Horsing Around

America is a country of diverse icons and archetypes, most famously jazz and bourbon. But let’s not forget one of the more iconic and archetypal forces of our literature and popular fiction: the horse.

There are archaeological traces of a proto-horse, the eohippus, having roamed the continent, but these were smaller animals, hunted and scavenged by the survival needs of early humans and other predators. Little did the Spaniards realize, when bringing horses with them, the wide effects these amazing animals would have on this amazing continent. Overshadowed by social, scientific, and technological surges, the appearance of the horse in North America was a defining moment of exquisite, dramatic significance.

For generations, horses provided transportation, companionship, social upheaval, and an extensive literature.

The horse has influenced the outcome of historical and fictional narratives to the point where it is unthinkable that any reader cannot immediately call to mind a particular horse, whether he be the real-life Siete Leguas of Pancho Villa or the fictional Smoky of the eponymous Will James classic, or Spark Plug, the horse from the Barney Google comic strip.

From the pens and imaginations of three iconic authors come three narratives that are basic to the American culture. Two of these authors were Nobel laureates, the third should have been.

Officially classified as a novella, William Faulkner’s “Spotted Horses” is cobbled into the novel, “The Hamlet,” where it also contains a kind of Woody Allen envoi. It often appears in tandem with two other of his stand-alone pieces, “The Old Man,” and perhaps his most famous shorter work, “The Bear.” Either way is a splendid way into the fascinating and multifarious world of Faulkner.

At its best, “Spotted Horses” is a wildly humorous morality play, a tall tale in which three confidence men–con artists–of differing styles and agendas, match wits over the ownership and subsequent profitability of a string of work horses. There is no worst; “Spotted Horses” is pure and simple a dramatic wonder, using the same mixture of exaggeration and understatement resident in regional literature. Remember that the con man relies on the greed and gullibility of his target.

Narrated by Ratliff, the least amoral and self-serving of the three, a chatty sewing machine salesman who had already been bested, by one of the others, “Spotted Horses” introduces Flem Snopes, a recurrent Faulkner character who is an anomalous cross between a NASCAR fan, a Klansman, and a supreme opportunist. The son of a Civil War bushwhacker and horse thief, “Flem Snopes didn’t even tell himself what he is up to,” one of his Frenchmen’s Bend neighbors ventures.

Another splendid example of a novella is also from a Nobel laureate. John Steinbeck’s hundred-page narrative, “The Red Pony,” like much of his work, is set in the area around Salinas, Monterey, and King City; its focus is on the young boy, Jody, his horse, Gabilan, and the consequences of loving something to the exclusion of other things.

Like Faulkner’s “Spotted Horses,” “The Red Pony” has structural connective tissue. Meant to be read as though it were a short novel, it is broken into four chapters or sections, each of which can well stand alone as a short story. Through the gift of a pony whom Jody names after a nearby mountain range, and from his open adoration of a ranch hand, Billy Buck, Jody is launched on his way to growing up.

Also like “Spotted Horses,” Steinbeck’s novella is the embodiment of a time in America when finances and futures were uncertain, depending on hard work and good luck. Steinbeck is every bit as regional in his Central Valley California as Faulkner is in his use of rural Mississippi. In their very specificity, each author achieves a universal vision of human behavior and provides ample thematic subtext on which to give their story resonant meaning. Larger implications are resident in Jody’s regard for the nearby mountains, for his sense that Billy Buck can do no wrong, and for his relationship with his parents and grandfather.

The other noteworthy horse-related epic is from Mark Twain and is presented as memoir. Early on in “Huckleberry Finn,” that eponymous character says of the author that “he told some stretchers, but mainly, he told the truth.” Twain probably did enhance Chapter 24 of “Roughing It,” but equal probability is that the incident was based largely in fact. “Roughing It” is a quintessential American memoir. Chapter 24 begins appropriately enough with Twain in Carson City of the then Nevada Territory, doing part-time work for his brother, Orion, who in turn was secretary to the Governor of the Territory.

“I resolved to have a horse to ride,” Twain wrote. “I had never seen such wild, free, magnificent horsemanship outside of a circus as these picturesquely-clad Mexicans, Californians and Mexicanized Americans displayed in Carson [City] streets every day. How they rode! Leaning just gently forward out of the perpendicular, easy and nonchalant, with broad slouch-hat brim blown square up in front, and long riata swinging above the head, they swept through the town like the wind!...I was resolved to buy a horse.”

Thinking thusly, Twain found his way to the then equivalent of a used car lot, a stable where horse auctions were held. As he saw one particularly interesting horse come under the auctioneer’s hammer, he was approached by a man who later turned out to be the auctioneer’s brother.

“I know that horse–know him well,” the man confides. “You are a stranger, I take it, and so you might think he was an American horse, maybe, but I assure you he is not. He is nothing of the kind; but–excuse my speaking in a low voice, other people being near–he is, without the shadow of a doubt, a Genuine Mexican Plug!”

Twain continues: “I did not know what a Genuine Mexican Plug was, but there was something about this man’s way of saying it, that made me swear inwardly that I would own a Genuine Mexican Plug, or die.”

Of course circumstances bring him to own the horse, and of course the results are pure Twain, one maddening consequence of ownership piled atop the next, giving a fine balance to this week’s equine triad. Having read this chapter of “Roughing It,” there is great likelihood you will continue to the very end, then start at the beginning to see how he got there (and in the bargain, you might get a glimpse of how we got here.)

These three authors and these works not only should be read, they call out to us still from the times of their original writing and publication to become a part of our very personal sample of the pillars and foundations of our national heritage.