west of everything

Jane Tompkins, from “Gender, Genre & Narrative Pleasure”, ed. Derek Longhurst (Unwin Hyman, London, 1989).

(The essay argues that the (antifeminist, secular) Western answers the (Christian, female-centric) domestic novel and protested the increasing “feminisation” of American public life at the time of the genre’s rise; I am, however, less interested in these conclusions than the preceding analysis of the genre. For my purposes, the definition of the Western largely in terms of absence and emptiness (void) is more important than the reasons why this should be).

“To go west, to go as far west as you can, west of everything, is to die. And death in the Western is double: glory, transfiguration, fulfilment and, at the same time, annihilation.” (p. 11)

“Events that would normally loom large…become peripheral and the activities and preoccupations of everyday life seem almost absurd. The Western’s concentration on death puts life on hold, empties the canvas of its details, while placing unnatural emphasis on a few extraordinary moments…” (p. 17)

“…Westerns don’t trust language…” (p. 22)

“Cowboy posits a world without God, without ‘ideas’, without institutions, without what is commonly recognised as culture…” (p. 22)

“…nature…looms very large in the Western, where it is grand, monumental, dwarfing the human figure with its majesty, the only divinity worshipped in this genre, other than manhood itself.” (p. 23)

“The Western hero, who seems to ride in out of nowhere, in fact comes riding in out of the nineteenth century. And every piece of baggage he doesn’t have, every word he doesn’t say, every creed he doesn’t believe in has been deliberately jettisoned. What isn’t there in the Western hasn’t disappeared by accident; it isn’t there because it has been repudiated or repressed. The surface cleanness and simplicity of the landscape, the story-line, the characters, derive from the genre’s will to sweep the board clear of encumbrances.” (p. 24)

“The Western doesn’t have anything to do with the west as such.” (p. 28)

(my emphasis throughout)

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