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Authors: Walter Van Tilburg Clark

The Ox-Bow Incident

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2004 Modern Library Mass-Market Paperback Edition

Biographical note copyright © 2001 by Random House, Inc.
Copyright © 1940 and copyright renewed 1968 by Walter Van Tilburg Clark

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Modern Library, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.

and the T
Design are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.

Originally published in hardcover in 1940 by Random House, Inc. A trade paperback edition was published in 2001 by Modern Library, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.

Grateful acknowledgment is made to the following for permission to reprint previously published material:

“Walter Clark’s Frontier” from
One Way to Spell Man
this page

this page
) by Wallace Stegner. Originally published in
magazine, August 1973. Copyright © 1973, 1982 by Wallace Stegner. Reprinted by permission of Brandt & Brandt Literary Agents, Inc.
Excerpt from “Make Way for Mr. Clark—The O’Neill Family Afloat and Ashore” by Clifton Fadiman from the October 12, 1940, issue of
The New Yorker
. Copyright © 1940, 1967 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of Condé Nast Publications.
: Excerpt from “Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s Ambiguous American Dream” by L. L. Lee from
College English
, vol. 26, no. 25, February 1965. Copyright © 1965 by the National Council of Teachers of English. Reprinted with permission.

Clark, Walter Van Tilburg, 1909–1971.
The ox-bow incident/Walter Van Tilburg Clark.
p.  cm.
eISBN: 978-0-307-80740-3
1. Lynching—Fiction. 2. Nevada—Fiction. 3. Mobs—Fiction. I. Title.
PS3505.L376 O9  2001
813′.52—dc21 00-64584

Modern Library website address:








Wallace Stegner

Max Westbrook’s little book
Walter Van Tilburg Clark
(Twayne, 1969)—a book whose perceptions I often agree with, though its metaphysical terminology and its Zen-and-Jung dialectic leave me pretty confused—begins with an anecdote told by Walt Clark himself. He said he was once introduced to a lady in the East as the author of
The Ox-Bow Incident
. She was incredulous. “You wrote
? My God, I thought you’d been dead for fifty years. You know: Owen Wister and all those people.”

It is an instructive story. For one thing, it demonstrates the swiftness with which
The Ox-Bow Incident
made its way onto the small shelf of Western classics. It further suggests that a book on that shelf is somehow embalmed. It has no contemporary reality to the ordinary reader; it acquires the remoteness and larger-than-life simplicities of myth and of certain kinds of folklore. And finally, as Westbrook points out, the lady made a common but serious error in relating
The Ox-Bow Incident
The Virginian
. It is like
The Virginian
in only superficial ways. Its purpose is not the celebration or even the definition of the cowboy hero
whom Wister and Frederic Remington, between them, self-consciously created. To link it with Wister’s belated chivalry is like comparing Conrad with Captain Marryat because both wrote about sailors. In actual fact,
The Ox-Bow Incident
is more in the vein of Henry James, that “historian of fine consciences,” than of Wister.

I have just reread Walt Clark, all of him except the early poems and a few ephemeral essays. It was a too-brief pleasure, for he was a novelist for only a decade, from
The Ox-Bow Incident
, in 1940, to
The Track of the Cat
, in 1949, and from posterity’s point of view he wrote only four books.

He and I were alike in our response to the country that bred us. We were Westerners in what desert, mountains, weather, and space meant to us. But I was much more limitedly a product of the young West than Walt Clark was. The civilized tradition of books, ideas, poetry, history, philosophy, all the instruments and residues of human self-examination, all the storage-and-retrieval possibilities of human experience, I knew only in school, and most imperfectly. I was a western boy who came hungrily toward civilization from the profound barbarism of the frontier, and was confronted with the fairly common task assigned American would-be writers: that of encompassing in one lifetime, from scratch, the total achievement of the race. Walt was luckier. He was a western boy who possessed civilization from childhood.

He grew up in a cultivated home, and his translation westward at the age of eight was not a move toward deprivation. His father was highly educated, the president of the University of Nevada; his mother was a gifted musician. Books, music, ideas that I discovered late and by accident, or never discovered at all, were Walt’s from birth. He really possessed the two worlds of civilization and the West, where I had only the West, so that I became a kind of pretender, or at best a seeker, every morning when I left for school. He was light-years ahead of me in self-knowledge and awareness. When he sat down to write about the West
he was not, like me, limited to writing about scrub oak or sagebrush and wishing they were the silver apples of the moon. He was self-consciously trying to graft the silver apples onto the sagebrush rootstock.

He consistently tried to make the past, including the spiritually healthy but largely unrecorded past of the displaced Indians, relate to the present. He repudiated the machismo that won and half ruined the West, but did not repudiate its energy. He wanted it reinformed with spirituality, art, respect for the earth, a knowledge of good and evil. He wanted the West to become a true civilization, not a ruthless occupation disguised as a romantic myth.

