All the Pretty Horses

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All the Pretty Horses

by Cormac McCarthy


A novel, set in West Texas and northern Mexico in 1950; first published in 1992.


John Grady Cole and his friend Lacey Rawlins. two young Texans who love to work with horses, cross into Mexico looking for work as cowboys. While employed on a large ranch in the mountains of Coahuila, John Cole falls in love with the owner’s daughter. Alejandra, which leads to a chain of drama and violence as the two Americans try to escape with their lives.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

The Novel in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

For More Information

Cormac McCarthy was born in Rhode Island in 1933, lived in Tennessee, and moved to El Paso, Texas, 25 years ago. His first novel, The Orchard Keeper, was published in 1965. Through a series of books that have appeared since then, McCarthy has pursued his fascination with remote regions of the United States and Mexico, rural communities, and lone individuals who refuse the mediation of the modern world in their struggles with fate or with the forces of nature. Blood Meridian (1985) is a Gothic historical novel about outlaws and bounty hunters set in Texas and Mexico at the middle of the nineteenth century. McCarthy’s 1992 novel All the Pretty Horses became the first novel of his “Border Trilogy,” followed by The Crossing (1994) and Cities of the Plain (1998). With All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy achieved a memorable combination of adventure, psychological intensity, and the violent clash of cultures.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

Texas at midcentury

All the Pretty Horses opens in the fall of 1949. At the time, the state of Texas was still enjoying the economic boom that the exploitation of large oil reserves had brought with it. From the discovery of the huge Spindle-top field, opened in 1901, to the East Texas oil finds of the 1930s, oil had been the driving force that transformed Texas from an agricultural and cattle-raising economy into a major industrial power in the United States. In 1928 Texas became the country’s leading oil-producing state with a total annual output of over 250 million barrels. Oil would eventually be discovered in West Texas, so that, in the words of a twentieth-century historian of the region, “one could drive one hundred and fifty miles without ever losing sight of oil derricks” (Frantz, p. 182).

World War II kept Texas oil extraction and processing operating at peak production levels and also brought to the state large military installations where men were trained and weapons tested. Between 1941 and 1945, some 10 percent of all U.S. military personnel received their training in Texas; for the Army Air Force, Texas offered the biggest aviation training region “anywhere in the United States and probably on earth” (Frantz, p. 184). Building on this new economic foundation, the United States Congress—whose key committees were often dominated by Southern Democrats—began in the late 1940s to steer large-scale defense contracts toward the South and Southwest, enabling a gradual integration of what had been the most economically backward part of the nation into the mainstream of the American economy.


The horse-dominated world of West Texas ranching was on the decline in 1950, when All the Pretty Horses is set. Despite the considerable role played by the horse in the improvements in agricultural and the infrastructure improvements in the United States between 1900 and 1940, the heyday of this animal was coming rapidly to a close. In 1940 there were over ten million horses in the U.S., and by 1965 the number had dropped to less than five million. The majority of these five million were no longer on working farms or on ranches, but instead could be found in the wealthy suburbs and on the racetrack. The horse became less a concern of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which in 1959 stopped collecting statistics on the horse population (Howard, p. 241). Of course, the change had an effect on the nature of ranch employment. As cattle ranching, in the mid-to-late twentieth century, became a business that depended upon the global market, the old order gave way. At midcentury, one study observed that the life of a Texas cowboy has improved. He has gained mechanized transport and other kinds of assistance to make his job easier, and even now “he remains a skilled worker of cattle, changed only by adapting to the technological revolution which eventually reached the range” (Frantz and Choate, p. 60). John Grady Cole, the protagonist of All the Pretty Horses, might beg to differ. In his view, the novel suggests, something precious has been lost.

Despite the discovery of oil, however, West Texas remained a comparatively underpopulated and nonindustrialized region. The area from Amarillo in the north to the U.S-Mexico border in the south and west to El Paso, was still marked by the cattle ranches and dirt roads of an earlier era. West Texas had a long tradition of successful cattle ranching ever since a young and adventurous businessman from Illinois, Joseph G. McCoy, had convinced the railroad company in 1867 to build a new cattle-town from scratch at an almost-deserted West Texas crossing called Abilene. Next McCoy convinced Texas ranchers to drive their cattle to this new railhead.

