Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Ox-Bow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg Clark

I was assigned to read this book in middle or high school. Assigned to, but never actually read it as far as I can remember. I’ve seen the movie about nine times, though. So when I saw the novel in a used bookstore in Egg Harbor, Wisconsin, I decided to pick it up and give it another try. It’s very similar to the movie, with long stretches of dialogue lifted verbatim from the text. So much so that it was impossible for me to read the book without hearing Henry Fonda read Gil Carter’s lines, Harry Morgan speak for Art Croft, and see Dana Andrews’ trembling lips in the words of Donald Martin.

There are some interesting differences between the book and the movie, though. First of all, Art Croft is the first-person narrator of the novel, but clearly not the leading role in the movie. It’s true that as the narrator Art is the observer and not prime actor in the drama that is The Ox-Bow Incident, but, neither, I think is Gil Carter. They’re both relatively bit players in the drama that consumes them. If I was going to make a movie of The Ox-Bow Incident and put someone other than Art Croft in the central role, I think I would’ve chosen Major Tetley. But talk about breaking the Hollywood taboos of the day. Can you imagine a leading actor like Henry Fonda playing a character like Major Tetley in 1943?

Which is an interesting prism through which to examine the rest of the differences between the film and the book. Having not read the book before seeing the movie, I thought 1940s Hollywood must have edited it heavily for both style and decorum. Now having read the book, I see that they did, but not necessarily in the ways I would have predicted.

Rose Mapin, for example. I was sure she was a Hollywood invention; put there to provide a vehicle for some up-and-coming actress and to put some sense of the femme fatale in the story. But nope, Rose Mapin is part of the novel. She’s the same goldbricking vamp in both places, run out of town by the respectable (but never seen) women for having too many boyfriends (Gil Carter among them), and marrying some aspiring tycoon with business interests in San Francisco. The novel even includes the asynchronous stagecoach scene, the husband’s simpering dialogue there in black and white.

The only other principal woman in the novel, Jenny “Ma” Grier, played in the movie by Jane Darwell (the same actress who played Ma Joad to Henry Fonda’s Tom in film version of The Grapes of Wrath), is a different story. Hollywood changed her quite a bit. Here’s how Clark has Art Croft describe her:

Jenny Grier was the name of the woman we called Ma. She was middle-aged and massive, with huge, cushiony breasts and rump, great thighs and shoulders, and long, always unkempt, gray hair. Her wide face had fine big gray eyes in it, but was fat and folded, and she always appeared soiled and greasy. She was strong as a wrestler, probably stronger than any man in the valley except Gabe, and with that and her appearance, if it hadn’t been for the loud good nature she showed most of the time, people would have been afraid of her. All the women were, anyway, and hated her too, which was all right with her. There were lively, and some pretty terrible, stories about her past, but now she kept a kind of boarding house on the cross street, and it was always in surprisingly good order, considering how dirty she was about herself. She was a peculiar mixture of hard-set ideas too. Though mostly by jokes, she’s been dead set against Osgood from the first day he came. She had no use for churches and preaching, and she’d made it hard for him by starting all kinds of little tales, like her favorite one about being surprised at how hungry she was when she woke up after the only sermon of his she ever heard, only to find that was because he’d gone right on through and it was the second Sunday, and he hadn’t wound up his argument then, but his voice gave out. And she could imitate too, his way of talking, his nervous habits with his hands, his Gladstone pose. She always pretended to be friendly, in a hearty way, when she saw him, and the man was afraid of her. But on the other hand she was a lot more than ordinarily set against what she thought of wrong-doing. I missed my guess if she hadn’t had a part in driving Gil’s Rose out of town. She didn’t like women, wouldn’t have one in her house, not even for one night’s sleep. In ways, I think she was crazy, and that all her hates and loves came out of thinking too much about her own past. Sometimes I even wondered if that way she mistreated her own body, with dirt and more work than she needed to do and long hunts and rides she didn’t want to make and not much rest or sleep, when about everything else she was a great joker and clean and orderly, wasn’t all part of getting even with herself, a self-imposed penance.

