Analysis of Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s Stories

Walter Van Tilburg Clark (August 3, 1909 – November 10, 1971) once wrote that the primary impulse of the arts has been religious and ritualistic—with the central hope of “propitiating or enlisting Nature, the Gods, God, or whatever name one wishes to give the encompassing and still mysterious whole.” Certainly Clark’s fiction attests to such a view. In a world in which thought is often confused and fragmented, he advocates for humanity a stance of intellectual honesty, an acceptance of instinctive values, and a belief in love. The key is human experience. As Max Westbrook so aptly put it in his study of Clark, “Clark’s literary credo, then, is based on the capacity of the unconscious mind to discover and to give shape to objective knowledge about the human experience.”

The Buck in the Hills

“The Buck in the Hills” may be Clark’s clearest reflection in his stories of the literary credo mentioned above.Writing more or less in the terse, almost brittle, style of Ernest Hemingway, Clark opens the story with vividly descriptive passages of mountain scenery. The narrator, whose name the reader never learns, has returned to this setting after five years. It is really more than a return for him; it is a pilgrimage to a sacred place. Like Hemingway’s heroes, he feels a deep need to replenish his spirit, to reattach himself to things solid and lasting. The clear sky, the strong mountains, and the cold wind all serve as a natural backdrop for the spiritual ritual of his pilgrimage. As he climbs toward the peak of a mountain, he recalls with pleasure an earlier climb with a dark girl “who knew all the flowers, and who, when I bet her she couldn’t find more than thirty kinds, found more than fifty.” On that day, as on this, the narrator felt a clear sense of the majesty of the mountains and the “big arch of the world we looked at,” and he recalls spending two hours another time watching a hawk, “feeling myself lift magnificently when he swooped up toward me on the current up the col, and then balanced and turned above.”

When he returns to his campsite by a shallow snow-water lake, he swims, naked, and as he floats in this cleansing ritual, looking up at the first stars showing above the ridge, he sings out “an operatic sounding something.” At this point, just when his spiritual rejuvenation is nearly complete, the ritual is broken by the appearance of Tom Williams, one of the two men whom he had accompanied on this trip to the mountains. The plan had been for Williams and the other man, Chet McKenny, to spend a few days hunting, leaving the narrator alone. As he watches Williams approach, the narrator unhappily expects to see McKenny also, a man he dislikes not because of his stupidity but because of something deeper than that. Williams, however, is alone.

After a while Williams tells the narrator of the experience he has just had with McKenny, whom he calls a “first-rate bastard.” During their hunt McKenny had purposely shot a deer in the leg so that he could herd it back to their camp rather than carry it. When they arrived at the camp, he slit the deer’s throat, saying, “I never take more than one shot.” Sickened by this brutal act,Williams drove off in his car, leaving McKenny to get out of the mountains as best he could. After Williams’s story, both men agree that McKenny deserves to be left behind for what he did. In another cleansing ritual, they both take a swim, becoming cheerful later as they sit by their fire drinking beer. The next morning, however, it is snowing, and as they silently head back down the mountain, the narrator feels that there is “something listening behind each tree and rock we passed, and something waiting among the taller trees down slope, blue through the falling snow. They wouldn’t stop us, but they didn’t like us either. The snow was their ally.”

Thus there are two contrasting moods in “The Buck in the Hills”: that of harmony and that of dissonance. At the beginning of the story, the narrator has succeeded after five years in reestablishing a right relationship with nature and thus with himself, but at the end, this relationship has been destroyed by the cruel actions of McKenny. The narrator’s ritual of acceptance of the primordial in human beings has been overshadowed by McKenny’s ritual of acceptance that human beings are somehow above nature. Ernest Hemingway’s belief that morality is what one feels good after is in one sense reversed here to the idea that immorality is what one feels bad after; certainly the narrator and Williams, on their way down the mountain, feel bad. Human beings and nature in a right relationship is not a mere romantic notion to Clark. It is reality—indeed, perhaps humankinds only reality.

