West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns.
By Jane Tompkins. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. 245 pages. $10.95.
Reviewed by Cynthia Sturgis, Instructor of History, The Bishop’s School, La Jolla. Dr. Sturgis teaches and reviews in the areas of California and Western history.
It’s a delight to find a book which effectively combines sophisticated and challenging concepts with a confident, clever, and intensely personal narrative voice. This is a wonderfully provocative study, perfect for the solitary Western fan and ideal for a class on Western literature, history, or culture, since it would be bound to stimulate heated and, one hopes, thoughtful debate on the underlying themes and societal implications of the Western film and novel. Tompkins takes the genre seriously, and she develops elegant arguments to explain the Western’s appeal to so many different and apparently unreconcilable groups: women as well as men, the high and mighty as well as the down and out. In doing so, she is bound to irritate and antagonize many devotees, who, after following her eagerly and willingly through sections on “Death” and “Landscape” and even, perhaps, “Women and the Language of Men,” may suddenly feel betrayed by discussions of “Horses” and “Cattle” which they will be tempted, unwisely, to reject. As Tompkins notes, amazingly few studies of Westerns consider the implications of the use and misuse of animals in a genre so dominated by their presence. Following these sections on larger common themes come related “case studies” of Owen Wister, Zane Grey, Louis L’Amour, and Buffalo Bill Cody. Her obvious love for and mastery of the genre lend credibility to some challenging interpretations. For example, those familiar with Wister’s personal papers as well as his fiction should find her discussion of his mother’s influence on his work entirely plausible. It is Tompkins’ very insistence that we look at the familiar and “safe” in a way which renders it dangerous and unsettling which is her greatest strength in these interconnected essays.
Tompkins effectively contrasts the style and values of the Western with the most popular genre immediately preceding it, the sentimental, female-centered Victorian novel. While in many ways the two are opposites–the Western features a lone male hero rather than a female community, silence and containment instead of emotional expression, “exteriority” versus “interiority”–she sees both as stressing self-denial and unacknowledged suffering. However, certain values unique to the Western have made a significant imprint on 2Oth century American culture, notably the willingness to embrace and justify violence after “sufficient” provocation and in support of a “good cause”. Her willingness to tackle such significant themes in a fresh and thought-provoking manner, as well as her lively and powerful style, make this an important book for all lovers of the Western.