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...the bodies of the silent men of Company C lay wide-eyed to the rain and barechested to the wind...dead now in the long grass on a lonely hill, west of everything."" So ends a paragraph of Louis L'Amour's Hondo, a work that readers of Tompkins's rapt reevaluation of the ecstasies of Western novels, film, and icons will come to revere as much as does Tompkins herself (English/Duke Univ.). The two heroes who loom largest in Tompkins's pantheon are L'Amour and Zane Grey. She quotes brilliantly, offering the reader time and again ""the fully saturated moment,"" showing a Grey who is a poet with as furiously rich and sexually Pan-spirited a sense of landscape as D.H. Lawrence. Tompkins sees the Western as a cannon-burst against sentimental women's fiction in the 19th century, against the dominance of women's culture and the women's invasion of the public sphere between 1880 and 1920. ""It's about men's fear of losing their mastery, and hence their identity, both of which the Western tirelessly reinvents."" Her larger themes are death, women, the language of men (""yup""), landscape, horses, and cattle--all of which she follows in John Wayne classics, The Searchers and Red River, as well as in Alan Ladd's Shane. But her richest chapters are those on Grey, who ""doesn't know that he is making the rim rock and the sage slopes enact the birth of a new age, but that is what he is doing."" His is a landscape with blatant but unacknowledged sexual imagery, as in Riders of the Purple Sage: ""She went stone-blind in the fury of a passion that had never before showed its power. Lying upon her bed, sightless, voiceless, she was a writhing, living flame."" Some academic clinkers, but mainly right down to sod.

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 1992
Page count: 208pp
Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press