The first American colonials, the Puritans, envisioned the vast unexplored reaches of land to the west of the colonies as a "desert wilderness," where danger lurked most obviously in the form of hostile Native Americans. At the same time, however, the Puritans also thought of the American continent as somehow sacred, a new promised land. As white Americans began to explore westward, these two attitudes remained at the forefront of the American imagination. Ideas of the American West have become an important part of our literature and mythology; they are pervasive in the American mind. For as long as white Americans have lived on this continent, they have regarded the unsettled West with a mixture of fear and excitement. It has been seen as a place of possibility but also of peril: a proving ground.
It is obvious, of course, that the history of the exploration and settlement of the country west of the original colonies--with its attendant violence and savagery towards the Native Americans who already lived there--is the history of the United States. Even the original colonies, as an unknown and uncivilized frontier for the European colonists, were an expression of Western expansion. The great moments in the history of the West are the great moments in American history: the Louisiana Purchase of western lands in 1803; the Lewis and Clark overland expedition to the Pacific Northwest from 1804-1806; the mapmaking and explorations of John C. Fremont in the late 1830s and 1840s; and the 1849 gold rush that brought Americans westward in unprecedented numbers. The gold rush, especially, solidified in the American mind an image of the West as a place of vast possibility. And other facets were being added to the vision: the West was a place, far away from civilization, of violence and lawlessness; a place relatively devoid of women and children, dominated by the men who explored and settled it first, governed by their codes of strength and toughness; a place of lonely and awesome beauty. The West was, as the literary critic Jane Tompkins has written, "a symbol of freedom, and of the opportunity for conquest."
While the boundaries of any geographical area that might be known as the "West" have changed dramatically (for the Puritans, Western Massachusetts was quite far enough West), the popular imagination began to delineate areas that represented the ideas they associated with the West. This was--again, in Tompkins' words--"the West of the desert, of mountains and prairies." The West was the area in which cowboys roamed along the great cattle trails. This West certainly existed. And the idea of the West as a breeding ground for American traits of individualism and risk-taking, as a place of possibility where a poor man might become rich, is surely an idea authenticated by history. But it must be said that the West as it is popularly imagined--of cowboys and Indians, of "big-sky" country--was to a great extent a product of an industry and a genre that has defined American culture in the past century: the Western.
Movies set within the Western experience comprise a significant percentage of American films. Everyone has seen these movies, and recognizes their brave but antisocial heroes, their lawless villains, the sweep of violins while a horse rides off into a sunset. For a generation of Americans, the cowboys they saw in the movies became symbols of American masculinity. The Western novel, too, has been a popular form since the first nineteenth-century dime-store pamphlets described, in terms so melodramatic and exaggerated as to be formulaic, the exploits of the great heroes of the West. In the twentieth century, immensely popular novelists like Zane Grey and Louis L'Amour have maintained the tradition of the Western novel (and in a much better written form).
The end of the twentieth century saw a revision of popular attitudes about the West, as scholars in many disciplines began to question previously accepted assumptions about America's historical and cultural heritage. New attention, for instance, was given to the appalling treatment of Native Americans during the Western expansion, and how this treatment was reflected in the Western movies that either vilified or trivialized the Native American characters. Where in earlier generations the gunfighting past of the American West was glorified--a symbol of American traditions of individualism and roughshod justice--many at the end of the twentieth century began to ask questions about the harmful impact of that violence to our culture and to the men who used violence to justify their moral codes. It is telling that the best American western of the 1990s was Clint Eastwood's "Unforgiven" (1993), an anti-Western, a story about the human casualties and psychological scarring of gunfights. And it is telling that the great writer of Western novels at the end of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first is Cormac McCarthy.
Indeed, McCarthy is most probably the greatest writer of Western novels in American history, to such a degree that his novels also transcend the "Western" genre. He may write in the tradition of Zane Grey and Louis L'Amour, but he is certainly also an heir to America's towering literary geniuses, such as William Faulkner--from whom McCarthy learned his long, flowing sentences--and Ernest Hemingway, whose attitudes of heroic stoicism and quiet romanticism pervade McCarthy's prose.
McCarthy's great epic Border Trilogy--whose first novel, All the Pretty Horses, has become McCarthy's most famous--tells the story of cowboys in the middle of the twentieth century, men who pursue a romantic Western idea that has vanished and turned from history into myth. McCarthy writes about the dark and unseen side of the Western idea: you will read in McCarthy's novels what you will never see in most Western movies, stories about tragedy, cruelty, and blood without a heroic or redemptive ending. The irony of All the Pretty Horses is that it exposes characters desperately trying to inhabit the cowboy myth--to subscribe to the cowboy code of stoicism, understated nobility and great physical skill--in the realities of exploration in a savage and uncivilized land. What emerges is a picture of what the West might really have been, together with a picture of the human spirit under awesome moral pressure.