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Old 02-17-2013, 04:42 AM   #1
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The Ox-Bow Incident

I'd like to hear other people's opinions on this. Kirkus says it's "dullsville", lots of reviews say it's extremely boring, yet the movie was fantastic and the book itself often gets mostly glowing reviews in book review sites (excluding Amazon customer reviews, which is uneven).

What I hear makes the book unreadable to others is that supposedly too much time is spent on descriptions and the first hundred pages talk about people walking around town, playing cards etc..

To me the problem was unengaging narration. It also seemed hard to follow in spots.

Is it really a classic, or did it become one by being called one so often in the media, after the book was released?
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Old 02-17-2013, 05:18 AM   #2
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The Ox-Bow Incident, by Walter Van Tilburg Clark, is one of the finest American novels of the 20th century, and in my opinion the finest piece of fiction ever written using a traditional American Old West setting.

It's less a Western-genre novel than it is a literary novel set in the Old West with Old West motifs, and maybe that puts off some readers anticipating a quick sail-through Western genre novel. But it's very cleanly written, isn't terribly long, is straightforwardly narrated and as readable as anything Louis l'Amour ever wrote, and he wrote a lot of fine stuff.

And the complaint about excessive description is one that could easily be laid at the doorstep of Zane Grey's great Riders of the Purple Sage, and most of his other work.

Clark wrote only three novels and a handful of short stories/novellas. He was a college professor, a quiet, reserved man, a very careful writer interested in the quality of his work, not the quantity of it. All his other output is very much worth a read, especially his other "western", The Track of the Cat.

Not everybody is going to like everything. But Ox-Bow is hard to dismiss. It's an important book that deserves greater and more serious attention. The movie made of it, with Henry Fonda, is one of the great classics of Western film, and I'm astonished that, in these days when Hollywood seems to remake everything, nobody has taken on Ox-Bow for a new version. They did a pretty good job recently with the remake of Elmore Leonard's 3:10 to Yuma, with Russell Crowe and Christian Bale.

Mr. Eastwood, are you reading this?

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Old 02-17-2013, 05:18 AM   #3
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I haven't read it in probably 50 years, and don't really remember it.

One thing to keep in mind is the style at the time it was written. Many people review based on current standards, and that really isn't fair.

Ten years ago or so I read "The Last of the Mohicans", just because I never had and thought I should. OMG. Dull, plodding, stilted dialog, blatant racism. I finished it, but can't say that I enjoyed it. But it was also written in the early 1800s.

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Old 02-17-2013, 05:35 AM   #4
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And the complaint about excessive description is one that could easily be laid at the doorstep of Zane Grey's great Riders of the Purple Sage, and most of his other work.
Not to detail this thread, but that is one I don't understand. It has a great title and is historically significant, but I still don't understand why so many consider it a great book (classic in a way, yes; great book, no). To me, the writing is just awful. Just an opinion, of course; I'm not trying to change anyone else's opinion of the book.
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Old 02-17-2013, 06:04 AM   #5
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Grey's writing is stilted by modern standards, and he most certainly wasn't aspiring to be the next Henry James in the estimation of the literati. But he did take the Western to a new direction, and it resonated big-time with readers, and it kicked open the doors for people like Max Brand and, later, Louis l'Amour, to become the popular and successful icons of the genre that they became.

As for writing style and the date of publication, I believe The Ox-Bow Incident saw publication in 1939. Some other novels that date from right around that time:

The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck
The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers
Gone With the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell
For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway
Mildred Pierce, James M. Cain
Out of the Silent Planet, C.S. Lewis
Too Many Cooks, Some Buried Caesar, Over My Dead Body, Rex Stout

. . .

All probably still in print, and all certainly continuing to be widely read. Mesuspects that the same people who object to Clark's narrative style as being "out-of-date" would object to every one of these and many more for the same reason.

And then go back to tweeting while they drive.

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Old 02-17-2013, 06:15 AM   #6
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Again, I don't deny that Grey's book was influential but I am a little surprised that it hasn't faded in to an historical footnote since the writing itself doesn't seem to even be up to the standards of the time. Great title though.

Or maybe I was expecting too much when I first read it since I had always heard of the book.

