southwest, usually denotes the region encompassing Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and West Texas (the Panhandle), but it can stretch to encompass most of Texas. It is defined partly by its relation to adjacent areas such as California and Mexico, and it is often confused in the popular mind with the "West". It is the main site of Westerns, so that popular images of the Southwest are associated with stereotypical gunslinger scenarios. Monument Valley was used as a shooting location by the director, John Ford. Think for example of Stagecoach (1939).

It is important to be aware of the cultural diversity of the region. Much of it was colonized by Spain, and Hispanic culture is still prevalent, especially in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. Hispanic culture was deeply embedded before the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (02/02/1848) with Mexico. In 1900 Hispanos were still a very large majority in this region, and Hispanic culture continued as a strong strand throughout the twentieth century. By the late twentieth century Hispanic culture had evolved into Chicano culture, which distinguishes itself from Mexican culture in a number of ways, including the ways in which contemporary authors relate to Mexican traditions and rework Mexican myths in an American context. Throughout the region there are several Native American tribes, each with their own specific traditions, languages and cultures. These can be roughly divided into four main groups: Pueblo, Pima-Papago, Navaho and Apache. The third, main group of people, and hence type of cultural influence on the region, is the Anglo population. Although "Anglo" isn’t that accurate a term, since, in terms of the history of settlement, Jewish traders would probably have been found in many western town; and if you look specifically at Texas, you find communities, which still preserve a strong sense of their German identity.

So, while the impression we often receive from watching traditional Westerns is of Anglo communities, with a few troublesome Indians in the distance, and a few pathetic Latinos eking out a living on the margins; the reality was rather different. The movies might tell the story of an Anglo Gunslinger nation, but the traces of cultural history indicate quite a different and more complex tale.

Revisioning the myths of the western

Both Henry Nash Smith and Richard Slotkin have written about how the myths of the west developed from colonial times through the great expansion westward of the 19thcentury. I don’t want to spend too much time going over old ground; but just to remind you that Nash Smith drew attention to the dime novels, as a popular genre, which developed and perpetuated many of the stereotypical images of cowboys and Indians, sheriffs and outlaws. And that Slotkin, through his study of a wide range of narratives, novels and visual arts, indicated how the original utopian ideals of American culture were complicated in time to produce a more complex and arguably compromised version of the frontier myth, one which invoked the concept of justifiable, righteous violence. Which is to say that a gun in the right hands is a good thing, since it allows law and order to be upheld.

In his introduction to Regeneration through Violence he offers an analysis of the development of what he terms cultural myths, which is based on the following definition of myths:

As artifacts, myths appear to be built of three basic structural elements: a protagonist or hero, with whom the human audience is presumed to identify in some way; a universe in which the hero may act, which is presumably a reflection of the audience’s conception of the world and the gods; and a narrative, in which the interaction of hero and universe is described. (8)



Building on this he indicates his central thesis, which is that the national mythology of the US is based on a combination of a sense of right to possess the land and a history of violence in executing and defending that right:

"The land was ours before we were the land’s," said Robert Frost. The process by which we came to feel an emotional title to the land was charged with a passionate and aspiring violence, and "the deed of gift was many deeds of war." Because of the nature of myth and the myth-making process, it is a significant comment on our characteristic attitudes toward ourselves, our culture, our racial subgroupings, and our land that tales of strife between native Americans and interlopers, between dark races and light, became the basis of our mythology and that the Indian fighter and hunter emerged as the first of our national heroes. (17-18)



And as we know these national heroes developed into the archetypal cowboy, gunslinger or sheriff. The heroic archetype is flexible and capable of many transformations — think for example of the ways in which Clint Eastwood has portrayed him over the length of his career — but I think certain elements remain constant. In particular there is the sense that the heroic gunslinger is morally pure despite his involvement with violence. Thus he becomes the national hero and one who is sometimes overtly performed by presidents; I’m thinking for example of images of Ronald Reagan striding out into the paddock to saddle a horse on his western ranch. I don’t intend to talk about dime novels, since  Henry Nash Smith has written the classic study of them and their cultural significance for the national mythology, but I do want to very briefly indicate the literary history of the western in the twentieth century, by looking at a couple of key figures.

