Walter Van Tilburg Clark Published by Salem Press, Inc.
In addition to his short stories, Walter Van Tilburg Clark wrote three novels—The Ox-Bow Incident (1940), The City of Trembling Leaves (1945), and The Track of the Cat (1949). The first and last of these were made into motion pictures. Tim Hazard (1951) is the enlarged version of The City of Trembling Leaves. Clark also produced an early book of poems, Ten Women in Gale’s House and Shorter Poems (1932).
Although Walter Van Tilburg Clark is known primarily for his novels, his one volume of stories, as well as his uncollected short stories, have established him as a fine writer of short stories. In fact, his “The Wind and the Snow of Winter” received the O. Henry Award in 1945. In their Western settings, their ambiguous depiction of the American dream, their concern about personal identity and oneness with nature, and their essentially tragic vision, the short stories are of a piece with his three novels. Unlike some “Western” writers, Clark used his landscape as both subject and backdrop for his own philosophical themes. Less concerned with characters—one story virtually omits them, concentrating instead on animals as “characters”—than with ideas, Clark used his characters, many of whom seem stereotypical, to embody and actualize his notions about the possibility of defining self and position in the cosmos.
In addition to his three major novels, Walter Van Tilburg Clark published one short-story collection, The Watchful Gods, and Other Stories (1950), and an early poetry volume, Ten Women in Gale’s House, and Shorter Poems (1932).
By the time of his death in 1971, Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s reputation had been largely eclipsed by almost twenty years of inactivity since the publication of his last book. The author of but a slender corpus of work—three novels, one short-story collection, and one volume of poetry—he had suffered the particular misfortune of a talented writer who felt unable to fulfill the promise of a successful first novel. The critical and commercial popularity of The Ox-Bow Incident invariably led critics and reviewers to compare his next two novels with his first achievement. The disappointing reception of his second novel, The City of Trembling Leaves, and the failure of his third novel, The Track of the Cat, to match the response to his first book may have led Clark to become overly sensitive about his work. After 1951, he published no further books during his lifetime, although he left at least two novels uncompleted at his death. His first and third novels, however, were adapted to the screen and became successful motion pictures.
One critic, L. L. Lee, has written of the personal and human “tragedy” of Clark’s abortive writing career. There is no denying that Clark’s reluctance to continue publishing was a loss to American letters, but it may well have been that the author’s greatest obstacle consisted of his own rigorous critical standards, which would not allow him to publish anything he suspected was second-rate. He was particularly aware of the need for good writers in the literature of the American West, a field dominated by pulp romances and dime-store paperbacks. In Clark’s case, however, literature’s loss was teaching’s gain, since he enjoyed a distinguished career as a professor of creative writing during the last twenty years of his life, teaching at half a dozen different colleges and universities in the West and serving as visiting lecturer at many others. Clark is by no means the only writer who ever abandoned the craft for the academy, but his particular hesitancy to publish is still unusual, as he was a writer of genuine talent and ability.
Clark was a sensitive and demanding writer with a keen sense of craftsmanship and exacting critical standards. He had little patience with poor writing and no desire to write for a popular market, although he clearly could have done so after the success of his first novel. He also had no desire to be pegged as merely another “Western writer.” He wanted above all to be a good writer who happened to write about the American West because that was what he knew and understood best. In a letter written September 1, 1959, he stated, “In part, I set about writing The Ox-Bow Incident as a kind of deliberate technical exercise.” He was determined to take the ingredients of the conventional Western plot and “bring both the people and the situations alive again.” He succeeded brilliantly in his tense melodrama of a Nevada rustling incident in 1885, a suspected murder, a posse, a chase, and the lynching of three innocent men by a cowardly and unthinking mob.
Clark’s initial success with The Ox-Bow Incident was not an accident. The same lean, spare, carefully modulated prose marks his subsequent novels and stories. Clark’s work demonstrates his mastery of several techniques. First, as an intensely masculine writer, he has an uncanny knack for capturing the language and behavior of real men. He is careful, however, not to allow artificial or melodramatic...
Alt, John. “The City of Trembling Leaves: Humanity and Eternity.” South Dakota Review 17 (Winter, 1979-1980): 8-18. Discusses the novel, noting that although it begins with a tribute to the spiritual healing of nature, its story complicates that theme. Elaborates on the novel’s focus on the growth of the character of Hazard, who realizes that his drive for rationality must be frustrated by nature itself.
Benson, Jackson J. The Ox-Bow Man: A Biography of Walter Van Tilburg Clark. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2004. First full-length biography of Clark describes his life as a writer and teacher and addresses his...