Tompkins, Jane. West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Reviewed by Jackie Fletcher.
Jane Tompkins’ West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns discusses how the important elements of western movies and novels are intended to influence audiences. Tompkins starts her book by exclaiming her personal love for the genre, which shows throughout the rest of the book. She then strategically introduces her audience to the reasons why anyone can love a western, from its battles between good and evil to its gritty American hero. Yet her message, found at the end of the novel, is more of a call to action: Tompkins urges her readers to take part in the moment of “murderousness” that at some point can fuel all of us and to realize that although watching shootouts can be entertaining, they are never going to solve the problem of who is right or wrong, only who is more ruthless.
West of Everything is a fast read that maintains a strong interest level. Despite its academic method, readers can easily be swept up in its examinations and examples of Western elements, such as women and the language of men, death, horses and cattle. Tompkins is very fair in her interpretations of each element, frequently citing examples from film and literature. She relies not only on one but several authors and directors to prove her argument, such as when she points out the way that Westerns teach men how to act, quoting famous lines from at least ten different works (50). Using quotations from Shere Hite’s Women and Love: A Cultural Revolution in Progress, Tompkins argues that “the Western’s hatred of language is not a philosophical matter only; it has codified and sanctioned the way several generations of men have behaved verbally toward women in American society” (59).
Each chapter of the book focuses on a different western element. After introducing these elements, Tompkins provides what she labels “case studies.” In these biographical accounts, Tompkins identifies major figures in the development of the western genre. She begins with Owen Wister’s life as a man who gave up his dream of becoming a musician to follow his parents’ wishes. It was not until Wister was told to go West that he was able to emerge as an “independent being” (137). Tompkins also includes case studies of Zane Grey, Buffalo Bill, and Louis L’Amour, all of whom have had a tremendous impact on the Western.
Some of Tompkins concepts are hard to swallow, but it is not because they aren’t true. As she points out, violence is a huge part of the genre and frequently glorified by the tough hero. That does not mean that audiences do not love the hero; it just means that they can experience contradictory feelings by loving him or (very infrequently) her. Tompkins also graphically explains how cattle are slaughtered in the United States, from the initial stunning of the animals to the refrigeration of the carcasses. She uses this to help make her point that most people tend to avoid thinking about animals because they are so similar to us: “Animals are both like us (person, organism, companion, friend) and not like us, treated as if they were objects (steaks, vehicles, lab specimens)” (112).
Tompkins has a good way of forcing her readers into sticky situations. Readers must accept what is written, but they do not feel forced to change their own ways of thinking. While she is opinionated, she has many reasons to be, and she lists them in her writing. Readers of this book may thus find that they do not agree with what she has to say, but they cannot deny that she constructs the setting of a Western perfectly, from the landscape to the dominating male and the passive woman. Her descriptions are purposeful, and her conclusion is concise. She asks only that readers and viewers realize that at some point, even in Westerns, fighting becomes useless when it is not constructive.
West of Everythingis a good book for people who want to know more about the Western genre. For readers who want to take a backstage peak at what makes up a western, this will be a worthwhile read.