REVIEWSrnLight Literaturernby Stephen L. TannerrnCashboxrnby Richard S. WheelerrnNew York: Forge;rn381pp.,$23.95rnOne of the easualties of the currentrnculture wars is the Western. Nornother genre, it seems, is so pohticallyrnincorrect. The Western is accused ofrnracism, sexism, and imperialism—threernstrikes and you’re out. These charges receivernsophisticated expression in JanernTompkins’ West of Everythhig, publishedrnunder the prestigious imprint of OxfordrnUniversity Press. According to its thesis,rn”The Western doesn’t have anything torndo with the West as such. It isn’t aboutrnthe encounter between civilization andrnthe frontier. It is about men’s fear of losingrntheir mastery, and hence their identitv,rnboth of which the Western tirelesslyrnreinvents.” The cowboy astride a horsernexemplifies an “ethos of dominance.”rnThis horse-rider relationship is a “politics,”rnand each appearance of a horsemanrnon the horizon “celebrates” malernhegemonv. (I suppose we are to assumernthat if men hadn’t had such an overweeningrndesire for political power, theyrnmight have found another means to traversernthose large distances in the West.)rnCattle as well as women are political victims:rnaccording to Tompkins, the JohnrnWayne cattle-drive film Red River is reallyrna film about enslavement and massacrern—of cattle. The filming technique,rnshe suggests, helps disguise this fact byrnonly showing the cows from the side sornwe can’t look into their anguished facesrnand sympathize with their politicalrnplight.rnTompkins stretches the motto “everythingrnis political” to the limits. She viewsrneven landscape as politics: “The harshnessrnof the Western landscape [whichrnTo order these books, (24hrs, 365 days)rnplease call (800) 962-6651 (Ext. 5200)rnshe seems to reduce to John Ford’srnpanoramic shots of Monument Valley] isrnso rhetorically persuasive that an entirerncode of values [racist, sexist, patriarchal]rnis in place, rock solid, from the outset,rnwithout anyone’s ever saying a word.” Irnwonder what a Navajo woman wouldrnmake of this astonishing assertion thatrnthe landscape of the Southwest isrnsexually and racially oppressive. Or whatrnresponse would we expect from anrnecofeminist who views nature (includingrndesert) as a woman victimized?rnBesides seeing politics lurking behindrnevery cactus, Tompkins is reductive inrnanother way. She treats novels and filmsrnas a single entity, asserting that “whenrnyou read a Western novel or watch arnWestern movie on television, you are inrnthe same world no matter what thernmedium: the hero is the same, the storyrnline is the same, the setting, the values,rnthe actions are the same.” This is generalizationrnfrom limited sampling. Therncommercial exploitation of familiar formulasrnnotwithstanding, the Westernrngenre taken as a whole displays much varietyrnin content and quality. And furthermore,rnnovels and films are too differentrnto be lumped together. One has thernuncomfortable feeling that Tompkins’rnresearch consisted largely of renting arnstack of videos from her local Blockbusters.rnThis would explain her remarkablernclaim that there are no Indians inrnWesterns. What she really means is thatrnthe main Indian roles in a certain grouprnof Western films were played by whiternactors—Jeff Chandler as an Apache,rnfor example. Totally ignored are thernmany Western novels that explore thernIndian perspective perceptively and sympathetically.rnTo lump together the widernrange of Western novels—differing sornmuch in quality of writing, historicalrnresearch, and imaginative vision—withrnproducts of Hollywood’s film system isrnunfair and misleading.rnRichard S. Wheeler’s fiction providesrna counterexample to such generalizedrnand reductive characterizations of thernWestern. Wheeler began writing Westernsrnin the mid-1970’s, at first for money,rnbut then with an increasing desire torntell more realistic and historically accuraternstories than the usual Western provides.rn(See his essay “Writing OffbeatrnWesterns” in the August 1991 issue ofrnChronicles.) He was interested in characterrnmore than plot, and in charactersrnwith ordinary strengths and weaknessesrnrather than in mythic heroes and unalloyedrnvillains. He wanted to widen thernappeal of Westerns to attract a more educatedrnand literate readership, includingrnwomen. This meant upgrading the vocabulary,rnusing figurative language morernextensively and skillfully, widening thernrange of characters (male and female),rnand getting deeper inside their mindsrnthan the usual action-adventure allows.rnIt also meant treating aspects of thernWestern frontier largely ignored in thernfamiliar formulas associated with therncattle kingdom.rnHe was repelled by the anomie of recentrnWestern films and television showsrnwith their cynical violence and amoralrnnightmare atmosphere. “These malignantrnstories,” he says, “drained away therncomplex, warm social relationships thatrnoccur in real life. The tender emotionsrnvanished—love, loyalty, mercy, laughter.”rnBelieving that such dark viewsrnalong with the narrow parameters of therncommonplace Western have distorted orrnextinguished the public’s interest in thernfrontier, he has endeavored to write storiesrnwith characters who have values andrnbeliefs, who are connected with others,rnwho can laugh and cry, who can shaperntheir lives with dreams and effort. Hernsets them within moral frameworks andrnrestores what he sees as “the traditionalrnvirtues, honesty, bravery, courage, loyalty,rnwarmth and sunniness” that peoplernonce treasured in fiction. He suspectsrnthat much recent “literary” fiction hasrnabandoned this traditional ground andrnthat entertainment novelists are appropriatingrnit. He has certainly stakedrnout his claim. But in doing so he is writingrnagainst the commercial grain. Thernreadership of mythic Westerns seemsrnstable (witness the popularity of LouisrnL’Amour), and publishers do not want tornexperiment. Fortunately, he has foundrnpublishers for his approach, but it hasrnnot been easy. His is a conservativernendeavor: Wheeler is firmly convincedrnthat the best values and traditions of thernAmerican frontier, which are being distortedrnby commercial exploitation andrnmyopic revisionist attacks, are worth eonserving.rnCashbox is the culmination so far ofrnJUNE 1995/33rnrnrn