Suddenly the vast herds of cattle on the dusty plains of Texas were being used to meet an ever-increasing demand for beef in northern cities, a very profitable development for Texas. Beyond the economic prosperity, a mix of ingredients—the cattle drives, the wild cattle towns, the tough, hard-riding cowboys who worked the range—gave birth to the most dynamic, enduring myth America has ever produced. The mustang, long-horn, and the cowboy became, as one historian has put it, “the Holy Trinity of Texas… They symbolized a freedom which probably never really existed, but which people like to think existed” (Frantz, p. 135). The myth took root, in fact, despite the reality of the cowboy’s often bleak lifestyle. The cowboys in the later nineteenth century were mostly rootless, semi-employed drifters, failed outlaws, freed slaves and impoverished dirt farmers. They had frequently cut all family and local ties, and if they spent months on a thousand-mile cattle drive, often there was nobody who would have missed them (Kramer, p. 9).

Still, 80 years later, the romance of the cattle trail fascinates John Grady Cole, the hero of All the Pretty Horses. In real life, the lonely freedom of a man on a horse was no longer so easy to find, or experience. Texas at mid-twentieth century was a place of stark and sometimes confusing contrasts: oil and cattle; military installations and nineteenth-century cowboy mythology; economic prosperity and damaged landscapes; the dominance of English, brought in by American settlers of the 1820s and 1830s, and the persistence of Spanish, brought in centuries before by their Mexican predecessors.

Mexico at midcentury

Mexico’s history in the first half of the twentieth century was volatile. From revolution and civil conflict (1910-23), to the nationalization of the oil business (1938), to urban development (1940s), the more enlightened Mexican leaders had sought to steer their complex nation into the modern world. The effort to modernize involved some calculated attempts to use oil and mineral revenues to bring basic literacy and a minimum of health care to millions of poverty-stricken rural peasants. The effort also inspired attempts to create a closer, more nationally beneficial relationship with the United States, Mexico’s neighbor to the immediate north. By the later 1930s, however, the relationship had reached a point of crisis. As the threat of war grew, the administration of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt became concerned that Nazi German diplomacy in Central and South America was nurturing local resentments against the United States. If America were to become involved in hostilities, Roosevelt believed, good relations with countries to the south would be crucial. He instituted a “Good Neighbor Policy,” based on respect for the rights of others. The policy involved the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Nicaragua and Haiti and a commitment to non-intervention in Latin American countries. When the United States entered World War II, the policy paid off. Nearly all the Latin American countries supported the United States during the war.

Manuel Ávila Camacho, Mexico’s president at the time, was a committed supporter of the Allies. Under his administration (1940-46), Mexico contributed greatly to the war effort, deploying a squadron of fighter aircraft to the Pacific theater, exporting vast amounts of strategic war materials to the United States, and entering into the bracero program to provide America with temporary migrant labor. The program sent 200, 000 Mexicans north of the border to fill urgent vacancies in agriculture and industry (Smith, pp. 59-60).

Together Mexico and the United States joined in a struggle against fascism. In fact, the social reforms introduced by President Roosevelt in his New Deal can be seen as an American version of the socialist (or social-democratic) philosophy of Mexican politicians. There was much common ground.

After World War II, however, the relationship between Mexico and the United States became tenser than during the Roosevelt years. As the Cold War, or the competition for world leadership between the United States and the Soviet Union, began to take shape, U.S. leaders came to regard all events in Latin America through the prism of Cold War strategy. Either one was on the side of the United States, or one fell suspect to harboring some affection for Soviet communism. Having adopted this viewpoint, the United States found itself confronted with and involved in a series of crises (in Cuba, Chile, and Nicaragua, for example) over the following decades. In Mexico, the U.S. presence caused some hostility, since the political establishment here was committed to principles of non-intervention, respect for national sovereignty, and their own social revolutionary tradition.

