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Their Ignorance and Majesty

Most Americans are at least a century removed from their dependence on horses. It is tempting to try to assign a precise date to the seismic shift to horseless carriages. Willa Cather sets her novella “Coming, Aphrodite!” in 1906, “almost the very last summer of the old horse stages on Fifth Avenue,” when the intruding automobile, “mis-shapen and sullen,” seemed “an ugly threat in a stream of things that were bright and beautiful and alive.”1 John Jeremiah Sullivan, who has much to say on the subject in his book Blood Horses, puts the date at 1913, “when Ford began using interchangeable parts.”

Our lost intimacy with horses has given rise to predictable nostalgia, as well as anxiety about a more encompassing alienation from the natural world, of which it is seen as a symptom. “Man has lost the horse,” D.H. Lawrence wrote portentously, “now man is lost.” In Edwin Muir’s wonderful poem “The Horses,” the banished beasts, “dropped in some wilderness of the broken world,” return to save lost humanity after an atomic apocalypse:

We had sold our horses in our fathers’ time
To buy new tractors. Now they were strange to us
As fabulous steeds set on an ancient shield
Or illustrations in a book of knights.
2

Some of the pathos of Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit derives from the same reversal, as the businessman Charles Howard, after his young son’s death in a traffic accident, relinquishes his car dealership to try his luck with racehorses, his luxurious garages reverting to stables. Hillenbrand told an interviewer that the germ of the book was precisely this ironic turn of events: “I thought it was fascinating that a man who had made his fortune replacing the horse with the automobile would find his true greatness by teaming up with a frontier horseman [the trainer Tom Smith] who had been rendered obsolete by the automobile.”3

And yet, the slow estrangement of horses and human beings—“that long-lost archaic companionship,” as Muir calls it—began long before, and played out across the rapidly industrializing nineteenth century. You might think that Edgar Degas, a great painter of horses, grew up on horseback. “No records, however, not even apocryphal legends, mention a horse—even as a toy—in the artist’s childhood,” writes the scholar Jean Boggs.4 Degas’s first attempts at painting horses were drawn from classical friezes—Muir’s “fabulous steeds set on an ancient shield.” It was only when he schooled himself in Géricault’s depictions of horses, carefully copying, for example, the Louvre’s Five Horses Viewed from the Rear (1820–1822), that Degas began to acquire a sense of actual horses—second nature to an experienced rider like Géricault, who died, nonetheless, from injuries sustained in two serious falls.

Of course, the horseless carriages acquired their own glamour and, in time, their own speed. The premier American horse race and the premier American car race are now held annually at the beginning and toward the end of May in states separated by the Ohio River. A great deal of sentiment and what is wishfully called “tradition” (mint juleps, outlandish hats, and the tearful singing of Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home”) adhere to the Kentucky Derby. In the Scarlett O’Hara setting at Churchill Downs in Louis- ville, it is easy to forget that Kentucky never seceded from the Union. The mood at the Indianapolis 500 is different—beer, baseball caps, and Paul Dresser’s “On the Banks of the Wabash”—but it has its own claims to reverence. I spent a few years during my childhood in a house on US 40, the old National Road, about an hour’s drive east of Indianapolis. On warm nights in mid-May, my friends and I would sit on a bench by the highway, hoping to catch sight of one of the Indy cars loaded on a flatbed and bound for the Speedway. It is odd, in retrospect, how excited we were about the cars. If we had known that Mario Andretti or A.J. Foyt were driving through, I doubt that we would have paid much mind.

John Jeremiah Sullivan, a twenty-nine-year-old writer and editor, grew up on both sides of the Ohio, but he only has eyes for Kentucky. After he briefly summarizes his past—“born in Louisville; childhood in southern Indiana; high school in Ohio; college in Tennessee”—he confesses that it was “a great relief, in the end, just to be able to tell people, ‘I’m from Kentucky.’” His mother, about whom he tells us little, is descended from the Milward family of Lexington, the branch of “insurance Milwards” rather than the “funeral Milwards”—“the ones who have to pay when somebody dies rather than the ones who get paid,” as Lexington native Elizabeth Hardwick put

it. And even though horses did not figure in Sullivan’s childhood any more than in Degas’s, Lexington, with its surrounding fiel ds of bluegrass, is the capital of horse country—the home of the Thoroughbred, or “blood horse,” bred for the track.

