Towards Understanding

First published in 1940, Walter van Tilburg Clark’s The Oxbow Incident is an example of a literary western novel — that is, not a mass-market work. Clark’s novel presented the American West and the western hero in a very different light. The novel focuses on the violence inherent in the history and mythology of the West. Clark tells the story of a lynching and the subsequent guilt and regret exhibited by Art Croft who participated in it. Croft, the narrator of the novel, and the reader both undergo the same epiphany, which involves ultimately coming to terms with the violence and vigilante nature of the lynching, seeing it not as heroic but as something to be overcome. Daniel Davis Wood sums it up in his review of this book, saying that only “when the human being inside the narrator overpowers the animal whose instincts led him to join the pack” can one begin to understand how violence dehumanizes us. Only with this understanding, can the narrator (and the reader) begin the “journey toward apology and feeble restitution.”

Dee Bakker adopts my view of The Ox-Bow Incident in order to situate the novel within the broader context of the literature of the American West.

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