On a national scale, Mexico’s economic progress during the 1940s had been considerable. It benefited, on the one hand, from multi-faceted cooperation with the United States and, on the other hand, from the tax breaks and surcharges on imports used to protect native industries that had shown signs of growth during the war years. In 1940 Mexico had 13, 000 industrial establishments, most of which were involved in food and textile production, but ten years later the country could boast 73, 000 plants with chemicals, paper, and steelmaking, which gave the country a much more diverse industrial base (Krauze, p. 543). Yet large regions of Mexico remained untouched by the progress, sometimes due to geographic remoteness, sometimes to customs and values, sometimes to a combination of these elements. Stubborn traces of tradition surface in All the Pretty Horses when John Grady Cole journeys through Mexico. Among


All the Pretty Horses features dialogue that slips from English into untranslated Spanish at various points in the novel. The shift mirrors a real-life facility with the two languages that a large share of the population on both sides of the border had at the time, due in part to how easy it was to cross from one side to the other. The border was a porous one until the early 1950s, when a slowdown in American business and the workers brought in under the bracero program prompted a crackdown by the U.S. Border Patrol on illegal crossings.

other experiences, he encounters the aristocratic power of the rich rancher, represented by Don Héctor, and the conservative inflexibility of traditional attitudes to women and foreigners in Mexico. Don Héctor is the owner of a ranch called La Purísima (meaning “purest of women,” a reference to the Virgin Mary). In the words of the novel, Don Héctor had distinguished himself as “one of the few hacendados who actually lived on the land he claimed, land which had been in his family for one hundred and seventy years. He was forty-seven years old and he was the first male heir in all that new world lineage to attain such an age” (McCarthy, Pretty Horses, p. 97). The description suggests that he hails from an aristocratic family whose members managed to retain their land despite repeated wars and revolutions. Don Héctor is portrayed as an intelligent man who interacts with ease in the modern world; he flies his own plane between La Purísima and Mexico City, for example. At the same time, his aristocratic bearing and absolute belief in his own authority mark him as a representative of the Creole elite. His strict concept of honor and his implacable attitude to John Grady’s courting of his daughter show that behind the modern rancher is the old Mexican landowning class. The native-born but ethnically Hispanic establishment had been the natural source of leadership after independence was achieved in 1821, a challenge they did not meet successfully. In a country that was, as one historian has expressed it, “centuries behind at birth for its task of creating a regime of civil liberties and economic well-being,” the Creole landowning aristocracy had much constitutional theory and nationalist idealism to draw on, but they showed very little sense of practical political structure or economic organization (Krauze, p. 132). The intense poverty in which the greater part of the Mexican peasantry lived would persist well into the next century. In 1953 President Adolfo Ruiz Cortines acknowledged that Mexico remained a generally poor country; there were at the time some 19 million peasants still living in dire poverty.

The Novel in Focus

The plot

All the Pretty Horses opens in fall 1949 with the death of John Grady Cole’s maternal grandfather, on whose remote West Texas ranch John has grown up. His mother and father have been separated—John Grady’s father was missing in action in World War II, but eventually returned. Recently John’s parents have divorced. His mother is completely uninterested in the ranch, and spends her time working in a theater company in San Antonio. She wants to sell the ranch. John, who loves working with horses, wants to take over the ranch and keep the ranch going, but his mother dismisses the idea, saying that he is only 16 years old, and has to attend school. The family’s attorney confirms to John that the property is his mother’s to do with as she wishes.

John and his father go riding together, and his father explains that it was the thought of his wife that got him through the Japanese POW camp alive. He encourages John to develop a better relationship with his mother, but John promises nothing in this regard. His father leaves him with a strange comment that seems to echo the wider world of politics and international affairs at mid-century: “People dont feel safe no more, he said. We’re like the Comanches was two hundred years ago. We dont know what’s goin to show up here come daylight. We dont even know what color they’ll be” (Pretty Horses, pp. 25-26).

