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P A U L S T E I N State University College, Geneseo Cowboys and Unicorns: The Novels of Walter Van Tilburg Clark Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s three novels, The Ox-Bow In­ cident, The City of Trembling Leaves, and The Track of the Cat, when read in order o£ composition, suggest a process of change in structure and theme which can be characterized as a movement from regionalism to sur-regionalism. Literary isms, of course, are always difficult to define satisfactorily, and so we content our­ selves with bundles of concepts, clusters of features, which we label classicism, romanticism, realism, or what have you. The term “regionalism” is no less subject to the limits of definitive description, but taking as a guide such a typical definition as, “A quality in literature which is the product of its fidelity to a particular geographical section, accurately representing its habits, speech, manners, history, folklore, or beliefs,”1 we can with some safety measure the regional component of a literary work. In this respect, The Ox-Bow Incident seems particularly rich. Un­ folding against a background of western sky and terrain, its action develops in patterns indigenous to the locality in which it takes place. Regardless of the generalized inferences concerning human conduct that can be drawn from its theme, the novel remains pri­ marily a picture of western life at a particular time and place told in western terms. In The Track of the Cat, however, the reader confronts a different order of experience. Though the novel’s terms are still western, its thematic thrust extends beyond the boundaries of localized time and place. Like Arthur Bridges, who hears in his sleep “the far-away crying, like muted horns a little out of tune,” the reader senses a ferment beyond the immediacy of the events at hand, feels a pressure of subliminal forces coming to W illiam Flint Thrall and Addison Hibbard, A Handbook to Literature, revised and enlarged by C. Hugh Holman (New York, I960), p. 406. 266 Western American Literature bear on his understanding. The nuts and bolts of regional mater­ ials have been reassembled to form a symbolic edifice housing Clark’s estimate of the human condition and his definition of the self-sufficient, self-justified man. What emerges is a work of sur-regionalism in which the regional materials have been trans­ muted by an act of the imagination into the ingredients of uni­ versal statement. The movement from the particular to the general, from the provincial to the universal, accelerates from novel to novel. Dis­ similar as the three novels are in subject matter, The Ox-Bow Incident and The City of Trembling Leaves are thematic waystations on the road toward The Track of the Cat. Furthermore, a direct relationship between form and content can be seen as Clark’s expanding thematic concern is supported by correspond­ ing changes in narrative technique, specifically in his handling of point of view, his use of nature as setting, and in his manipula­ tion of symbolic structures. We can see, for example, in the changing narrative perspec­ tive of the novels a reflection of the broadening view of the author. In The Ox-Bow Incident the story is told in the first person by a participant in the action. Art Croft comes out of the hills with his sidekick, Gil, to plunge at once into the tensionridden atmosphere at Bridger’s Wells. Rustlers have been active in the neighborhood and tempers are tight; the threat of violence crackles like lightning in a summer cloud. Croft is quickly drawn into the developing drama and in a confused melee preceding the climactic scene of the book is wounded by a rifle shot. Despite his physical involvement, however, Croft does not play a significant role in the central action of the novel; he functions primarily as the narrator. The use of a narrator-participant imparts a sense of authen­ ticity and currency, a documentary flavor to the novel. Yet the technique is self-limiting by its very nature; the reader sees and hears only what Art Croft sees and hears. Thus, action is restricted to a particular time and place by the...


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pp. 265-275
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