Civilization is Walter Clark’s theme; the West is only his raw material. What else is the burden of
The Ox-Bow Incident
? That novel is a long way from being a simple reversal of the vigilante stereotype or an ironic questioning of vigilante justice. It is a probing of the whole blind ethics of an essentially false, imperfectly formed, excessively masculine society, and of the way in which individuals, out of personal inadequacy, out of mistaken loyalties and priorities, out of a fear of seeming to be womanish, or out of plain cowardice, let themselves be pushed into murder. We live mainly by forms and patterns, the novel says. If the forms are bad, we live badly. We have no problem telling where good and evil dwell when we are dealing with the Virginian and Trampas in Wister’s book. But here you cannot tell them by the color of their hats. Neither the lynchers nor the lynched are all good guys or bad guys. Many of the lynchers would rather not be there and have not known how to say so. The hanged men are a greenhorn, a senile old man, and a Mexican no better than he should be. The terrified greenhorn, once he has accepted his situation, dies better than the Mexican, who was at first bold and unafraid. Davies, who opposed from the beginning the lynch mood of Tetley, failed to stop him because, quite simply, Tetley had more guts than he did. The preacher’s morality is not binding, because it is imported, almost irrelevant.
Evil has courage, good is sometimes cowardly, reality gets bent by appearances. And the book does not end with the discovery that the hanged men are innocent and that lynch law is a mistake. It goes on examining how
a mistake. The moral ambiguities reverberate through the town. We begin to know the good guys from the bad guys by the way they deal with their own complicity in a tragic error. And the moral questioning, the first stage of conscience, goes on in the mind of that most Jamesian of cowboys, Art Croft, very much as it goes on in the consciousness of the nameless narrator of
The Nigger of the “Narcissus”
after the crew comes ashore.

I suspect that
The Ox-Bow Incident
’s unchallenged place on the shelf of Western classics is due not to its being fully appreciated and comprehended but to its persistently being misread as the kind of mythic Western Walt Clark was actually all but parodying. Look at the blurbs on the Signet paperback, and at the summary of the book on the first inside page. To Signet and Signet’s readers, it is a novel of excitement and suspense and nervous trigger fingers. They do not read it as the report of a failure of individual and social conscience and nerve, an account of wrong sanctioned and forced by the false ethics of a barbarous folk culture. They do not read it as a lamentable episode of a civilization in the throes of being born.

Clark’s adaptation of the Western makes use of its machinery but substitutes a complex and ambiguous moral problem for the blacks and whites of the genre. His version of the
is equally desimplified. I call
The City of Trembling Leaves
(1945) a
rather than a spiritual autobiography because, though there are unquestionably autobiographical elements in it, Clark has taken evasive action: has made Tim Hazard’s family entirely unlike his own and has kept himself in the book, by name, as a commentator. These disguises do not keep me from believing that a good deal of Tim Hazard’s pilgrimage was also Walt Clark’s. There is much internal evidence, such as the preoccupation
with the Tristan cycle, with tennis, with the purifications to be found in the mountains, with the presence of the watchful gods.

Never mind. Biography or autobiography, it belongs in the pigeonhole with
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; Look Homeward, Angel; Wilhelm Meister; The Hill of Dreams
, and some more somber books such as
Jude the Obscure
, and especially some western American portraits of the artist such as
The Song of the Lark
. It chronicles the development of a sensitive adolescent into an artist. It is focused on the relation between art and life, that obsessive theme of Thomas Mann’s, and it explores that relation not only through Tim’s music and through the painting and sculpture of Lawrence Black but also through the several variations on artistic adjustment made by Tim’s musician friends in Carmel. It reveals a skinless sensibility in its mystical feeling for Pyramid Lake, the Sierra, and the desert. It weds Tim Hazard to the physical universe by a rite of passage and a symbolic skinny-dip straight out of Frazer’s
The Golden Bough
, or if you follow Max Westbrook’s interpretation of Clark’s writings, out of Jung. These are all fairly standard elements of a literary genre at least a hundred years old before Walter Clark took hold of it—a genre, one should note, often favored by self-obsessed romantics at war with their surroundings.

But if Tim Hazard is romantic, his book is not. It is steadily cauterized by irony. And the element of repudiation and compulsive self-exile, almost standard among spiritual autobiographies, is absolutely missing. Tim Hazard, this sensitive youth with musical aspirations and a high cultural potential, grows up in Reno, Nevada, and is never at war with it. It does not frustrate him. He hardly notices it, in fact, he is so absorbed in school, and girls, and running, and tennis, and playing in jazz bands. He accepts—and so did I—the standards of his time and place, and tries to star in what they value; and if he can’t accept them he ignores them. His father and brother are not his
kind, but he doesn’t think of them as his enemies, or as threats to his spirit. Reno, in its double aspect of middle-class town and jackpot center, is not for him the threat that Dublin was to Joyce, or Asheville and his mother’s boardinghouse were to Thomas Wolfe, or Wellington, New Zealand, was to Katherine Mansfield, or all of America was to Ezra Pound.

BOOK: The Ox-Bow Incident
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