In March, John Grady decides to go to Mexico, hoping to find a job on a ranch. South of the border, he believes, lies adventure and more freedom than in Texas. Without telling anybody, he and his friend Lacey Rawlins saddle up their horses early one morning and head south. The two boys revel in a feeling of liberation “like thieves newly loosed in that dark electric, like young thieves in a glowing orchard, loosely jacketed against the cold and ten thousand worlds for the choosing” (Pretty Horses, p. 30). On their way to the Rio Grande River, John and Rawlins meet an edgy, aggressive boy about 13 years old named Jimmy Blevins. A lone rider, the boy obviously wants to join the other two. Rawlins in particular takes a dislike to Blevins, and feels that he is going to bring them trouble. The two friends suspect that Blevins’s horse might be stolen or that he is trying to escape some legal tangle. Loath to just abandon him, John and Rawlins let him ride with them, and they cross the Rio Grande together into Mexico. Blevins reveals that he is armed with a heavy-caliber Colt revolver and is a good shot.

The three travel slowly on horseback through the northern reaches of Coahuila State. A few days after they cross into Mexico they meet a group of nomadic traders and purchase a supply of sotol, a homemade liquor. All of them drink to the point of intoxication, but Blevins ends up seriously deranged from the alcohol. When a storm blows up, Blevins believes he will be struck by lightning, and ends up abandoning his horse, his gun, and most of his clothes. Without the bare essentials, he has to ride with John Grady. They encounter a group of horsemen and join them around a campfire to eat. Blevins looks particularly young and vulnerable in his underwear and borrowed shirt. John, the only one of the three able to speak Spanish, has to negotiate their way out of the camp, as the men have taken a clearly sexual interest in the half-naked Blevins and offer to buy him for cash.

When the three arrive in a pueblo called Encantada, Jimmy Blevins immediately sees a man carrying his Colt pistol, and they discover Blevins’s horse tethered in an abandoned house on the edge of the village. Blevins insists that he wants to take the horse back that night, without discussing the move with anyone, and John Grady and Rawlins agree to wait for him. Unfortunately Blevins causes havoc while retrieving the horse, which leads to the three being chased by armed men. They split up, Blevins taking one path, and John and Rawlins another. Rawlins is still convinced that Blevins means trouble:

John Grady folded away his knife. Well, he said.
There’s a lot of country out there.
Yep. Lot of country.
God knows where he’s got to.
Rawlins nodded. I’ll tell you what you told me.
What’s that?
We aint seen the last of his skinny ass.

(Pretty Horses, p. 89)

Shortly thereafter, John and Rawlins meet a group of vaqueros driving a herd of cattle and inquire about work. The vaqueros bring the two to the ranch, where they are hired.

The ranch, called La Purísima, comprises 11, 000 hectares (about 20, 000 acres) and is owned by Don Héctor Rocha y Villareal, a rich man who flies his own plane to and from Mexico City, where his wife lives. John Grady comes to the notice of Don Héctor when he breaks a wild horse after four days of struggle—an achievement everyone had considered impossible. During the four days, John sees the owner’s daughter, Alejandra, for the first time. Afterward, he is called in for an interview with Don Héctor, who quizzes him about horses:

Do you know what a criollo is?
Yessir. That’s an Argentine horse.
Do you know who Sam Jones was?
I do if you’re talkin about a horse.
Crawford Sykes?
That’s another of Uncle Billy Anson’s horses. I
heard about that horse all my life.

(Pretty Horses, p. 115)

Don Héctor is impressed with John’s enthusiasm and knowledge and promises to let him work with a new horse that he has bought into the United States.

During this time, the attraction between John and Alejandra grows. They begin to meet in secret. Alejandra’s great aunt, the dueña Alfonsa, calls John Grady in to see her. She explains that the sight of him and Alejandra together creates a problem: in Mexico, there is no forgiveness whatsoever for a woman who has lost her reputation (Pretty Horses, pp. 136-37). After this conversation, John and Alejandra continue to see each other—they meet at a nearby lake at night, swim together, and make love. One evening Don Héctor invites John to play pool with him and during their game talks about a tragic love affair of days past between Alfonsa and Gustavo Madero, a Mexican revolutionary leader. This story of a problematic affection leads into Don Héctor’s comment that he intends to send Alejandra to study in Europe.

