Walter Van Tilburg Clark Critical Essays

Walter Van Tilburg Clark Short Fiction Analysis

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Walter Van Tilburg Clark once wrote that the primary impulse of the arts has been religious and ritualistic—with the central hope of “propitiating or enlisting Nature, the Gods, God, or whatever name one wishes to give the encompassing and still mysterious whole.” Certainly Clark’s fiction attests to such a view. In a world in which thought is often confused and fragmented, he advocates for humanity a stance of intellectual honesty, an acceptance of instinctive values, and a belief in love. The key is human experience. As Max Westbrook so aptly put it in his study of Clark, “Clark’s literary credo, then, is based on the capacity of the unconscious mind to discover and to give shape to objective knowledge about the human experience.”

“The Buck in the Hills”

“The Buck in the Hills” may be Clark’s clearest reflection in his stories of the literary credo mentioned above. Writing more or less in the terse, almost brittle, style of Ernest Hemingway, Clark opens the story with vividly descriptive passages of mountain scenery. The narrator, whose name the reader never learns, has returned to this setting after five years. It is really more than a return for him; it is a pilgrimage to a sacred place. Like Hemingway’s heroes, he feels a deep need to replenish his spirit, to reattach himself to things solid and lasting. The clear sky, the strong mountains, and the cold wind all serve as a natural backdrop for the spiritual ritual of his pilgrimage. As he climbs toward the peak of a mountain, he recalls with pleasure an earlier climb with a dark girl “who knew all the flowers, and who, when I bet her she couldn’t find more than thirty kinds, found more than fifty.” On that day, as on this, the narrator felt a clear sense of the majesty of the mountains and the “big arch of the world we looked at,” and he recalls spending two hours another time watching a hawk, “feeling myself lift magnificently when he swooped up toward me on the current up the col, and then balanced and turned above.”

When he returns to his campsite by a shallow snow-water lake, he swims, naked, and as he floats in this cleansing ritual, looking up at the first stars showing above the ridge, he sings out “an operatic sounding something.” At this point, just when his spiritual rejuvenation is nearly complete, the ritual is broken by the appearance of Tom Williams, one of the two men whom he had accompanied on this trip to the mountains. The plan had been for Williams and the other man, Chet McKenny, to spend a few days hunting, leaving the narrator alone. As he watches Williams approach, the narrator unhappily expects to see McKenny also, a man he dislikes not because of his stupidity but because of something deeper than that. Williams, however, is alone.

After a while Williams tells the narrator of the experience he has just had with McKenny, whom he calls a “first-rate bastard.” During their hunt McKenny had purposely shot a deer in the leg so that he could herd it back to their camp rather than carry it. When they arrived at the camp, he slit the deer’s throat, saying, “I never take more than one shot.” Sickened by this brutal act, Williams drove off in his car, leaving McKenny to get out of the mountains as best he could. After Williams’s story, both men agree that McKenny deserves to be left behind for what he did. In another cleansing ritual, they both take a swim, becoming cheerful later as they sit by their fire drinking beer. The next morning, however, it is snowing, and as they silently head back down the mountain, the narrator feels that there is “something listening behind each tree and rock we passed, and something waiting among the taller trees down slope, blue through the falling snow. They wouldn’t stop us, but they didn’t like us either. The snow was their ally.”

Thus there are two contrasting moods in “The Buck in the Hills”: that of harmony and that of dissonance. At the beginning of the story, the narrator has succeeded after five years in reestablishing a right relationship with nature and thus with himself, but at the end, this relationship has been destroyed by the cruel actions of McKenny. The narrator’s ritual of acceptance of the primordial in human beings has been overshadowed by McKenny’s ritual of acceptance that human beings are somehow above nature. Ernest Hemingway’s belief that morality is what one feels good after is in one sense reversed here to the idea that immorality is what one feels bad after; certainly the narrator and Williams, on their way down the mountain, feel bad. Human beings and nature in a right relationship is not a mere romantic notion to Clark. It is reality—indeed, perhaps man’s only reality.

“The Portable Phonograph”

In “The Portable Phonograph” Clark ventures, if not into science fiction, at least into a kind of speculative fiction as he sets his story in a world of the future, one marked by the “toothed impress of great tanks” and the “scars of gigantic bombs.” It seems a world devoid of human existence; the only visible life is a flock of wild geese flying south to escape the cold of winter. Above the frozen creek in a cave dug into the bank, however, there is human life: four men—survivors of some undescribed Armageddon—huddle before a smoldering peat fire in an image of primitive existence. Clark provides little background of these four almost grotesque men. One, the reader learns, is a doctor, probably of philosophy rather than of medicine. One is a young musician, quite ill with a cough. The other two are middle-aged. All are obviously intelligent. The cave belongs to the doctor, whose name is Jenkins, and he has invited the others to hear him read from one of his four books—the Bible, Moby Dick, The Divine Comedy, and William Shakespeare. In selfish satisfaction he explains that when he saw what was happening to the world, “I told myself, ‘It is the end. I cannot take much; I will take these.’” His justification is his love for the books and his belief that they represent the “soul of what was good in us here.”

When Jenkins finishes his reading from The Tempest, the others wait expectantly, and the former finally says grudgingly, “You wish to hear the phonograph.” This is obviously the...

(The entire section is 2594 words.)