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The post-World War II boom that informs today’s world has no place in Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses. The post-war optimism and suburban complacency common to other American works of this period does not figure into McCarthy’s novel, peopled as it is by characters like Blevins whose “daddy never come back from the war” (64) and John Grady’s father who looked “over the country with those sunken eyes as if the world out there had been altered or made suspect by what he’d seen of it elsewhere” (23), presumably in the war. Instead of the modern urban environment, these characters seek comfort in a less complicated world that is informed by an older cowboy ethos. This ethos relies upon wildness instead of artifice and the natural landscape instead of civilization. McCarthy’s relentless contrast between the call of wildness and the dangers of civilization merits a closer look at wildness and its associated values.
The novel opens immediately after the death of John Grady’s grandfather. Grady’s grandfather’s authenticity and authority stemmed from his management of the wild world of the ranch. The reader’s initial impression of the original 1866 ranch was that the grandfather carved it out of the land, “a oneroom hovel of sticks and wattle” (6). In exercising dominion over the ranch land, the grandfather achieved a unity with the wild world. The grandfather’s death denotes the loss of that wild world and impels the novel forward. Grady’s brief forays into the civilized world prove unsatisfactory. Here, contemporary society is exemplified by the lawyer’s office and his mother’s theater world. The lawyer’s tools prove futile in regaining the ranch. His mother’s world is so artificial that Grady cannot even find her registered in hotels under her own name. Grady’s inability to connect with his mother is brought home when “the clerk turned away and checked the registrations. He shook his head. No, he said. No Cole” (22). Disappointed, Grady is compelled to seek the wild world in Mexico.
Immediately after these unsatisfactory encounters the most idyllic portion of the novel begins. Grady, accompanied by Rawlins, becomes immersed in the world of the trail to Mexico. Rawlins and Grady leave the complex world behind them, and “by sunset they could hear trucks on a highway in the distance” (32). After this separation, the dialogue between the two becomes laconic and relies upon humorous understatement. Stunning descriptions of the natural world take the place of complicated dialogue. In one of the few moments not wracked by the sense of imminent doom, McCarthy tells us that Grady and Rawlins “left the river and followed the dry valley to the west. The country was rolling and grassy and the day was cool under the sun” (34). Such momentary optimism is possible only in the natural world, away from civilization.
When Blevins enters the story, this dream-like interlude abruptly ends. Blevins has been damaged by the world, emotionally scared by his stepfather. He too seeks release in the wild world. However, despite his numerous talents – horseman, marksman, survivalist – Blevins’ failure and ultimate death are caused by his inability to deal with the natural world. His separation from the natural world is underscored during the storm when Grady asks him “Why cant you be out in it?” and Blevins responds “On account of the lightnin'” (67). One could never imagine Grady’s grandfather allowing such fears to get the better of him. This fear of the natural world has severe short and long terms consequences for Blevins. In addition to the loss of his horse, he loses all ability to take care of himself when the floods wash away his clothes and gun. McCarthy highlights his inability to deal with the natural world as he “sat with his bare legs stretched before him, but they looked so white and exposed lying on the ground that he seemed ashamed and he tried to tuck them up underneath him” (74). Despite his bluster and superficial ease in dealing with the natural world, Blevins’s lack of authenticity immediately catches up with him. Were it not for Grady’s kindness, he could have been sold to the Mexicans or traded for wax.
Once relieved of Blevins, Grady and Rawlins enter the world of the Hacienda de Nuestra Seora de la Puresma Concepcin, “a ranch of eleven thousand hectares situated along the edge of the Bolsn de Cuatro Cienagas in the state of Coahuila” (97). Their arrival at the Hacienda signals a return to both the natural world and the world of artifice. Comparisons between Grady’s grandfather and Don Hector Rocha y Villareal are inevitable. The power of both men stems from their authority over their land. Both are rooted in the history of their land. Grady rapidly wins Don Hector’s respect when he and Rawlins break a small herd of three year old colts in as many days. This exercise of dominion underscores that a man’s worth is derived from his conquest of the wild. The tension of the battle between Grady and the horses is palpable and urgent. McCarthy tells us that,
…before the colt could struggle up John Grady had squatted on its neck and pulled its head up and to one side and was holding the horse by the muzzle with the long boney head pressed against his chest and the hot sweet breath of it flooding up from the dark wells of its nostrils over his face and neck like news from another world. They did not smell like horses. They smelled like what they were, wild animals. He held the horses face against his chest and he could feel along his inter thighs the blood pumping through the arteries and he could smell the fear and he cupped his hand over the horse’s eyes and stroked them and he did not stop talking to the horse at all, speaking in a low steady voice and telling it all that he intended to do and cupping the animal’s eyes and stroking the terror out (103-104).
This exercise of dominion over the wild world wins him an impressive promotion to breeder. Through his ability to master the wildness, Grady momentarily appears to be a master of his world.
This moment of mastery is short-lived because it brings Grady closer to the world of artifice in the form of Alejandra and Alfonsa. The foreignness of Alejandra is apparent because she is riding English, wearing “jodhpurs and a blue twill hacking jacket” (94). This stylized convention is foreign to Grady; although his love for her is beyond question, this foreign artifice puts the reader on notice that trouble is sure to follow. The complex machinations of Alfonsa trigger the subsequent incarceration of Rawlins and Grady. Once in jail, the boys are out of their depth. Their cowboy ethos and mastery of the natural world have little use in jail and they are saved only by getting “paid out” (209) by Alfonsa.
Released from jail, both Rawlins and Grady eventually return to Texas. McCarthy’s description of the natural world seems disjointed: “the dead moon hung in the west and the long flat shapes of the night clouds passed before it like a phantom fleet” (298). The wild world of the ranch is gone. The death of Abuela severs Grady’s last connection to that world. Rawlins asks, “Where is your country?” and Grady responds “I dont know where it is. I dont know what happens to country” (299). This response calls into question Grady’s purpose in the world and the value of his cowboy ethos. The novel closes with a description of the natural world. McCarthy tells us that Grady
…rode with the sun coppering his face and the red wind blowing out of the west across the evening land and the small desert birds flew chittering among the dry bracken and horse and rider and horse passed on and their long shadows passed in tandem like the shadow of a single being passed and paled into the darkening land, the world to come (302).
McCarthy’s description is foreboding because this natural world is foreign and Grady’s place in it uncertain.
In All the Pretty Horses, McCarthy contrasts the natural world with the civilized world. Whereas the natural world is associated with emotional release and freedom, the civilized world is associated with theatrical artifice at best, and jail at worst. One’s authenticity and authority are derived from mastery of this natural world. As shown supra, both Grady’s grandfather and Don Hector were exemplars of those whose authority was derived from such mastery. Blevins is an example of one who has failed to master the natural world. At the end of the novel, it remains unclear whether McCarthy’s protagonist will ever achieve such mastery or even if his cowboy ethos are still meaningful.
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