And maybe I'm derailing this thread too much since this is not related to what the OP asked.
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Old 02-17-2013, 06:22 AM   #7
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I don't think the thread is being derailed, it's possible these books have enough in common, stylistically, that might make it difficult for modern readers to relate.

Ironically, I myself tried to embrace that style to some degree in my WIP (link in sig) and was told it would shut out readers.
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Old 02-17-2013, 06:51 AM   #8
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Back to the original question, I recall starting to read The Ox-Bow Incident once upon a time, but didn't finish it (I think probably because I was busy reading two or three other books). I do remember the movie even though it has been many, many years since I've watched it.

Just going by memory, I seem to remember the movie as being a morality tale using a western motif. I liked the movie. Was the book similar?
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Old 02-17-2013, 06:59 AM   #9
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As I recall (it's been a while since I've seen it) the movie was a pretty faithful adaptation of the novel. It is a straightforward morality tale, with the qualities and irony and human failings of great dramatic tragedies. The other American novel it most reminds me of, in those qualities, is Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome.

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Old 02-17-2013, 10:48 PM   #10
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Not to de-rail, but it might be interesting for the OP to compare and contrast The Ox Bow Incident written in 1940 with Shane written in 1946. To be honest, I love Shane, but have never gotten through The Ox Bow Incident.

Of the two, I'm not certain which is more famous.
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Old 02-17-2013, 11:33 PM   #11
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Both films are classics in my opinion although I'm much more partial to Shane. Hard to believe Jean Arthur was 50 in it; she stole my heart in every movie she's ever made.

I had no idea the book for Shane was written in 1946, I thought it was from a much earlier period.

I need to look up when Johnny Guitar was written. The movie version had hysterical dialogue.
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Old 02-19-2013, 10:25 PM   #12
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Style doesn't make a great novel. A great story, great depth of character, and truth make a great novel. Pretty much anything we write is going to be out of style, sound wrong to the ear, when enough years have passed.

I've never heard or read where a meaningful critic said anything negative about either novel, and we studied both in college. Both are still studied in college, and both are still true.

Riders of the Purple Sage is most certainly not horribly written, it's simply written in a style that many modern readers dislike. A hundred years from now, both these novels will still be considered classics of their kind, and will still be mandatory reading in any good curriculum dealing with genre novels that rise above others of the same time and place.
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Old 02-23-2013, 01:23 AM   #13
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Just started re-reading it after 33 years. I'm loving every page and since I just re-watched the Fonda film, I've been reading discussions about the book and enjoying them a lot!
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Old 02-23-2013, 02:05 AM   #14
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Pay close attention to when the boy first sees the stranger. There is classic emotional dread and menace in that single paragraph.
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Old 02-23-2013, 02:15 AM   #15
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Of the two, I'm not certain which is more famous.
Both Amazon and Goodreads have almost exactly twice the number of customer/fan ratings for Shane than for the Ox Bow Incident, so I guess it's safe to say Shane outguns Ox Bow.

I like Ox Bow but I love Shane, which is tied for first place on my all-time favorite Western novel list -- along with Hombre by Elmore Leonard.
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Old 02-23-2013, 02:24 AM   #16
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Pay close attention to when the boy first sees the stranger. There is classic emotional dread and menace in that single paragraph.
I will. SHANE arrives Monday from Amazon, it was Ox-Bow that I was rediscovering this week.

The movie version of Shane is something I can remember very well. I watched it many many times in my life.

Elisha Cook played a similar character to his Stonewall Torrey, in some ways, in Fonda's Welcome to Hard Times, one of the most unbelievable and unintentionally funny westerns ever. An anti-gun western, at that. To note, Edgar Buchanan was also in both Shane and Welcome to Hard Times. Maybe the filmmakers were fans.
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Old 02-23-2013, 02:25 AM   #17
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I have to wonder if perhaps Ox-bow has suffered because it was a trail-blazer. I think it is a good novel, with marvelous attention to detail and sharply drawn characters. Ultimately it's about defeating the reader's expectations (trying not to spoiler it!), which has its own sort of limitation.

Shane's a damn fine one too. Watched the movie many times and recently read the novel. Jack Shaefer also wrote the Monte Walsh stories, which I recommend as well.
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Old 02-23-2013, 03:16 AM   #18
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I tried reading the Ox-Bow Incident last year when I was on a classics kick. I had to quit. I wanted to like it. I really did, but I hated the writing style.
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