This sounds a lot more like Deadwood’s Calamity Jane to me than Ma Joad, but an independent woman that looked and acted like Ma Joad was less threatening to 1940s Hollywood, I guess.

I’m probably overreacting, but there’s another scene later on that makes me think this emasculation of Ma Grier was intentional. In the movie the character named Smith (a kind of mouthy know-it-all, who’s all for the hanging as long as someone else is going to actually string the rustlers up) gets really cozy with Ma. There’s a scene where the two of them are whispering jokes to one another and laughing uproariously while Donald Martin and the others wait for sunrise and their executions. Well, in the book, Smith is obviously trying to do more than just tell a few jokes:

“You didn’t miss anything,” Gil said, “except Smith working on Ma.”

That was still going on. They were sitting in front of us, and Smith had one arm around her thick middle and was holding a bottle up to her. He wasn’t making any headway, though. She was solid as a stump.

And a few pages later, when Martin gets indignant about Davies showing the letter he had written for his wife around to the other men:

“I made no promise,” Davies told Martin.

“All right, you made no promise. I should have known I’d need a promise. Or would that have done any good? I thought there was one white man among you. Well, I was wrong.”

Then he became general in his reference. He waved an arm around to take us all in. “But what good would an oath do, in a pack like this, an oath to do what any decent man would do by instinct? You eat our food in front of us and joke about it. You make love publicly in front of men about to die, and are able to sleep while they wait. What good would an oath do where there’s not so much conscience in the lot as a good dog has?”

“Make love” here more than likely means the attempt to make love rather than the act itself, but it’s interesting that the phrase was missing from the movie. As I said, so much of the movie dialog is lifted straight from the text of the novel, that I think the elimination of this phrase has to be intentional. For whatever reason, the producers must have been uncomfortable with the portrayal of Ma as an object of sexual desire. All the better then, that they cast Jane Darwell in the role.

And speaking of Martin’s letter—in the movie it features prominently in the denouement of the morality play; Gil reading it aloud to the illiterate Art Croft, while all the other men involved in the lynching listen on. But in the book, the transcendent words are not Martin’s. They are Davies’, and they come not at the end but near the beginning, while he is still trying to talk the men out of going after the supposed rustlers.

“Yes,” he repeated, “a sin against society. Law is more than the words that put it on the books; law is more than any decisions that may be made from it; law is more than the particular code of it stated at any one time or in any one place or nation; more than any man, lawyer or judge, sheriff or jailer, who may represent it. True law, the code of justice, the essence of our sensations of right and wrong, is the conscience of society. It has taken thousands of years to develop, and it is the greatest, the most distinguishing quality which has evolved with mankind. None of man’s temples, none of his religions, none of his weapons, his tools, his arts, his sciences, nothing else he has grown to, is so great a thing as his justice, his sense of justice. The true law is something in itself; it is the spirit of the moral nature of man; it is an existence apart, like God, and as worthy of worship as God. If we can touch God at all, where do we touch him save in the conscience? And what is the conscience of any man save his little fragment of the conscience of all men in all time?”

Indeed, the ending of the movie is quite a bit different than the ending of the book. In the movie, after the hanging is done, the posse of men meet up with Sheriff Risley on their way back to town, crowing triumphantly about what they have done without his knowledge and authority. Risley has unfortunate news for them—Kinkaid, the man whose death they thought they were avenging, was not dead, and the Sheriff has already caught the men who shot him and stole his cattle. Realizing that the townfolk have hung three innocent men, the Sheriff shakes his head grimly, and hopes aloud that God will have mercy on their souls, because he won’t. It’s a much different scene in the book.

We were all tired, even Gil half asleep in his saddle, and we nearly rode into the horses standing in the clearing before we saw them. They were quietly bunched under the falling snow.

“It’s the sheriff,” Gil said. “It’s Risley.”

Then he said, “Jesus, it’s Kinkaid.”

It was too, with a bandage on his head, and a bit peaked, but otherwise as usual, quiet, friendly and ashamed to be there. The other three men, besides the sheriff, were [Judge] Tyler, Drew and Davies’ pimply clerk Joyce. The Judge was red in the face and talking violently, but through the snow his voice came short and flat.

