Clark’s Quiet Masterpiece

At the beginning of last trimester, I decided to teach a class centered around Walter van Tilburg Clark’s The Ox-Bow Incident. My motives were, above all, selfish. I had read the novel once before and found it so impressive that I had barely put it down before it began gnawing away at my thoughts and demanding closer inspection. First published in 1940, The Ox-Bow Incident arrived on the heels of the early successes of John Steinbeck and William Saroyan and it is very much a novel of the pedigree represented by their work. Its prose is plain and laconic. Its characters are sharply defined. Their interactions lead them to articulate and debate the moral dilemmas that would otherwise amount only to subtext, and the dramas that develop between them are staged so precisely, yet with aspirations to realism so insistent, that the absence of ragged edges underscores the artificiality of the whole. When appreciated as a novel of this sort, The Ox-Bow Incident must be hailed as one of the very best. As much as its artifices may constrain it, its characters and their dramas remain electrifying from the first page to the last. But its sophisticated approach to the demands and limits of its genre was not what appealed to me when I first read it. I couldn’t say exactly what it was that appealed, but I could sense that it was something else, some textual undercurrent, some motivational force that propelled the whole thing along. When I decided to teach it in class, then, I set aside several weeks in which to read it closer, page by page, to find out what that something was.


Bridger’s Wells, Nevada. 1885. A classic Western scenario. Two young cowboys ride into town. Their names are Art Croft and Gil Carter. Having just finished the springtime roundup of the cattle that roam free in the winter, their first destination is the local saloon. The bartender, Canby, greets them as an old acquaintance and delivers the unhappy news that, while Art and Gil were away, Gil’s old flame, Rose Mapen, left town, or was driven out. Canby also informs them that the local ranchers experienced some trouble with cattle rustlers, and those troubles are made plain when a man named Moore enters the saloon and approaches the bar. As the foreman of a ranch belonging to the town’s most influential landowner, Harley Drew, Moore reveals that every rancher in Bridger’s Wells lost cattle during the spring and that the combined losses totalled more than six hundred animals. As Art and Gil continue drinking and talking with Canby and Moore, the saloon fills up with an assortment of other townsfolk. Among them are two of the ranchers, the tempestuous Jeff Farnley and his embittered friend, Bartlett, who lost one hundred head of stock, as well as the town drunkard, Monty Smith, and the local preacher known only as Osgood. Suddenly, though, a young man named Greene rushes into town with urgent news from Drew’s ranch. Greene is another of Drew’s employees and he announces that one of his fellow ranchhands has just been shot dead by a gang of four riders.

The dead man’s name is Larry Kinkaid. Farnley, a friend of Kinkaid, leads the charge to form a lynch mob in order to exact revenge upon the riders. Bartlett, as a victim of rustling, offers backup. Osgood, as a man of the cloth, feels a moral obligation to halt this spirit of vigilantism before it spreads to the other townsfolk, and it is with his protestations that the novel begins to soar. Osgood entreats Farnley and Bartlett not to turn to vigilantism as an expedient solution to a reported crime whose details remain unclear. “[I]f such an awful thing has actually occurred,” he says, “it is the more reason that we should retain our self-possession. In such a position… we are likely to lose our reason and our sense of justice. … [L]et us not act hastily; let us not do that which we will regret. We must act, certainly, but we must act in a reasoned and legitimate manner, not as a lawless mob. It is not mere blood that we want. … We desire justice, and justice has never been obtained in haste and strong feeling.”