The following day out on the range, John and Rawlins are captured by a group of armed men. The two are taken back to Encantada and thrown into jail. There, they encounter Jimmy Blevins, who has been locked up for some time. Blevins


Both Don Héctor and Alfonsa allude to the story of the Madero brothers, Francisco and Gustavo. The two brothers came from a well-off landowning family and played key roles in the rebellion against the rule of iron-handed dictator Porfirio Díaz that began in November 1910. Upon the defeat of the Díaz regime, Francisco Madero became the first popularly elected president of Mexico. His mix of political liberalism and economic conservatism, however, displeased many of the revolutionary leaders. His key general, Huerta, conspired against him, along with both Emiliano Zapata (who had supported Madero in the struggle to topple Díaz) and Pancho Villa. Though Gustavo Madero presented his brother Francisco with evidence of betrayal in 1913, Francisco continued to believe in Huerta’s loyalty. It was a grave error, for Huerta’s forces staged a coup d’état immediately there after, and both Gustavo and Francisco were murdered. Huerta assumed the presidency but found himself embroiled in further civil conflict with, among others, his former associates Zapata and Villa. Huerta chose self-exile in 1914.

The reference in All the Pretty Horses to the dueña Alfonsa’s relationship with Gustavo is McCarthy’s fictional embellishment of history. But it serves to highlight her warning to John Grady that Mexico is a society in which different concepts of loyalty and retribution pertain. In Alfonsa’s version of the story, the Madero brothers’ passionate commitment to the cause of the people’s freedom could not save them from betrayal and the murderous anger of the peasant mob. Alfonsa sees a tragic mistake in john’s romantic affection for Alejandra, the kind of mistake that Francisco Madero made when he trusted the wrong individual at a moment of crisis.

tells them that he killed one of the rurales, the local police, who were pursuing him. The police captain interrogates John Grady and Rawlins and accuses them, along with Blevins, of entering Mexico to steal horses. They protest and reiterate that the horse that Blevins “stole” in Encantada was his own. Back in the cell, John tells Rawlins that Blevins’s life is in danger. A few days later, the three Americans are trucked to the city of Saltillo. On the way, the guards stop at a remote wooded area and drag Blevins into the trees. There is the sound of a gunshot, and the guards return alone.

Life in the prison in Saltillo is brutal. In the first few days, both John and Rawlins are attacked and beaten several times. A prisoner named Pérez offers to protect them if they pay him, but the two Americans have no money. The next day, Rawlins is knifed in the stomach, but not fatally. He is taken away for treatment. John prudently buys a knife from another prisoner. Soon he himself is attacked and, though he manages to kill his attacker, his own injuries plunge him into unconsciousness.

Over the next few days, John’s wounds are tended, and he is released from the prison and reunited with Rawlins. Rawlins is confused about their good fortune, but John is convinced that Alejandra’s aunt has paid for their release. He and Rawlins part company, and John hitches a ride in a truck back to La Purísima. He gains access to the dueña Alfonsa, and she explains that Don Héctor had been aware of the incident with Blevins’s horse in Encantada all along and had concluded that John and Rawlins had lied to him about their reasons for coming to Mexico. After the two Americans were arrested, Alfonsa, judging John to be of good character, had defended him to both her brother and Alejandra’s mother in Mexico City, but to no effect. She then recounts the story of the doomed Madero brothers, Francisco and Gustavo, and her relationship with Gustavo. At the end of their talk, Alfonsa tells John he must leave and offers him his choice of a horse.

The next day, however, John manages to telephone Alejandra and they arrange to meet in the town of Zacatecas. They stay the night in a hotel and make love. John asks Alejandra to marry him and come to Texas, but she refuses to leave. He brings her to the train station, where they part. Depressed, John returns to Encantada and forces the police captain at gunpoint to return his, Rawlins’s, and Blevins’s horses. He gets wounded in the ensuing skirmish but escapes with the animals and takes the captain hostage.

