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A l l t h e P r e t t y H o r s e s : C o r m a c M c C a r t h y ’s R e a d i n g o f F o r Wh o m t h e B e l l To l l s D e n n i s C u t c h i n s Every novel which is truly written contributes to the total of knowl­ edge which is there at the disposal of the next writer who comes, but the next writer must pay, always, a certain nominal percentage in experience to be able to understand and assimilate what is avail­ able as his birthright and what he must, in turn, take his departure from. —Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon The ugly fact is books are made out of books. The novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written. —Cormac McCarthy, interview with Richard Woodward Early in Cormac McCarthy’s first installment of what was to become his Border Trilogy, he includes a line that, at a first reading, makes little sense. As John Grady and Lacy Rawlins leave the Rawlins ranch, the narrator mentions that “they heard somewhere in that tenantless night a bell that tolled and ceased where no bell was” (30). The passage is marked in my copy of All the Pretty Horses (1992), but I could make noth­ ing of the mention of the bell until one of my students, who happened to be taking a course on Hemingway, noted some strong parallels between this novel and Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940). This essay has grown out of that observation.1 The bell that tolls for John Grady and Rawlins at the beginning of McCarthy’s novel is the writer’s hom­ age to his predecessor. The central argument of this essay is that For Whom the Bell Tolls forms, in Hemingway’s words, part of the birthright for All the Pretty Horses. While there are probably dozens of novels to which All the Pretty Horses is somehow related, including many of the pulp Westerns written in the first half of the twentieth century, at least some of McCarthy’s novel may be understood most clearly in the light of Hemingway’s novel.The similarities between these two works suggest more than simply an W e s t e r n A m e r i c a n L i t e r a t u r e 4 1 . 3 ( F a l l 2 0 0 6 ) : 2 6 7 - 9 9 . 2 6 8 W e s t e r n A m e r ic a n L it e r a t u r e F a l l 2 0 0 6 homage. McCarthy’s invocation of similar characters, relationships, situations , and themes implies that he is responding to Hemingway’s novel in a fairly specific manner. By explicitly comparing the two novels and noting similarities and differences we may learn more about McCarthy as a novelist and as a thinker. Conversely, and just as important, McCarthy’s “reading” of For Whom the Bell Tolls suggests new interpretations of the earlier novel. Careful readers must first acknowledge McCarthy’s incorporation of elements found in For Whom the Bell Tolls as neither parody nor imitation . They represent, instead, to use Harold Bloom’s word, a “swerving.” McCarthy accepts, incorporates, and adapts some of Hemingway’s major features, though he appears intent on revising and reversing others. Bloom suggests that this response to a precursor involves a “corrective movement” in which the later author seems to suggest that the earlier writer “went accurately up to a certain point, but then should have swerved” (14). Mikhail Bakhtin also acknowledges this kind of recipro­ cal literary relationship when he writes, We have in mind first of all those instances of powerful influ­ ence exercised by another’s discourse on a given author. When such influences are laid bare, the half-concealed life lived by another’s discourse is revealed within the new context of the...


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pp. 267-299
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