The American conception of the West is a romantic ideal born of a profoundly unromantic reality. It has been the self-appointed role of contemporary scholarship and culture to reach past the popular vision of America's westward expansion and settlement--a vision shaped and colored by hundreds of Western movies and their depictions of death without blood, and solitary heroic cowboys vanquishing ultimately cowardly villains--in an attempt to recover the true history of the American West, to remove the romantic and heroic veneer from a past of violence and prejudice, of dreams shattered as much as hopes fulfilled. Cormac McCarthy's novel All the Pretty Horses concerns itself with the meeting place between realism and romanticism.
All the Pretty Horses is set in 1949 and 1950. The opening of the novel shows John Grady Cole, a sixteen-year-old Texan who wants badly to be a cowboy, at the funeral of his grandfather. The driving economic force in Texas, it becomes clear to John Grady, is oil rather than cattle: after the funeral, John Grady's mother will sell the ranch the grandfather owned, and on which John Grady was raised. It is a ranch built by John Grady's great-grandfather in the formative years of the cowboy culture, the years immediately after the Civil War, and its passing out of the family is a symbol of the passing of the old West, the West of cowboys, horses, and cattle. But John Grady Cole retains a romantic vision of the cowboy life, and he tries desperately to live his life according to the code he has both inherited and invented, defined by the critic Jane Tompkins as consisting of "self-discipline; unswerving purpose; the exercise of knowledge, skill, ingenuity, and excellent judgment; and a capacity to continue in the face of total exhaustion and overwhelming odds." In order to live his life by this code, John Grady Cole needs to leave the United States for Mexico, to go to a place American civilization has not yet reached. Looking for something that has been lost from America--indeed, some romantic lifestyle which may never have existed--he travels to a place that is, on a metaphysical level, more West than the West.
All the Pretty Horses is the story of this cowboy code of honor--the foundation of the Western lifestyle--put to the test. It is the story of the maturation of John Grady Cole in blood, as his romantic idealism is tried in a place where survival does not concede anything to propriety and nobility. All the Pretty Horses tries to describe, time and again, the human and psychological cost of living according to dreams and romantic ideals: it is the search for the romantic cowboy life that leads John Grady and his companions into Mexico; it is the romantic pursuit of forbidden love that ends in John Grady's harrowing imprisonment.
What is remarkable in all this is that John Grady Cole survives, and his idealism survives as well. In Mexico he finds nothing but tragedy, but he keeps faith with his religion of stoicism and skill and competence. If McCarthy's is a de-romanticized world peopled by the cynical and the savage, men and women driven by the need above all else to survive, John Grady Cole remains a hero, albeit shrunken and sensitive--perhaps the ghost of a hero, a hero victim to anachronism. Most moving and tragic among John Grady's heroic traits is his refusal to bow to fate, his insistence on personal responsibility. John Grady is a cowboy who denies destiny, however manifest: All the Pretty Horses details its hero's struggle against forces of history and changing economy, against social barriers and overwhelming odds. On some level, John Grady Cole fails tragically. On another level, whether he succeeds or fails must be measured in terms of his consistency to his internal code. In All the Pretty Horses, the fabled Western mindset has become internalized: it is something perhaps absent from the external world but that exists in the minds of heroes. Indeed, it is fair to say that All the Pretty Horses is about the internalization of a myth that has always been writ in starkly physical, larger than life terms. Its landscapes, sunsets, horses, and mountains, so iconic of the West, are symbols and reflections; through them the novel concerns itself with the human soul.
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