Monday, August 3, 2009

Walter Van Tilburg Clark: August 3, 1909--Nov. 10, 1971

Today is the birth date of an exceptional writer, but unfortunately one who will probably never be listed in the first rank of great American writers. Why? Limited output is the villain.

Clark has only three novels, a number of short stories, and some poems to his credit. Critics and scholars would argue that these are too few to really judge an author's ability and therefore a position in any literary ranking. Yet, I would argue that even this limited body of work demonstrates his skill in depicting settings for his finely detailed and carefully crafted characters and their actions.

Clark has frequently been relegated to the western ghetto because his works are set in a western setting. But, this is similar to putting Austen's novels into the romance category, as I have seen some booksellers do. Most of his work is set out west, but the themes in his stories are found everywhere, not just in the land of sagebrush and saguaros and are still prevalent today. Here is one example:

The Ox-Bow Incident:

First Paragraph--
"Gil and I crossed the eastern divide about two by the sun. We pulled up for a look at the little town in the big valley and the mountains on the other side, with the crest of the Sierra showing faintly beyond like the rim of a day moon."

It opens as many western novels and films have begun--one or two riders cresting a ridge and then seeing the small town down in the valley surrounded by mountains. We next are given a description of the Edenic countryside, for it is Spring and the summer heat has not yet appeared. They then leave Eden, ride down to the town, and head for the saloon. One of them even gets into a brief brawl, for they've been isolated during the winter and have come down to loosen up a bit.

But shortly afterwards the real theme of the novel appears--that oxymoron called "vigilante justice." We hear that a man has been killed and cattle stolen, something has to be done. The story is a depiction of the dynamics of the growth of a lynch mob. The sheriff is a few hours away, and the rustlers may get away. They form a posse and capture three men who have a small herd that they claim they bought from a local rancher. But, there is no bill of sale.

The posse soon divides itself into three groups: those who are for hanging them now, even though there is a sheriff and a judge in town. These argue that the law can't be trusted, and some smart lawyer will get them off. These people are around today, arguing that at times we must ignore the law and act on our own, even if it breaks the law.

A second and smaller group insists that the men and the cattle should be returned to town and to let the law handle the situation.

But by far, the largest group is the undecided and the fearful. Among the fearful are the two POV characters who rode into town. They along with some others would just as soon turn them over to the authorities, but they are afraid to vote this way for fear of what the others may think. By voting against the hanging, they could be seen as showing sympathy for the captured trio and the others might think they are in with them.

In a farcical parody of a trial, the posse votes to hang the three men. Only five vote to bring them back to town and to let the law handle it: among the five are one who would be characterized as a "bleeding-heart liberal minister" by many today, a black man, the son of the Southern gentleman leading the mob, and two others.

A film was made of The Ox-Bow Incident, starring Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, Anthony Quinn, and Harry Morgan. It was fairly close to the novel, but somebody decided the ending was too bleak, so Henry Fonda's character acted more heroically than he did in the novel.

I've often wondered about the title--it's an incident, something really very minor and inconsequential.

Clark's other two novels are The Track of the Cat and The City of Trembling Leaves. The first was also made into a film starring Robert Mitchum. I haven't seen it yet, but it's in my Netflix queue, and I'll been watching it soon. The second, The City of Trembling Leaves, has no violence, no car chases, no exploding buildings and no shootouts, and therefore nobody has thought about making film of this one. After seeing what Hollywood does to other novels, I'm actually happy that they haven't gotten their hands on this one.

The Track of the Cat has what appears to be a simple plot. A panther or large cat has been killing cattle. Several brothers decide to kill it, and I suspect that the film limits itself to this theme. In the novel though, at the same time as the threat from the large cat, the sons and daughter are getting dissatisfied with their very restricted and regimented lives. This puts a severe strain on the family cohesiveness.

The third novel, The City of Trembling Leaves, is the story of a young boy, Tim Hazzard, growing up into manhood in Reno, Nevada, where Clark himself grew up and lived for many years. Some of the events, especially of Tim Hazard's teen years, seem so real that one can only wonder if Clark himself hadn't experienced them.

The novel opens with a "Prelude," with its musical inflections, for Hazard will grow up to be a composer.

"This is the story of the lives and loves of Timothy Hazard, and so, indirectly, a token biography of Reno, Nevada, as well. Now, whatever else Reno may be, and it is many things, it is the city of trembling leaves. The most important meaning of leaves is the same everywhere in Reno, of course, and everywhere else, for that matter, which is what Tim implies when he calls moribund any city containing a region which you can look all around and not see a tree. Such a city is drawing out of its alliance with the eternal, with the Jurassic Swamps and the Green Mansions, and in time it will also choke out the trees in the magic wilderness of the spirit."

Tim Hazard is, among many things, a mystic, though he doesn't know it, and probably wouldn't know what you meant if you told him so. He has a unique relationship with place, and a philosophy, though he doesn't call it that, that at times verges on Taoism.