For Osgood, a “reasoned and legitimate” response to the crime involves sending for Risley and Tyler, respectively the sheriff and the judge with jurisdiction over Bridger’s Wells, so that the mob can be transformed into a legally constituted posse under official leadership. But Farnley and Bartlett sneer at Osgood. “We know what Tyler is,” Bartlett growls. “If we wait for Tyler… there won’t be one head of anybody’s cattle left in the meadows by the time we get justice. … Is it justice that we sweat ourselves sick and old every damned day in the year to make a handful of honest dollars, and then lose it all in one night to some miserable greaser because Judge Tyler… says we have to fold our hands and wait for his eternal justice? Waiting for Tyler’s kind of justice, we’d all be beggars in a year. … What led rustlers into this valley in the first place? … I’ll tell you what did it. Judge Tyler’s kind of justice, that’s what did it. They don’t wait for that kind of justice in Texas any more, do they? … They go and get the man, and they string him up. … Maybe if we do one job with our own hands, the law will get a move on.”

When Osgood fails to respond to Bartlett’s outrage with enough passion to inspire others to hear his case, Arthur Davies, the town storekeeper, steps in and pleads for restraint. “If we go out and hang two or three men,” he says, “without doing what the law says, forming a posse and bringing the men in for trial, then by the same law, we’re not officers of justice, but due to be hanged ourselves. … [O]ur crime’s worse than a murderer’s. His act puts him outside the law, but keeps the law intact. Ours would weaken the law.” By and large, however, Davies’ arguments fall on deaf ears and, soon enough, Farnley and Bartlett are joined by Bill Winder, the stagecoach driver whose route extends from Bridger’s Wells to Reno, and Gabe Hart, Winder’s right-hand-man. When Gil Carter is also drawn into the emerging mob, Davies sends a clerk to Judge Tyler’s residence and asks Art Croft to go along as well. Davies’ intention is to execute Osgood’s proposal, to seek Tyler’s intervention so that the mob cannot act until Sheriff Risley arrives. The townsfolk are waiting for a leader, Art understands, and Davies wants Risley to step in before someone entirely unsuitable volunteers. At first, things go according to plan. When Art arrives at Tyler’s residence with Davies’ clerk in tow, Tyler is suitably angered and agrees to intervene. But then, when Art and Davies’ clerk return to town with Tyler, Tyler’s intervention is derailed by a mob that has grown in their absence.

Although Bartlett is nowhere to be found, having ridden out to recruit his two sons, the mob is momentarily galvanised by the arrival of a grotesque old woman, Jenny Grier, who rides in and takes Tyler to task in full view of the townsfolk: when Tyler threatens to charge one of the men with “impeding the course of justice,” Grier tells him that “you can’t impede what don’t move anyway.” Then the mob is galvanised for good when the townsfolk make way for Willard Tetley, a one-time Confederate cavalry officer who inspires fear and thus obedience in all the other townsfolk. Riding in alongside his timid son, Gerald, Tetley is exactly the sort of leader whose arrival worried Davies. In response, Davies makes one last attempt at persuading the townsfolk not to take justice into their own hands. Seizing on the fresh revelation that Greene, the young man who brought news of Kinkaid’s death, did not actually witness the murder, he pleads for the townsfolk to entertain reasonable doubt about the validity of Greene’s report. But his entreaties are powerless to diminish the sway of the testimony of Tetley’s Mexican ranchhand, Amigo, who reports having seen several men on horseback fleeing the valley alongside forty head of cattle. With Risley still stationed on Drew’s ranch, far outside the town, his deputy, Butch Mapes, agrees to deputise the members of the mob and so to give their actions legal sanction. Tyler insists that Mapes is acting illegally, since a sheriff’s deputy lacks legal authority to deputise others, but his objections are disregarded by Mapes and by those who agree to swear Mapes an oath of loyalty. Setting their sights on revenge for the death of Kinkaid and the theft of six hundred cattle, twenty-seven men and one woman set out to hunt down the suspected murderers who have fled into the nighttime wilderness surrounding Bridger’s Wells.

