Walter Van Tilburg Clark was born August 3, 1909, to Walter Ernest and Euphemia Abrams Clark. He was the oldest of four children. When Walter was eight, his father (the son of a Methodist minister) resigned as chairman of the Department of Economics, City College of New York, and was named president of the University of Nevada at Reno. Thus Clark's earliest memories were eastern, and his earliest experiences were urban, not rural.
The bulk of Clark's education, however, was gained in the West, after the family moved to Reno. He attended Orvis Ring Grammar School and Reno High School, from which he graduated in 1926. Thereafter, he went to the University of Nevada, earning a B.A. degree in 1930 and an M.A. degree in 1931. His college years included extensive experience with campus theater groups and publications, as well as successful participation on the varsity tennis and basketball teams.
Clark's first published work, Ten Women in Gale's House and Shorter Poems, was published in 1932, while Clark was a teaching assistant at the University of Vermont. While at Vermont, he did a critical thesis on the poetry of Robinson Jeffers and studied extensively in ancient philosophy.
In 1933, he married Barbara Morse at Elmira, New York. The following ten years were spent in Cazenovia, New York, as a teacher and coach. During 1938 he wrote The Ox-Bow Incident, which was published in 1940 and made into a highly praised movie (for which Clark did not do the screenplay) in 1941.
With the success of The Ox-Bow Incident, Clark was able to give up formal commitments to teaching and began his second novel, The City of Trembling Leaves, completed in 1945.
For the next five years, Clark lived in various places — Taos, New Mexico; Washoe Valley, Nevada; and Virginia City, Nevada. During these years, The Track of the Cat (1949) and The Watchful Gods and Other Stories (1950) were published. He worked as a Professor of English at the University of Nevada until 1953, when he resigned in protest against what he termed an "autocratic" administration. He was Assistant Professor of English at the University of Montana during 1954 and 1955. From 1956 until 1961, Clark taught at San Francisco State College in the Creative Writing Department. He also served as Director of Creative Writing from 1958 until 1961. In 1962, Clark returned to the University of Nevada, as Writer in Residence and a teacher of creative writing. He remained there, teaching and editing until his death in 1971.
If you are reading your first Clark novel, or if this novel is your first experience with serious western fiction, it is necessary to avoid a pitfall. This pitfall is that one's experiences with the western cowboy stereotype (in movies, on television, and from books) may interfere with one's ability to perceive important details in The Ox-Bow Incident. If that happens, one of Clark's principal goals will be lost — that is, the realization of the real experience which lay behind the growth of the cowboy stereotypes.
The initial response of the critics to The Ox-Bow Incident was that here, at last, was the classic western cowboy novel: Here was the model against which all preceding and future cowboy stories should be judged. Clark has given some support to that response. He said that the West as a true place had been lost, buried beneath a mountain of myth-building and truth-altering books. His motive for writing The Ox-Bow Incident was largely personal. He wanted to recreate, for his own psychological satisfaction, a nineteenth-century American West in its true dimensions, and to see what kind of story would grow out of that.
He was not slavish in his devotion to geography, however. He freely confessed to having moved a couple of mountains out of California into Nevada. Beyond this, his attention to details of setting and climate are accurate but not of overriding importance. The Ox-Bow Incident is principally a psychological study. Therefore, elements of place and climate are important because they affect the minds of the men. The fact of cattle rustling, the fact of immense space, and the fact of an untimely winter storm — these are important causes of what happens in the book, but they are not obtrusively presented.
The Ox-Bow Incident was Clark's first novel, published in 1940. It gained fame and commercial success very quickly. Some reviewers saw it as a warning against permitting Nazi tendencies to gain strength in the United States. Clark has given some credence to this idea. Others praised Ox-Bow for being exceptional — the "horse opera" told with style and "seriousness." For whatever reasons, it is the only one of Clark's books to sell well and to gain a wide reputation.
Clark's second novel, published in 1945, was The City of Trembling Leaves. It is the story of a boy growing up with other children in a relatively modern-day Reno, Nevada. It is a more poetic, personal, and autobiographical book than The Ox-Bow Incident; for these reasons, many reviewers thought it must have been written earlier than Ox-Bow and published later. Clark denied this, though he did admit to having made attempts, which failed, to write Leaves several years earlier.
Clark's third book, and his last full length novel, was The Track of the Cat (1949). In this he returned to a western setting; like that of The Ox-Bow Incident, and explored again, in a more highly symbolic way, the nature and sources of evil for men in the American West.
Max Westbrook, author of the only comprehensive critical study of Clark to date, states that The Track of the Cat is Clark's finest novel; The Ox-Bow Incident is second, almost, but not quite, as good as The Track of the Cat. He ranks The City of Trembling Leaves third, not the best of Clark's work, but much better than most critics and reviewers have been willing to admit.
Clark's final volume was a fine collection of short stories, The Watchful Gods and Other Stories, published in 1950. After that, until his death in 1971, his pen was silent.