I think I've rambled on long enough now, so I'll close here. Sometime in the future, I will write about some of his short stories.

All three novels are great reads and well worth the time spent reading them.


  1. R. T.

    Thanks for the reference. I found it interesting. I had heard something similar about why Clark stopped writing or at least stopped publishing. The major difference was Benson's assertion that Tilburg was prouder of his being a teacher than a writer, if I am not misunderstanding his conclusion.

    The other critic suggested that Clark was unhappy about his inability to write and in a letter warned his son about getting caught in the same trap--teaching and the connection with his perfectionism.

    I also read that Clark, unlike many writers, destroyed his drafts and started over again from the beginning, rather than revise and rework them.

    By the way, I'm impressed by your blog and have added you to my favorite blog list. I'll be looking forward to your posts.

  2. Could you recommend any other writers in the Western genre? I was just thinking the other day that I never really read anything in that category. I just wouldn't know where to begin, and I don't want to become soured on the genre just because I started out with a poorly written book. In the meantime, I'll see if my library has any of the books you mentioned.

  3. Cheryl,

    I will check around as I'm not familiar at all with the western genre. One I do know of is Louis L'Amour. I have read two of his novels, one a sort of SF/F and one an adventure story about an American trapped in Siberia.

    Wallace Stegner also is considered a Western writer. In fact, he wrote the Intro to my copy of Clark's _The Ox-Bow Incident_.

    Are you interested in only contemporary Western writers? One of the older writers is Bret Harte. He has mostly short stories. I don't know of any novels by him.

    Another writer is Zane Grey. My father belonged to the _Zane Grey Book Club_, and I would wait impatiently for the next one to arrive. It would soon appear in the family bookshelf. Grey's westerns were highly romanticized versions.

    This is a link to the wikipedia entry on L'Amour.

  4. For Cheryl:
    I would echo Fred's recommendation concerning Stegner.
    You might also enjoy Willa Cather's DEATH COMES FOR THE ARCHBISHOP, which is not so much a "western" as a powerful tale of faith and redemption in the American southwest in the 19th century.
    If you're looking for rawhide and six-gun westerns, check out the work Elmore Leonard did early in his career before he switched to crime fiction.
    If you like native American perspectives, you should consider reading James Welch and Louise Erdrich, both of which I highly recommend.

  5. Cheryl,

    A friend has recommended Larry McMurtry. He seems to be quite popular now. He's the author of _Lonesome Dove_, which was made into a TV series. And something I just learned from the wikipedia entry on him: his novel _Horseman, Pass By_ was the basis for _Hud_, a very fine contemporary Western film with Paul Newman and Patricia Neal.

  6. Thank you, R.T. and Fred, for the recommendations. I will be taking this list to the library tomorrow.

  7. Cheryl,

    Below is the address of the Western Writers Group. You might able to get some information there.

  8. I finished reading The Ox-Bow Incident. I agree it was well-written. It wasn't an easy read for me, though. It wasn't an enjoyable experience spending time with the residents of Bridger's Wells. Like Art and Gill, I felt better having left it when I turned the last page. The copy of the book from my library had an afterward ( not written by the author, I don't know who ) that implied that it was the boredom of the men in the town that made them more eager to lynch the suspected rustlers. ( Kind of like how Gill was eager for a fight at the beginning of the book.) What do you think of that theory?

  9. I agree. If definitely isn't an upbeat story. Have you seen the film version with Henry Fonda?

    I can see that boredom may have made them more eager to join the posse, along with fear, of course.

    But, I don't think boredom would drive most to vote for a hanging. I think that fear of going against the group was a more important motivation. Others were unhappy with the law and were concerned a smart lawyer would get them off (we still a few like this around today, I think.).

  10. Fred,

    No, I haven't seen the film. What character did Henry Fonda portray? I agree with your opinion that fear played a large part in the plot. People were afraid the others would turn on them if it seemed like they were "going easy" on the suspected rustlers.

  11. Cheryl,

    He played one of the two cowboys, the dominant one, while Harry (Henry) Morgan played the buddy, the one who got shot. In the movie Fonda's character voted against the lynching, whereas in the novel, he voted for it.

    In the Special Features or Bonus Section on the DVD, the commentator said that the Studio Execs ordered the change because it would be too bleak if the two voted for the lynching.

  12. I am sending you a message from Athens - Greece. I have just read a short story titled " The wind and the snow of winter " by W. Clark in the collection of Wallace and Mary Stegner of 1957. Excellent! I don't know if you wrote anything on his short stories ,I wish you did, as you wrote on August 3, 2009. Thank you . Anastasia K.

  13. Anastasia K.,

    I'm glad you enjoyed my comments about Clark. He has long been a favorite writer of mine. Did you see the commentary about his short story "The Portable Phonograph"? It was posted a year later, on August 3, 2010.

    I have his collection of short stories, "The Watchful Gods," so I will comment on them eventually. I will move "The wind and the snow of winter" up on my queue.