The mob has not been riding very long before Art Croft, abreast with Gerald Tetley, finds himself taken as an audience for the young man’s explication of the novel’s overriding theme. Gerald despises his aggressive, domineering father and quietly opposes the actions of the lynch mob. “You can’t go hunting men like coyotes after rabbits and not feel anything about it,” he warns Art. “Not without being like any other animal. The worst animal. … At least coyotes don’t make excuses. We think we can see something better, but we go on doing the same things, hunt in packs like wolves; hole up in warrens like rabbits. All the dirtiest traits. … [We’re hunting] our own kind. A wolf wouldn’t do that; not a mangy coyote. That’s the hunting we like now, our own kind. … We have all the pack instincts, all right…”

Human beings are pack animals, according to Gerald Tetley, and countless episodes in the novel dramatise this theme. Before the novel begins, Rose Mapen is driven out of town by rumours that she is a whore, rumours spread by a pack of women who are jealous of her attractiveness to their husbands. As the lynch mob begins to form, Art realises that its formation is inevitable from the point at which it attracts a crowd of onlookers, “an audience that ha[s] to be played up to.” And, when Art scans the faces of the men in the mob, he admits that it would be unlikely, “man for man,” for any of the men to be talked into doing anything rash, but that they can no longer think straight because they are too “stirred up or feeling they ought to be.” In other words, opposition to the formation of the lynch mob was always bound to be a lost cause. The very formation of the mob put the townsfolk in a position from which they had no other choice but to sign up or lose face, and, as they were struck by a sense of terror at the prospect of losing face, they felt themselves impelled to join the human pack.

In a sense, then, the member of the mob who is most terrified of losing face is also the one who most terrifies the others — the alpha dog, Willard Tetley — and so, as the hunt proceeds, the elder Tetley takes pains to show no weaknesses and to distract his subordinates from noticing his terror. The mob captures three men in a valley known as the Ox-Bow. Tetley demands that the captives confess to killing Kinkaid and stealing the cattle. But when Gil senses that Tetley is unsure of the guilt of these men and demands that Tetley discuss his doubts with Judge Tyler, Tetley suggests in front of the mob that Gil’s own “stomach for justice is cooling.” And when Davies insists that Tetley read a letter written by one of the captives because it proves their innocence, Tetley responds with an ironclad refusal to entertain the doubts it would raise: “[I]f it’s an honest letter it’s none of my business to read it,” he says, “and if it isn’t I don’t want to.”

The end result is a tragedy made all the more disturbing because foreshadowed with such clarity that it appears almost foreordained. Despite insisting on their innocence, the three captured riders are hung in a grotesque spectacle. In an effort to coerce his son into overcoming his timidity, Willard Tetley forces Gerald to kill the leader of the riders, a young man named Donald Martin. Because Gerald can’t overcome his timidity after all, the hanging goes awry. Martin’s neck doesn’t snap. The noose starts to strangle him so that he must be shot to death while he hangs. And shortly thereafter, just as the mob sets out on the return journey to Bridger’s Wells, Sheriff Risley shows up in the company of Harley Drew and none other than Larry Kinkaid, alive and well. When a gun went off at Drew’s ranch earlier that day, Kinkaid was struck by a bullet but was only left unconscious. The entire lynching was conducted so hastily that the mob overlooked the possibility that there weren’t actually any killers to be brought to justice, and so, to the horror of those who took part in the lynching, a terrible experience of injustice confers validity on the arguments of Osgood and Davies.


There is unmistakable artistry to the precision with which moral and political positions are staked out, to the cogency with which a theme is articulated, and to the clarity with which the dramatisation of that theme underscores the strengths and weaknesses of those positions. From beginning to end, the unfolding of events is so crisp and clean and so orderly as to make overt the exercise of authorial control. But why? After reading The Ox-Bow Incident for the first time, I knew on some level that these elements of the novel were what I most admired about it. When I returned to it last term, I kept those elements in view. Why this precision, this cogency, this clarity? Why the overt exercise of control? Why this insistence on orderliness? Why the authorial determination, the sheer resolve, to exercise a degree of control sufficient to ensure such precision, cogency, and clarity in the telling of the tale?

