Jane Tompkins and I have one thing in common: we both love westerns. What we do not share is her fanatical dedication to the genre. I read a Louis L’Amour to relax my mind and refresh my spirit; Tompkins is a professor at Duke University who studies L’Amour and Zane Grey and Elmore Leonard to find trends and deeper meanings in their writings. That’s what brought her to write “West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns.” She watches “High Noon” and “Shane” for hours on end, searching out what these popular films tell about the characters they portray and the culture of modern life they produced.
At its heart, a Western is “antilanguage,” Tompkins writes. “Doing, not talking, is what it values.” The men who make up the old west’s heroes do not have vast vocabularies purchased by costly degrees. They don’t read all that many books. The men in these stories speak sparely: “Turn the wagon. Tie ‘em up short. Get up on the seat.” (Red River) “Take my horse. Good swimmer. Get it done, boy.” (Rio Grande)
That may tell us something about Westerns, but for my money, it tells us a lot more about men. At the core of his being, a man trusts action rather than words. In fact, he is suspicious of a man whose livelihood is about words. That’s why preachers and politicians get short shrift in men’s stories. Which is fine with me, because even Scripture warns, “My little children, let us not love in words or in tongue, but in deed and in truth.” (I John 3:18) When you get a free hour, count the times in the Gospels where our Lord urges “doing” the will of God. That’s as opposed to talking about it, approving it, reading, hearing, thinking, reflecting, liking. “Just do it” was biblical long before it became commercial.
“Last summer my wife and I met a couple at a restaurant. After an enjoyable lunch, the women decided to go shopping, and I invited the man to go sailing. Later, while we were out on the water, a storm blew up. The tide had gone out, and we were downwind trying to work our way back through a narrow channel. At one point the boat grounded and we had to climb overboard and shove with all our might to get it back in deeper water. As my new friend stood there, ankle deep in muck, the wind blowing his hair wildly, rain streaming down his face, he grinned at me, and with unmistakable sincerity said, ‘Sure beats shopping!’” (From the Reader’s Digest, quoted by Jane Tompkins in “West of Everything.”)