That night John realizes that his leg wound is in danger of becoming infected, and he has no possibility of medical treatment. He decides to cauterize the wound himself, and dismantles a revolver. He lays the barrel section in the camp-fire and lets it heat up. When the barrel is white hot, he rams it into the bullet hole in his thigh:

The captain either did not know what he was going to do or knowing did not believe… . John Grady had begun to shout even before the gunmetal hissed in the meat. His shout clapped shut the calls of lesser creatures everywhere about them in the night and the horses all stood swimming up into the darkness beyond the fire and squatting in terror on their great thighs screaming and pawing the stars and he drew breath and howled again and jammed the gun-barrel into the second wound.

(Pretty Horses, p. 274)

John survives his emergency treatment and he rides on the next day, still with the rurales captain as his prisoner. Later a mysterious group of armed men seize the captain from him; clearly they do not intend the prisoner any good.

John crosses back into Texas on Thanksgiving Day, 1950. He has been in Mexico for about seven months. Shortly after his arrival, he makes a court appearance because an unknown party claims Blevins’s horse. John astonishes the judge and the others in court by describing how he treated his leg wound. The judge dismisses the case, and John rides from town to town trying to trace Blevins’s family to inform them about his death and return the horse. He has a strange encounter with a radio preacher called Jimmy Blevins and his wife but cannot establish if the family has any connection with the deceased.

John attends the funeral of Abuela, an elderly Mexican servant who had been like a grandmother to him on his grandfather’s ranch. Afterward, he mounts his horse and heads south once more, into an uncertain future. The landscape takes on a surreal quality, as the oil derricks appear “like great primitive birds welded up out of iron by hearsay in a land perhaps where such birds once had been” (Pretty Horses, p. 301). The shadow of rider and horse become like the shadow of a single being, a ghost of the desert—“Passed and paled into the darkening land, the world to come” (Pretty Horses, p. 302).

Values and gender

Both conversations between John Grady and the dueña Alfonsa, Alejandra’s aunt, revolve around the social expectations and the status that define a young woman’s life in the Mexico of 1950. Alfonsa admits that she herself was a stubborn and rebellious girl in her youth, and that when she tries to advise Alejandra it is as if she is arguing with a young version of herself. During the first meeting, she tells John Grady that his and Alejandra’s behavior is causing gossip:

In an ideal world the gossip of the idle would be of no consequence. But I have seen the consequences in the real world and they can be very grave indeed. They can be consequences of a gravity not excluding bloodshed. Not excluding death. I saw this in my own family.

(Pretty Horses, p. 136)

She comments that a man in Mexico may recover his lost honor, but a woman can never do so.

During their second interview, after John Grady has returned from the prison in Saltillo, Alfonsa says that she is not “a society person” and that societies she has seen have appeared to her to be “largely machines for the suppression of women” (Pretty Horses, p. 230). Despite her sympathy for Alejandra and her tolerance for John’s feelings, she explains that he cannot just project onto Mexico the easier social relations between the sexes that are found in the United States. There are other powerful traditions at work in Mexico and they must be taken into account. The family, Alfonsa continues, also has had a history of women engaging in unsuitable and tragic love relationships—her sister lost two husbands, both gunned down, before she was 21.

Although romantically committed to his vision of marrying Alejandra, John is defeated by a code of values and behavior entrenched in Mexican society. Alejandra herself soberly resolves to abide by the code. As the writer Octavio Paz expresses it in The Labyrinth of Solitude, his path-breaking study of the psychology of Mexican society, a woman is “the repository of honor” in this society (Paz, p. 38). For Alejandra to leave with John and go to the United States would dishonor her family (by marrying beneath her and without their permission) and her nation (by offering herself to a foreigner). Alejandra shows a stoicism that Paz’s study ascribes to Mexican women in the face of her misery. Her words to John after their last night together reflect her resolve to conform to societal expectations: “I cannot do what you ask,” she says, “I love you. But I cannot” (Pretty Horses, p. 254).

Sources and literary context

Cormac McCarthy has been secretive about the origins and implications of his work. Given the very small number of interviews he has granted, readers and critics are left largely to their own devices when it comes to teasing out the literary influences on his novels. There are, in fact, a few reasonably identifiable sources and contexts for McCarthy’s prose. In particular, the laconic conversational dialogue that characterizes All the Pretty Horses resembles that of Ernest Hemingway, who in his early fiction from In Our Time (1925) to To Have and Have Not (1937) pioneered the fine-tuning of American dialogue in a way that revolutionized modern fiction.


