The Horses of Cormac McCarthy’s «All the Pretty Horses»: Rides and Rites of Passage

by Vanessa Keiper (Author)
©2021 Thesis 252 Pages


The horses in All the Pretty Horses are ubiquitous but rarely the center of attention. Their depiction is surprisingly authentic and without anthropomorphization. This book illustrates how an equicentric reading offers new insights into the novel’s spaces, characters, and relationships. It features comparisons with popular horse-narratives and an equicentric analysis of the novel’s gender relations. How does horsemanship redefine masculinity? What is the inherent connection between femininity and the equine? This book answers these questions from an equicentric perspective, while taking into account patterns of anthropocentrism and misogyny. In addition, the focus is on the narratees and on how the degree of equine experience they bring to the narrative may enhance the horses’ figurative significance.

Table Of Contents

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In his introductory remarks at the international symposium on Cormac McCarthy, “Crossroads and Transgressions: Cormac McCarthy Between Worlds” (2016), Dr. Georg Guillemin recalled hosting the first European conference on Cormac McCarthy in 1998, also at the John-​F.-​Kennedy Institute Berlin. Dr. Guillemin had begun researching Cormac McCarthy in the 1990s, and he recounted a little wistfully how everybody back then automatically assumed he meant Senator Joseph when he spoke of studying McCarthy.

Since then, recognition of Cormac McCarthy has come a long way. These days, the author is hailed as one of the great American novelists, standing “among the finest living craftsmen of the American language” (Mills 1993, 286). Scholars compare his style to that of William Faulkner –​ as either disciple (Bloom 2000, 254) or imitator (Noble 1985, 580) –​ and place him in the tradition of James Joyce or Herman Melville. As for his regional affiliation, McCarthy is sometimes regarded as an Appalachian writer and thus grouped with authors like “Lisa Alther, John Ehle, Gail Goodwin, William Hoffman, [] Jane Anne Phillips, Mary Lee Settle, Lee Smith, and John Yount” (Flora 1993, 3). Yet just as many scholars consider the author a Southern expatriate like Bobbie Ann Mason or Alice Adams (Flora, 9). No literary style or region can claim Cormac McCarthy as its own, and the author himself does not place himself with any such literary style or region.

In accordance with his intangibility, Cormac McCarthy is sometimes called a writer of Westerns, at other times he is received as a novelist of the Southern Gothic like Harry Crews or Barry Hannah (Flora 1993, 9). With the publication of All the Pretty Horses, McCarthy again escaped clear-​cut labeling. This first installment of The Border Trilogy marked a “thematic shift away from atavistic violence and iconoclastic characters” (Owens 2000, xviii) and thus appeared more accessible than his earlier works. Despite or even because of the surface accessibility of the Trilogy, Nell Sullivan identifies “gender issues . . . By divorcing femininity from women and allowing the male performance of both gender roles, McCarthy in effect creates a closed circuit for male desire” (Sullivan 2001, 229). Where Sullivan observes a “destabilization of gender roles in the context of a Western narrative” (229), Maxim Lachaud already comments about McCarthy’s earlier Southern novels that “[t]he heroes of Crews and McCarthy are alienated males” (Lachaud 2003, 63). While there is often an androcentric focus to McCarthy’s narratives, it would be unfair to reduce his characters to this. Where ←16 | 17→“[t]he sense of loss and alienation” (64) in his characters is concerned, the author is gender-​neutral.

This sense of alienation is the prevalent existential trope in all of McCarthy’s work. Yet despite this common denominator, the author offers no cookie-​cutter protagonists and the experience of alienation varies for the Southern and Western characters. While Edwin T. Arnold has pointed out the McCarthy’s ability to shift (Arnold, First Thoughts 1999, 221), there is no indication that this shift from Southern to Western narratives constitutes McCarthy’s breaking with any earlier thematic conviction. Ultimately, scholars are faced with the versatility of an author who is unpredictable (Mills 1993, 286), and it is this disposition that is reflected in the resulting interpretations of the author’s writings.

The reason for Cormac McCarthy’s unpredictability might have its roots in the nomadic lifestyle of his earlier years coupled with his ferocious interest in “history, geology, botany, cultural anthropology, language –​ all the physical and human textures of the region” (Arnold, First Thoughts 1999, 72). Among other places, “McCarthy has lived in Tennessee, Spain, Kentucky, France, Illinois, Italy, and Texas” (Flora 1993, 7). His resistance to domestication allowed the author “an unusually direct and unmediated access to other people’s experience” (V. M. Bell 1988, xiii). The Texas settings McCarthy describes, as well as the historical facts randomly inserted into fictional conversations, reveal an author keenly knowledgeable about the Texas-​Mexican border region.

Perhaps this comprehensive knowledge is part of the success of McCarthy’s first truly recognizable Western novel, published in 1992. As Georg Guillemin observed, “the story of All the Pretty Horses remains perfectly intelligible even if the secondary style is ignored . . . [therefore] many narratees may take [the novel] for little more than an unconventional Western” (Guillemin 2001, 94). The “unconventional Western” (94) was an instant success, it won the 1992 National Book Award for fiction, the 1992 National Book Critics Circle Award, and narrowly lost the Pulitzer Prize (Arnold, First Thoughts 1999, 9). Besides its critical acclaim, All the Pretty Horses was also a commercial success, it “sold over 100,000 copies in less than a year’s time” (9).

