In the 1950s Walter Van Tilburg Clark seemed on his way to becoming a major American writer, both a popular and a critical success. His first and third novels, The Ox-Bow Incident and The Track of the Cat, were made into movies (the first ably, under the direction of William Wellman, the second less so). And one of his short stories, "The Wind and the Snow of Winter," an elegy for freewheeling days on the Western frontier that still has few equals, was an immediate classic. His second novel, a long Bildungsroman called The City of Trembling Leaves, had pleased him, although critics were less enthusiastic. It was a good time for regional writers: Faulkner had won the Nobel Prize, Flannery O'Connor had returned to Georgia, Jean Stafford was setting stories in Colorado, and Clark had plenty of material in Nevada, which, however much it had been mined for silver, was practically virgin territory for novelists.

Today Clark, who died in 1971, is at least in print: all three novels, along with The Watchful Gods and Other Stories, the collection in which "The Wind and the Snow of Winter" appears. But he has become an in-crowd kind of writer, championed by a Stendhalian happy few, such as Wallace Stegner, and otherwise getting little attention. Jackson L. Benson refers to this diminished status in the first sentence of his biography, The Ox-Bow Man (Univ. of Nevada, $34.95): "Whatever happened to Walter Van Tilburg Clark?" The answer, in short, is that he contracted one of the worst cases of writer's block in American literature.

One cause of his failure to publish was his admitted perfectionism, another his fondness for allegory. The latter can be seen in The Track of the Cat, which for all its drama and evocative prose, seems rather schematic: One man after another goes out to kill the cougar that is bedeviling their ranch, and each fails owing to flaws in his character, until the right man picks up his gun. Clark's impulse in the uncompleted works of his later years, Benson writes, "seems almost messianic, using Nevada history or created incidents set in Nevada history to predict human decay and destruction unless there is some kind of readjustment of values. Looking at his projects in that way, it seems no wonder that he was never satisfied with his progress."

-- Dennis Drabelle

Clark