Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Ox-Bow Incident, Five Stars

In Walter Prescott Webb’s afterword to Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s “The Ox-Bow Incident,” Clark discusses the motivation behind his seminal debut novel:
The book was written in 1937 and ’38, when the whole world was getting increasingly worried about Hitler and the Nazis, and emotionally it stemmed from my part of this worrying. A number of the reviewers commented on the parallel when the book came out in 1940, saw it as something approaching an allegory of the unscrupulous and brutal Nazi methods, and as a warning against temporizing and of hoping to oppose such a force with reason, argument, and the democratic approach. They did not see, however, or at least I don’t remember that any of them mentioned it (and that did scare me), although it was certainly obvious, the whole substance and surface of the story, that it was a kind of American Naziism that I was talking about. I had the parallel in mind, all right, but what I was most afraid of was not the German Nazis, or even the Bund, but that ever-present element in any society which can always be led to use authoritarian methods to oppose authoritarian methods.

What I wanted to say was, “It can happen here. It has happened here, in minor but sufficiently indicative ways, a great many times.”
There are obvious political parallels, of course, but the parallel that’s the most striking is summed up in a quote attributed to Edmund Burke: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

In Clark’s book, good men try to do something. That good is summed up in the character Davies who at first tries to stop the posse/mob from leaving town, and then accompanies it on the supposition that he can act as the voice of reason when and if any suspects are found, in order to convince the posse to bring them to trial, rather than instigate frontier justice where the suspects are discovered.

Given the ambiguity of the evidence and an insatiable desire for action now, however, Davies’ attempts come to naught.

In Davies, I believe Clark sums up the “good man’s” reaction to blame one’s self when things go terribly, and to attempt to right the wrong through self destruction:
“Now do you see,” [Davies] said triumphantly, like all he had wanted to do was make himself out the worst he could. “I knew those men were innocent. I knew it as surely as I do now. And I knew Tetley could be stopped. I knew in that moment you were all ready to be turned. And I was glad I didn’t have a gun.”

He was silent, except that I could hear him breathing hard over what he seemed to consider an unmerciful triumph, breathing as if he had to overcome something tremendous, and could begin to rest now. I could hear the talking downstairs again too. There wasn’t much laughing now, though. For some reason I was relieved that there wasn’t much laughing, as if, coming at that moment, even from downstairs, it would have been too much.

But had had to rub it in.

“Yes, you see now, don’t you?” he said in a low voice. “I had everything, justice, pity, even the backing – and I knew it – and I let those three men hang because I was afraid. The lowest kind of a virtue, the quality dogs have when they need it, the only thing Tetley had, guts, plain guts, and I didn’t have it.”

“You take it too hard,” I said, still looking at the floor. “You take it too much on yourself. There was no reason . . .”

“Don’t trouble yourself,” he said hoarsely. “I know what you think. And you’re right. Oh, don’t you worry,” he said, before I could call him, “I’ve thought of all the excuses. I told myself I was the emissary of peace and truth, and that I must go as such; that I couldn’t even wear the symbol of violence. I was righteous and heroic and calm and reasonable.”

He paused, and I could feel the bed shaking under his hands.

“All a great, cowardly lie,” he said violently. “All pose; empty, gutless pretense. All the time the truth was I didn’t take a gun because I didn’t want it to come to a showdown. The weakness that was in me all the time set up my sniveling little defense. I didn’t even expect to save those men. The most I hoped was that something would do it for me.”

“Something,” he said bitterly.
In Davies, Clark expresses the remorse and revulsion of humanity tired of its own cruelties, but more tired over its own pretense of action, rather than action itself. More deeply, however, Davies emerges as the only character to epitomize Clark’s revulsion at using authoritarian means to overcome authoritarianism. He wanted justice, but not a showdown. He did not want to substitute evil for evil, but good for evil. The nature of mankind, however, failed to provide that “something” that would make a good for evil substitution possible. And Davies recognizes that nature of mankind that did not act accordingly included himself as well.

Enter here the discussion of the “good” war, the “justifiable” homicide, and such, which, noble as they are, throw themselves against the commandment “Thou shalt not kill.”

We just read in Alma the story of the people of Ammon, who would rather die than even defend themselves against their enemies. Though their motivation was an unshakable faith in God, they maintained their right to a better nature. I wonder if the better nature always has to be the losing nature; if good guys always have to finish last.

We also hear echoes of such sentiment in the character of Gerald Tetley, who rails ineffectively against his authoritarian father, who is much weaker than Davies thinks Davies is:
“You can’t go hunting men like coyotes after rabbits and not feel anything about it. Not without being like any other animal. The worst animal.”

“There’s a difference; we have reasons.”

“Names, for one thing,” he said sharply. “Does that make us any better? Worse, I’d say. At least coyotes don’t make excuses. We think we can see something better, but we go one doing the same things, hunt in packs, like wolves; hole up in warrens like rabbits. All the dirtiest traits.”
Here, in Tetley, Clark drums criticism at those who believe force is the only answer – and at those, like Gerald Tetley, who go along with it because that’s just how things are done, no matter what one’s conscience might say.

Clips from the movie which, as I understand it, strayed from the book, in that in the movie Martin’s letter to his wife is read aloud, whereas in the book its contents are never revealed. This may have been Hollywood’s answer to getting in the monologues on justice that Clark wrote in the beginning of the book. Also, the movie says that Kincaid is not dead, only wounded, and that the men who stole the cattle and shot Kincaid have been captured.

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