Some of McCarthy’s locations are fictional, but many exist in reality. After leaving San Angelo, John and Rawlins (and soon Blevins) ride for about 100 miles, then cross the Rio Grande Ride. Traveling along the Sierra la Encantada, via a possibly fictional pueblo of the same name, they find the ranch La Purísima. The nearest city appears to be Cuatro Ciénegas, about 200 miles from the Texas border. After their arrest, John and Rawlins are taken to the state capital, Saltillo, about 150 miles further south. Later Rawlins returns to Texas and John goes back via Cuatro Ciénegas to La Purísima, then travels southwest to Zacatecas to meet Alejandra. They part and he returns via Torreon to La Encantada (about 250 miles), where he kidnaps the police captain and repossesses the horses. His long journey home via Langtry, Texas, is another 200 miles. John Grady’s journey, on horseback or motorized, has covered at least 1, 200 miles over mostly rugged territory.

The later novels of Texas author Larry Mc-Murtry likewise define the context in which McCarthy writes. McMurtry began with rural, elemental stories such as Horseman, Pass By (1961) and The Last Picture Show (1966), then moved to the contemporary urban settings in Texas and elsewhere (Moving On [1970] and Terms of Endearment [1975]). Cormac McCarthy has moved in the other direction, becoming more committed to exploring the isolated consciousness and the violence of the borderlands.

The western myth itself, particularly strong in Texans’ imagining of their own past, has influenced a number of writers including McCarthy. As one critic has remarked, “the appeal of the frontier, nearly one hundred years after it ceased to exist, continues to exert a powerful influence on the beliefs and behavior of Texans” (Pilkington and Graham, p. 95). In Texas-related literature, novels, folklore studies, and biographical accounts there are a substantial number of works that take the cowboy, both historically and in the late twentieth century, as the central type around which the narratives are constructed (for example, E. C. Abbott’s account of working on cattle drives We Pointed Them North [1939] and Elmer Kelton’s The Wolf and the Buffalo [1980], a western with an African American hero).

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

Looking south, looking north

The years just prior to the publication of All the Pretty Horses were marked by some of the most politically significant events of the late twentieth century, related to the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, which had dominated the world since the late 1940s, just before McCarthy’s novel is set.

In Mexico, the discovery of vast new oil fields in the 1970s triggered a program of vigorous public spending by President López Portillo (in office 1976-82). The mistaken belief that the money brought in from oil sales would be infinite led to some unjustified economic decisions that lost Mexico wealth that the newly tapped resources might have otherwise engendered. After the price of oil fell in 1981, the value of the peso plummeted (from 22 to 70 pesos per dollar in a matter of weeks). The crisis forced Mexico to rely on massive borrowing. Soon inflation was destroying the economic security of Mexicans and the stability of the national currency.

The old nineteenth-century pattern of the creole elite had renewed itself in a minicycle that encompassed the ruin of the country and the ruined reputation of [President] José López Portillo III. In the nineteenth century, led by Santa Anna, they had lost half the territory of the nation. In the eighth decade of the twentieth century, López Portillo and his train of advisors had mortgaged all of Mexico.

(Krauze, p. 760)

The United States played an important role in the negotiations that rescued Mexico from total bankruptcy. Swallowing this somewhat bitter pill reflected a broader attitude in Mexican society toward the United States: for many Mexicans in the 1980s, the large and powerful neighbor to the north remained both a place where dreams of prosperity could be perhaps turned into reality, and also a reminder of Mexico’s relative economic weakness and vulnerability.