Until the success of his first Western, McCarthy’s work had been virtually unknown to a wider audience. As Richard B. Woodward noted in 1992: “It would be hard to think of a major American writer who has participated less in literary life. He has never taught or written journalism, given readings, blurbed a book, granted an interview. None of his novels has sold more than 5,000 copies in hardcover. For most of his career, he did not even have an agent” (Woodward, n. pag.). McCarthy’s avoidance of the spotlight mirrors the isolation that many of his characters feel. The author’s reclusiveness began to regress with the success of ←17 | 18→All the Pretty Horses (Arnold, First Thoughts 1999, 9). While McCarthy did not accept the 2007 Pulitzer Prize of Fiction for The Road himself1, he consented to a television interview with Oprah Winfrey in the same year.2

These days, decidedly fewer people would think of Senator Joseph when told about McCarthy studies. As an encompassing online bibliography by Diane C. Luce (Luce, bibliography 2011) shows, there is no shortage of English-​language materials about Cormac McCarthy: the latest update of bibliography spans 111 pages (Luce, bibliography 2011), including its Preface.3 McCarthy scholarship and critical discussion of his work has increased in the past fifteen years –​ so much so, indeed, that there seems to be concern “with the burgeoning industry of McCarthy criticism now taking canonical shape around a set of foundational texts and political-​theoretical positions” (Holloway 2000, 187) that critical discussion might focus too much on itself.

Despite the ever-​growing corpus of McCarthy-​scholarship, there is still surprisingly little material on the horses in McCarthy’s writings. For example, the only paper on horses presented at the 2016 international symposium Crossroads and Transgressions: Cormac McCarthy Between Worlds4 was my own, and no paper or seminar presented at the 2009 Fourth International Conference on Cormac McCarthy dealt with the horses in McCarthy’s writing (Programme of Events 2009). Jianqing Zheng published an article on McCarthy’s horses in Notes on Contemporary Literature in 2006 (A Note on the Horses in ‘All the Pretty Horses’ 36:2 (March 2006)), and Wallis Sanborn has dedicated one short chapter to horses in his 2006 book Animals in the Fiction of Cormac McCarthy (Sanborn 2006, 115–​130). Tom Pilkington draws a comparison between Faulkner and McCarthy in Fate and Free Will on the American Frontier: Cormac McCarthy’s Western Fiction (1993), stating that for both authors’ horses are more than ←18 | 19→“creatures of blood and bone” (Pilkington 1993, 319). Phillip A. Snyder expertly analyzes elements of horsemanship in All the Pretty Horses as part of his essay “Cowboy Character in All the Pretty Horses and Contemporary Cowboy Culture” (Snyder 2014, 194–​197), and attests Cormac McCarthy that he took “great care to get everything equine right, both materially and mythically” (Snyder 2014, 194).

Given the above list, it may seem as if there is indeed ample material on horses in Cormac McCarthy, yet in comparison with the rest of material on McCarthy’s writings, the list is but a fraction. Even with regard to All the Pretty Horses (1992), McCarthy’s most obvious horse-​related work, horses get relatively little scholarly consideration. The novel’s titular horses are solely considered in a symbolic context: either they stand for a world of “pretty horses” (McGilchrist 2003, 84) that the protagonist can seek out to escape his disillusionment with women and his life; or they are part of a nursery rhyme:

[A]n African American lullaby sung in the antebellum South: Hushbaby, don’t you cry. /​ Go to sleep, little baby, /​ When you wake, you shall have cake, /​ And all the pretty little horses. /​ Blacks and bays, dapples and grays, /​ Coach and six-​a little horses. /​ Way down yonder in the meadow, /​ There’s a poor little lambie; The bees and the butterflies pickin’ out his eyes, /​ The poor little thing cries, ‘Mammy.’ /​ Hushbaby, don’t you cry, /​ Go to sleep, little baby [emphasis added]”. (Cooper Alarcón 2002, 147)

If the title refers to the nursery rhyme5, it possibly alludes to the absent mothers of the novel and to the resulting lack of a nurturing environment. For the protagonist John Grady Cole, this lack is juxtaposed with a comforting world of horses. Consequently, scholars view the function of McCarthy’s horses as either a reference to or a representation of an alternate world. Rarely are the horses in the narrative seen as animals worth considering in their function on the plot level.

Despite a horseback-​chase or a protagonist on horseback being what Jane Tompkins called some of “[t]he arch images of the genre” (Tompkins 1992, 5–​6), horses in Cormac McCarthy’s Western novels play a central role without being at the center of the plot. These are stories about young men entering adulthood, or –​ with a look at Billy Parham in Cities of the Plain or Sheriff Bell in No Country for Old Men –​ of grown men entering middle or old age: characters passing from one stage of life to another. In the novels that are the focus of this study, namely those of The Border Trilogy, but also selectively Blood Meridian and No Country for Old Men, this passage from one stage of life to another is often aided by horses.

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Nowhere is this more apparent, though, than in All the Pretty Horses. Horses are omnipresent in the novel, as a means of transport as well as a means of insight for the characters. As for the former aspect, this appears to be ingrained in the genre:


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (March)
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2021. 252 pp.

Biographical notes

Vanessa Keiper (Author)

Vanessa Keiper studied American Studies, philosophy, and medieval history at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, where she also taught classes for several years. She earned her master’s degree at JGU Mainz and also completed her PhD there. Horses are her passion.


Title: The Horses of Cormac McCarthy’s «All the Pretty Horses»: Rides and Rites of Passage