Academic journal article British and American Studies

"A Knight of Ghosts and Shadows": Cormac Mccarthy's All the Pretty Horses and the Aesthetics of Adventure

Academic journal article British and American Studies

"A Knight of Ghosts and Shadows": Cormac Mccarthy's All the Pretty Horses and the Aesthetics of Adventure

Article excerpt

1. Introduction. A genre which never gets old

The adventure literature has always been very popular, yet the genre is often overshadowed by misconceptions. Definitely, adventure fiction has charms, but lacks prestige. It is labeled as "children literature" at best and sent off to the "escape literature" shelf at worst. However, this ancient genre with pretty conservative aesthetic principles - we might say they are as old as the first human urge to tell a story - has enchanted writers and readers alike and has proved prone to enduring all sorts of cultural fashions. If we think of the literary adventurous past, the first name that comes to mind is that of Robert Louis Stevenson. In the English-speaking world at least, the Scottish writer is not only an adventure fiction virtuoso, but also its best theorist. In the late nineteenth century, he was the one who rekindled the genre dimming luster. His novels and stories are not just the imaginative quest of a genius forced by his poor health to travel incessantly towards exotic lands. They are an aesthetic manifesto too.

Stevenson reacted against the "domestic novel's" growing success and against the pretenses of authors such as Emile Zola, according to whom prose writings should be accurately scientific and socially involved. As he "passionately believed that the greater part of life was chance", the Scottish author defended romance (Kiely 2005:26-29). In his letters and in his polemical essays, he claimed that adventure and human nature are both uncontrollable and that art should capture "the importance of event" (Kiely 2005:30). Stevenson wished to keep intact a certain "sacred purity" of adventure and did this by writing fictions in which the events had a flowing quality, because continuous movement links literature and life (Kiely 2005:30, 34, 40). As R.L. Abrahamson (2006:21) puts it, "being a good reader is like being a hero in Stevenson's fiction." An enthusiastic admirer of Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman, Stevenson shares with Mark Twain, another great writer of adventure literature, the belief that the hero, preferably a child or a teenager, must leave the domestic space in order to gain freedom (Fletcher 2009:42-43). More than a century later, Cormac McCarthy teaches us the same lesson. He is the heir of Faulkner and Melville, rather than the heir of Stevenson and Twain. Yet he shapes the aesthetics of adventure with similar zest.

McCarthy's heroes could be described as outcasts on the run. When they stop, troubles occur. Before dying, the nameless kid dismounts and meets judge Holden in a tavern at the end of Blood Meridian (1985), Llewelyn Moss rushes to his death soon after he gives a ride to a hitchhiker girl in No Country for Old Men (2005), but nowhere do we understand better the perils of slowing the journey down than in the Border Trilogy. The wind blowing through the prairie, the barking of coyotes, the rapping of hail, the hawks prowling in the sky, the blinding zigzags of thunderstorms, the red eyes of horses in the deep night reflecting both camp and celestial fires are the very signs from which we can decipher the characters' intentions. Keeping introspection in shadow, McCarthy accustomed us to the complex links between human action and environment. Trying to pin down his protagonists by enlisting them as literary archetypes seems like trying to explain natural phenomena by separating them from each other. Only when we apprehend changes holistically may we hope to understand the phenomena better. I will try to argue that, by rendering human movement and environment artistically in the first novel of the Border Trilogy, Cormac McCarthy reshapes adventure literature in a personal manner. By mastering a conglomerate of historical facts, charismatic figures, boyhood ethos, and philosophical puzzles, he blends the realistic novel and American mythology.

2. John Grady Cole. The portrait of a stoic cowboy

In 1949, sixteen year old John Grady Cole flees home in San Angelo together with his best friend, Lacey Rawlins, and crosses the Mexican border. …

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