Sullivan’s father, a baseball writer named Mike Sullivan, is the hero—at least the human hero—of Blood Horses, which is subtitled “Notes of a Sportswriter’s Son.” The book is largely a tribute to him, a sort of monument erected in his memory. It takes its subject matter from John Sullivan’s final conversation with his father, after a sextuple bypass operation, when he asked him what he remembered from his life. Mike Sullivan’s answer surprised him:

I was at Secretariat’s Derby, in ‘73, the year before you were born—I don’t guess you were even conceived yet. That was…just beauty, you know? He started in last place, which he tended to do. I was covering the second-place horse, which wound up being Sham. It looked like Sham’s race going into the last turn, I think. The thing you have to understand is that Sham was fast, a beautiful horse. He would have had the Triple Crown in another year. And it just didn’t seem like there could be anything faster than that. Everybody was watching him. It was over, more or less. And all of a sudden there was this…like, just a disruption in the corner of your eye, in your peripheral vision. And then before you could make out what it was, here Secretariat came.

Mike Sullivan was hardly alone in finding something unearthly about Secretariat’s performances, both at Churchill Downs and, even more astoundingly, at the Belmont in New York five weeks later, when Big Red, as he was known, won by thirty-one lengths. But the memory of Secretariat’s Derby, which Mike Sullivan had never mentioned to his son before, struck John Sullivan as somehow the key to the meaning of his father’s life. John spent a couple of years attending top races and following some promising two-year-olds pointed toward the Triple Crown (the sequence of races for three-year-olds that includes the Preakness in addition to the Derby and the Belmont)—hoping, apparently, to see the next Secretariat—and reading all he could about horses and horse racing. The resulting book has three principal strands: a memoir of Sullivan’s father; a report on time spent at the racetrack and other Thoroughbred venues; and a commonplace book of passages from the literature of the horse. Artfully braided together in Blood Horses, the three strands are most easily addressed separately. Throughout, the figure of Secretariat looms: “He is best described not as the greatest horse, nor as the greatest runner, nor even as the greatest athlete of the twentieth century, but as the greatest creature.” Big Red threatens the balance of Blood Horses in much the same way that the great white whale threatens the balance of Moby-Dick.

Mike Sullivan, of New Jersey Irish stock, was a writer for various newspapers in the Midwest; during his son’s childhood he covered minor-league baseball for the Louisville Courier-Journal (at that time the Courier-Journal & Times). When he died, in 2000—overweight, a chain-smoker, and divorced from Sullivan’s mother—he had been following the Cleveland Indians. It is important to John Sullivan to describe accurately what kind of writer his father was: “His articles were dense and allusive and saddled, at times, with what could be called pedantic humor. They were also good, as I realized after he was gone—I seldom read them when he was alive.” The alternative paper in Columbus, Ohio, ran an affectionate column called “The Sully,” identifying the strangest sentence from Mike Sullivan’s coverage of the Tigers for the previous week. Here is one: “‘Second base is still an undefined area that we haven’t wrapped our arms around,’ Tribe general manager John Hart said, sounding very much like a man about to have his face savagely bitten.”

The sports page remains just about the only place in American newspapers where such baroque elaboration is allowed. John Sullivan writes very finely about the nature of the sportswriter who, as he says, is “never a fan.”

His passion for the game is more abstract. He has to be there, after all, until midnight, whether his team wins or loses, and his team is a shifting entity, one that wears many colors. He considers the game…with a cooler eye; and for him there is no incentive to exaggerate or distort events. For the fan, the game is theater; it has heroes and villains, just or unjust outcomes. But however much the sportswriter tricks out his subject in the language of theater, it remains in his mind something else, a contest not between the more and less deserving but between the more and less skilled, or lucky. The contest, only the contest, endures, with its discrete components: the throw, the move, the play, their nearness to or distance from perfection.

You might think, given such sympathetic perspicacity, that John Sullivan might have honored his father best by spending a season following a minor-league baseball team. His father was, after all, a connoisseur of the ordinariness of the game—the throw, the move, the play.

But John Sullivan saw something else in his father, something that distinguished him from his peers in the press box. “As opposed to the typical sportswriter, who has a passion for the subject and can put together a sentence, my father’s ambition had been to Write (poetry, no less), and sports were what he knew, so he sort of stumbled onto making his living that way.” This “typical sportswriter” is a straw man; Mike Sullivan’s progress from poet to sportswriter is probably more typical than his son imagines. Sullivan insists on seeing his father’s decision to give up writing poetry as the moment that he “relinquished his liter-ary ambition.” Reading through his father’s abandoned drafts of Beat-inspired verse—a bicycle wheel “unzipping puddles”; “30th and Round down west in white shanty town/ would slide on its dust into the river/ and cross to Indiana…”—Sullivan observes, movingly, “Sons often wander like sleepwalkers into their fathers’ defeats.”

