Remembering Walter Van Tilburg Clark
Ox-Bow Man at SF State
he joined the faculty of San Francisco State College, Walter
Van Tilburg Clark was one of the most famous novelists in the country.
His best-known work, "The Ox-Bow Incident," redefined the
Western genre by avoiding the heroic lone horseman, roundups, shootouts,
burning arrows and sexy saloon girls. Instead, the novel was realistic
and gritty, turning the Western myth upside down by chronicling the
mob lynching of innocent men while the cowboy narrator just stands by.
Clark was invited to teach at SF State's writer's workshop the summer
of 1955. He had heard the College had the kind of close ties to local
high schools and junior colleges that he had always advocated. "And,"
he wrote to his Random House editor Saxe Commins, "of all cities,
San Francisco is the only one I love." During the course of the
workshop, he was hired on a full-time basis to establish a formal Creative
Writing Program. Through this program, SF State went on to hire many
prominent writers, including Mark Harris, Kay Boyle and Wright Morris,
and became one of the leading centers of creative writing instruction
in the country.
Charles Brashear, (attended, '60–'61), novelist and editor,
recalled his classes with Clark: "We were a pack of graduate students
at San Francisco State in the late '50s and early '60s, wolfing up Walter's
classes. In analyzing a piece of fiction or in drawing our insights
into the creative act, he was superb … He could get a discussion,
an honest-to-God discussion, going in a group of 60 or more students.
We often marveled at that … Reading all that written work must
have been gargantuan. I still have an essay I wrote for Walter in one
of those classes … he wrote a comment on it, 1,500 words long."
One of John Christgau's (B.A., '58; M.A. '61) most distinct
memories is of Clark's handwriting. "He would write in blue pencil
that must have had a point on it like a carpenter's pencil … a
broad pencil tip so that the writing was flat and very small and almost
completely unreadable." Students would gather together in the hallway
to try to decipher the comments, which led to many friendships. "If
you did not know that buried in that inscrutable writing there was enormous
technical wisdom about story writing, you would have let it go,"
Christgau recalled. "But he was so thoughtful in his remarks and
he took such time with each student and story."
The late Irving Halperin was just beginning his own teaching career
when he asked Clark, "How do I reach students? How do I reach them
so that they can experience the feeling of having learned something
worthwhile?" Clark talked with him and later sent a letter in which
he tried to answer Halperin's questions. "I feel sure the best
happens between teacher and student not by means of the direct attack,
but only indirectly, by way of the ‘thing between,' the poem,
story, what-have-you. A mutual concentration coming as close to self-forgetfulness
as possible … I know more of my friend from watching him watch
a bird flying than from looking into his eyes. I will know still more
if we both watch the bird flying, and then take the same length of time
to begin moving again when the bird has vanished."
Clark's influence was not limited to the classroom. In the summer of
1957, when the city of San Francisco prosecuted Lawrence Ferlinghetti
on the charge of disseminating obscenity by publishing Allen Ginsberg's
"Howl and Other Poems," Clark, along with several other SF
State professors, testified for the defense. He did not particularly
care for the Beat poets but he felt the case was a matter of freedom
Clark soon found he missed Nevada, where he had once lived, the desert,
its heat and dryness and the Western legends. In early 1962 when he
received an offer to teach at the University of Nevada, he took it.
His friends and colleagues at SF State were sorry to lose him. He had
enlivened the department and made an indelible impression on hundreds
of incipient writers.
When Clark died in 1971, Halperin was among those who traveled to his
funeral in Virginia City. "At the precise moment, when my own feelings
were beginning to show as too nakedly human, too visible and self-involved,
there came, through a break in the clearing sky and over the ridge of
a nearby hill, a flock of intervening birds. I looked up and watched
them … They made a beautiful swoop, and then departed, and left
behind them, for me, a vast and meaningful silence."
Jackson J. Benson (M.A., '56)
is the author of "The Ox-Bow Man: A Biography of Walter Van Tilburg
Clark (University of Nevada Press, '06).