A leading figure in the debate over the literary canon, Jane Tompkins was one of the first to point to the ongoing relevance of popular women's fiction in the 19th century, long overlooked or scorned by literary critics. Now, in West of Everything, Tompkins shows how popular novels and films of the American west have shaped the emotional lives of people in our time.
Into this world full of violence and manly courage, the world of John Wayne and Louis L'Amour, Tompkins takes her readers, letting them feel what the hero feels, endure what he endures. Writing with sympathy, insight, and respect, she probes the main elements of the Western--its preoccupation with death, its barren landscapes, galloping horses, hard-bitten men and marginalized women--revealing the view of reality and code of behavior these features contain. She considers the Western hero's attraction to pain, his fear of women and language, his desire to dominate the environment--and to merge with it. In fact, Tompkins argues, for better or worse Westerns have taught us all--men especially--how to behave.
It was as a reaction against popular women's novels and women's invasion of the public sphere that Westerns originated, Tompkins maintains. With Westerns, men were reclaiming cultural territory, countering the inwardness, spirituality, and domesticity of the sentimental writers, with a rough and tumble, secular, man-centered world. Tompkins brings these insights to bear in considering film classics such as Red River and Lonely Are the Brave, and novels such as Louis L'Amour's Last of the Breed and Owen Wister's The Virginian. In one of the most moving chapters (chosen for Best American Essays of 1991), Ttompkins shows how the life of Buffalo Bill Cody, killer of Native Americans and charismatic star of the Wild West show, evokes the contradictory feelings which the Western typically elicits--horror and fascination with violence, but also love and respect for the romantic ideal of the cowboy.
Whether interpreting a photograph of John Wayne of meditating on the slaughter of cattle, Jane Tompkins writes with humor, compassion, and a provocative intellect. Her book will appeak to many Americans who read or watch Westerns, and to all those interested in a serious approach to popular culture.
"A daring and confrontational literary essay meant to rattle the peace of mind of just about every cowboy on the face of the earth....Throughout her book [Tompkins] evidences a charm, honesty, and sense of intellectual adventure that would make her a happy pardner on a long ride....And why do I love Miz Tompkins so much for bush-whacking the myth of the West inside me? Because she's right."--John Calvin Batchelor, Washington Post Book World
"The feminist perspective of West of Everything makes it invaluable to the ongoing critical discourse on Westerns."--San Francisco Chronicle
"Anyone who cares about American popular culture could profit from reading this masterpiece."--Booklist
"We've long recognized that the western is a basic myth of masculinity. Thus, it's not surprising that a woman scholar might have, if not the last word, at least a good deal to say about the genre. What's even more striking is that Jane Tompkins in West of Everything not only develops an insightful feminist critique of the western as macho mythos, but also has some brilliant observations to make about the genre's compelling artistic and cultural
force. This is noy simply gender criticism, but cultural and aesthetic analysis at its most fascinating."--John G. Cawelti, University of Kentucky
"Treating both Western novels and Western movies, Jane Tompkins argues that there is nothing trivial about the desires they arouse or the violence they persuade us to applaud. By the end of her study, she forces us to confront that righteous ecstasy through which, for one brief moment, we all share in the murderous discharge of tension which traditionally concludes the Western. It is a chilling and provocative Epilogue to a book that movingly demonstrates why
this famous feminist critic has always found herself both attracted to and repelled by the power of cowboy heroes. In short, a bracing and sobering analysis."--Annette Kolodny, author of The Lay of the Land and The Land Before Her