“It’s murder, murder and nothing less. I warned you, Tetley, I warned you repeatedly, and Davies warned you, and Osgood. You all heard us; you were all warned. You wanted justice, did you? Well, by God, you shall have it now, real justice. Every man of you is under arrest for murder. We’ll give you a chance to see how slow regular justice is when you’re in the other chair.”

Nobody replied to him, that I could hear.

“My God,” Gil said, “I knew it didn’t feel right. I knew we should wait. That bastard Tetley,” he finished.

Everybody would hang it on Tetley now. I didn’t say anything.

The sheriff was stern, but he wasn’t the kind to gabble easily, like Tyler. He was a small, stocky man with a gray, walrus mustache and black bushy eyebrows. He had a heavy sheepskin on, with the collar turned up around his ears. His deep-set, hard, blue eyes looked at each of us in turn. Nobody but Tetley tried to hold up against his look, and even Tetley failed.

When he’d made us all look down, he said something we couldn’t hear to the Judge. The Judge began to sputter, but when Risley looked level at him too the sputter died, and the Judge just stared around at us belligerently again, thrusting his lower lip out and sucking it in and making a hoarse, blowing noise.

Risley sat silent for a moment, as if considering carefully, looking us over all the time. Finally he stared into the snow over us and the milky blue shadows of the trees through it and said, “I haven’t recognized anybody here. We passed in a snowstorm, and I was in a hurry.”

“That’s collusion, Risley,” the Judge began loudly, getting redder than ever. “I’ll have you understand I won’t…”

“What do you want to do?” Risley cut in, looking at him.

The Judge tried to say something impressive about the good name of the valley and of the state, and the black mark against his jurisdiction and Risley’s, but it was no use. Everybody just waited for him to stop; he couldn’t hold out against all of us without Risley.

And so the men who did the hanging go free. It’s actually consistent with the theme Clark had been developing throughout the novel. Shortly after Davies gives his impassioned speech about the transcendence of law, Art observes:

It just seemed funny now to think I’d been listening to an argument about what the soul of the law was. Right here and now was all that was going to count.

And later, when an old codger tries to stoke everybody up into getting a move on:

But one thing I did see. If that old cackler who didn’t even have the facts straight could heat me up when I knew he was wrong, then a lot of these men must be fixed so that nothing could turn them off unless it could save their faces.

In other words, there is no supreme justice—only what happens in the heat of the moment by the people standing around who allow it to happen. It may be reading too much into the text, but Risley’s actions seem to me to underscore this very point. Justice is a man-made construction, not something meted out infallibly from on high. Whether it’s executed out by the Ox-Bow or in Tyler’s courtroom, the difference is one of degree and not of kind.

But evidently that’s not a moral 1940s Hollywood was comfortable with. By repositioning Davies’ words as Martin’s at the very end of the movie, by leaving the men who voted for the lynching under the pending punishment of the courts, and, most blatantly, by changing the number of people who voted against the lynching from Clark’s ambiguous five to Hollywood’s holy seven, shooting them in the angelic glow of the early morning sunrise, the movie wants you to come away with a clear sense of right and wrong. This is what happens when the hubris of man runs amok, when he takes justice into his own hands rather than entrusting it to the Almighty and the institutions that He has made among us to help us make sense out of madness. That’s certainly the movie Hollywood made. Too bad it’s not the book Clark wrote.

But even in the novel not everyone gets off scot free. Tetley kills himself, falling on his cavalry sword rather than shooting himself as is heavily implied at the end of the movie. But he only does this after his son Gerald kills himself, hanging himself from a rafter in their barn. Tetley’s relationship with Gerald is one of the great subtexts of the novel—his need for Gerald to act a certain a way, to prove Tetley’s own manliness by projecting a certain force into the world, something Gerald is incapable or unwilling to do.

In the movie, it feels a lot more like incapable—Gerald portrayed as a pathetic coward of a man-boy, unable to grow beyond the domineering shadow of his father. But the Gerald of the novel is a little more complex. In a scene wholly eliminated from the movie, Gerald reveals a great deal of mature thinking in an extended dialog with Art.