The Ox-Bow Incident is narrated by Art Croft, one of the two cowboys who rides into Bridger’s Wells in the novel’s opening pages, although, unlike his partner Gil, Art is less a participant in the narrative action than a cipher for its notation. He embarks on the journey to Judge Tyler’s house at the behest of Davies, he reluctantly accompanies the lynch mob into the wilderness, and at one point he is accidentally shot and incapacitated, but otherwise nothing much happens to him beyond his spectatorship of events that are driven by others. At first, then, it is easy to see Art as similarly passive in his role as narrator. Since his simplistic retelling of events appears as unassuming as his presence at the scene of the crime and as unadorned as his contributions to the lynching, the novel seems to take the form of Art’s first-person monologue offering nothing more than a straightforward record of who did what to whom and why. But I think it would be a mistake to accept the novel’s apparent simplicity without taking a closer look at it, particularly since two quiet remarks, made in the first fifty pages, imply that the form of the novel is something more than a monologue and much less straightforward than it seems.

The first remark appears early on, just after Art and Gil take their seats in Canby’s saloon and Gil tells Canby about the winter he has just spent with Art. Because they were on duty while the cattle roamed free, Gil and Art had to sleep together in a tiny shack in the depths of the snow-covered mountains. Gil, a born conversationalist, was irritated by Art’s introspection and quietude and, more importantly, by his preference to sit by himself and write rather than shooting the breeze with his partner. “[H]e wouldn’t talk,” Gil complains, “and somebody had to. He’d sit there reading his old books like he had a lesson to learn, or writing all the time, scratch, scratch, scratch. It got on my nerves.” The second remark appears when Art sets off to visit Judge Tyler as the lynch mob forms in town and a thunderstorm gathers in the distance. “The sky was really changing now, fast,” Art says. “[T]he wind was down to earth and continual, flapping the men’s garments and blowing out the horses’ tails like plumes. … It was a heavy wind with a damp, chill feel to it, like comes before snow, and strong enough so it wuthered under the arcade and sometimes whistled, the kind of wind that even now makes me think of Nevada quicker than anything else I know.”

Those two short words, “even now,” are loaded with significance, as is the subsequent detour into the present tense. Here but nowhere else in the novel, Art suggests that the events he recounts are not at all recent, are perhaps years in the past, and this suggestion obtains further significance in light of Gil’s complaints about Art. The narrator of this novel is a writer — an obsessive writer, according to Gil, struck by an irrepressible need to write — who acknowledges himself as such when he includes Gil’s complaints in his narrative, and who thereafter situates himself at a temporal distance from the events he narrates. In combination, then, these two remarks raise the possibility that The Ox-Bow Incident is not some abstract monologue spoken or thought by its narrator but may in fact be an accumulation of words set on paper in a written document which the narrator construes, fleetingly but quite explicitly, as a retrospective detailing of exactly what happened in Bridger’s Wells and what happened later in the Ox-Bow. This possibility becomes a likelihood, I think, given the extraordinarily careful attention that Art, as a man besotted with words, pays to the words of the men who argue about the virtues and vices of forming the lynch mob. If the precision, cogency, and clarity of The Ox-Bow Incident are at issue alongside its orderliness and overt authorial control, then these aspects of the novel beg an interrogation of Art Croft and his condition after the lynching. Something about what happens in the novel, which has already happened to Art before the novel begins, compels him to recount what has happened with all the precision, cogency, and clarity that calls attention to the control he exercises over his act of recounting. For Art, then, the act of recounting must also implicitly constitute an attempt to answer or ameliorate the compulsion to recount, a compulsion that must have arisen from the events he recounts and that entails the style in which he recounts them.

