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 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.”
I’m unashamed of my love of the western genre, especially in film, but it is the more difficult, complex, and at times morally ambiguous westerns that interest me more than the formulaic genre westerns. John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the western-inspired samurai films by Akira Kurosawa such as Yojimbo and Seven Samurai, the more modern Unforgiven or The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. And those are the sorts of western novels I enjoy, as well, instead of the serialized or pulp genre offerings. And The Ox-Bow Incident falls neatly into this category. The moral predecessor of later westerns like Oakley Hall’s Warlock and John William’s Butcher’s Crossing, which are themselves predecessors for Cormac McCarthy’s work, especially his challengingly brilliant Blood Meridian, which look at some of the darker, rawer elements of human nature, that question justice and morality and law. These are the books in which there are no easy answers, and sometimes the heroes and villains are the same people.
Much like the traditional western, The Ox-Bow Incident is a slow build with a few intense scenes of violence, made more distinct by the dichotomy between quiet and violent. However, instead of relying on the country and the scenery and nature to provide these long, quiet interludes between violence, Clark instead relies on philosophical exposition and soliloquy. As a lynch mob is formed to hunt down cattle rustlers and murderers, the narrator becomes a sort of lightning rod for dissenting opinion, as characters seek him out and expound their ideas of justice and human nature to him, at times trying to enlist his help to stop the mob, and at times seemingly just to unburden themselves of their musings and personal dilemmas. All while the vocal majority and leaders of the gathering lynch mob are providing their own speeches and arguments in favor of swift outlaw justice.
Taking place over a little more than a day’s time, the plot is little more than a framework for the exploration of these ideas of justice and humanity and guilt, but the heightening moral stakes, and the psychological fallout of the climax upon the characters is the real purpose of the novel, and the meager plot is well designed to lead the characters through those emotions and moral quandaries without getting in the way.
Like the later western novels mentioned earlier, this is very much a deconstruction of the genre, and in many ways a sort of anti-western. It ignores the genre forms and themes, though in many ways it still embraces a number of character conventions from the genre. But instead of setting up a hero versus a villain, or a righteous group fighting off or rooting out injustice, The struggle of good versus evil, of just action versus complacence and compliance, of morality itself, takes place within each character over the course of the novel, with often devastating effects.
Clark does not pull any punches in the book, and doesn’t try to gloss over or shy away from the combination of premeditated and mindless brutality inherent in mob justice. His stance is obvious from the start as the men of the mob are riled up by emotion and rhetoric and ignore reason and humanity, and it’s clear that, despite the minority opposition to vigilante justice, the book can only end with violence. But the plot is secondary throughout the book, used only as a framework by which the deeper human emotions and reactions and failings can be fleshed out and explored. While the story revolves around whether this mob will choose to lynch a group or men or not, and while their final decision has an array of psychological repercussions for those involved, the real story is what drives people to make those decisions and what stories they tell themselves to justify their injustice. It is not just a novel about a lynch mob; it is a story that investigates the emotional and psychological manipulation that happens both within groups of people riled up by emotional rhetoric, and within the individual people involved in those mobs and the way individual people are able or unable to justify their actions while in the midst of it. It is a genre western that continues to prove relevant, especially in light of the mob mentality currently preventing people from responding reasonably, rationally, or justly toward whole populations of people as they are stirred up by fear and xenophobia. Looking at the world now, The Ox-Bow Incident is just as relevant today as when it was published 75 years ago, if not more so.
Most men are more afraid of being thought cowards than of anything else, and a lot more afraid of being thought physical cowards than moral ones. There are a lot of loud arguments to cover moral cowardice, but even an animal will know if you’re scared. If rarity is worth, then moral courage is a lot higher quality than physical courage; but, excepting diamonds and hard cash, there aren’t many who take to anything because of its rarity. Just the other way. Davies was resisting something that had immediacy and a strong animal grip, with something remote and mistrusted. He’d have to make his argument look common sense and hardy, or else humorous, and I wasn’t sure he could do either. If he couldn’t he was going to find that it was the small but present “we,” not the big, misty “we,” that shaped men’s deeds, no matter what shaped their explanations.
Why you should read it:
A psychologically brutal book, this is less a western than a study of mob mentality and all the reasoning and arguments that fuel it. A book that, despite devoting much of its time to the vocal minority of the lynch mob, still manages to draw you in and make you feel somewhat complicit in the whole thing. It’s a staggering and worthwhile read, regardless of your preference for or against the western genre.
Currently reading: For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway