The Ox-Bow Incident

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Overview

Set in 1885, The Ox-Bow Incident is a searing and realistic portrait of frontier life and mob violence in the American West. First published in 1940, it focuses on the lynching of three innocent men and the tragedy that ensues when law and order are abandoned. The result is an emotionally powerful, vivid, and unforgettable re-creation of the Western novel, which Clark transmuted into a universal story about good and evil, individual and community, justice and human nature. As Wallace Stegner writes, [Clark's] ...
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The Ox-Bow Incident

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Overview

Set in 1885, The Ox-Bow Incident is a searing and realistic portrait of frontier life and mob violence in the American West. First published in 1940, it focuses on the lynching of three innocent men and the tragedy that ensues when law and order are abandoned. The result is an emotionally powerful, vivid, and unforgettable re-creation of the Western novel, which Clark transmuted into a universal story about good and evil, individual and community, justice and human nature. As Wallace Stegner writes, [Clark's] theme was civilization, and he recorded, indelibly, its first steps in a new country.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
Since it first appeared in 1940, Clark's psychological western has steadily gained admirers, both in its original form, and as a popular film. This new edition adds much supplementary material in its effort to confirm the novel's status as a modern masterpiece. There's a reading-group guide, a few contemporary raves, and an article from 1973 by Wallace Stegner that argues for Clark's genius, more in the vein of Henry James than Owen Wister. Stegner contends that Clark wanted to undermine the extreme masculinity in the book, and that he parodies the generic western tale. Which was not the view of Kirkus back in 1940, who found Clark's story of good and evil on the frontier to be completely bewildering. Admiring the skill in "laying bare . . . the thoughts and emotion of men," Kirkus thought the narrative "dragged," the struggle "was first fatiguing, then boring." Virginia Kirkus herself, fearing a feminine bias, passed it on to an "expert" in westerns, but he agreed: dullsville.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780812972580
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/27/2004
  • Series: Modern Library Mass Market Paperbacks Series
  • Format: Mass Market Paperback
  • Edition description: Reissue
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 178,235
  • Product dimensions: 4.17 (w) x 6.86 (h) x 0.74 (d)

Meet the Author

Wallace Stegner's many books include Crossing to Safety, Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs, and the Pulitzer Prize winning Angle of Repose.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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Read an Excerpt

1

Gil and I crossed the eastern divide about two by the sun. We pulled up for a look at the little town in the big valley and the mountains on the other side, with the crest of the Sierra showing faintly beyond like the rim of a day moon. We didn't look as long as we do sometimes; after winter range, we were excited about getting back to town. When the horses had stopped trembling from the last climb, Gil took off his sombrero, pushed his sweaty hair back with the same hand, and returned the sombrero, the way he did when something was going to happen. We reined to the right and went slowly down the steep stage road. It was a switch-back road, gutted by the run-off of the winter storms, and with brush beginning to grow up in it again since the stage had stopped running. In the pockets under the red earth banks, where the wind was cut off, the spring sun was hot as summer, and the air was full of a hot, melting pine smell. Rivulets of water trickled down shining on the sides of the cuts. The jays screeched in the trees and flashed through the sunlight in the clearings in swift, long dips. Squirrels and chipmunks chittered in the brush and along the tops of snow-sodden logs. On the outside turns, though, the wind got to us and dried the sweat under our shirts and brought up, instead of the hot resin, the smell of the marshy green valley. In the west the heads of a few clouds showed, the kind that come up with the early heat, but they were lying still, and over us the sky was clear and deep.

It was good to be on the loose on that kind of a day, but winter range stores up a lot of things in a man, and spring roundup hadn't worked them all out. Gil and I had been riding together for five years, and had the habit, but just the two of us in that shack in the snow had made us cautious. We didn't dare talk much, and we wanted to feel easy together again. When we came onto the last gentle slope into the valley, we let the horses out and loped across the flat between the marshes where the red-wing blackbirds were bobbing the reeds and twanging. Out in the big meadows on both sides the long grass was bending in rows under the wind and shining, and then being let upright again and darkening, almost as if a cloud shadow had crossed it. With the wind we could hear the cows lowing in the north, a mellow sound at that distance, like little horns.