“Cold wind,” I began.

He looked at me as if I’d said something important.

Then he said, “It’s more than wind,” and stared ahead of him again.

“Maybe,” I said. I didn’t get his drift, but if he wanted to talk, “maybe” shouldn’t stop him.

“It’s a lot more,” he said, as if I’d contradicted him. “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 the same 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 on doing the same things, hunt in packs like wolves; hole up in warrens like rabbits. All the dirtiest traits.”

“There’s still a difference,” I said. “We’ve got it over wolves and rabbits.”

“Power, you mean,” he said bitterly.

“Over your wolves, and bears too.”

“Oh, we’re smart,” he said, the same way. “It’s the same thing,” he cried; “all we use it for is power. Yes, we’ve got them scared all right, all of them, except the tame things we’ve taken the souls out of. We’re the cocks of the dungheap, all right; the bullies of the globe.”

“We’re not hunting rabbits tonight,” I reminded him.

“No; our own kind. A wolf wouldn’t do that; not a mangy coyote. That’s the hunting we like now, our own kind. The rest can’t excite us any more.”

“We don’t have to hunt men often,” I told him. “Most people never have. They get along pretty well together.”

“Oh, we love each other,” he said. “We labor for each other, suffer for each other, admire each other. We have all the pack instincts, all right, and nice names for them.”

“All right,” I said, “what’s the harm in their being pack instincts, if you want to put it that way? They’re real.”

“They’re not. They’re just to keep the pack with us. We don’t dare hunt each other alone, that’s all. There’s more ways of hunting than with a gun,” he added.

He’d jumped too far for me on that one. I didn’t say anything.

“Think I’m stretching it, do you?” he asked furiously. “Well, I’m not. It’s too nice a way of putting it, if anything. All any of us really want any more is power. We’d buck the pack if we dared. We don’t, so we use it; we trick it to help us in our own little killings. We’ve mastered the horses and cattle. Now we want to master each other, make cattle of men. Kill them to feed ourselves. The smaller the pack to more we get.”

“Most of life’s pretty simple and quiet,” I said. “You talk like we all had knives out.”

“Your simple life,” he said. “Your quiet life. All right,” he said, “take the simplest, quietest life you know. Take the things that are going on around us all the time, so we don’t notice them any more than old furniture. Take women visiting together, next-door neighbors, old friends. What do they talk about? Each other, all the time, don’t they? And what are the parts they like, the ones they remember and bring home to tell to the men?”

“I don’t know anything about women,” I said.

“You don’t have to,” he said. “You know anyway. Gossip, scandalous gossip, that’s what wakes them up, makes them talk faster and all together, or secretively, as if they were stalking enemies in their minds; something about a woman they know, something that can spoil her reputation: the way she was seen to look at a certain man, or that she can’t cook, or doesn’t keep her parlor clean, or can’t have children, or, worse, could but won’t. That’s what wakes them up. And do you know why?” He turned the white shape of his face toward me sharply.

I didn’t like the way the talk was getting to sound like a quarrel. I tried to ease it off.

“No,” I said. “Why?” as if I was really curious.

“Because it makes them feel superior; makes them feel they’re the wolves, not the rabbits. If each of them had it the way she wants it,” he said after a moment, “she’d be the only woman left in the world. They can’t manage that, so they do the best they can toward it.”

“People can be pretty mean sometimes,” I admitted, “picking on the weak ones.” It was no good.

“It’s not always the weak ones,” he said angrily. “They’re worse than wolves, I tell you. They don’t weed out the unfit, they weed out the best. They band together to keep the best down, the ones who won’t share their dirty gossip, the ones who have more beauty or charm or independence, more anything, than they have. They did it right there in Bridger’s Wells this springs,” he blazed.

He’s talking about Rose Mapin here, about how the other women in town drove her out because she wasn’t like them and wouldn’t play by their rules. He then talks about another woman in town who was fired up about Kinkaid’s murder, demanding that the group of them ride out and catch his killers, even though she never cared two beans about Kinkaid before his death. Gerald believes her motivation is jealousy, that she secretly wants to see all men killed because she can’t catch and control one of her own. Art continues as a reluctant participant throughout this conversation, eventually commenting that Gerald must not think much of women.

