Broadening The Western's Horizons

Saturday, April 7, 2007

An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.

In 1937, a teacher in the Upstate New York town of Cazenovia began writing a novel. He was in his late 20s, and had spent most of his youth in Nevada. He wanted to write about the West, he said two decades later, but "I had repeatedly found the stereotypes, both the people and the situations, of the standard 'horse-oprey' in my way." He wanted to do something new:

"It was an effort to set myself free in that western past by taking all the ingredients of the standard western (which were real enough after all) and seeing if, with a theme that concerned me, and that had more than dated and local implications, and a realistic treatment, I could bring both the people and the situations alive again."

Walter Van Tilburg Clark, like many Americans, "was getting increasingly worried about Hitler and the Nazis." He most feared "that ever-present element in any society which can always be led to act the same way, to use authoritarian methods to oppose authoritarian methods." The message he wanted to get across was: "It can happen here. It has happened here, in minor but sufficiently indicative ways, a great many times."

"The Ox-Bow Incident," the novel in which he developed that theme, was published in 1940, just as the United States stood at the edge of being drawn into world war. Three years later, under the same title, it was made into a film, with Henry Fonda playing the central role of Gil Carter. Both the book and the movie are still very much alive, the former in a Modern Library paperback, the latter in DVD and VHS recordings. Neither has lost an ounce of its power. "The Ox-Bow Incident" is an American classic, a story of the West that rises far above genre to become literature.

Presumably I first read it around 1960, which is when my (50 cent!) Signet Classics edition was published. I had seen the movie first but have no recollection that this colored my reading of the novel, beyond leaving me little choice except to see Fonda's face as the book came to life in my imagination. As a rule, I dislike reading books after seeing the movie adaptations because their visual images get in the way of the author/reader relationship, but this adaptation is so completely faithful to the original that it is, if anything, an enhancement.

The man who created "The Ox-Bow Incident" was not a native Westerner. Clark was born in Maine in 1909. His family moved to Nevada when he was 5. For two decades his father was president of the University of Nevada, from which Clark received degrees in 1931 and 1932. He lived in the East for several years but returned to Nevada after his first novel's great success. He published two other novels, "The City of Trembling Leaves" (1945) and "The Track of the Cat" (1949), both of which were well received but neither of which enjoyed the success of "The Ox-Bow Incident." Until his death in 1971, according to the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame, "he wrote furiously but published little." He wrote short stories and poetry as well as novels, and there is some reason to believe that poetry was his first love.

"The Ox-Bow Incident" takes place during one very long day in the 1880s in and around Bridger's Wells, a Nevada settlement that once had been a stagecoach stop but now is "losing its stage-stop look and beginning to settle into a half-empty village of the kind that hangs on sometimes where all the real work is spread out on the land around it, and most of the places take care of themselves." There isn't much to it: "Arthur Davies' general store, the land and mining claims office, Canby's saloon, the long, sagging Bridger Inn, with its double-decker porch, and the Union Church, square and bare as a New England meeting house."

Around 3 o'clock on a late spring afternoon, two cowboys ride into town. One, Art Croft, is the narrator; the other, Gil Carter, is his partner and closest friend. They've made it through another winter and a spring roundup, and have come to town for the first time in months. They don't live there, but they know everybody. As the story unfolds Croft mostly stays in the background, letting others do the talking. These include Carter, who "always talks as if he had a little edge, which is his kind of humor"; Canby, the saloonkeeper, who has a similar turn of humor; Davies, the storekeeper, who is far more the town's conscience than is Osgood, the preacher; Farnley, another cowboy, laconic and stubborn; Joyce, the judge, "with folds of fat over the collar, bulging brown eyes, and a mouth with a shape like a woman's mouth, but with a big, pendulous lower lip, like men get who talk a lot without thinking much first"; and Tetley, "the biggest man in the valley," who "had been a Confederate cavalry officer, and the son of a slave owner, and he had that kind of a code, and a sharp, quiet head for management."

If you're thinking that this sounds like the cast of just about any Zane Grey pulp novel or Hollywood western, you're right. The difference is that Clark takes these stock ingredients and turns them into something original. There are no duels in the sun at high noon, no horseback battles against Indians (in fact, there aren't any Indians at all), no gals in calico flirting with the cowpokes. Instead, there is an intense moral drama.

It begins when Carter and Croft go to the saloon and soon learn that there has been cattle-rustling outside town. Since they have been out of town themselves, they immediately come in for suspicion. They manage to allay it, but as events unfold, their awareness of a need to prove themselves innocent is a strong motive behind their willingness to fall in with the crowd as it heads toward calamitous action. They are rough but good men who don't want to get roped in for something they didn't do, and this gets in the way of their sense of right and wrong.

After Carter and Farnley get into a booze-fueled fight, a teenager rides in, "talking fast and waving his right hand, and then slapping the gun on his thigh." He brings news, which Canby reports: "Somebody's been in down on Drew's range and killed Kinkaid, and they think there's cattle gone too." Kinkaid was popular: "You didn't notice when he was there, but you noticed it a lot when he wasn't. . . . The men would go a long way, and all together, to get the guy that had killed Kinkaid." The killing apparently happened about three hours before Carter and Croft got to town: "I wanted to feel the way the others did about this, but you can feel awful guilty about nothing when the men you're with don't trust you." So now the two have another reason to feel that the eyes of the community are on them: suspicious eyes.

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