All the border crossings

In the 1980s, old tensions over migration that had long dominated the U.S.-Mexico relationship were complicated by a new point of contention: drugs. Whereas the suspected crime in All the Pretty Horses, set in 1950, is horse-stealing, by the time the novel was written illegal drug trafficking had become the central issue. The apparently unstoppable growth in the market for illegal drugs in the United States was fueling a substantial drug production and smuggling economy in South and Central America that sought profit from the northern demand. Wanting to be seen as responsive to voters’ fears, U.S. congressmen often painted the Americas outside the United States in lurid tones as an undif-ferentiated landscape of drug crime, corruption, and anti-American hatred—“narco-terrorism” became a buzz word. Mexicans and others countered that Americans should ask themselves why the demand for drags was so great at home before accusing others of anything:

During 1990… 8, 000 acres of opium poppy fields were destroyed; 1, 500 pounds of heroin and a million pounds of marijuana fields were destroyed; 11, 000 drug traffickers were arrested, with 5, 000 convicted and 6, 000 awaiting trial… . Mexicans, who themselves do not as yet face a serious drug abuse problem, consider that these efforts merit praise rather than criticism and are outraged by some U.S. sources’ disparagement of Mexico’s drug efforts.

(Smith, pp. 102-03)

The divergent perceptions of Mexicans and (Anglo-) Americans have continued to overshadow relations between the two nations.


The prizes collected by All the Pretty Horses —the 1992 National Book Award above all—and the weeks it appeared on bestseller lists, both in the United States and abroad, testify to the novel’s critical and commercial success. All the Pretty Horses became “that most esteemed of literary creations, a popular novel with serious artistic merit” (Owens, p. xiv). Two contemporary reviews point to what have been singled out as strong suits of McCarthy’s novel, its visionary intensity and its use of myth and romance. The New York Times reviewer spoke of the complex nature of McCarthy’s writing, seeing a lofty purpose to it:

His project is unlike that of any other writer: to make artifacts composed of human language but detached from a human reference point. The sense of evil that seems to suffuse his novels is illusory; it comes from our discomfort in the presence of a system that is not scaled to ourselves…. It is an uncomfortable vision, but one that has a strange power to displace all others.

(Bell, p. 11)

The other key response, represented here by a Newsweek review, complimented McCarthy’s elegant use of classic motifs of the western:

This hymn to youth and times past is sweet-tempered but never sentimental, accessible without compromise…. A modern-day Western full of horses and gunplay and romance. . . . All the Pretty Horses is a true American original.

(Jones, p. 68)

Finally critics reacted to the novel’s use of untranslated Spanish dialogue in an English-language work. Some saw it as a sympathetic attempt to reflect the bilingual atmosphere of the American Southwest. Viewing this and other features of the novel as pivotal strengths, José Eduardo Limón has argued that All the Pretty Horses reconfigures the genre of the western. He applauds McCarthy, identifying him as “the Mexican from Tennessee” (Limón in Wallach, p. 9).

—Martin Griffin

For More Information

Bell, Madison Smartt. “The Man Who Understood Horses.” New York Times Book Review, 17 May 1992, 9-11.

Frantz, Joe B. Texas: A History. New York: W.W. Norton, 1984.

Frantz, Joe B., and Julian Ernest Choate, Jr. The American Cowboy: The Myth and the Reality. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1955.

Howard, Robert West. The Horse in America. Chicago: Follett, 1965.

Jones, Malcolm Jr. “Literary Lion in the Desert.” Newsweek, 18 May 1992, 68.

Kramer, Jane. The Last Cowboy. New York: Harper and Row, 1977.

Krauze, Enrique. Mexico: Biography of Power: A History of Modern Mexico, 1810-1996. Trans. Hank Heifetz. New York: HarperCollins, 1997.

McCarthy, Cormac. All the Pretty Horses. New York: Vintage International, 1993.

Owens, Barclay. Cormac McCarthy’s Western Novels. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 2000.

Paz, Octavio, The Labyrinth of Solitude: Life and Thought in Mexico. Trans. Lysander Kemp. New York: Grove, 1961.

Pilkington, William T., and Lee Graham, eds. The Texas Literary Tradition: Fiction, Folklore, History. Austin: The University of Texas at Austin, 1983.

Smith, Clint E. The Disappearing Border: Mexico-United States Relations to the 1990s. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford Alumni Association, 1992.

Wallach, Rick, ed. Myth, Legend, Dust: Critical Responses to Cormac McCarthy. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.