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.

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. Continue reading