John Sullivan’s two years among horses and their handlers follow directly from his interpretation of these defeats. He wants to believe that his father was a poet first, and only an accidental sportswriter. And he wants to see his father’s memory of Secretariat winning the Derby as more revealing of his temperament than all those midnight dispatches on minor-league baseball games. When Sullivan himself goes to the track, he goes in search of Secretariat, about as promising a quest as looking for Babe Ruth at spring training.

Sullivan is at his best in a section, with downbeat digressions on the sad life of Stephen Foster and the sadder lives of horses in battle, devoted to his misadventures at the 2002 Kentucky Derby. He contrasts the squalor of Louisville—“There is plenty of there here”—with the blueblood decorum of Lexington. If Lexington is “old, and Southern, and cultured,” Louisville is a sprawling river town that

Northerners call the northernmost Southern city, and that Southerners call the southernmost Northern city, each fobbing it off on the other like an unwanted child.

Sullivan made two odd decisions on the eve of the Derby—to stay up all night drinking and to refuse a ride home from the racetrack in order to soak up the aftermath. His account of what happened as a result has the hallucinatory quality of a scene from George Grosz. The spectators’ infield at Churchill Downs is

a wonderful place to see a certain kind of Kentucky face, one made obsolete in other parts of the world by dentistry and nutritional guidelines.

The paddock where the horses are saddled is a freak show of flash-in-the-pan celebrities (“‘Hey, is that Britney Spears?’ But no, it is Jessica Simpson”) and their gawkers. “What kind of person,” Sullivan wonders,

would voluntarily endure what is essentially a foodless outdoor cocktail party of strangers in heavy sun, in a prison-yard-style enclosure, wearing outlandish clothes and trying to appear relaxed while being gawked at and openly insulted by hundreds if not thousands of drunken hill people?

What redeems “all this crappiness,” extended to nightmare length when Sullivan is marooned on the strip outside the track and harassed by menacing drunks spilling out of “gentlemen’s clubs,” is the brief, Oz-like vision of horses and their jockeys:

So it is beautiful when the horses themselves appear, in their ignorance and their majesty…. Only those with souls most thoroughly hollowed out by fame fail to turn and watch the three-year-olds when they take their slow lap around the paddock. And the jockeys! Who could not love a sport with its own paid battalion of wee men, their bright, gay silks, their young faces, their ambiguous quasi-midgetry. They are perfect little people, shrunk down with a ray, surprisingly muscled. It is as if we have had to evolve a special breed of human being, so that the Thoroughbreds might have riders.

Sullivan experiences a fan’s disappointment when War Emblem, purchased by a Saudi prince just weeks before the Derby, stumbles at the starting gate of the Belmont and fails to win the Triple Crown. “I did not think that I wanted this horse to win all that badly. His story was so crass. But when I finally drop the binoculars, my eyes are full of tears.” With the New York–bred Funny Cide’s improbable run, a year later, Sullivan’s hopes for a second Secretariat are dashed again. His language about horses repeatedly tries for sublimity, much of the time successfully, sometimes not: “Our awe in their presence—who has not felt it, just standing across the fence from one?—is as old as anything we can call ours.”

Sullivan’s “tour” as he calls it “through the literature of the horse” is absorbing and offbeat, though it too is skewed by Secretariat. “Writing a good horse book,” he remarks, “is no easy thing if you are writing for adults.” He seems to assume that the greatest horse book must be about the greatest horse. He calls William Nack’s excellent biography of Secretariat “a masterpiece of the genre, possibly the only masterpiece of the genre.” I would imagine that Nack himself would be embarrassed by this claim, especially when it is followed in Blood Horses by Sullivan’s dismissal of two great turf writers, Joe H. Palmer and Red Smith, as “pioneer hacks.” If Palmer and Smith were pioneer hacks, then James Agee was a pioneer hack of film criticism and Edwin Denby was a hack about dance.

No one has written more sensitively about the day-to-day beauty and surprises and sheer oddity of the racetrack than Palmer. Palmer looked beyond the well-bred super-horses of his time—Citation and Count Fleet and War Admiral—to praise the virtues of lesser but harder workers like Seabiscuit and Stymie. Of Stymie, an “obscurely bred Texas product,” he wrote:

He is not a great horse, in the sense that Man o’ War or Equipoise were great. He isn’t versatile. There are dozens of horses around that can beat him at a mile…. He can’t make his own pace and he can’t win slow races. He needs something up ahead to draw the speed from the field, to soften it up for his long, sweeping rush at the end.

