American Literature Walter Van Tilburg Clark
Jeffrey Chisum
  • LAST REVIEWED: 14 January 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0196


Walter Van Tilburg Clark (b. 1909–d. 1971) was born in Maine, but spent his formative years growing up in Reno, Nevada, where his father served as president of the University of Nevada. Clark’s body of work (notably The Ox-Bow Incident) established him as one of the preeminent writers of the American West during the middle of the 20th century (he was friends with Wallace Stegner, the “Dean of Western Writers”), and in 1988, he was one of the first writers inducted into the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame. Clark’s fiction blends elements of the genre western with a careful eye for the local landscape and a spiritual ambivalence toward nature. The Ox-Box Incident (1940), about a lynch mob that erroneously executes a trio of innocent men, is his best-known work (it was made into an Academy Award–nominated film in 1943), though it’s perhaps the least characteristic of his artistic concerns. Clark’s second novel, The City of Trembling Leaves (1945), is a Künstlerroman that details the growth and maturation of a young, budding composer named Tim Hazard. The novel is a powerfully evocative depiction of early-20th-century Reno, and the scene-setting, characterizations, and development of central themes are all expressive of Clark’s prowess as a fiction writer. His final two creative works—The Track of the Cat (1949) and The Watchful Gods and Other Stories (1950)—are arguably his best. The Track of the Cat is a tense, tightly wound novel about a marauding mountain lion which has been preying on the cattle of the isolated Bridger family, and which begins to prey upon the humans as well. The Watchful Gods, meanwhile, shows Clark’s range as a storyteller, with the title story being perhaps the purest and most focused narrative expression of his main thematic concerns (especially the spiritual connection between humans and the natural environment). Clark did not publish any fiction after The Watchful Gods. This dry spell, from one of the most promising writers of the American West, remains one of the great enigmas of Clark’s career. The secondary literature on Clark ranges from scholarly analysis to exploration of the narrative themes in his work to biographical and archival work. Generally speaking, Clark’s fiction is interpreted through the lens of western American literary criticism and history, with many scholars treating it as both an exemplar of and deviation from western generic conventions.

General Overviews

The most influential of the book-length studies of Clark is Westbrook 1969. Lee 1973 is interesting for a variety of reasons, notably for its take on some of Clark’s early poetic efforts. Finally, Laird 1983 is an excellent essay collection that interprets Clark from multiple angles.

  • Laird, Charlton, ed. Walter Van Tilburg Clark: Critiques. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1983.

    The essays in this superb collection include biographical sketches, material drawn from interviews, analyses of all the major works, snippets from interviews and Clark’s letters and notes, and surveys of Clark’s stature as a literary artist.

  • Lee, L. L. Walter Van Tilburg Clark. Boise State College Western Writers Series 8. Boise, ID: Boise State College, 1973.

    Lee’s slender volume provides a useful biographical overview of Clark’s life and works, including some analysis of Clark’s obscure early poetry. Careful and insightful readings of the three novels flesh out the bulk of the text.

  • Westbrook, Max. Walter Van Tilburg Clark. New York: Twayne, 1969.

    Book-length, Jungian study of Clark’s major works that remains the best and most influential of the critical approaches to Clark. Particularly valuable in terms of the way it analyzes the mystical and spiritual dimensions of Clark’s writings.

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