Walter Van Tilburg Clark

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 959

The first of four children in an academically talented family, Walter Van Tilburg Clark was born in East Orland, Maine, on August 3, 1909. His parents, Walter Ernest and Euphemia Abrams Clark, were cultured, refined people who introduced their children to music and the arts. Dr. Clark often read to his children in the evenings, and his wife Euphemia, who had studied piano and composition at Columbia University before she turned to social work, encouraged her son to paint and learn to play the piano. Thus, early in life he “developed a love of reading and writing, music, and art.”

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Dr. Walter Ernest Clark enjoyed a distinguished career as economics professor at City College of New York, where he served as chairman of the Economics Department and was awarded the French Legion of Honor during World War I. The Clarks lived in West Nyack, New York, until 1917, when Dr. Clark resigned his position at City College in order to become president of the University of Nevada at Reno, where he served until 1933. Thus, at the age of nine, young Van Tilburg Clark moved to the West, the region that was to become the focus of his later writing. The Clarks did not live a sheltered academic life in Reno. Many of their friends were, in fact, miners and ranchers, and Clark came to know these people well. He also spent much of his time “camping and hiking in the desert hills and the Sierras.” Not being native-born, he saw the landscape and character of the West afresh, with a sensitivity and receptiveness that is registered in his fiction.

In the city of Reno, Walter Van Tilburg Clark enjoyed an active and conventional adolescence. He attended public schools in the city—Orvis Ring Grammar School and Reno High School—and became an accomplished tennis player. A fictionalized portrait of these years appears in his autobiographical novel The City of Trembling Leaves, a bildungsroman that traces the development of the young musician Tim Hazard and his friends as they grow up in Reno during the 1920’s. At that time, the city had not yet become a garish gambling and divorce center, and it retained much of its original flavor as a town of the American West. After high school graduation, Clark entered the University of Nevada in Reno in 1926, majoring in English and earning his bachelor’s degree (1930) and master’s degree (1931) there.

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While at the university, Clark was active in theater, contributed to the campus literary magazine, and played varsity tennis and basketball. After completing his college work, he decided to remain at Reno and begin his graduate study in English. For his master’s thesis he wrote “The Sword-Swinger: The Tale of Tristram Retold,” a creative reinterpretation in verse of the Tristram and Isolde legend, to which he added a critical introduction. Continuing his graduate study in English, he came east in 1931 to the University of Vermont, where he served as a teaching assistant and earned a second master’s degree in English in 1934. This time, he concentrated on American literature and the Greek classics, writing his master’s thesis on Robinson Jeffers. As Max Westbrook has pointed out, Clark had met Jeffers at the California poet’s home, Thor House, and was “immediately impressed.” Echoes of Jeffers and E. A. Robinson appeared in Clark’s first volume of poetry, Ten Women in Gale’s House, published in Boston in 1932.

While in graduate school, Clark married Barbara F. Morse in Elmira, New York, on October 14, 1933. They had two children, Barbara Ann and Robert Morse. After he finished his master’s study at Vermont in 1934, Clark and his family spent most of the next ten years in the small upstate New York town of Cazenovia, where he taught high school English and dramatics and coached basketball and tennis. There he wrote The Ox-Bow Incident, which became a best seller in 1940.

In 1940, Clark went to Indian Springs, Nevada, for a year before returning to Cazenovia. He then taught for a year in Rye, New York, in 1945, before permanently moving to the West with his family a year later. By that time, he had published two novels and had won the O. Henry Award in 1945 for one of his short stories, “The Wind and the Snow of Winter,” an event that influenced him to quit teaching and devote himself to his writing. In 1946, the Clarks lived in Taos, New Mexico, before moving to a ranch in the Washoe Valley and then finally settling in Virginia City. Clark’s last published novel, The Track of the Cat, appeared in 1949, followed by Tim Hazard, the enlarged version of The City of Trembling Leaves. Clark then published The Watchful Gods and Other Stories in 1950.

After 1950, finding it difficult to sustain his writing career, Clark returned to teaching. He taught creative writing at the University of Nevada until 1953, when he resigned to protest the “autocratic” administration of the university. Following that position, he taught intermittently at a number of schools, including Reed College, the University of Montana, and San Francisco State College. He earned a reputation as a dedicated and demanding professor of creative writing at the University of Montana from 1953 to 1956 before moving to San Francisco State, where he subsequently became director of creative writing from 1956 to 1962. He was awarded an honorary D.Litt. by Colgate University in 1957. In 1962, Clark returned to the University of Nevada in Reno as writer-in-residence, but by that time his career as a writer had virtually ended. He edited the papers of the Western writer Alfred Doten and even began a biography of him, which he did not live to finish. He died of cancer on November 10, 1971, in Reno, leaving two novels incomplete, his early promise as a writer never entirely fulfilled.

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