The Portable Phonograph

In “The Portable Phonograph” Clark ventures, if not into science fiction, at least into a kind of speculative fiction as he sets his story in a world of the future, one marked by the “toothed impress of great tanks” and the “scars of gigantic bombs.” It seems a world devoid of human existence; the only visible life is a flock of wild geese flying south to escape the cold of winter. Above the frozen creek in a cave dug into the bank, however, there is human life: four men—survivors of some undescribed Armageddon—huddle before a smoldering peat fire in an image of primitive existence. Clark provides little background of these four almost grotesque men. One, the reader learns, is a doctor, probably of philosophy rather than of medicine. One is a young musician, quite ill with a cough. The other two are middle-aged. All are obviously intelligent. The cave belongs to the doctor, whose name is Jenkins, and he has invited the others to hear him read from one of his four books—the Bible, Moby Dick, The Divine Comedy, and the works of William Shakespeare. In selfish satisfaction he explains that when he saw what was happening to the world, “I told myself, ‘It is the end. I cannot take much; I will take these.’” His justification is his love for the books and his belief that they represent the “soul of what was good in us here.”

When Jenkins finishes his reading from The Tempest, the others wait expectantly, and the former finally says grudgingly, “You wish to hear the phonograph.” This is obviously the moment for which they have been waiting. Jenkins tenderly and almost lovingly brings out his portable phonograph and places it on the dirt-packed floor where the firelight will fall on it. He comments that he has been using thorns as needles, but that in deference to the musician, he will use one of the three steel needles that he has left. Since Jenkins will play only one record a week, there is some discussion as to what they will hear. The musician selects a Claude Debussy nocturne, and as Jenkins places the record on the phonograph, the others all rise to their knees “in an attitude of worship.”

As the piercing and singularly sweet sounds of the nocturne flood the cave, the men are captivated. In all but the musician there occur “sequences of tragically heightened recollection”; the musician, clenching the fingers of one hand over his teeth, hears only the music. At the conclusion of the piece, the three guests leave—the musician by himself, the other two together. Jenkins peers anxiously after them, waiting. When he hears the cough of the musician some distance off, he drops his canvas door and hurries to hide his phonograph in a deep hole in the cave wall. Sealing up the hole, he prays and then gets under the covers of his grass bed, feeling with his hand the “comfortable piece of lead pipe.”

Structurally a very simple story, “The Portable Phonograph” is rich in its implications. In a devastated world four men represent what Jenkins refers to as “the doddering remnant of a race of mechanical fools.” The books that he has saved symbolize the beauty of humanity’s artistic creativity as opposed to the destructiveness of its mechanical creativity. Again, Clark portrays two sides of human nature, that which aspires to the heights of human spiritual and moral vision and that which drives humankind on to its own destruction. The cruel and bitter irony is that essentially humankind imagination is at once its glory and its undoing. As the men kneel in expectation before the mechanical wonder of the phonograph, they worship it as a symbol of human ingenuity. The music that comes from the record provides for at least three of the men a temporary escape from their grim reality. Thus, humanity’s drive for mechanical accomplishment—the same drive that has destroyed a world—now has also preserved the beauty of its musical accomplishment. This may well be what the musician understands as he lets his head “fall back in agony” while listening to the music. Human beings are forever blessed to create and doomed to destroy. That is why the piece of lead pipe is such a protective comfort to Jenkins as he closes “his smoke-smarting eyes.” In order to protect what is left of art, he must rely on the very methods that have brought about its demise.

The Indian Well

In his excellent novel The Track of the Cat, Clark takes the reader into the realm of human unconscious as Curt Bridges, the protagonist, is driven to his own death while tracking both a real and an imagined cougar. In the short story “The IndianWell,” set in the desert in 1940, Jim Suttler also seeks to kill a cougar, and although the mythological and psychological implications are not developed as fully as they are in the novel, the story is still powerful in its total effect. In what must be one of the best word pictures of the desert and the creatures that inhabit it, Clark devotes a half-dozen pages to the stark drama of life and death that takes place around a desert well; rattlesnakes, road runners, jackrabbits, hawks, lizards, coyotes, and a cow and her calf all play parts.

The story’s only character is Jim Suttler, a grizzled old prospector who, with his mule Jenny, still seeks gold in abandoned and long-forgotten mines. Suttler is a man well-attuned to life in the desert wilderness. Armed with a rifle, an old six-shooter, and primitive mining tools, he is not merely a stereotyped prospector; his red beard and shoulder-length red hair might lead some to see in him a resemblance to Christ, but Suttler is unlike Christ in several ways. Early in the story, Suttler and Jenny arrive at Indian Well. The history of Indian Well is recorded on the walls of the rundown cabin nearby; names and dates go back to the previous century. All had used the well, and all had given vent to some expression, ranging from “God guide us” to “Giv it back to the injuns” to a more familiar libel: “Fifty miles from water, a hundred miles from wood, a million miles from God, and three feet from hell.” Before Suttler leaves, he too will leave a message.

