Monday, January 3, 2011

Walter Van Tilburg Clark: The Ox-Bow Incident

Warning: I will discuss significant plot elements and the ending.

Walter Van Tilburg Clark: The Ox-Bow Incident

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. We didn't look as long as we do sometimes after a winter range, we were excited about getting back to town. When the horses had stopped trembling from the last climb, Gil took off his sombrero, pushed his sweaty hair back with the same hand, and returned the sombrero, the way he did when something was going to happen. We reined to the right and went slowly down the steep stage road.

I don't have to tell anyone what kind of story this is. How many western novels and films have we seen that opened just this way--one or more men on the top of a hill, looking down at a small town in the valley, one road leading into town and one leading out in the opposite direction, and surrounded by snow-capped mountains?

In The Ox-Bow Incident, Walter Van Tilburg Clark gives us the full treatment: the saloon, the painting of the nude behind the bar, the poker game, the accusations of cheating, the barroom brawl, cattle rustlers, and a posse. We get the full picture from Art Croft, the first person narrator of the story. He's one of the two men we meet in the first paragraph and the naive narrator, for he tells us honestly what he sees and thinks and feels, but he doesn't realize the full implications of his tale.

Clark turns the accepted stereotypes around in this tale. It isn't the card sharper who's accused of cheating, it's Gil Carter, Art Croft's working buddy. The fight resulting from that wasn't the typical good-natured brawl we've come to expect from numerous John Wayne westerns. After Gil knocks out his accuser, he then is about to continue beating on the unconscious man when the bartender knocks him out with a skillfully wielded bottle.

Then a rider rushes into town and tells them that the rustlers have struck again, and this time they murdered Kinkaid, a lifelong friend of Farnley, the man who had accused Carter of cheating and had gotten knocked out as a result. Farnley is now out for blood. A posse is formed, but this is not the typical posse one finds in a typical western. This one doesn't rush off in pursuit but delays and delays while the debate goes on.

The debate is simple. What will happen to the men if the posse catches up to them. This is a serious issue for the sheriff is not available to lead the posse, assuming he would even want one. The storekeeper, the minister, and the judge argue that they should be brought back to town for trial. But, there are those, who argue that the law is too slow and too uncertain. Some crooked lawyer might confuse the jury and they might go free. Justice should be quick and certain and on-the-spot and ideally should avoid the necessity of a trial; one can hardly believe that these are real Americans saying these things here!

Why does the posse hang around? My guess is that most of the men feared that there would be a lynching and didn't want to become part of it because they knew it was wrong but were afraid to speak out against it. Why? They feared they might be considered a coward, or perhaps a friend of the rustlers, or perhaps "womanish," the major fear of most of them there. Croft himself refers to those who speak out in favor of bringing them back for trial and cowardly and "womanish."

Someone in the watching crowd asks what they are waiting for and someone else replies "a leader." A cynic remarks that they are really looking for a scapegoat in case something goes wrong, a prophetic remark that comes true by the end of the novel.

A leader appears, a former Confederate army officer, who brings information about cattle tracks heading out of the valley and up into the mountains. They mount up again and finally go. They catch up to three men, driving a small herd of cattle that belongs to one of the ranchers in the valley. One of the posse works for the rancher and insists that he would never sell cattle in the spring, and that he would always give the buyer a receipt. There was no receipt, and moreover, one of the three had a gun that belonged to Kinkaid, the murdered ranch-hand. The three still insist they are innocent and ask that they be brought back to town while their story is checked out. Such a simple thing to ask.

But, it's too much to ask. Justice must be served. The men vote, and only five vote to bring them back to town and let the law handle it. Art Croft and Gil Carter vote with the majority to hang them now.

This is a bare-boned synopsis of this short novel, some 220 pages long in my edition. What Clark gives us, through Art Croft's eyes, is an examination of why relatively decent men turn into a lynch mob, for that is what the posse really is. And all know it from the beginning. When Croft revives Gil after being knocked out by the bartender, they discover something is going on outside the saloon, and when they ask, Canby the barkeep replies, "Lynching, I'd judge."

They are not monsters, inflamed by a desire to kill somebody. I think the delay demonstrates that. Unlike the myth of the American male as one who thinks for himself and makes decisions based on what is right and wrong in spite of what the crowd may want, Clark shows us that they are strongly influenced by those around them, influenced sufficiently to vote for death, even though they may feel it wrong, by the fear that others may not see them as true men, but as cowards or womanish.

As I mentioned earlier, Clark did not fashion a mob of blood-thirsty people. Some were nasty and downright evil; they enjoyed the situation and looked forward to the hanging. Others were trapped on the one hand by their own sense that this was not right and on the other by their perception of the myth of what a man was like. Showing compassion for others or concern for the law was not part of the myth. In fact, even the victims were expected to act as men, strong and silent and taking their punishment like a man, as several told them repeatedly. All were disgusted when one of the men, Martin, broke down and began crying.

One of the most ironic comments in the story is a thought by Croft. After Martin, seemed to regain control, Croft thought, I hoped, for our sake as much as his, that he'd make the decent end he now had his will set on. (emphasis mine) Martin should now straighten up and take his punishment decently as a man should, and that would make it easier for the lynchers as well as for him.

The Ox-Bow Incident ("incident," a truly ironic title) was published in 1940, and the film, starring Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, Anthony Quinn, and Henry Morgan, came out in 1943. The ending was changed in the film to make Carter and Croft oppose the hanging. The DVD of the film had an interview with the son of the director, William Wellman, who explained that the studio felt that the ending was too bleak for the American public in midst of the war. Apparently they felt Americans wanted heroes more than they wanted the truth.

Back in the 1960s and '70s, many organizations were holding consciousness raising sessions to show men and women the way that cultural expectations were restricting the freedom of women. I remember that someone once suggested the same be done for men for they also were controlled by cultural expectations. Unfortunately nothing ever came of it, or at least I had never heard of anything happening.

Overall Reaction: This novel should be required reading for every high school and college student in the USA.


  1. I read this book a few times a number of years ago. What struck me was the timing of the release of the book. It was published in 1940. I have often wondered if it was a call to action aimed at the American people regarding events in Europe. Especially Davies "confession" in the end. It is not enough to be on the side of right and justice... you have to do something about it.

  2. Anonymous,

    I suspect it's directed at events in Europe at that time and as a warning to the US that we are also vulnerable to this sort of coercion, not necessarily by a dictator but by the fear of the opinions of others. It was the fear of the opinion of others that coerced many to "vote" for the lynching of the three innocent men.