Book of the week
Farewell to the Horse: A Cultural History
We have too soon forgotten how much we all owe to an animal we now barely know, said Melissa Holbrook Pierson in The Washington Post. “Today the horse is a creature from a lost pastoral myth,” but Ulrich Raulff’s eloquent tribute reminds us that for 6,000 years humanity had no more significant partner in the making of the contemporary world. Raulff, a cultural historian, focuses on roughly the last 150 years of that run, a period that began with Napoleon conquering Europe on horseback and closed with millions of horses dying on the battlefields of World War II. By then, the great shift from an agrarian to an industrial culture was nearly complete, and Raulff’s graceful study, by closely appraising the horse’s retreat to marginality, offers the noble beast “nothing less than a requiem mass.”
Rest assured, “you have never read a book like it,” said Kate Kellaway in TheGuardian.com. Raulff “has an extraordinary connective mind,” and he’s as interesting on 19th-century country doctors as he is on Clever Hans, an Arab stallion that briefly gained fame for its supposed ability to do arithmetic. “We can barely remember all the ways in which horses were once used,” said Verlyn Klinkenborg in The New York Review of Books. Raulff returns us to a time when they were the answer to the human need for speed, enabling the conquest of continents but also quick errand runs. Our dependence on horses in fact surged in the early stages of urbanization and industrialization. In 1900, New York City was home to 130,000 working horses, a labor force that inconveniently produced 1,000 tons of manure a day. Around the same time, it was possible to visit an American farm and see a 40-horse team pulling a combine harvester.
Raulff doesn’t stick with the economic narrative for long, said Gregory Curtis in The Wall Street Journal. Though he grew up on a farm that still relied on working horses, he has since cultivated a deep interest in the horse’s role in legend and literature, and reading him on those subjects “gives the same feeling of elation and abandon that comes when you are lucky enough to ride a horse at a gallop across open land.” I was only disappointed that his book ends without any grand conclusion, about, for example, how humans may have been changed by the sudden end of our species’ long bond with horses. “All of Farewell to the Horse seems to be leading to that question: I put down the book with it hanging in the air, unanswered.”