Tompkins, Jane P.

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Born 18 January 1940, New York, New York

Daughter of Henry and Lucille Reilly Parry; married Daniel P. Tompkins, 1963 (divorced); E. Daniel Larkin, 1975 (divorced); Stanley Fish, 1982

Nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for nonfiction, Professor of English Jane P. Tompkins lets her unabashed affection for the work of Louis L'Amour, Zane Grey, and John Ford provide the backdrop for her examination of male Westerns and cultural polarities in gender and power in West Of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns (1992). Tompkins combines a loving tribute with an unflinching condemnation and she shares her own inner great divide over male Westerns. Tompkins' work on Westerns followed her study of 19th-century sentimental novels; she sees the Westerns 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."

Tompkins had previously argued that serious study of the sentimental novels America produced in the 19th century offered substantial rewards. Her primary question is: What makes a literary classic? She argued it is not the intrinsic merit of a text, but rather the circumstances of its writing. She contends that writers like Brockden Brown, Cooper, Stowe, and Warner wrote in order to alter the face of the social world, not to elicit aesthetic appreciation. Thus the value and significance of the novels, for readers of their time, depended on precisely those characteristics that formalist criticism has taught us to deplore: stereotyped characters, sensational plots, and clichéd language. Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of America Fiction (1985) angered some critics who saw her attempts to open up the literary canon to "classics" that the current critical tradition has ignored as "suffocatingly nationalistic."

Tompkins graduated from Bryn Mawr College with a B.A. magna cum laude in 1961 and did her graduate work at Yale University; she received an M.A. in 1962 followed by a Ph.D. in 1966. She began her teaching career at Connecticut College and Greater Hartford Community College. She taught at Temple University, Columbia University, and the Graduate School and University Center of the City University of New York. Since 1985 she has been professor of English at Duke University.

Tompkins' commitment to bringing heretofore unheralded "classics" to the reading public is reflected in her introduction to the Penguin Twentieth-Century Classic edition of Zane Grey's Riders of the Purple Sage. Her efforts have also recovered a novel first published in 1852. The Wide Wide World by Susan Warner is often acclaimed as America's first bestseller. Tompkins finds the value in these two texts, works often discounted and ignored.

In her most recent work, Tompkins turns the lens on herself. A Life in School: What the Teacher Learned (1997) is a painful and exhilarating story of Tompkins' spiritual awakening. She looks back on her own life in the classroom and discovers how much of what she learned there needs to be unlearned—she offers a critique of our educational system while also paying tribute to it. Tompkins identifies the key problem as an obsessive quest to educate as opposed to a shared exploration by student and teacher. "The university has come to resemble an assembly line, a mode of production that it professes to disdain. Each professor gets to turn one little screw—his specialty—and the student comes to him to get that screw turned. Then on to the next. The integrating function is left entirely to the student." Her prescription is for teachers to adopt a style of instruction that uses open discussions, intensive interaction, and more fluid syllabi.

In her literary criticism, Tompkins frequently unsettled the more traditional literary canon by examining texts often relegated to the margins. A Life in School takes as its starting point what is often most marginalized: the emotional dimensions of teaching. She describes the fear of shame and the desire for admiration and love that motivate the behavior of both teachers and students in higher education. Tompkins relates her four years of experimental teaching as an effort to unsettle and reform the authoritarian patterns that molded her as a teacher.


CANR (1986, 1992).