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.)
Walter Van Tilburg Clark's "The Ox-Bow Incident" is your correspondent's unwavering choice for the year's finest first novel. It has many of the elements of an old-fashioned horse opera—monosyllabic cowpunchers, cattle rustlers, a Mae Western lady, barroom brawls, shootings, lynchings, a villainous Mexican. But it bears about the same relation to an ordinary Western that "The Maltese Falcon" does to a hack detective story. Not to put too fine a point on it, I think it's sort of what you might call a masterpiece….
"The Ox-Box Incident" is not so much a story about a violent happening as a mature, unpitying examination of what causes men to love violence and to transgress justice. What lends the book an unusual touch—almost a touch of genius—is the way in which everything that is important in it revolves around the most profound moral issues and is presented only in terms of the tensest melodrama. Each of the characters—there are a score of them and they are realized with almost over-elaborate precision—bears a special relation to the problem of violence, from the sadistic Tetley to Davies, the saint manqué. But none of them figures merely as a spokesman for an idea or even a feeling; each one, you sense, is a whole life of which only a facet is presented in this particular episode.
In addition to being the inventor of a plot whose convolutions you will follow popeyed and goose-pimpled, Mr. Clark is...
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["The City of Trembling Leaves"] is a book of which the faults and the virtues are combined in an unusual way and which may baffle or give pause to the reviewer…. It is a long history of a young composer growing up in Reno, Nevada, and it manages to be undramatic with a consistency that seems to be not deliberate but the result of a complete indifference to the ways in which stories are conventionally built (the author can tell a good story when it happens to work out that way, as is demonstrated by the chapter on the track meet). Mr. Clark takes us, episode by episode, through the protracted adolescence of his hero with what, aside from the literary proficiency, would seem almost the innocence of adolescence itself…. [We] are led to believe—since the author seems to know what he is doing—that [the lengthy account of Tim Hazard's youth] is eventually to be justified by being invested with significance in the light of what is afterward to happen. Yet when we glance back at the first part from the end, it still looks like a youthful diary full of ambitions, obsessions, and tempests that seem absurdly out of proportion to their causes. (p. 75)
You decide, when you are approaching the close, that the whole book is a first installment of one of those long biographical novels, an American "Jean-Christophe," and that the themes are to be further developed and the ultimate judgments conveyed in a succession of later volumes. But this turns out to be not the case…. [The] reader is left rather blank. He had assumed that the author was preparing for Tim some bitter ordeal or frustration or some unexpected self-fulfillment. But the suspense has been entirely an illusion created by the reader himself. The author has not been leading up to anything except the reversion of the hero to his origins, and not even this is made dramatic, as it might conceivably be, by showing that the Tim who returns has seen the world and found that what is in it is no different from his home...
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"The Track of the Cat" is one of the great American novels of "place." Something of its nobility should be suggested by the fact that one cannot bring to mind a similar novel of its kind that is quite worthy of comparison. One thinks of the best in the genre, even of such works as Elizabeth Madox Roberts' "The Time of Man" and Willa Cather's "My Antonia," and they come to seem, by comparison, more than ever like miniature studies of special manners, more than graceful surely, yet without grandeur. Mr. Clark's new novel likewise transcends his own earlier books, being larger in scope than his tight drama of a lynching, "The Ox-Bow Incident," and more controlled than the loosely constructed, personal chronicle, "The City of Trembling Leaves." "The Track of the Cat" may well be the achievement that twentieth-century American regionalism has needed to justify itself….
[The] narrative, simple to the point of being stark, is not in itself the major interest of the book. It is almost as if Mr. Clark had written his novel around an archetypal, universally known fable. The major interest is the manner in which he sustains that simple narrative, and that is an achievement nothing less than extraordinary. It returns us, too, to the essence of the novel, which is the scene—a landscape, an atmosphere, an experienced segment and quality of earth and weather, magnificently realized and therefore continually thrilling. To this atmosphere the plot is subsidiary, as the characters are subsidiary. They exist, they have their reality in terms of their place.
The characterization is simple and direct, each person sharply, even baldly, differentiated from the others (one might, in...
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Mr. Clark appears in this collection of his short stories ["The Watchful Gods and Other Stories"] as a sensitive and cultivated writer, as much at home with knowledgeable outdoor men and their natural world as with intellectuals and academicians whose connection to the earth on which they live is only that of a man to his city apartment.
This unlikely but graceful combination seems to be responsible for a prose style that is wiry, masculine, and mature, and that has produced almost by its own evocative power—without the aid of complex structuring—a number of interesting stories, and one at least that is really superb. The Wind and the Snow of Winter brings a lonely and addled old prospector to the terrible realization of his own senility, as he plods slowly across the bleak Western landscape with the dreamlike cinematic movement of the cowboys in Mr. Clark's fine first novel, "The Ox-Bow Incident." (p. 317)
But this is the high point of Mr. Clark's collection. When he attempts to utilize his remarkable feeling for the quality of man's relation to the natural elements—a matter of concern to few important American writers other than Faulkner—in order to assert a philosophical generalization, he is merely banal, as in Why Don't You Look Where You're Going? which counter-poses the effete travelers on a luxury steamship to a hero crossing the ocean alone in a small boat. And in The Portable...
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In all of Clark's fiction his exceptionally acute observations of outdoor sound, light, smell, mass, texture and relationship are superior to his understanding of the human psyche in any but a decivilised area of operation. There is no living American writer of fiction who can type a richer page of landscape but no writer of equal talent is more endangered by the inability to enrich his human types. The Man on Clark's natural stage is never sufficiently conscious of his position to turn that position into one of tragedy. Curt, in The Track of the Cat, is almost an exception, but it seems to me we do not intimately understand him so much as we pity him, and we are spellbound by the absorbing depersonalized...
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"The fat dream," Arthur Bridges calls it in The Track of the Cat…. Explicitly, Arthur is talking about that American dream of conquering the American land in order to create the good, i.e., the abundantly material life—the dream indeed not just of American capitalism but of "modern" man. But Arthur is also speaking of other dreams, of the American Dream, and for the moment he is his creator's, Walter Van Tilburg Clark's, voice.
What one means by the American Dream depends, of course, upon the speaker. But in every man's definition and in every artist's realization of the Dream must appear the American land, sometimes a new Eden, sometimes something very near to Hell, sometimes mother and...
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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…. Evil has courage, good is sometimes cowardly, reality gets bent by appearances. And the book does not end with the discovery that the...
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Walter Clark has come to be known through the years as the essential Western novelist, the one who did perhaps more than anyone else to define (in his fiction) the mode of perception, the acquisition of knowledge, and the style which we tend to call Western…. [His] prose style is imagistic, symbolic (or metaphoric), and direct, tapping the subconscious but staying in touch with the real world. (His style is not unlike that of Harvey Fergusson, but it is more forceful and more frequently evocative, probably because of his stronger concern with a sacred as well as a profane world.) His perception of reality rests heavily on dualities and contrasts, in imagery as well as in characterization, and he assumes that...
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