The Ox-Bow Man: A Biography of Walter Van Tilburg Clark
by Jackson J. Benson
University of Nevada Press, 426 pages, $34.95
reviewed by Roger W. Smith
A biography of Walter Van Tilburg Clark, whose beloved home state of Nevada is the setting for all of his major works, is very welcome at this time. Clark’s short story collection, “The Watchful Gods and Other Stories,” has been republished by the University of Nevada Press to coincide with the publication of this biography. Two of his lesser-known novels, “The City of Trembling Leaves” and “The Track of the Cat: A Novel,” are available in reprint editions. And, Clark will, of course, always be remembered as the author of his austere and finely crafted Western novel, “The Ox-Bow Incident,” and the critically acclaimed 1943 film based on the book, as the title of this book indicates.
Clark has a secure place among the ranks of Western writers — he was admired by contemporaries such as Wallace Stegner whose critical opinion counts — and while he is not quite in fashion today, he has never been entirely out of fashion.
The author of biographies of John Steinbeck and Stegner, Jackson Benson brings a reporter’s doggedness, a writer’s sensibilities and intimate knowledge of Clark’s Nevada to the task of writing this long-overdue biography. He seems to have interviewed everyone who ever knew Clark; has had the invaluable cooperation of Clark’s son, Robert, and his daughter, Barbara; has made excellent use of letters and unpublished manuscripts in the author’s papers at the University of Nevada to reconstruct events in his life and career; and provides an impressive amount of biographical detail that is not dull or cloying from the reader’s perspective.
Mr. Benson develops a rounded picture of Clark the man and the writer by viewing him from many different angles: the son of a prominent academic (his father, Walter Ernest Clark, was president of the University of Nevada from 1917-1938), avid tennis player, chess enthusiast, devoted husband and father, high school English teacher and athletic coach during the 1930s and ‘40s and, after he had become a successful writer, itinerant college professor in various writing programs.
We learn that Clark greatly admired California poet Robinson Jeffers, who was an important early influence; was thoroughly steeped in Arthurian legend (which provided the basis for a unique master’s thesis in the form of a narrative poem he completed at the University of Nevada; he earned a second master’s at the University of Vermont with a thesis on Jeffers); had an important and enduring friendship (described in his Kunstlerroman “The City of Trembling Leaves”) with Nevada painter Robert Caples; wrote unpublished poetry throughout his lifetime; and believed in writing swiftly without much retooling. He felt that if a story didn’t come naturally, it wasn’t worth persisting.
Clark died of cancer in 1971 at the age of 62. He was blocked and frustrated and stopped publishing altogether after the publication of his last major work, the above-mentioned collection of short stories, in 1950. The problem of why his creative output declined in middle age — a conflict between the demands of teaching and writing seems to have been a major cause, his self-imposed critical standards another — is one that Mr. Benson examines at length and with sensitivity.
It is hard to imagine this biography being surpassed in the foreseeable future. It’s an affecting, at times sad, but always edifying story. It sheds light on the tugs, pulls and challenges that the writing life and avocation can present in practical terms and on the difficulty of maintaining one’s integrity and creative output in the face of such challenges.
Mr. Smith is a freelance writer and editor based in Maspeth, Queens.