What is the source of that compulsion? My sense is that it is the disconnect between Art’s values and priorities as a writer and his behaviour as a member of the lynch mob. This disconnect slowly grows wider throughout the novel until it reaches its full extent when Risley, Drew, and Kinkaid appear in the aftermath of the lynching. The formation of the lynch mob begins in the face of Osgood and Davies’ careful, eloquent arguments against it. Many other men do not heed these arguments, but Art gives them some credence. “I thought at about it,” he says of Davies’ argument that the proper, procedural judgement of a crime requires careful deliberation and thus requires enough time for hot tempers to cool down. “I can see how the time would count,” he admits, and later, when Davies asks him to approach Judge Tyler so that deliberation can be set in motion, he admits that “Davies is right.” Later still, when the lynch mob strengthens in anticipation of Willard Tetley’s arrival, Art even hopes that Davies might ultimately convince the townsfolk to abandon the mob: “I thought it would be a good time for Davies to tackle them again,” he says, silently urging Davies to return to rhetorical persuasion and so to pre-empt Tetley’s seizure of power. These remarks suggest that Art, a writer inwardly immersed in words, at first respects the words of others who similarly respect words and is given to follow the course of action that those words open up.

Unfortunately, though, Art’s respect doesn’t endure. He too succumbs to the will and whims of the human pack. “Most men are more afraid of being thought cowards than of anything else,” he admits as he begins to side with the lynch mob, “and a lot more afraid of being thought physical cowards than moral ones. There are a lot of loud arguments to cover moral cowardice, but even an animal will know if you’re scared. … Davies was resisting something that had immediacy and a strong animal grip, with something remote and mistrusted. He’d have to make his argument look common sense and hardy, or else humorous, and I wasn’t sure he could do either. If he couldn’t he was going to find that it was the [influence of the] small but present ‘we,’ not the big, [societal] ‘we,’ that shaped men’s deeds, no matter what shaped their explanations.” Finally, then, although Art respects words in themselves and largely respects Davies’ use of them, he also senses that certain circumstances render them weightless, even futile. He is, in his own way, true to his name: the abstract, aesthetic connotations of “Art” are counterbalanced by the earthbound palpability of “Croft,” the name given to a small patch of self-sustaining farmland fenced off from the wider world. At last, beyond only sensing the futility of words in the face of the lynch mob, Art submits to that futility and sets off with the others gathered under Tetley’s leadership.

Art is too self-effacing, either not sufficiently self-aware or self-centred, to confess to what I think motivates his words: a deep sense of regret for his actions as a moral and political agent, which could only have followed from the suppression of his writer’s instinct to heed the words of Osgood and Davies. He experiences some difficulty in breaking away from Osgood and Davies not without some difficulty — “Every minute it was getting harder for Davies to crack [the other townsfolk],” he says. “It just seemed funny now to think I’d been listening to an argument about what the soul of the law was. Right here and now was all that was going to count” — but break away he does, and this misguided breaking away, viewed from a position of retrospective regret, justifies and perhaps even demands the precision, cogency, and clarity with which he determines to recount it. Why else so overtly control the narrative if not to give due credit to those whose arguments were finally proven valid and to criticise those who brazenly denigrated them? Why else would Art make himself barely more than an exacting stenographer of other men’s words if not to retrospectively give those words the respect they did not receive in the heat of the moment? This regret, feeding a desire to make amends in print for dismissing potent words in life, is the textual undercurrent of The Ox-Bow Incident that I hoped to find when I re-read the novel; this is the motivational force that propels the whole thing along. The novel’s overriding theme, then, is not something that emerges from the writing so much as the writing itself emerges from the theme. The novel can only begin when the writer inside Art Croft reasserts its authority over the wretched moral and political agent that led him to participate in the lynching — when the human being inside the narrator overpowers the animal whose instincts led him to join the pack — and the precision, cogency, and clarity with which moral and political positions are so carefully staked out, and the control with which the resultant dramas are staged and orchestrated, are as much the stylistic flairs of an extended narrative as they are each one tiny step on this writer’s textual journey towards apology and feeble restitution.

One response to “Clark’s Quiet Masterpiece”

  1. Thank you for your incisive analysis. I doubt that many novels this good are being written today, and I doubt even more that had “The Ox Bow Incident” been shopped to publishers and agents in 2010 rather than 1940, it would even get into print.

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