Walter Van Tilburg Clark 1909–1971
American novelist, short story writer, essayist, and poet.
Clark's stories of the American West are among the finest ever written. Unlike other Western novels that focus on stereotypic masculine heroes, Clark's work features male characters who are three-dimensional and portrays such basic human emotions as fear and insecurity. His themes, often bordering on the mystical, are universal. He examines the conflict between good and evil, adolescence and maturity, and the predatory relationship between humanity and nature.
Clark's first novel, The Ox-Bow Incident (1940), is his most popular work. The book, described by L. L. Lee as "a superior cowboy story," explores the implications of vigilante "justice." Clark wrote The Ox-Bow Incident as a warning against fascism and demagoguery. Most critics read the novel as a powerful social and political allegory. The Ox-Bow Incident was made into a critically acclaimed motion picture in 1943.
Many critics were disappointed with Clark's second work, The City of Trembling Leaves (1945). This book is a semiautobiographical account of a sensitive boy growing up in Reno, Nevada. Told in a lyrical prose style, critics found the book too lengthy and rambling.
The Track of the Cat (1949) is a symbolic psychological novel that is similar in many ways to Melville's Moby Dick. In this book, which some critics believe is Clark's best work, the pursuit of a mountain lion evokes different reactions in each character. Clark's prose realistically conveys their tension and terror. Critics consider Clark's use of dreams in predicting each character's fate an effective motif. The Watchful Gods and Other Stories (1950) was Clark's last published work. The title story, with its depiction of a young boy's painful initiation into the world of good and evil, reflects Clark's perception of nature. The remaining stories in the book contain many themes covered in Clark's earlier writing.
(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed., Vols. 33-36, rev. ed. [obituary]; Something about the Author, Vol. 8; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 9.)