It was about three when we rode into Bridger's Wells, past the boarded-up church on the right, with its white paint half cracked off, and the houses back under the cottonwoods, or between rows of flickering poplars, every third or fourth one dead and leafless. Most of the yards were just let run to long grass, and the buildings were log or unpainted board, but there were a few brick houses, and a few of painted clapboards with gimcracks around the veranda rails. Around them the grass was cut, and lilac bushes were planted in the shade. There were big purple cones of blossom on them. Already Bridger's Wells was losing its stage-stop look and beginning to settle into a half-empty village of the kind that hangs on sometimes where all the real work is spread out on the land around it, and most of the places take care of themselves.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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Foreword

1. Many consider The Ox-Bow Incident to be the first serious Western novel in American literature, and Clark's novel wholly overturns many of the conventions of the typical Western or "cowboy story" (in which conceits like shoot-outs, the triumph of good over evil, and the figure of the cowboy hero tend to loom large). Discuss the ways in which Clark transforms stereotypes about the West.

2. How do you understand the events leading up to the novel's culminating moment, the lynching? What are the causes of the lynching as these unfold throughout the work? Is the train of events Clark delineates anywhere reversible?

3. Discuss the frontier society described by Clark. What impressions do you glean of the way life was lived on the frontier? What seem to be some of the distinguishing features of frontier life? Are there aspects of life on the frontier that came as a surprise to you?

4. The mob, and ideas about mob violence, figure centrally in the novel. What, for Clark, is the mob?

5. Discuss the importance of the physical environment for Clark: landscape, weather, the way land is experienced. How does Clark put the physical elements to work in his book? How important are these to his story and to the novel's overall effect?

6. Clifton Fadiman called The Ox-Bow Incident "a mature, unpitying examination of what causes men to love violence and to transgress justice." Discuss what seem to you to be the causes of violence and transgression in Clark's treatment of these themes.

7. While his novel takes place in the West, Clark's ultimate subject, according to Wallace Stegner and others, is nothing less than civilization itself. Inwhat ways, allegorical or otherwise, does The Ox-Bow Incident say things about civilization writ large, in your view?




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Reading Group Guide

1. Many consider The Ox-Bow Incident to be the first serious Western novel in American literature, and Clark's novel wholly overturns many of the conventions of the typical Western or "cowboy story" (in which conceits like shoot-outs, the triumph of good over evil, and the figure of the cowboy hero tend to loom large). Discuss the ways in which Clark transforms stereotypes about the West.

2. How do you understand the events leading up to the novel's culminating moment, the lynching? What are the causes of the lynching as these unfold throughout the work? Is the train of events Clark delineates anywhere reversible?

3. Discuss the frontier society described by Clark. What impressions do you glean of the way life was lived on the frontier? What seem to be some of the distinguishing features of frontier life? Are there aspects of life on the frontier that came as a surprise to you?

4. The mob, and ideas about mob violence, figure centrally in the novel. What, for Clark, is the mob?

5. Discuss the importance of the physical environment for Clark: landscape, weather, the way land is experienced. How does Clark put the physical elements to work in his book? How important are these to his story and to the novel's overall effect?

6. Clifton Fadiman called The Ox-Bow Incident "a mature, unpitying examination of what causes men to love violence and to transgress justice." Discuss what seem to you to be the causes of violence and transgression in Clark's treatment of these themes.

7. While his novel takes place in the West, Clark's ultimate subject, according to Wallace Stegner and others, is nothing less than civilization itself. In what ways, allegorical or otherwise, does The Ox-Bow Incident say things about civilization writ large, in your view?

