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The reason for the Nevada author’s sudden silence is still shrouded in mystery.
He published three novels and a collection of short stories. Two movies were inspired by his writings, and most people don’t realize they’ve probably read his work.
The Ox-Bow Incident is generally accepted as being the first modern Western, freeing the genre from its stock clichés and formulaic plots. His short stories, Hook and The Portable Phonograph, were heavily anthologized as classic examples of the form.
You can count the great writers Nevada has produced on one hand. Mark Twain, Will James, and Robert Laxalt all spring to mind, yet Walter Van Tilburg Clark retains an elusive, ghostly, Harper Lee-like image. He was a teacher. He was a Nevadan.
Born in Maine in 1909, Clark was eight years old when his family moved to Reno. He grew up on the University of Nevada, Reno campus, where his father was president from 1917-’37. He earned a teaching degree at UNR and wrote poems about the girls he fell in love with—he also fell in love with the big empty spaces of Nevada.
The Ox-Bow Incident, a novel in which two drifters are drawn into a posse formed to find the murderer of a local man, was published in 1940 and became a critical and commercial success. In 1945, Clark published what he considered to be his masterwork—City of Trembling Leaves. It was a miserable flop. In 1949, he published Track of the Cat, which was well received. The Watchful Gods and Other Stories came in 1950, but then the lyrical fell silent.
Clark’s biographer, Jackson J. Benson, thinks it was the way that Clark wrote which may have led to his difficulty later on. He wrote like a poet, in the incandescent fire of inspiration, writing quickly, creating large chunks of narrative, revising very little. Yet it is difficult for a poet to be a novelist; the heights of poetic inspiration must be tempered into the mechanics of a novel.
The author’s self-imposed isolation and marathon writing and typing sessions fueled by too much coffee and cigarettes may have become zones of contention within his family. Benson mentions that Clark suffered a physical breakdown and with the proceeds from The Ox-Bow Incident took a year off to recover.
Clark was well known for throwing entire manuscripts into the fire and entire novels into the wastebasket. I know of no other writer who works this way. Hemingway was loath to throw anything away. Charlton Laird, peer and friend of Clark, suggests that there were three basic drafts of The Ox-Bow Incident. The first was a spoof on the stereotypical Western, the second was an anti-Nazi version, and the third is the novel we know today.
Hollywood bought The Ox-Bow Incident for $5,265 and Track of The Cat for $7,500. Neither made Clark wealthy. To make matters worse, The Ox-Bow Incident was plagiarized and sold under the name of Ramrod.
The artist of the 1950s must have been a different person from the earnest writer of the late 1930s. It must have bothered him that City of Trembling Leaves wasn’t more successful. It must have chafed him to be thought of only as a writer of Westerns. He may have been hurt and confused as to why he could not sell Water.
Clark continued to write, but published very little post-1950. There are 600 handwritten pages of a manuscript entitled Dam, which may be a rewrite of Water. He attempted a final project, a Western trilogy: Admission Day, Way Stations, and Man in The Hole. Three simultaneous projects was a new way of working for Clark. Each had a wire-bound notebook hopefully titled and some chapter outlines and character studies inside.
The reason for Clark’s silence may never be revealed. Perhaps it is a warning lesson to all writers that the intersection of talent, technique, and inspiration is more magical than practical.
I like to think Clark achieved a state of Zen-like acceptance in which he did not feel that he had anything to prove. “I don’t mind being known as the guy who wrote The Ox-Bow Incident and knew all of the verses to ‘Blood on the saddle,’” he once said.
Clark, a member of the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame, served as the writer-in-residence at UNR from 1962 until his death in Virginia City in November 1971.