Authors: Walter Van Tilburg Clark

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist

Author Works

Long Fiction:

The Ox-Bow Incident, 1940

The City of Trembling Leaves, 1945

The Track of the Cat, 1949

Tim Hazard, 1951

Short Fiction:

The Watchful Gods, and Other Stories, 1950

Poetry:

Ten Women in Gale’s House, and Shorter Poems, 1932

Nonfiction:

The Journals of Alfred Doten, 1849-1903, 1973 (3 volumes)

Biography

Walter Van Tilburg Clark stands at the head of a small group of writers who in the first half of the twentieth century elevated fiction about the American West from formula to literature. In 1917, Clark’s father moved the family from Maine to Reno, Nevada, where he had been appointed president of the University of Nevada. Young Clark grew to love the life of the Old West. In 1927, Clark entered the University of Nevada, where he earned a B.A. and an M.A. in English. While there, he spent much of his time writing (mostly poetry) and studying ancient literature, philosophy, and contemporary poetry–particularly that of Robinson Jeffers, whom he imitated in his own verse. He earned a second M.A. in English at the University of Vermont. In the early 1930’s, Clark married Barbara Morse, and a year later they moved to Cazenovia, New York, where Clark was to begin five years of teaching at the local high school. He wrote intensively, despite heavy teaching and coaching duties, and published in a national magazine for the first time. It was also during this period that Clark began writing fiction in earnest.{$I[AN]9810001222}{$I[A]Clark, Walter Van Tilburg}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Clark, Walter Van Tilburg}{$I[tim]1909;Clark, Walter Van Tilburg}

Walter Van Tilburg Clark

(Library of Congress)

According to Clark, The Ox-Bow Incident, his best-known novel, had started as a parody of formulaic fiction about cowboys (“horse operas”), but with Nazism a growing horror in Europe and war looming, the story became a fable of fascism, dramatically exploring the themes of justice and demagoguery. The story opens in the fictional Bridger’s Wells, a sleepy town near the Sierra Nevada. News comes that cattle rustlers have killed a local cowboy. Angry debate ensues, and a natural leader organizes a vigilante posse; even those who doubt the legality or morality of this action go along with the group. They set off as a late snowfall turns the landscape into a vision of harsh contrasts, with black cliffs and white ground. Nature itself seems to oppose the expedition. The posse eventually hangs three suspicious-looking men; returning to town, however, the group discovers that no crime has been committed at all, and each vigilante must face the fact that he has given in to the mob’s impulse to follow any strong leader and thus is party to murder.

In 1945, The City of Trembling Leaves was published. It is the story of Timothy Hazard, a would-be composer in Reno. Structured like a symphony in its recombinations of themes, the novel reveals the artist’s troubled quest for a vocation. Among these themes are misbegotten young love, mature love, the dissolution of a family, and, as in all Clark’s novels, the monitory influence of the wilderness on human dilemmas.

After 1950, Clark published little, although he continued to write steadily. Critics refer to his “silent period” and suggest as its cause the increasing demands of teaching at the University of Nevada and other institutions, his method of revising by completely rewriting, and the massive project of editing a frontier journalist’s diaries. For all that, Clark probably failed to publish for the very reasons that his early works were successful. He scrupulously searched for truth in life. As Clark wrote in a letter to his son, Robert, writing was to him a means of discovering what to feel and believe about life. That discovery seems to have become increasingly difficult as Clark saw life in the West change rapidly following World War II.

Clark’s main theme was civilization, and the West was his raw material, as fellow westerner Wallace Stegner wrote. Clark sometimes philosophizes at length, but his talents for suspense and description still make his fiction among the most gripping by regional writers. When he died in Reno in 1971, despite two decades without a major publication of fiction, he was held in the highest esteem for having rescued Westerners from being portrayed as gunslingers and for having illustrated their ambivalent role in the development of the American character.

BibliographyAlt, 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 significant role in transforming Western literature. Chapter 4 focuses on The Ox-Bow Incident and its relation to the Western novel in general; other chapters discuss The City of Trembling Leaves and The Track of the Cat.Court, Franklin E. “Clark’s ‘The Wind and the Snow of Winter’ and Celtic Oisin.” Studies in Short Fiction 33 (Spring, 1996): 219-228. Examines the mythic pattern of Clark’s most famous story against the background of the Celtic legend of wandering Oisin.Eisinger, Chester E. Fiction of the Forties. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963. Includes an analysis of Clark’s novels, describing their themes as the search for identity, desire to merge with nature, and rejection by nature. Also contains lengthy analyses of Clark’s short stories “The Buck in the Hills,” “Hook,” and “The Watchful Gods.”Kich, Martin. Western American Novelists. Vol. 1. New York: Garland, 1995. Provides a brief account of Clark’s career and an extensive annotated bibliography that includes commentary on reviews of virtually every significant piece of Clark’s prose fiction.Laird, Charlton, ed. Walter Van Tilburg Clark: Critiques. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1983. Collection of eighteen pieces, some by Clark himself, presents discussion of Clark’s life, his major published work, and his literary craftsmanship. Includes essays on the novels The Ox-Bow Incident, The City of Trembling Leaves, and The Track of the Cat.Lee, L. L. Walter Van Tilburg Clark. Boise, Idaho: Boise State College Press, 1973. Presents biographical material and analyzes Clark’s novels as well as a number of his short stories, which Lee asserts repeat the themes of the novels but with greater clarity and insight. Supplemented by a helpful bibliography.Ronald, Ann. “Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s Brave Bird, ‘Hook.’” Studies in Short Fiction 25 (Fall, 1988): 433-439. Discusses the complex irony of the story, arguing that critics have wrongfully ignored it as a simple fable or animal tale for children.Westbrook, Max. Walter Van Tilburg Clark. New York: Twayne, 1969. One of the best overall assessments of Clark’s literary work available. Offers discussion of The Ox-Bow Incident and other novels and includes biographical information, a chronology of Clark’s life, and a select bibliography.Westbrook, Max. “Walter Van Tilburg Clark and the American Dream.” In A Literary History of the American West, edited by J. Golden Taylor. Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1987. Blends biography with criticism in analyzing Clark’s fiction and defining the author’s place in literary history. Using examples of characters from Clark’s stories and novels, Westbrook argues that the Clark “hero” is an idealistic dreamer incapable of practical action; as a result, the American Dream, or its nightmarish counterpart, becomes a real concern for Clark.Yardley, Jonathan. “Broadening the Western’s Horizons.” The Washington Post, April 7, 2007. Provides biographical information about Clark and discusses The Ox-Bow Incident, concluding that the novel is “proof that the story of the West can rise above cliché and become the material of literature.”
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