Literature of Walter Van Tilburg Clark

Walter Van Tilburg Clark loved Reno and Nevada. The deserts and mountains, the mining camps and cattle ranches, the hiking trails and few lakes were an emotional home to him. They fired his imagination with scenes and characters, which, especially toward the end of his life, fascinated him as myth.

Clark was not native to the West. Born in Maine in 1909, he and his family moved to Reno at the age of eight when his father was appointed president of the University of Nevada. His formative years were spent in Reno where he attended the University and received his bachelor of arts and master of arts degrees.

After studying philosophy and literature for two more years at the University of Vermont, Clark received a second master's degree. He then accepted a post as a high school teacher and basketball coach at Cazenovia, New York. With the appearance of The Ox-Bow Incident in 1940, Clark came into immediate prominence as a writer. His novel was widely acclaimed by the critics as transforming the stereotypical Western into literature.

Clark hated pulp Western stories and the movies they had spawned, believing they had interchangeable parts—good heroes in white hats who resort to violence as only a last resort; bad guys in black hats (robbers, rustlers, gamblers, thieves); virtuous women and dance-hall girls; and a storyline that hinged on a chase and a "walk down" duel in the streets or a public hanging.

Clark worked not by revising (e.g. changing words, deleting passages, inserting new passages), but by writing completely new versions, almost always throwing the previous attempt into the furnace. The first version of Ox-Bow was a parody and satire of the pulp fiction that Clark despised. Another rendition offered a serious depiction of the Fascist authoritarianism of the Old West, with the vigilante posse serving as an ideological group that closely paralleled Hitler's general staff. A "ghost" of this idea remains in the published version.

However, Clark was not merely writing an allegory, but dramatizing an American example of the same mentality. The story and theme do not reinforce the escapist stereotypes of the Old West, but force us to read the story in psychological terms. The events are realities that have happened and can happen again.

The final version of Ox-Bow uses the stereotypical "stuff" of the pulp Western, but Clark reversed the roles. The rustlers are not the bad guys, but the innocents. The vigilante posse that pursues them commits the acts of injustice. This reversal forces Clark and the reader to pay attention to motives, to behavior, to character, to event, and finally to theme and the idea of justice. Clark shifts our gaze away from the adventure of the story and focuses on the value systems of the characters. The book ultimately is not about rustlers and vigilantes, but about human nature.

Clark described his second novel, The City of Trembling Leaves (1945), as "a token biography of Reno, a city of adolescence." More, it is a story of an artistic personality and the development of his philosophy and value system. The book focuses on a group of young people as they come of age in and around Reno, but the real issue is the development of an aesthetic of myth and symbol.

A third Clark novel, The Track of the Cat (1949), uses the Flaubertian technique of sensory realism to convince readers of the mythic reality of a mysterious black panther in cattle country, as well as to explore the personalities of the three brothers who are hunting the cat. These include the dreamer, reader, and thinker, Arthur; the hard-nosed, materialistic, practical Curt; and Hal, the one in between, whose practicality is modified by a willingness to respond to what Clark calls "the primitive." The physical detail dramatizes the internal turmoil of the three men's minds.

Clark's fourth book is a collection—The Watchful Gods, and Other Stories (1950). Here are about half of the stories he published in literary magazines in the 1940s such as Yale Review, The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, and Virginia Quarterly Review. The collection includes some classics of western writing—"The Indian Well," "The Wind and the Snow of Winter," and the "The Buck in the Hills." Other stories take place in the West, but are not about the West—"The Rapids," about a man's rediscovery and loss of his masculinity; "Hook," the life-story of a hawk; and "The Portable Phonograph," an apocalyptic story about the end of the world.

After 1950, a paralyzing writer's block set in, and Clark was unable to publish any more long works. Maybe he had written himself into a dead end and had just run out of approaches and ideas. His letters and public talks for the next twenty-odd years show that he was intensely interested in writing techniques, especially in symbol and myth. He was involved in a pursuit of technical and thematic perfection. But he had become such a stern task-master to himself that he was unable to finish project after project.

During this time, Clark supported himself and his family by teaching. He never applied for a job, but was always busy. He taught for a time at the University of Nevada where he was involved in a dispute between the administration and the faculty. He also taught at the University of Montana, the University of Iowa Writers Workshop (where he was invited to stay on a permanent basis), and San Francisco State. But Clark's heart was in Reno. When the University of Nevada offered him a special position, he came home.

Among his papers in the Special Collections Department of the University of Nevada Library are numerous beginnings—sketches of storylines and characters, or extended notes on symbols, or image structures for possible novels. One story, for example, was to be written as a game of chess. Some of these manuscripts got to 80 or 120 pages before he abandoned them. Clark's mind was busy and fertile, yet he was unable to complete anything to his own satisfaction. He often became so discouraged that he threatened to throw his writings into the furnace. He called these moods "the dismals."

In the papers, several themes recur often—on creative writing as an ideal study of English, on the techniques and craft of the short story, on the writer's life in the West, on history and myth. Two themes that apparently became more and more interesting to him were how one goes about turning historical fact and legend into fiction, especially in the intertwining stories of two women in early Virginia City, Nevada—Julia Bulette and Eilley Orrum Bowers. On numerous occasions, he used one or both of these women's stories to illustrate a talk on how fiction might fuse with history, legend, myth. His notes were frequently revised and rearranged to bring out different emphases. "Possible bones of a novel," Clark wrote in his notes for a talk at Wesleyan University, January 10, 1961. "As the low comedy of the Bowers dwindles toward nothing, the high comedy, tragedy, ambiguity of Julia Bulette moves slowly and certainly toward myth."

Clark spent his last years at the University of Nevada, teaching a few creative writing courses and editing the journals and papers of Alfred Doten—a man of considerably more historical importance to the Comstock than Bulette and Bowers. But readers might wish that he had been freed, both from his duties and from his own demons, to write that unwritten novel, The Queens of the Comstock.

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