Walter Van Tilburg Clark Long Fiction Analysis
In his afterword to The Ox-Bow Incident, Walter Prescott Webb quotes Walter Van Tilburg Clark as saying, “Though I was born in MaineI am essentially a westerner, and mostly of the desert breed.” Although not a westerner by birth and in fact the product of a distinctly eastern academic family, Clark absorbed enough of the history and flavor of his adopted region to consider himself a genuine Western writer. In addition to his sense of character and place, he developed what amounted to a Native American sensibility—an almost mystical reverence for the natural environment that places his novels in an authentic Western natural setting, one in which mountains, desert, and weather assume the proportions ofprotagonists in the human drama. This Western sensibility is evident in his first novel, The Ox-Bow Incident, and becomes even more pronounced in his third book, The Track of the Cat.
The Ox-Bow Incident
The Ox-Bow Incident is by any standards a brilliant first novel, and it won recognition for Clark as a major new talent among Western writers. His novel was praised by critics as the prototype of a new kind of Western that would lend dignity and stature to the genre. Indeed, Clark had accomplished something new in reinvigorating the tired and hackneyedconventions of the Western. As Webb argues, The Ox-Bow Incident is a taut, relentless tragedy in five acts. It portrays all of the familiar archetypes of the Western experience—good men and bad, thieves and outlaws, cattlemen and rustlers, sheriffs and posses—yet it manages to retell the story in a new way.
Dealing with the attempt to establish law and order in a lawless land, the novel does not, however, allow justice to be served in the conventional fashion of the Western romance. Instead, in Clark’s novel, a posse’s attempt to take the law into its own hands results in a miscarriage of justice. After an all-night pursuit and capture, three innocent men are tried, convicted, and hanged on the basis of compelling but misleading circumstantial evidence. The posse is browbeaten into taking revenge by a sadistic and psychopathic leader, Gerald Tetley, a former Confederate officer turned cattleman who hungers for swift justice and has little use for the formalities of the law. There are no other potential leaders to speak for restraint and due process or to stand up to Tetley’s domineering egotism, although the old storekeeper, Arthur Davies, tries, later blaming himself for lacking the courage to defy Tetley. These events, the report of a supposed murder, the formation of the posse, and the pursuit and capture of the supposed rustlers all occur within twenty-four hours. The novel is narrated in the first person by Art Croft, a cowhand who has wandered down from the mountains to Bridger’s Wells after spending the winter with his buddy, Gil Carter, holed up in a cabin on the winter range. He is deputized into the posse against his better judgment and serves as an unwilling participant in and observer of the subsequent action.
While the ostensible theme of the novel is the weakness and culpability of the mob deputized to pursue the alleged rustlers, the abiding issue is the establishment of justice in the West. One might argue that as regions of the West passed from territory into statehood, the status of the law also changed from the near anarchy of “natural law,” to the rough and ready status of common law or territorial law, to the more fixed and certain statutory law that was finally imposed. Men in a lawless region are always ready to take the law into their own hands, and Clark dramatizes the tragic consequences of lynch law, particularly for the young cattleman Donald Martin, who leaves a widow and two young children. Martin, who has the misfortune to be caught driving another man’s cattle without a bill of sale, has committed no greater crime than rashness and lack of foresight.
There are obviously no heroes in this novel—only villains and victims—and everyone is tainted in some way by mob violence or moral cowardice. The mob in fact takes on a kind of collective identity that reminds one of Reinhold Niebuhr’s observation...
(The entire section is 1718 words.)