I’ve recently read for the first time Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s The Ox-Bow Incident (1940), a novel thought to be the first anti-Western, and one I’d never gotten around to reading. Upon finishing it, I thought it merited a piece for two reasons: First, it’s Clark’s centenary (August 3, 1909); and second, it’s a book that spoke to both its own time and to ours.
Clark (1909-1971) was not a true son of the West, but close. He was born in East Orland, Maine, but when he was eight his family moved to Reno, where his father was president of the University of Nevada. The son followed in the father’s academic footsteps, combining a subsequent teaching career with the publication of five books, The Ox-Bow Incident being first and foremost, and considered an American classic today.
The novel has a deceptively simple plot. The setting is Nevada — 1885. Two cowboys, Art Croft (the narrator) and Gil Carter, get a break from the range for a couple of days and ride in to town, where they learn of the murder of a friend and fellow cowboy by cattle rustlers. They join an impromptu posse sanctioned by a corrupt judge named Tyler, and an unethical deputy sheriff named Butch Mapes, but not by the sheriff himself, a serious man named Risley, absent on official business.
The posse is a lynch mob in utero and as the novel progresses shows itself as an instrument bent on administering vigilante justice. It’s initially led by the bad deputy Mapes, whose weak character early on defers to a demonic figure named Major Tetley (Clark doesn’t give Judge Tyler, Mapes or Tetley proper Christian names), a rancher and ex-Confederate cavalry officer, who still wears remnants of his old uniform, and who takes charge and gives orders easily. Tetley has his son along, an emotionally unstable young man named Gerald, who detests his father, and is horrified by the posse’s prospects. Roughly a score of named and well-developed characters take part, some in favor of bringing the perpetrators back to town for an official trial, others intent on a hanging.
Three men are captured with cattle bearing a particular brand, and for which they lack a bill of sale. One also has the dead cowboy’s monogrammed six shooter, which he claims that he found on a road.
After a long cold night of existential terror on the part of the three captives, complete with cowboy versions of Dostoyevskyan (the book can be thought of as the American Crime and Punishment) insights in the pro and con arguments between accusers and accused, and amongst the accusers themselves, the three are “tried” by a jury-like vote, and hanged at dawn. As the final preparations are made, two become insane with fear, and a third — Donald Martin — is initially fearful, but calms himself and quietly accepts his fate. Earlier, he had been permitted to write a “beautiful” letter to be delivered to his wife and children.
At novel’s end it turns out that the lynched men were innocent (mistaken circumstances cause the thought-to-be-murdered cowboy to appear; and the rancher who sold the cattle verified the transaction involving a bill of sale to be mailed later), and their inquisitors react to the foul deed in different ways. Two commit suicide: Gerald Tetley, who is traumatized; and his father Major Tetley after that, out of guilt. One man goes insane. The rest, including Art Croft and Gil Carter, stoically go on with their lives, knowing that someday they will answer for being a party to a great injustice. Clark’s timeless message is that each human being is morally responsible for every act performed in the course of their life. And the book is certainly a primer on the machinations of mob rule.
Clark wrote most of The Ox-Bow Incident in 1937 and ’38, as the political cauldron that was Europe was heating to the boiling point of World War ll. Upon its 1940 publication, some reviewers made the connection. In a letter to his friend, the writer Walter Prescott Webb, Clark writes: “I had the parallel in mind, all right, but what I was most afraid of was not the German Nazis, or even the Bund, but that ever-present element in any society which can always be led to act the same way….What I wanted to say was: It can happen here. It has happened here, in minor but sufficiently indicative ways, a great many times.”
The Ox-Bow Incident is a strangely appropriate book for our time, just as it was when totalitarianism writ large ruled much of the world. Today, it speaks to a rampant McCarthyism of the Left that routinely practices character assassination on its political adversaries. As I read the story I couldn’t help but reflect on the lynch mob mentality present in our contemporary public life, especially in the mainstream media. Its recent Sarah Palin smear campaign tells us who they are.
— Then he [Donald Martin] got hold of himself and said to Tetley, more slowly, “Aren’t you even going to tell us what we’re accused of ?”
“Of course,” Tetley said. “This isn’t a mob. We’ll make sure first.”
Well, no they won’t. Seventy years after its publication, Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s novel is about life in the United States in 2009, as much as it is about Nevada in 1885 or Germany in 1938. The Ox-Bow Incident deserves its honored place in the American canon because it stands the test of time and tells us much about the state of our national character today.