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 21 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(7)

4 Star

(10)

3 Star

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 21 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 19, 2007

    Good book, but sad

    In The Ox-Bow Incident, three innocent people are hung without getting their requested trial. This generates sadness towards them and hatred towards the posse that did it. Maybe if there's a sequel, the posse will be hung. This story has many characters to keep track of well. If the author narrowed it down to six characters including the three that got hung, it would be easier to keep track of them. Overall, it's a book that I would recommend to people 15+ 'or if you're good at reading, 10+' that can handle some swearing and murder and enjoy old west stories.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 3, 2013

    ?

    O the book was gooooood if you want nook friend plzzzzz put your name and last + email address thanks

    2 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 19, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    The Ox-Bow Incident a must read for fans of westerns

    It is easy to put off reading this book because you think you already know the story. As a classic western many people are familiar with it but have not read it. What you will miss is a great author who knows how to write. Even though the original publish date is in 1940 it reads better than many contemporary novels in this genre. Walter Van Tilburg Clark can craft a great sentence, a great paragraph, and remind the reader of that other great western writer, Cormac McCarthy. If you like tales of the old west, this novel will not dissapoint.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 11, 2002

    The Western Setting Helps Reveal Theme.

    Sometimes people¿s definition and view of justice is clouded when wrong-doing strikes close to home; in ¿The Ox-Bow Incident,¿ by Walter Van Tilburg Clark, the people in a small town at the turn of the twentieth century face the consequences of taking the law into their own hands. After taking the action that they do, they realize that they were hasty and eager to jump to conclusions. A few of the men feel so badly that they hang themselves. The theme has to do with justice, the justice system, and more specifically the court systems, and what happens when a group of men takes the law into its own hands and the penalties they suffer as a result of breaking the system of law and order. Walter Van Tilburg Clark chooses the old west as the setting for ¿The Ox-Bow Incident¿, because it is still fresh, new and unsettled. Although there is a system of law things are so spread out that it seems slow and inefficient at the time. This is the perfect setting for Walter Van Tilburg Clark to show/prove that the law will prevail no matter what the circumstances. The story takes place in a very small town/ranching community around the turn of the century. It is in the spring of the year. As the story progresses and the ranchers acquire sour attitudes/moods, it begins to snow and act as though winter is not quite over. By the end of the story, the wind is blowing and it is very cold out. There is a sense or feeling of emptiness in the air. The men match the physical setting. They feel cold-hearted and empty inside. Both the emotional and physical setting help to reveal and make clear the theme.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 2, 2002

    Frontier Justice?