“Men are no better,” he said. “Men are worse. They’re not so sly about their murder, but they don’t have to be; they’re stronger; they already have the upper hand on half the race, or they think so. They’re bullies instead of sneaks, and that’s worse. And they’re just as careful to keep up their cheap male virtues, their strength, their courage, their good fellowship, to keep the pack from jumping them, as the women are to keep up their modesty and their hominess. They all lie about what they think, hide what they feel, to keep from looking queer to the pack.”

“Is there anything so fine about being different?” I asked him.

“Did you ever hear a man tell another man about the dreams he’s had that have made him sweat and run his legs in the bed and wake up moaning with fear? Did you?”

“What do you want? Everybody running around telling his dreams, like a little kid?”

“Or any woman tell about the times she’s sighed and panted in her sleep for a lover she wasn’t married to?”

“For Lord’s sake.” I said.

“No,” he babbled on, “you never did and you never will.”

“It’s all right with me if I don’t.”

The white of his face was to me again. “You’re like all the rest,” he raged. “You’ve had dreams like that; you know you have. We’ve all had those dreams. In our hearts we know they’re true, truer than anything we ever tell; truer than anything we ever do, even. But nothing could make us tell them, show our weakness, have the pack at our throats.

“Even in dreams,” he said, after a bit, as if he was talking to himself, but so I could hear, “even in dreams it’s the pack that’s worst; it’s the pack that we can never quite see but always feel coming, like a cloud, like a shadow, like a fog with our death in it. It’s the spies of the pack who are always hidden behind the next pillars of the temples and palaces we dream we’re in, watching us go between them. They’re behind the trees in the black woods we dream about; they’re behind the boulders on the mountains we dream we’re climbing, behind the windows on the square of every empty dream city we wander in. We’ve all heard them breathing; we’ve all run screaming with fear from the pack that’s coming somewhere. We’ve all waked up in the night and lain there trembling and sweating and staring at the dark for fear they’ll come again.

“But we don’t tell about it, do we?” he dared me. And said quickly, “No, no, we don’t even want to hear anybody else tell. Not because we’re afraid for him. No, we’re afraid our own eyes will give us away. We’re afraid that sitting there hearing him and looking at him we’ll let the pack know that our souls have done that too, gone barefoot and gaping with horror, scrambling in the snow of the clearing in the black woods, with the pack in the shadows behind them. That’s what makes us sick to hear fear admitted, or lust, or even anger, any of the things that would make the pack believe that we were either weak or dangerous.”

He turned his face fully toward me, furious and challenging. “That is what makes you sick now, to hear me,” he told me. “That’s what makes you so damned superior and cold and quiet.” His voice choked him so I thought he was going to cry. “You’re just hiding the truth, even from yourself,” he babbled.

My hands were twitching, but I didn’t say anything.

Then he said more quietly, “You think I’m crazy, don’t you? It always seems crazy to tell the truth. We don’t like it; we won’t admit what we are. So I’m crazy.”

I was thinking that. I don’t like to hear a man pouring out his insides without shame. And taking it for granted everyone else must be like him. You’d have thought he was God, making everyone in his own pattern. Still, he was a kid and weak and unhappy, and his own father, they said, was his enemy.

“Every man’s got a right to his own opinion,” I told him.

After a moment he said, “Yes,” low and to his saddlehorn.

Having heard myself speak I realized that queerly, weak and bad-tempered as it was, there had been something in the kid’s raving which had made the canyon seem to swell out and become immaterial until you could think the whole world, the universe, into the half-darkness around you: millions of souls swarming like fierce, tiny, pale stars, shining hard, winking about cores of minute, mean feelings, thoughts and deeds. To me his idea appeared just the opposite of Davies’. To the kid, what everybody thought was low and wicked, and their hanging together was a mere disguise of their evil. To Davies, what everybody thought became, just because everybody thought it, just and fine, and to act up to what they thought was to elevate oneself. And yet both of them gave you that feeling of thinking outside yourself, in a big place; the kid gave me that feeling even more, if anything, though he was disgusting. You could feel what he meant; you could only think what Davies meant.

