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R O B E R T W. C O C H R A N The University of Vermont Nature and the Nature of Man in The Ox-Bow Incident Max Westbrook devotes the opening paragraphs of his article “The Archetypal Ethic of The Ox-Bow Incident”*to a long-overdue and thoroughly convincing rejection of the less-sophisticated reviews and critiques of Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s first novel. He also provides in a footnote a brief critical bibliography containing not only entries for articles which demonstrate a failure to meet the novel on grounds appropriate to it but in addition entries for sophisticated and genuinely useful studies which are also mistaken, though ultimately rather than initially. Certainly Westbrook him­ self needs no championing; his application of Jungian archetypes for the purpose of understanding Clark’s novel is admirably selfsufficient . But perhaps a “New Critical” approach to the contents of Clark’s novel, the kind of approach which in the opinion of John R. Milton2 accounts for the relative lack of critical esteem under which Clark for too long suffered, may be shown to yield a reading consistent with Westbrook’s, even complementary to it. The recurrent Nature-symbolism in The Ox-Bow Incident, which Milton recognizes but does not pursue very far (since The Track of the Cat is of greater interest to him), requires further attention than it has been given. And the role assigned to the nar­ rator, Art Croft, must be defined with precision, for it is not, as John Portz asserts it is, Croft’s “function as narrator” which “pre­ vents him from taking the side of good to which his nature seems to incline him. . . .”3 Rather, Clark deliberately chooses as narrator a man whose contribution to the novel’s meaning arises from his not “taking the side of good to which his nature seems to incline him. . . That is, central to Clark’s meaning in The Ox-Bow Inci­ dent is what Milton calls “the theme of survival.” Central is not the question of how to prevent calamity, however, but instead the question of how to survive after the fact of inevitable calamity. ^-Western American Literature, I, 105-118. 3“The Western Attitude: Walter Van Tilburg Clark," Critique, II (Winter, 1959), 57. ““Idea and Symbol in Walter Van Tilburg Clark,” Accent, XVII (Spring, 1957), 122. 254 Western American Literature Injecting the term “tragedy” into his discussion of Clark’s works, Portz draws a distinction between a tragic protagonist and a typical Clark character: The implications here are those of tragedy . . . The archetypal myth which Clark has summoned up again and again is that of the adolescent at the turning point between youth and maturity . . . A tragic protagonist should be at the axis of irreconcilable forces and gather them all within himself. Potentially, the adolescent is this figure in Clark’s novels.4 Portz’ assumption that the mature man would accept responsibility (in the case of The Ox-Bow Incident, that he would, presumably, act to prevent the lynching) leads to his quite properly identifying first Gerald Tetley and then Arthur Davies as moral “adolescents.” Such an identification has much to recommend it, but the di­ rection of Portz’ argument bears the implication that somewhere such a mature man—a hero, no less—is to be found and that Art Croft falls short of our hopes or expectations by failing to be that man. Although Portz does not precisely condemn Croft for being a mere narrator in a situation which requires a real man “taking the side of good,” the thrust of Portz’ comments does suggest la­ mentation as well as observation. It seems to me essential to note that the question raised by the lynching in the novel is not, finally, how it might have been prevented but rather how man is to view himself and his fellows in the presence of ever-available evidence of despicable human behavior. That is, Clark would seem to be suggesting that man must not only try to be decent, try to avoid wrong-doing before the fact, whenever possible; man must also somehow manage to live with evil after the fact of its inevitable occurrence (in...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 253-264
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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