(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

When John Sullivan wrote the 2002 cover story for Harper's Magazine, “Horseman, Pass By,” honoring both his father and the sport of horse racing, it won a National Magazine Award and the Eclipse Award (the latter granted by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association). Sullivan expanded the article into an autobiographical examination of his relationship with his father and of the historical relationship between humans and horses. This book received universally enthusiastic reviews. Sullivan opens by explaining that his father, Mike Sullivan, a much-loved sportswriter who covered mainly baseball for the Courier Journal of Louisville, Kentucky, was dying in the hospital when John “asked him to tell me what he remembered from all those years of writing about sports, for he had seen some things in his time.” Mike Sullivan's often-quoted response is likely to become a classic quotation in the annals of sportswriting, as John reports it: 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…. 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. And then Secretariat had passed him. No one had ever seen anything run like that—a lot of the old guys said the same thing. It was like he was some other animal out there. His father's unexpected passion for Secretariat's perfect performance spurred John Sullivan into a sort of quest: to learn about horses, to learn about racing, and to learn what inspired that kind of passion. The resulting book is not divided into chapters as such but into longer or shorter histories, anecdotes, and descriptions of people and places. Some of these anecdotes concern the author and his father, such as John's childhood scrapes and follies and Mike's reactions to them. Other stories range through countries and centuries, examining the history of breeding and eugenics, for example, or speculating on how humans first tamed horses. Horses were likely the fifth domesticated animal. (Dogs were domesticated during the Mesolithic Age; goats at about 8000 b.c.e., and sheep soon after. Pigs and cattle followed.) No one knows how the wild horse might have submitted to being tamed and ridden, but the picture Sullivan paints is charming and plausible. Sullivan's writing is always engaging and often beautiful. He writes, in an essay prefatory to the bibliography: This book is meant to be as much a tour (albeit at times a cursory one) through the literature of the horse as through the culture of Thoroughbred ownership and racing…. It perhaps goes without saying that in a few places—most notably in “ICON,” the section concerning the physical evolution of the horse and the history of its meaning in human culture—I have reduced to a sentence or a paragraph material that fills not only entire books but entire libraries . . . and he apologizes unnecessarily for the wonderful, wonder-filled “amateur spirit presiding over this book.” By “the literature of the horse,” Sullivan means not fiction about horses such as novelist Anna Sewell's Black Beauty (1877) but rather historical documentation (he humorously quotes a 1955 Sports Illustrated essay by author William Faulkner), folklore, and even iconography—the book includes twenty-nine black-and-white illustrations of works, such as Swiss artist Henry Fuseli's famous 1781 painting The Nightmare and a cave painting of horses from c. 24,640 b.c.e. This tour provides the lay reader with explanations that horse fans will already know, such as how breeding and betting work, as well as with anecdotes only the researcher would know, such as how Secretariat got his name. The sections are arranged neither chronologically nor geographically but rather by association. For instance, observation of a race won by the horse War Emblem leads into a tear-jerking chronicle of the uses and abuses of horses during war. A journey back home to Kentucky induces...

(The entire section is 1774 words.)