The first is Owen Wister, who published the Virginianin 1902, which has taken on canonical status as an example of classic western fiction. It established a number of important themes and narrative tropes for the western; including the image of the cowboy as white, the intense communion between the solitary hero and the land, his practical skill and prowess as a cowboy and his relative lack of conventional "schooling." His skills and moral qualities are revealed through the eyes of an Easterner and "tenderfoot" who has a literary education but is inept in a Western (Wyoming) environment. His macho isolation is softened by the love of a good woman, who is the local school marm, and he is inspired by her to start reading literature. The complicated plot involves showdowns with immoral "baddies" and the final dénouement involves the classic shoot out at sunset, before he sets off into the mountains for his honeymoon. Admittedly this is a very sketchy description, but I just want to focus on one scene to indicate the ways in which the macho image of the lone cowboy/gunslinger is romanticised, both in relation to his longing for the land and through his love of the schoolteacher:

See 310-314 or extract reproduced below



So in Wister’s novel, the good woman wrestles with her conscience and capitulates, even though her fiancé has killed a man with "Malice Aforethought", i.e. he is technically guilty of premeditated murder. I think you can see that in McCarthy’s revisioning of the myth the cowboy/ caballero (horseman) is both less guilty and much less lucky in the end.

The other classic western text has to be Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage (1912). Grey wrote a total of 89 books of which 56 were western novels (May, 166n). Early in his career, Grey read The Virginian carefully to learn the craft of writing a successful western novel and his novels regularly combine the plot interest of heterosexual romance with descriptions of harsh conditions and violence as a solution, in much the same way as Wister does. Zane Grey can be seen as a representative American who resolved his individual neurosis (caused by a domineering and violent father) by writing it large on the landscape. Grey had little psychological insight and no ability to create characters with psychological depth. Nor could he manage the nuanced subtleties of narrative voice like one of his literary heroes Nathaniel Hawthorne. Yet he did achieve an Americanization of western fiction, transforming Fenimore Cooper’s European narratives into archetypal western stories. Riders of the Purple Sageis actually not my favourite Zane Grey novel, but it has been republished in the Oxford World’s Classics series along with The Virginian, the advantage being that both republications have excellent introductions. And Riders of the Purple Sageis also an excellent example of Grey’s romanticised depiction of landscape, which is such an important feature of the American national mythology in the 19th and early 20thcenturies. The heterosexual love plot involves a rather solitary character, Venters, shooting and almost killing the daughter of a cattle rustler, who up until that moment was assumed to be a male, masked rider. He discovers she is a woman when he tends her wounds and then he finds a safe place to hide while he nurses her back to health. What he finds is a lost valley, once inhabited by "basket people" (Anasazi tribes or cave dwellers), which is virtually cut off from the outside world. Grey figures it as a type of paradise regained, with the archaeological traces of the archaic pueblo Indians’ artefacts and culture, but with verdant growth, a climate suitable to subsistence agriculture and lots of "tame" wild game. At the end of the novel Venters and Bess ride out of Utah to safety, but the other heterosexual couple retreat to the safety of "Surprise Valley", roll the balancing stone and block access over the pass for ever.

The Utah landscape is one of violent threat but is also depicted as sublime, inspiring awe and awakening a sense of transcendence. Heterosexual romantic love is linked to this pseudo-religious response to landscape by the plot, so that in this novel the bad guys are the Mormon community, and the good guys are the lone gunmen seeking vengeance for the wrong done to innocent women.

I’ve talked about these two examples in particular because I think an examination of them allows us to define more specifically the national mythology of the western novel, and thus understand the ways in which Cormac McCarthy revises it. It does indeed contain the three main elements:

  • The landscape, which is both beautiful and terrifying, containing the threat of violence and an invocation to sublime sentiment.
  • The archetypal hero, who is a loner and driven by strong moral purpose.
  • The narrative, which comments on and complicates the interaction of these two forces.