    True justice, though often hard to come by, is a necessity for righteousness; in "The Ox-Bow Incident" by Walter Van Tilburg Clark, a group of men form a posse and lose their sense of righteousness. The story takes place in and around a small town in Nevada called Bridger¿s Wells and is told through the eyes of a man by the name of Art Croft. Croft and his companion Gil Carter trek into Bridger Wells midday one day in spring, weary from a long winter out on the range. They are well received by their acquaintances in the town and relax in Canby¿s saloon, but are soon interrupted with news that cattle rustlers have stolen about a thousand head of cattle from Drew¿s ranch, the largest ranch in the area, and have murdered one of his work hands, a man named Kinkaid. Every man in the town of Bridger¿s Wells is soon alerted, and a posse is formed to search for the rustlers and seek revenge. Everyone knows that this is not posse but a lynch mob, thirsty for blood. The mob is lead by a man named Tetley, a previous confederate officer who is followed by Croft and Carter, and some twenty odd men. Many of these men joined the posse despite their uncertainty of the situation. After hours of stalling and warnings the posse heads out in search of the rustlers and encounters a number of obstacles on the way. They head directly into a late snow, are surrounded by complete darkness, and Croft is soon shot in the left shoulder due to a misunderstanding. The mob finally reaches an area of land called the Ox-Bow Valley where they see their three suspected rustlers and split up to surround the campfire. There they find a young man, his old sidekick, and his Mexican worker. They accuse the three of the suspected crime and unlawfully sentence them to death by lynching, with no real evidence of the guilt or innocence of the men. <P> In his novel, Clark expands on the setting of the story in great detail. He tells of the town of Bridger¿s Wells, a town with one main street, lined with small houses, a general store, a saloon, an office building, an inn, a church, and a meeting hall. Bridger¿s Wells is a small town in a valley, which is only accessible by traveling down steep mountain passes. With this description, Clark ties in his theme of the lack of and need for law and order and justice in this land. When the posse is convening in the small town, the men feel as though they must join in, and there is no one there to stop them. Sheriff Risley is too far away, and it is too far to go to find Drew and ask him if the story is really true and to see if Kinkaid is really dead. They are in an isolated area, and because of this, feel like they can handle the situation without seeking the court of law. As the story progresses on, Clark describes just how isolated the town is. The men of the posse reach a mountain pass where they struggle with the rough terrain: the steep, winding road strewn with boulders, fierce drop-offs, unknown crests. When the men reach the final place of the lynching, they are in the Ox-Bow Valley. This Valley is located over the mountains to the west of town and gets its name from the creek in the valley that winds around on itself like a snake. Clark uses this setting to expand even more on his theme, and to give a few possible reasons for the men¿s haste and disregard for true justice. By the time the posse reaches this valley they are already thirsty for revenge, but the wildness and power of the land seems to increase that thirst. The anger of the howling wind, and the bitterness of the cold snow seem to validate their feelings and make them long for ¿justice¿. Many of the members of the posse do not wish to hang the men, but choose not to say so. Maybe these men are afraid to stand up to Tetley, or maybe they don¿t want to go home empty-handed after a long night fighting the land to reach the rustlers. The justice that they longed for is not true justice, but their justice.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 19, 2000

    Foreshadowing reveals theme

    'The Ox-Bow Incident' takes place in Nevada in the spring of 1885. Two friends, Gil and Carter who were out riding the range have just come back to town when they hear that a friend of theirs has just been killed and that about forty head of cattle were taken. They join a posse and set out to find the cattle rustlers. The sheriff and owner of the ranch where the cattle were taken from are not part of the posse because it was made up so fast. The only black man in town, Sparks, says that he had seen them heading towards Bridgers Pass with the cows so the posse takes this route. When they catch up to the people that they were looking for, it is night time so they decide to wait until the morning before they take action against the criminals and lynch them. When morning comes, the posse takes a vote to see if the men should be taken back to town for a trial or if they should be hung on the spot. The men decide to hang the men right there at the Ox-Bow. Once the men are hung, the posse heads back to town when they meet the sheriff and the owner of the ranch, Harley Drew. He informs them that the men that they have just killed had bought the cattle earlier, that their friend was only wounded. They have just killed three innocent people. <p> The theme of this book is very clear. Walter Van Tilburg Clark, foreshadows to show the theme. At one point in the book, Sparks and Gil are talking about lynchings they have separately witnessed and what a bad experience that was. This says that if anyone is hung in this book that this too will be a bad experience. The three men who are being accused also had a very solid explanation as to why they had cattle with the brand of Drew's ranch on them, why there is no sales ticket, and what they are doing with the gun of the man who was supposedly killed, Kinkad. Because they all told the same story and because it all made perfect sense, readers may wonder if this is actually the truth. All of these things make the theme very clear: When people take the law into their own hands and do not let the officials do their jobs the rights of individuals often get trampled upon; In 'The Ox-Bow Incident' the mob acts before thinking and this results in tragic consequences.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 14, 2014

    Do not read earlier reviews!!

    I guess these reviewers never heard the term "spoiler". One does a five page review that (apparently ... I did not read the whole thing) tells the whole plot. Now I do not know if I even want to pay for the book. People read reviews for an appraisal, not Cliff Notes. I am giving three stars just to post this warning.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 27, 2013

    Test

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    0 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 5, 2013

    I hate reading

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    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted October 7, 2012

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    Posted January 15, 2009

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