Finding some traces of gold in an abandoned mine near the well, Suttler decides to stay for a while to see if he can make it pay off. It is a comfortable time, and both he and Jenny regain some of the weight lost during their recent travels. Two events, however, change the idyllic mood of their stay. The first occurs when Suttler kills a range calf that, along with its mother, has strayed close to the well. Although he has some qualms about killing the calf, Suttler, enjoying the sensation of Providence, soon puts them out of his mind. Next, a cougar kills Jenny. This event inflames Suttler with the desire for revenge—even if “it takes a year”—so throughout the winter he sits up nights waiting for the cat to return. When he eventually kills it, he skins it and, uncovering Jenny’s grave, places the skin over her carcass. His revenge complete, he cleanses himself at the well and leaves as a “starved but revived and volatile spirit.” Thus, one more passerby has contributed to the history of Indian Well, and the life around the well goes on.

The basic element in “The Indian Well” is the ironic contrast between the beginning and the ending of the story, just as it is in “The Buck in the Hills.” When they come upon Indian Well, Suttler and Jenny enter into a natural world that has its own ordered life and death, and they blend easily into it. Suttler appears to be a man at one with nature, yet at the end of the story, the death that he has inflicted upon the cougar stands as something apart from the ordered world of the well. It is a death that was motivated by the desire for revenge, a very human emotion. The reader might be suspicious when Suttler kills the calf, but he justifies such a killing on the basis of the meat that the calf provides. Killing the cougar, on the other hand, cannot be justified in any external way. The deep satisfaction that it brings to Suttler stands in opposition to any right relationship between human beings and nature; it is solely a part of Suttler’s inner self. When the deed is done, Suttler can blend back into the natural world around him. For that one winter, however, as he lies in wait for the cougar, he exhibits humankind’s all-too-common flaw of putting itself above the natural world. Still, because he knows what he has done and, moreover, accepts it, he is able once more to establish his relationship with the cosmic forces.


In a very real sense, this establishing of a relationship with the cosmic forces is the goal of many of Clark’s characters. Caught in the ambiguities of good and evil, of morality and immorality, they struggle to maintain a faith in humanity and to bring moral law into accordance with natural law, for only in that way can human beings be saved from their own destructive tendencies. Some critics, such as Chester Eisinger, see Clark as being rather pessimistic regarding the success of such a human attempt at unity and attribute to him a desire to retreat from other human beings. If this view is correct, then perhaps the story “Hook” is the best expression of what Clark wants to say. The main character in this story is a hawk which fulfills itself in flight, in battle, and in sex, until it is killed by a dog. The hawk’s life is a cycle of instinct, and it can easily enough be seen as an antihuman symbol. If Eisinger’s view is wrong however, then it is possible to see Clark as a writer who seeks not a retreat from other human beings but an explanation of humanity. For, like the hawks that appear so often in Clark’s stories, human beings are also a part of nature and because he is, it is possible to see his task as one of defining himself in the context of the natural order of things. Whatever the outcome, Clark’s characters do make the attempt.

Other major works
Novels: The Ox-Bow Incident, 1940; The City of Trembling Leaves, 1945; The Track of the Cat, 1949; Tim Hazard, 1951.
Nonfiction: The Journals of Alfred Doten, 1849-1903, 1973 (3 volumes).
Poetry: Ten Women in Gale’s House and Shorter Poems, 1932.

Court, Franklin E. “Clark’s ‘The Wind and the Snow of Winter’ and Celtic Oisin.” Studies in Short Fiction 33 (Spring, 1996): 219-228.
Eisinger, Chester E. Fiction of the Forties. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963.
Kich, Martin. Western American Novelists. Vol. 1. New York: Garland, 1995.
Laird, Charlton, ed. Walter Van Tilburg Clark: Critiques. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1983.
Lee, L. L.Walter Van Tilburg Clark. Boise, Ida.: Boise State College Press, 1973.
May, Charles E., ed. Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition. 8 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2004.
Ronald, Ann. “Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s Brave Bird, ‘Hook.’” Studies in Short Fiction 25 (Fall, 1988): 433-439.
Westbrook, Max. Walter Van Tilburg Clark. New York: Twayne, 1969.
____________. “Walter Van Tilburg Clark and the American Dream.” In A Literary History of the American West, edited by J. Golden Taylor. FortWorth: Texas Christian University Press, 1987.

Categories: American Literature, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Short Story

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