But give him a field with speed in it, at a mile and a half or more, and horses had better get out of his way, even Whirlaway.5

If Sullivan does not appreciate Palmer’s prose, it may be for the same reason that he values his father’s poetry more than his sportswriting, and longs for Secretariat while watching Funny Cide fail in the stretch. The style in which Palmer and Smith wrote—with much influence from Mark Twain, some from Hemingway and Ring Lardner, and a phrase here and there reminiscent of Faulkner—is precisely Mike Sullivan’s mode, as far as one can tell from his son’s account of his “strange, clever stories about inconsequential games.”

Far more engaging is the cabinet of literary curiosities, only remotely related to racing, that Sullivan culls from the literature of the horse. Many of these are drawn, surprisingly, from German literature: Schiller on the sublimity of horses in the wild; Nietzsche’s breakdown in Turin, when he tried to prevent a driver from beating an old cab-horse to death; a poem by Inge Müller about survivors of an Allied bombing raid gorging themselves on the flesh of a living horse. Sulli-van juxtaposes an account of Kaspar Hauser, the feral child who wanders into Nuremberg in May 1828, dressed like a stable boy and capable of saying only one sentence—“Ein Reiter will ich werden, wie mein Vater einer war“: “I want to be a rider, like my father before me”—with the oddly parallel tale, from Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit, of a disturbed teenager, later identified as a jockey, who turns up in a bus station in Columbus and kills himself in a local holding cell. And, oddest of all, Sullivan retrieves from obscurity a pica-resque autobiography—“a great and unknown American book,” in his judg- ment—of a well-digger from Kentucky in the early years of the nineteenth century:

What is wonderful about John Robert Shaw is he never let go of his pluck. He went down into many wells during his ten years in Lexington, and he rarely left one on his own power; rather he was hauled to the surface, having maimed himself whilst ramming. In the process of “battleing with the limestone” he lost “no less than one eye, four fingers, one thumb and seven toes.” Yet he managed nonetheless to acquire five acres of land and to get “numerous progeny” on his unnamed wife.

John Robert Shaw, with his Gulliver-like travails, is clearly some kind of stand-in for John Sullivan, the kind of free spirit that he wants to preside over his own hybrid book. And from time to time, especially in the pages on his father’s defeats and his own tours of horse lore and the grotesque sidelights of the track, Sullivan achieves a kindred pluck and prodigality.

It is worth asking precisely what kind of book Sullivan has produced in Blood Horses. He could obviously have written a tighter, tidier book by limiting himself to one of his three literary strands: a memoir of his father; a sojourn at the racetrack; a commonplace book of horse-related trivia. But that would be to mistake the literary genre he has instinctively chosen. For Blood Horses is an excellent modern example of the mixed form, practiced by Swift and Burton and Melville, that the critic Northrop Frye called an “anatomy.” The hallmarks of the genre, according to Frye, are its “digressing narrative,” its “creative treatment of exhaustive erudition,” and its odd combination of confession, romance, and encyclopedic arcana. You set out to write a book about a whaling voyage and pretty soon you are writing about life itself.

No one ever wished it longer,” a professor of Victorian literature at Harvard once said to me of Moby-Dick. Of course, he was patently wrong. Who would not cheerfully follow Ishmael on his voyage home, his return to the “insular city of the Manhattoes,” his reluctant visit with Ahab’s widow? “Tell me what happened,” she might say. Blood Horses does not suffer from self-indulgence; it is, if anything, too self-contained. Sullivan does not sufficiently trust his own winding curiosity and wavering passions. The book sometimes reads like Moby-Dick as edited by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Sullivan is an original and greatly gifted writer and I would gladly follow his travels farther afield, with more on John Robert Shaw and less on Secretariat. For John Jeremiah Sullivan, as Coleridge said of the anatomist Sir Thomas Browne, “has brains in his Head, which is all the more interesting for a little Twist in the Brains.”

  1. 1

    Willa Cather, Collected Stories (Vintage, 1992), p. 65.

  2. 2

    Edwin Muir, Selected Poems, with a preface by T.S. Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 1965), pp. 85–86. Sullivan misquotes the phrase about companionship, substituting “longest” for “long-lost,” p. 173.

  3. 3

    Hillenbrand’s interview with William Nack is appended to the paperback edition of Seabiscuit: An American Legend (Ballantine, 2001), in the unpaginated “Reader’s Guide.”

  4. 4

    Jean Sutherland Boggs, Degas at the Races (National Gallery of Art/Yale University Press, 1998), p. 16.

  5. 5

    Joe H. Palmer, This Was Racing (A.S. Barnes, 1953), pp. 164, 256, 45. A selection of Red Smith’s columns on racing is included in The Red Smith Reader, edited by Dave Anderson (Random House, 1982).

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