And I would add fourth, fifth and sixth ingredients:

  • Race, even if that is by default in Wister and Grey, who tend to populate the western landscape solely with Anglos — merely distinguishing between good and bad, or westerner and easterner.
  • Heterosexual romantic love, which can sit awkwardly with some of the macho values which tend to accrue to the hero during the novel. So the hero struggles before capitulating to love, and the novelist struggles to reconcile his heroic loner status with his final decision to commit to marriage.
  •  I would add violence as a final element, since it is not only the landscape but the protagonists and people they encounter who have guns (and knives). You might want to think more about McCarthy's attitudes to violence and consider what he achieves in his depiction of violence. Does he collude with a dominant American exceptionalist ideology that permits the exercise of violence and power in defence of  the "right" cause? Or does he depict violence in such a way as to make us reconsider its function within human social organization? He certainly implies that it is a part of human existience that needs to be addressed rather than denied.

All the Pretty Horses is set in 1949, so just into the post-war era, and at a time when classic western fictions have been written &/or filmed as movies. Westerns are very familiar by then, but the world they depict is already gone, and history has been transformed into the myths of American popular culture. So McCarthy’s two male companions, John Grady Cole and Lacey Rawlins, set out to live the western myth, and find themselves enacting a deromanticized, deglamourized version of it. Arguably John Grady is a true western hero, caught in an anti-myth. He has an historical / topological imagination, which is haunted by the past, but he cannot find a place for himself in the contemporary present. (Look at 5, 26 and think about other places in the text that reinforce this characterization of him.)

Cultural Geohistory

One might think of John Grady's dilemma in terms of a tension between the real or the actual  and his cultural imaginary. One useful way of approaching this would be through the work of Neil Campbell. In The Cultures of the American New West (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000), Neil Campbell describes in his introduction the impact of various postmodern theories, including that of cultural geographers, on conventional thinking about the West. To quote just part of his exposition:

[…] space is constructed and produced through a variety of practices: "mental space and social realities are in reality inseparable." They are simultaneous and imbricated (overlapping), commingling to create a "hybrid space, at once material and psychical … in which [we] … actually live and act." We do not dwell in two separate worlds, one real and one imagined; they constantly bleed into each other – we cross between both – and perhaps occupy the space between, "a ‘between’ formed only in the simultaneous presence of the two" — a third space. (19)

Again:

 

A new spatial cultural geohistory of the American West gathers the "traces," the artefacts, and the fragments in order to articulate, not a unified and totalizing story but one in which many ideologies cross, coexist, and collide. (20)

[the West] has always existed as both a region and more than a region, as imagined, dream-space as well as real, material space. It is in the confluence of these different, but connected, views of the West that it remains a powerful and meaningful idea within the American psyche.

In order for space to be read in this way, however, one has to reject a purely linear narrative of history and recognize that things happen simultaneously. (21)

I apologize for quoting at length like that, but I think the argument which Campbell traces really helps us understand what is going on in All the Pretty Horses. As he says when he applies his theoretical introduction to McCarthy’s Border Trilogy of which All the Pretty Horses is the first part, "McCarthy’s Western space embodies this sense of shifting patterns as the inevitable "real-and-imagined" territory in which his characters construct their identities.

So, for example, Zane Grey combines a latter day revenger’s story with a reworking of the myth of the Garden of Eden, and both heterosexual couples can end the novel living happily ever after, either in Surprise Valley or by escaping Utah. Yet, in contrast McCarthy initially presents La Purisma as a reworking of the myth of the promised land and virgin territory, only to subvert the possibility of "romance," when romance means all the trappings of the romantic novel. The elements are there: the beautiful young girl, the socially equal but apparently inferior lover, a elderly spinster relative who is an obstruction to their love. But in McCarthy’s version the late 19th century early 20th century version of the romance plot, with the wedding bells sounding at the end is totally undermined. John Grady copes with random and anarchic violence, wins a duel, but doesn’t get the girl. If I were to trace the conventions of the romantic novel back to its origins (if such a word is meaningful), I would suggest that you think about the myth of Tristan and Isolde (Iseut) for example, where romantic love is extra-marital, and intensified by the obstructions which keep the lovers apart. In his classic analysis of romantic love, Denis de Rougemont describes how romantic love is associated with death, because it is only in death that the lovers can be united. John Grady and Alejandra manage to fall between these two romantic plots. Marriage is an unrealistic proposition given their cultural differences. Unrequited passion giving definition to two lives and being consummated only beyond death is not possible, because of Alejandra’s headstrong nature, and also because it’s rather old fashioned as a way of dealing with sexual desire in 1949-50. Zane Grey could describe the features of the southwestern landscape brilliantly, but in other respects as a novelist he adhered to the stereotypical and unrealistic conventions of romantic novels. McCarthy combines the real and the cultural imaginary in a more complex fashion, to arrive at a much bleaker sense of romantic love:

When they got to the room the maid was cleaning and she left and they closed the curtains and made love and slept in each other’s arms. When they woke it was evening. She came from the shower wrapped in a towel and she sat on the bed and took his hand and looked down at him. I cannot do what you asked, she said. I love you. But I cannot.

He saw very clearly how all his life led only to this moment and all after led nowhere at all. He felt something cold and soulless enter him like another being and he imagined that it smiled malignly and he had no reason to believe that it would ever leave. (254)



See also 282, where he shoots the young doe and thinks of Alejandra. Compare this with Fenimore Cooper’s treatment of a similar deer shooting scene, and Slotkin’s discussion of it.

Border Fiction

Campbell says this of All the Pretty Horses:

In an effort to find a "map" of his own identity, to fix his position, purpose and role in the world and in the West, John Grady goes to Mexico in search of the old stories that he imagines will give him these truths and coordinates of identity. To live out the mythic past as the active present is a means of self-definition for him, of mapping himself into a frame of certainty by holding onto romantic notions of self, of tragic love […] and honour. (26)

In this regard, think about the moment when Rawlins and John Grady reach the border, to discover that the map of Mexico is a blank. What does this say about their assumptions? Do they see it as "blank page" to write their own stories on?

Neil Campbell suggests in effect that the journey across the border to Mexico is for John Grady and for Rawlins a journey into a mythic past. Except that it turns out to be a journey into a contemporary present, a real culture with a different political, social and economic history from that of Texas. One of the old stories that finds John Grady is the legend of Billy the Kid, only this time it’s Jimmy Blevins. The encounter, despite its disastrous consequences, is treated as farce. Yet there is a dark side to it from the start. Rawlins and Grady know that he is trouble, but they can’t quite get rid of him, probably because of Grady’s inappropriate, anachronistic code of honour. The kid has some of the qualities of Billy the Kid, he’s a crack shot for example, but he doesn’t take on mythic proportions. As the object of humor it is shocking to the reader that he is taken out and shot in a case of local botched justice, because of the Mexican code of honor.

David Holloway has written that, All the Pretty Horses dramatises a way "of coping with the irrecoverability of the past," and a kind "of existential choice in a universe where selfhood is filled up – and meaningful agency is choked – by the baleful influence of material objects and material relations." (Borderlines, 5, 2, 165). In his reading John Grady tries to "sustain selfhood under historical conditions such as these" through "restless, quixotic attempts at transcendence." (165). Yet what McCarthy demonstrates is that there is no essentialist sense of identity in a universe where myths and realities clash on the literal ground. There isn’t one coherent set of myths or philosophical discourses, which can make sense of this environment and bestow unified identity on a young man. I almost agree with Campbell’s interpretation of Grady as "holding onto romantic notions of self, of tragic love […] and honour." Grady displays these characteristics, but he is not quite depicted as an all-American rugged individualist hero. If he harks back to Western myths for some sense of identity, he doesn’t do so with absolute certainty. The most reliable relationship he has is with his horse, and that is pretty stripped down and existentialist:

What he loved in horses was what he loved in men, the blood and the heat of the blood that ran them. All his reverence and all his fondness and all the leanings of his life were for the ardenthearted and they would always be so and never be otherwise. (6) 



This suggests a certain single-mindedness of character, but the opening section of the novel suggests more complexity and hybridity in his identity. He has more in common with his grandfather than with his parents, and he is cut loose in the world when his grandfather dies, his mother sells the ranch and his father gives up and concedes everything in the divorce settlement. But he knows he cannot recover the past that his grandfather lived:

The Grady name was buried with that old man the day the norther blew the lawnchairs over the dead cemetery grass. The boy’s name was Cole. John Grady Cole. (7)



Yet he isn’t referred to as Cole in the narrative, his father has been a largely absent father, and remains a pathetic figure, not exactly a role model for a 16 year old son. His father tells him:

People don’t feel safe no more, he said. We’re like the Comanches was two hundred years ago. (26-7)



This echoes that passage in the opening pages, where John Grady rides out and imagines the traces of that past. Even at the very start of the novel John Grady is described as "a man come to the end of something." What could be more bleak than that?

Helen M Dennis


Points for discussion
  • Think about the way the theme of justice is depicted in the novel.
  • Consider the role of violence in the story.
  • What aspects of cultural similarity and of cultural difference does John Grady Cole discover on his journey. How does he make these discoveries?
  • Look at the function of dialogue in the text, especially between John Grady and Rawlins.
  • McCarthy's prose has been described as "biblical". How does his use of a biblical lexicon and range of allusions affect your understanding of this novel?
Appendix (from Owen Wister's The Virginian)

Trampas looked at the walls and windows of the houses. Were they real?
Was he here, walking in this street? Something had changed. He looked
everywhere, and feeling it everywhere, wondered what this could be. Then
he knew: it was the sun that had gone entirely behind the mountains, and
he drew out his pistol.

The Virginian, for precaution, did not walk out of the front door of the
hotel. He went through back ways, and paused once. Against his breast
he felt the wedding ring where he had it suspended by a chain from his
neck. His hand went up to it, and he drew it out and looked at it. He
took it off the chain, and his arm went back to hurl it from him as far
as he could. But he stopped and kissed it with one sob, and thrust it in
his pocket. Then he walked out into the open, watching. He saw men here
and there, and they let him pass as before, without speaking. He saw
his three friends, and they said no word to him. But they turned and
followed in his rear at a little distance, because it was known that
Shorty had been found shot from behind. The Virginian gained a position
soon where no one could come at him except from in front; and the sight
of the mountains was almost more than he could endure, because it was
there that he had been going to-morrow.

"It is quite a while after sunset," he heard himself say.

A wind seemed to blow his sleeve off his arm, and he replied to it, and
saw Trampas pitch forward. He saw Trampas raise his arm from the ground
and fall again, and lie there this time, still. A little smoke was
rising from the pistol on the ground, and he looked at his own, and saw
the smoke flowing upward out of it.

"I expect that's all," he said aloud.

But as he came nearer Trampas, he covered him with his weapon. He
stopped a moment, seeing the hand on the ground move. Two fingers
twitched, and then ceased; for it was all. The Virginian stood looking
down at Trampas.

"Both of mine hit," he said, once more aloud. "His must have gone mighty
close to my arm. I told her it would not be me."

He had scarcely noticed that he was being surrounded and congratulated.
His hand was being shaken, and he saw it was Scipio in tears. Scipio's
joy made his heart like lead within him. He was near telling his friend
everything, but he did not.

"If anybody wants me about this," he said, "I will be at the hotel."

"Who'll want you?" said Scipio. "Three of us saw his gun out." And he
vented his admiration. "You were that cool! That quick!"

"I'll see you boys again," said the Virginian, heavily; and he walked
away.

Scipio looked after him, astonished. "Yu' might suppose he was in poor
luck," he said to McLean.

The Virginian walked to the hotel, and stood on the threshold of his
sweetheart's room. She had heard his step, and was upon her feet. Her
lips were parted, and her eyes fixed on him, nor did she move, or speak.

"Yu' have to know it," said he. "I have killed Trampas."

"Oh, thank God!" she said; and he found her in his arms. Long they
embraced without speaking, and what they whispered then with their
kisses, matters not.

Thus did her New England conscience battle to the end, and, in the end,
capitulate to love. And the next day, with the bishop's blessing, and
Mrs. Taylor's broadest smile, and the ring on her finger, the Virginian
departed with his bride into the mountains.