I’ve quoted this at length because I think Clark is making one of his most essential points here and in the character of Gerald Tetley—a point that is almost entirely lost in the movie because of the way Hollywood restricted the role that Gerald would play. Look at how dismissive Art is of Gerald—Art, our everyman observer of the life and death drama about to play out on the Ox-Bow stage. He treats Gerald like a lunatic. Art, like us, is so much a part of the culture that shaped him that he can only hear what Gerald is saying as some kind of crazy talk. But Clark gives us not-so-subtle clues that what Gerald is describing is really the way things are. It is, in fact, Clark’s central message about people and justice. Like Art, we all like to hear men like Davies talk, and be inspired by their high-minded rhetoric, but it is words like Gerald’s that ring more true in our gut.

And then there’s this dialog with Sparks—again with Art, not Gil.

“Ah wish we was well out of this business,” he said.

“It’s a way of spendin’ time,” I told him.

“It’s man takin’ upon himself the Lohd’s vengeance,” he said. “Man, Mistah Croft, is full or error.” He said it jokingly, but he wasn’t joking.

I suppose I think as much about God as the next man who isn’t in the business. I spend a lot of time alone. But I’d seen, yes and done, some things that made me feel that if God was worried about man it was only in large numbers and in the course of time.

“Do you think the Lord cares much about what’s happening up here tonight?” I asked him, too sharply.

Sparks took it gently though. “He mahks the sparrow’s fall,” he said.

“Then He won’t miss this, I guess.”

“God is in us, Mistah Croft,” he pleaded. “He wuhks th’ough us.”

“Maybe, then, we’re the instruments of the divine vengeance,” I suggested.

“Ah can’t fahnd that in mah conscience, Mistah Croft,” he said after a moment. “Can you?” he asked me.

“I’m not sure I’ve got a conscience any more.”

It’s a tidbit that the movie tries to position as part of its own interpretation of the book—that men only act in concert with the divine will of God when they follow their consciences individually, and the rule of law collectively. But as I’ve been discussing, that’s not my interpretation of the book nor, I think, the one Clark intended. Equating the human conscience with God comes easily if you focus on just one line of Davies’ speech, repositioned in the movie as Martin’s climatic and ill-fated letter to his wife:

If we can touch God at all, where do we touch him save in the conscience?

But a fuller reading of that speech, as well as the many other elements I’ve highlighted that were featured in the book and missing from the movie, appropriately places the emphasis on a different section of that speech, the part that comes just before the more celebrated line.

True law, the code of justice, the essence of our sensations of right and wrong, is the conscience of society. It has taken thousands of years to develop, and it is the greatest, the most distinguishing quality which has evolved with mankind. None of man’s temples, none of his religions, none of his weapons, his tools, his arts, his sciences, nothing else he has grown to, is so great a thing as his justice, his sense of justice. The true law is something in itself; it is the spirit of the moral nature of man; it is an existence apart, like God, and as worthy of worship as God.

The law is like God, in the sense that it exists apart from individual man. But it is not God. It is, in fact, the spirit of man’s moral nature—what we would today call a humanist concept. If it exists at all, it is more separate from God than it is from man, since man is its progenitor.

Looking at this last bit of dialogue between Sparks and Art in that context, I don’t think Clark is trying to tell us not to take on the vengeance of the Lord, even though that is clearly the way Sparks thinks. Rather, I see this as emphasizing my earlier point, that there are two kinds of justice, and man has a choice in which one he will exercise.

Act in accordance with Gerald’s rule of the pack, as the men at the Ox-Bow do, and you may satisfy your individual sense of justice. But act in accordance with Davies’ rule of law, which is grounded on the collective conscience of man, and you allow a similar, but broader, more wholly humanist justice to be served. Either way, justice remains a human concept. It’s not given to us by God, even though some of us, like Sparks and the movie producers, seem content to abdicate it to His domain. Perhaps they are uncomfortable with just two kinds of justice, which they ultimately see both as flawed, and with no higher meaning that what man can give them.

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